Archive for December, 2008

Atheists are losers?

By Razib Khan | December 31, 2008 8:07 pm

So implies The Audacious Epigone:

Mormons are the least likely of the 19 denominations to live alone, but I suspect among the married, they are among the most likely to have a single breadwinner household.
Atheists and agnostics, by contrast, come in at the bottom. The low rates of multiple person households is part of the explanation, but the high number of lone wolves among their ranks illustrates their social marginality in another way relative to the cognitive endowments they enjoy. This does little to dispel stereotype I hold of atheists as cynical, single white guys who live in apartments downtown, work at used record stores, love George Carlin, and watch Adult Swim.

Also see Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control: Associations, Explanations,
and Implications


Culture Dish & Henrietta Lacks

By Razib Khan | December 31, 2008 4:11 pm

ScienceBlogs has a new contributor, Rebecca Skloot of Culture Dish. The title is in part a reference to her new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Looks interesting. If Henrietta Lacks doesn’t ring a bell, look her up, it’s rather freaky….


America, the way we are

By Razib Khan | December 31, 2008 1:58 pm

Most Americans are not aware that the debtor status of our nation is not particularly novel; we have been a debtor nation for most of our history. This fact serves as one of the major linchipins in Eric Rauchway’s Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America, a economic historical look at how globalization made America then, and is making it now. One of the major points that Rauchway attempts to hammer home is that American exceptionalism is posterior to the conditions which framed the republic, it is not the cause of the peculiarities of the American condition.
One of the major ways in which America is exceptional is its relatively small public sector. In other words, our state doesn’t do nearly as much as is the norm among wealthy countries. Rauchway shows that in 1910 there is a close linear relationship between per capita production and the amount spent by the state per capital. The United States stood outside of this trendline, a wealthy nation which spent relatively little in public monies. And so it still is, more or less.

Read More


Space, the forgotten frontier?

By Razib Khan | December 30, 2008 1:56 am

spaceares.jpgI’m old enough to have very faint memories of the very first shuttle missions, though I do not recall the last moon landings. I recently heard a science fiction writer observe that when he was a child the idea of a moon landing was so futuristic. Then it happened…and we stopped going. It’s been over 30 years since humans set foot on the moon.
Granted, there’s been a lot that’s happened since then. Your rescale your awe meter, so the plethora of Mars landings and detailed exploration of the outer planets via the Galileo and Cassini missions don’t register in the same way. Various technologies mean that the increase in knowledge is accelerating, but, the rate of acceleration itself is perhaps not increasing. With the completion of the Human Genome, and the beckoning age of applied genomics, the perpetual promise of a manned Mars mission seems to pale in comparison. Perhaps there are simply constraints of human engineering when it comes to our exploration of space, in particular manned space flight. We are biological creatures, evolved for this earth.
In any case, The New York Times has an interesting piece up, The Fight Over NASA’s Future. It is mostly about the next generation of vehicles which presumably will take us back to the moon. Color me disappointed that the goal is to do what we’ve done before, just better.


Personalized medicine, the long introduction….

By Razib Khan | December 30, 2008 12:06 am

Patient’s DNA May Be Signal to Tailor Drugs:

The colon cancer drugs Erbitux and Vectibix, for instance, do not work for the 40 percent of patients whose tumors have a particular genetic mutation. The Food and Drug Administration held a meeting this month to discuss whether patients should be tested to narrow use of the drugs, which cost $8,000 to $10,000 a month.

To some extent this sort of thing is a gimme; intelligent & proactive patients already “help” their medical professionals by channeling them appropriately in terms of decisions because with the veritable tsunami of data no human can truly keep up. One aspect of personalized medicine is population level data. To give an example for myself, my doctor told me that I wasn’t overweight. Well, actually for my population (South Asian) it seems rather clear that heuristics based on BMI normed to European Americans underestimates the risks of conditions heightened at particular weight thresholds (e.g., Type II Diabetes). Combined with family information I’m always trying to keep my BMI on the low end of normal, because there’s normal for one population, and normal for another.
Personalized medicine takes it to the next level. The example above is an obvious one, but what about drug combinations where the differences are on the margins of effect? If you have risks for illnesses a sum of marginal effects is not trivial, but it is probably not realistic to assume that your personal physician will be aware of all these “moving parts.” Welcome to the world where everyone should have a basic familiar with probability and cost vs. benefit, at least if they want to get the maximum bang from the medicinal buck.


Neandertals on a stick

By Razib Khan | December 29, 2008 2:04 pm

Neanderthal Extinction by Competitive Exclusion:

Despite a long history of investigation, considerable debate revolves around whether Neanderthals became extinct because of climate change or competition with anatomically modern humans (AMH).

We apply a new methodology integrating archaeological and chronological data with high-resolution paleoclimatic simulations to define eco-cultural niches associated with Neanderthal and AMH adaptive systems during alternating cold and mild phases of Marine Isotope Stage 3. Our results indicate that Neanderthals and AMH exploited similar niches, and may have continued to do so in the absence of contact.

The southerly contraction of Neanderthal range in southwestern Europe during Greenland Interstadial 8 was not due to climate change or a change in adaptation, but rather concurrent AMH [anatomically modern human] geographic expansion appears to have produced competition that led to Neanderthal extinction.

The main problem I’ve always had with “the climate did it!” explanations for megafaunal extinctions is that it isn’t as if the climate didn’t vary quite a bit across the Pleistocene. For example, the warmest phase of the Eemian interglacial 125,000 years ago saw forests in what is today tundra in northern Norway. So there was a different parameter on the scene more recently which did the big wildlife, including Neandertals. in….
More readable ScienceDaily summary….


Episcopalians vs. Jews

By Razib Khan | December 29, 2008 2:55 am

A few days ago the Audacious Epigone pointed out that Episcopalians are in the same neighborhood as Jews in the United States on intelligence tests; i.e., on the order of a bit more than 2/3 of a standard deviation above the norm. The recent paper on religion & IQ confirmed these findings. One of the peculiarities of American Jews is how liberal they are; the old saying was that they “live like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.” With the rise of the Religious Right Episcopalians are actually starting to vote more like Jews; the Pew Religious Survey suggests that 49% are now Democrats or Democrat leaning, while 42% are Republicans or Republican leaning. But in any case, I was curious, how different are Jews and Episcopalians? And, how do both these groups relate to white Protestants as a whole, who I tend to think are the archetypical “control” in the American context. So I you probably know what I did next: looked in the GSS. If you click to read the whole post, a whole lot of charts….

Read More


Origins of the Gagauz people – a Turkish dynamic

By Razib Khan | December 28, 2008 5:31 pm

Dienekes points me to a new paper, Searching for the origin of Gagauzes: Inferences from Y-chromosome analysis:

The Gagauzes are a small Turkish-speaking ethnic group living mostly in southern Moldova and northeastern Bulgaria. The origin of the Gagauzes is obscure. They may be descendants of the Turkic nomadic tribes from the Eurasian steppes, as suggested by the “Steppe” hypothesis, or have a complex Anatolian-steppe origin, as postulated by the “Seljuk” or “Anatolian” hypothesis. To distinguish these hypotheses, a sample of 89 Y-chromosomes representing two Gagauz populations from the Republic of Moldova was analyzed for 28 binary and seven STR polymorphisms. In the gene pool of the Gagauzes a total of 15 Y-haplogroups were identified…The present Gagauz populations were compared with other Balkan, Anatolian, and Central Asian populations by means of genetic distances, nonmetric multidimentional scaling and analyses of molecular variance. The analyses showed that Gagauzes belong to the Balkan populations, suggesting that the Gagauz language represents a case of language replacement in southeastern Europe. Interestingly, the detailed study of microsatellite haplotypes revealed some sharing between the Gagauz and Turkish lineages, providing some support of the hypothesis of the “Seljuk origin” of the Gagauzes. The faster evolving microsatellite loci showed that the two Gagauz samples investigated do not represent a homogeneous group. This finding matches the cultural and linguistic heterogeneity of the Gagauzes well, suggesting a crucial role of social factors in shaping the Gagauz Y-chromosome pool and possibly also of effects of genetic drift.

The Turkic peoples have their origins in the Trans-Siberian regions. Until the rise of Genghis Khan the western half of what is today Mongolia was dominated by Turks. Though the Turks of Turkey itself might resemble Europeans both physically and genetically, Turkic populations in Xinjiang and Central Asia exhibit a much stronger exterior affinity to East Asians. The Uyghurs are in fact nearly prefect hybrids insofar as their genetic background is equally balanced between alleles which have presumed origins in western Eurasia and eastern Eurasia. Various genetic and historical data suggest that the original nature of the Turkic speaking peoples in Central Asia was similar to that of eastern, not western, Eurasians.

Read More


Cousin marriage should not be banned (?)

By Razib Khan | December 24, 2008 5:20 pm

PLOS has a think piece up, “It’s Ok, We’re Not Cousins by Blood”: The Cousin Marriage Controversy in Historical Perspective, which comes out against the laws in the United States which ban the marriage of cousins:

It is obviously illogical to condemn eugenics and at the same time favor laws that prevent cousins from marrying. But we do not aim to indict these laws on the grounds that they constitute eugenics. That would assume what needs to be proved – that all forms of eugenics are necessarily bad. In our view, cousin marriage laws should be judged on their merits. But from that standpoint as well, they seem ill-advised. These laws reflect once-prevailing prejudices about immigrants and the rural poor and oversimplified views of heredity, and they are inconsistent with our acceptance of reproductive behaviors that are much riskier to offspring. They should be repealed, not because their intent was eugenic, but because neither the scientific nor social assumptions that informed them are any longer defensible.”

Here’s a map which shows the time period when these laws were enacted:
Here are the numbers for the increased risk of congenital diseases for progeny of first cousin marriages:

Read More


Human evolutionary genetics is too sexy…

By Razib Khan | December 23, 2008 12:04 am

Say you have a abstruse paper such as, Accelerated genetic drift on chromosome X during the human dispersal out of Africa:

Comparisons of chromosome X and the autosomes can illuminate differences in the histories of males and females as well as shed light on the forces of natural selection. We compared the patterns of variation in these parts of the genome using two datasets that we assembled for this study that are both genomic in scale. Three independent analyses show that around the time of the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa, chromosome X experienced much more genetic drift than is expected from the pattern on the autosomes. This is not predicted by known episodes of demographic history, and we found no similar patterns associated with the dispersals into East Asia and Europe. We conclude that a sex-biased process that reduced the female effective population size, or an episode of natural selection unusually affecting chromosome X, was associated with the founding of non-African populations.

Over at Gene Expression Classic p-ter expresses his befuddlement:

Read More


Thick-waisted women of the world take heart!

By Razib Khan | December 22, 2008 9:28 pm

Evolutionary curveball for curvy?:

While women with curvy figures might enjoy more attention from men in Western culture, and find it easier to become pregnant, new research suggests they may also face some evolutionary disadvantages compared to women with thicker waists.
That’s because the same hormones that increase fat around the waist can also make women stronger, more assertive, and more resistant to stress, according to a new study published in the December issue of Current Anthropology.
Given those findings, it makes sense that the slim-waisted body has not evolved to become the universal norm, said the study’s author, Elizabeth Cashdan, an anthropologist at the University of Utah.
Her study takes aim at a theory popular in evolutionary psychology and medicine: that men universally prefer women with narrow waists and larger hips because their higher levels of estrogen make them more likely to conceive a child, and less vulnerable to chronic diseases. These preferences, the theory goes, have defined women’s ideal body shape over time.

jessica-alba-wallpaper09.jpgOne of the most tiresome aspects of evolutionary psychology is the paradigmatic straitjacket which many of the practitioners operate under; the only type of evolution that exists is unidirectional. Deviations from expectation are explained away. The importance of human universals mean that variation can not exist. These sorts of evolutionary psychologists resemble the caricature of the economist who holds to rational choice so that behavior which deviates from the model is explained by ad hoc contingencies. The most popular current expositor of this view of evolutionary psychology is Satoshi Kanazawa, who is also not a big fan of statistics. In any case, the paper will come out in Current Anthropology, but isn’t on the website, but there is a press release:

Read More


Crime & punishment & Madoff

By Razib Khan | December 22, 2008 12:10 am

Even Bernard Madoff Doesn’t Deserve This:

Remember Jeffrey Skilling? Losses to Enron shareholders of more than $1 billion largely determined his 24-year-plus sentence. Or consider WorldCom’s former chief, Bernard J. Ebbers. He got 25 years based principally on the $2.2 billion loss suffered by his company’s shareholders. Sure, these men destroyed enormous shareholder value, just as the targets of today’s criminal cases allegedly did. But it’s hard to contend that they deserved prison terms longer than the average sentence for murder (22 years), kidnapping (14) and sexual abuse (eight).”

Read More


Really Evil Overlords?

By Razib Khan | December 21, 2008 11:09 pm

Check this out, Matt Yglesias was dissing on an obscure D.C. outfit, Third Way, a few days ago. Today, the CEO of The Center For American Progress put up a Very Special Post on his weblog clarifying that CAP thinks much of Third Way. Creepy. I guess we always knew there was a puppet master back there, but it seems a bit unseemly to pull the strings so publicly.



By Razib Khan | December 21, 2008 3:35 am

angelina_jolie_wallpaper_10.jpgIn the social circles I move in there is a lot of concern with overpopulation. Now, it is somewhat ironic to me that those who are concerned do not tend to breed so as to be virtuous…while others who are not so concerned, such as Sarah Palin (and also these ladies and gentlemen) make up for the balance (and some!) and render the valiant efforts of the concerned rather moot. In any case, I had a thought today…I remember when I was a small child that world population was between 4 and 5 billion. Today is between 6 and 7 billion. That is rather staggering…that my lifetime has witnessed the birth of billions. I’m not that old.

Read More


Recession fears in 2007….

By Razib Khan | December 20, 2008 10:38 pm

I remember that back in mid-2007 I was mooting the possibility of a recession. Part of the reason was that I’d been looking at the statistical trendlines in real estate MLS data at the time for a software project, and I’d been getting a bad feeling from the summer of 2006 on (the flip rates in many markets were not going in a “good” direction). Check out the comments. Days of innocence….


Dow 30,000 in 2008!

By Razib Khan | December 20, 2008 10:22 pm

The paperback edition of “Dow, 30,000 by 2008” Why It’s Different This Time came out on the 1st of this month on Amazon. I guess publishing schedules are fixed so that at a date is a date? Here’s the most amusing of the “reviews” on Amazon (4 out of 4 stars by the way):

A Prescient Mind – Spot On!
What a brilliant, insightful tome on investing cycles. The author makes an iron clad case as to why the Dow will skyrocket to the stratosphere by 2008. I can find NO FAULT in his logic. Leverage is the key to success in this world of ours. Everybody should borrow against ANY asset that they have, especially their home, up to 30 or 40 times the fair market value. As everyone knows, homes NEVER decrease in value.

Read More


Evolutionary landscapes

By Razib Khan | December 20, 2008 9:45 pm

Mark Chu-Carroll has a “must read” post, Fitness Landscapes, Evolution, and Smuggling Information:

If you look at the evolutionary process, it’s most like the iterative search process described towards the beginning of this post. The “search function” isn’t really static over time; it’s constantly changing. At any point in time, you can loosely think of the search function for a given species as exploring some set of mutations, and selecting the ones that allow them to survive. After a step, you’ve got a new population, which is going to have new mutations to explore. So the search function itself is changing. And how is it changing? Modelled mathematically, it’s changing by incorporating information about the landscape.

Read the whole thing for context. If you are interested in the topic from a biological perspective, Sergey Gavrilets’ has published a fair number of papers on this topic….


Madoff Madness

By Razib Khan | December 20, 2008 1:16 am

The New York Times just published the definitive Bernie Madoff piece so far, Madoff Scheme Kept Rippling Outward, Across Borders. Reading about Madoff, I can’t help but think about this conversation attributed to J. P. Morgan:

Untermyer: “Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?”
Morgan: “No sir. The first thing is character.”
Untermyer: “Before money or property?”
Morgan: “Before money or property or anything else. Money cannot buy it…because a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.”

That sir, was the problem of course. And this sort of behavior:

Read More


Great Dying = Great Cooling?

By Razib Khan | December 19, 2008 10:22 am

This is really weird, New World Post-pandemic Reforestation Helped Start Little Ice Age, Say Scientists:

Stanford University researchers have conducted a comprehensive analysis of data detailing the amount of charcoal contained in soils and lake sediments at the sites of both pre-Columbian population centers in the Americas and in sparsely populated surrounding regions. They concluded that reforestation of agricultural lands–abandoned as the population collapsed–pulled so much carbon out of the atmosphere that it helped trigger a period of global cooling, at its most intense from approximately 1500 to 1750, known as the Little Ice Age.

The same researchers published a paper on this last spring, Effects of syn-pandemic fire reduction and reforestation in the tropical Americas on atmospheric CO2 during European conquest:

Read More


God & science; substitutable magesteria?

By Razib Khan | December 19, 2008 9:42 am

Science and God: An automatic opposition between ultimate explanations:

Science and religion have come into conflict repeatedly throughout history, and one simple reason for this is the two offer competing explanations for many of the same phenomena. We present evidence that the conflict between these two concepts can occur automatically, such that increasing the perceived value of one decreases the automatic evaluation of the other. In Experiment 1, scientific theories described as poor explanations decreased automatic evaluations of science, but simultaneously increased automatic evaluations of God. In Experiment 2, using God as an explanation increased automatic evaluations of God, but decreased automatic evaluations of science. Religion and science both have the potential to be ultimate explanations, and these findings suggest that this competition for explanatory space can create an automatic opposition in evaluations.

The authors used the same priming strategies utilized in Project Implicit. So the ScienceDaily summary claims, ” A person’s unconscious attitudes toward science and God may be fundamentally opposed, researchers report, depending on how religion and science are used to answer “ultimate” questions such as how the universe began or the origin of life.” The shift in outcome contingent upon inputs was pretty stark, as evident in these two figures:

Read More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar