Archive for June, 2009

Who are the Cape Coloureds of South Africa?

By Razib Khan | June 30, 2009 8:01 am

Homepage-extra-MissSA2008Ta.pngA little under 10% of South Africa’s population are Cape Coloureds. They speak Afrikaans and generally worship in Reformed Christian churches, but exhibit discernible non-European ancestry, in particular African ancestry. In the United States anyone who manifests African ancestry is coded as “black.” Though hypodescent started out as a tool for maintaining white racial purity against colored taint, today it is accepted within black America as the social norm. Barack Obama has obvious mixed ancestry but he is accept as fully black racially by both black and white Americans. In South Africa someone who looked like Obama obviously would not be white, but, they might be Coloured, as this group exhibits a wide range of appearance, as is the norm among very mixed populations.
In the course of research I stumbled upon the fact that the past two winners of Miss South Africa are Coloured, or at least likely Coloured as there is some ambiguity. Tansey Coetzee clearly has Coloured ancestry just by her surname, Coetzee, which is known among Afrikaners (note that Afrikaner surnames are not necessarily Dutch, as Huguenots and Germans were part of the original Cape Colony population). But Tansey Coetzee also has an Asian Indian mother (she offers this in interviews on YouTube). I assume in South Africa that someone who is Coloured + something else is most likely to self-identify as Coloured. The second Miss South Africa is Tatum Keshwar. Her identity is a bit more confused, as the surname has convinced many Indian publications that she’s Indian, while Coloureds are complaining that she is in fact a Coloured. Most people in the world who look like Tatum Keshwar are probably South Asian (there 1.3 billion South Asians, and a substantial minority of this is hundreds of millions), and her surname suggests that like Tansey Coetzee she has Indian ancestry. But listening to Tatum Keshwar on YouTube it sounds like she speaks English with an Afrikaans accent, strongly suggesting Coloured cultural background. She also refers to going on a modeling job to India (naturally, she looks like a lot of Indian models, so it would be a good fit), but she doesn’t talk about India like a “Non-resident Indian” might from what I can tell, alluding to how “exotic” it is and not mentioning any family connection. In most of the world someone who looked like Tatum Keshwar and had her name would be Indian. But not necessarily in South Africa.
I wanted to note ambiguities in Keshwar and Coetzee’s ancestry because genetics can now supplement what we know about the Cape Coloureds.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Genetics

Low carb diet weblog

By Razib Khan | June 30, 2009 3:46 am

A friend of mine has a new weblog, Low Carb Art and Science, which some of you might be interested in (or not). I do think it is ironic since this is an individual who presumably is in favor of a diet of red beans & rice. If you want a more eclectic range of posts on diet you might want to check out FuturPundit.


FireFox 3.5 this week

By Razib Khan | June 30, 2009 1:49 am

A new version of FireFox is coming out today. You can already test drive the latest pre-release already. I’ve been using Chrome since last year for 95% of my browsing needs because of the speed. I miss plugins, and there are also pages that render a bit idiosyncratically and AJAX apps which get confused. Because of low market penetration naturally designers and developers don’t always make sure that their sites work appropriately for Chrome. In any case, now Farhad Manjoo has a review up of the new Firefox browser, and seems to think that it has revived the brand. His points are:

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Neurotypicals are irrational beasts

By Razib Khan | June 29, 2009 9:33 am

Arnold Kling highlights this section from a Scientific American article, The Science of Economic Bubbles and Busts:

But behavioral economics experiments routinely show that despite similar outcomes, people (and other primates) hate a loss more than they desire a gain, an evolutionary hand-me-down that encourages organisms to preserve food supplies or to weigh a situation carefully before risking encounters with predators.
One group that does not value perceived losses differently than gains are individuals with autism, a disorder characterized by problems with social interaction. When tested, autistics often demonstrate strict logic when balancing gains and losses, but this seeming rationality may itself denote abnormal behavior. “Adhering to logical, rational principles of ideal economic choice may be biologically unnatural,” says Colin F. Camerer, a professor of behavioral economics at Caltech. Better insight into human psychology gleaned by neuroscientists holds the promise of changing forever our fundamental assumptions about the way entire economies function–and our understanding of the motivations of the individual participants therein, who buy homes or stocks and who have trouble judging whether a dollar is worth as much today as it was yesterday.

The gain vs. loss dictum indicates a strong risk aversion in humanity. Why might this be? I suspect it has to do with the fact that for most of our history we’ve been an animal like any other, on the Malthusian boundary, always facing individual or group extinction. The possibility of becoming as rich as Warren Buffet, or as prolific as Genghis Khan, by taking risks or trodding the path less taken, simply did not exist. The downside was extinction, the upside might be temporary success, only to see your lineage be swept away by history due to a propensity to gamble.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cognitive Science, Culture

Dana Milbank vs. Nico Pitney

By Razib Khan | June 29, 2009 8:32 am

I don’t post much on contemporary politics, mostly because I don’t have much value-add, but also because so much of it from the blogosphere is simply a critique of the mainstream press. In fact I think the mainstream press is essential and invaluable in many domains. The current crisis in print journalism is going to cause problems because these organizations serve as primary sources for many webloggers on abstruse or specialized topics. Who do you think puts bread on Carl Zimmer’s table?
But, I do believe that almost all “political analysis” and “commentary” in the mainstream media can be, and is being, easily substituted by weblogs (compare & contrast The New York Times analysis of the Democratic primaries vs. Nate Silver’s). I don’t see any comparative advantage here for the establishment. The existence of these sectors of the media seems a relic of the pre-internet era. Both the Right and Left are correct in their criticisms of the trivialities which the media often engage in to maintain the perception of objectivity. Below is an awesome face to face “exchange” between Nico Pitney and Dana Milbank.

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God & welfare

By Razib Khan | June 28, 2009 5:14 am

Gill_Lundsgaarde_2004_welfa.pngWhy should government welfare mean less religion?:

This was a question that Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde tackled by in 2004. They analysed the data from a range of countries, and found that the greater proportion of GDP that was spent on government welfare, the more non-religious people there were and the lower church attendance was. This held true even after statistically adjusting for other factors, like per-capita GDP, urbanization, government regulation of religion, and religious pluralism.

The standard explanation for this relation is that religion & government provide competing services, welfare. As government expands it presumably “crowds out” civil society welfare services, of which religious institutions are generally the most prominent. The author of the blog post above is generally skeptical of this model. I personally think it’s plausible, but the “rational choice” framework which it emerges from has generally been found wanting in many circumstances (e.g., general failure to explain religious dynamics in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism). So more exploration of the topic is needed.
But I was wondering, how about checking to see if there’s a relationship between religion & welfare in the United States? I found per capital welfare spending by state, percentage with “No Religion” from The American Religious Identification Survey, and queried how important religion was and what percentage were atheists from the Pew Religious Landscape Survey. I didn’t adjust welfare spending for background variables (cost of living, age structure, etc.), but I thought it would be instructive as a “quick & dirty” exploratory exercise. Charts below.

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Richard Wrangham takes your questions

By Razib Khan | June 26, 2009 5:27 pm

Richard Wrangham has done a podcast over at World Science (see my review of Catching Fire). You can ask questions in the forum, Wrangham will be participating all week.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Genetics


By Razib Khan | June 26, 2009 3:53 pm

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Send GrrlScientist to Antarctica

By Razib Khan | June 26, 2009 1:46 am

She’s trying to leave New York for Antarctica. What you have to do to make it happen is vote for her essay.


Michael Jackson: the king is dead

By Razib Khan | June 25, 2009 8:59 pm

I was out and about doing errands when a friend called me to tell me that Michael Jackson had died. My first reaction was to utter an expletive. I wasn’t sad, I didn’t think this was a false report. I didn’t know how to react. It’s as if a friend calls you and tells you that the Rocky Mountains had disappeared. The very configuration of the pop culture firmament has shifted before our very eyes. Jackson’s music career had long waned in the United States, for most of my lifetime he’d been more of a cultural than musical phenomenon. I didn’t think of Michael Jackson very often, but I always assumed he’d be around as a background condition. I noticed that even the professional sidewalk signature gatherers were departing from their script and were chatting up strangers about Jackson’s death instead of the environment or whatever they normally talked up.


Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

By Razib Khan | June 25, 2009 3:41 am

I saw the newest Transformers movie today. In terms of the cast, there were really only two who I felt were necessary in any way to the development of the film. Optimus Prime and Megan Fox.*

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Google books is great!

By Razib Khan | June 25, 2009 12:46 am

Mark Gimein defends Google Books over at The Big Money. New technology can be misused, but in general I tend to agree with Gimein. Along with Amazon’s Search Inside feature Google Books is an excellent resource to look up and cross-reference obscure facts and data. With the utilization of Google Translate you can even get a good sense of some books in languages you don’t know (I generally use this to make sure I understand the legend for a table or figure).


Around ScienceBlogs

By Razib Khan | June 24, 2009 11:15 am

Geoscience enrollments up; supply lags demand
Brazilian Megafauna: hard to hunt or to chew?
What’s wrong with Steve Jobs, revisited
Dinosaurs provide clues about the shrunken genomes of birds
Influenza season, part 2


Empathy & neurobiology

By Razib Khan | June 24, 2009 9:13 am

Related to yesterday’s post,The neural bases of empathic accuracy:

Theories of empathy suggest that an accurate understanding of another’s emotions should depend on affective, motor, and/or higher cognitive brain regions, but until recently no experimental method has been available to directly test these possibilities. Here, we present a functional imaging paradigm that allowed us to address this issue. We found that empathically accurate, as compared with inaccurate, judgments depended on (i) structures within the human mirror neuron system thought to be involved in shared sensorimotor representations, and (ii) regions implicated in mental state attribution, the superior temporal sulcus and medial prefrontal cortex. These data demostrate that activity in these 2 sets of brain regions tracks with the accuracy of attributions made about another’s internal emotional state. Taken together, these results provide both an experimental approach and theoretical insights for studying empathy and its dysfunction.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cognitive Science

Fat and tuberculosis

By Razib Khan | June 23, 2009 11:29 pm

Obesity May Have Offered Edge Over TB:

Over the course of human evolution, people with excess stores of fat have been more likely to survive famines, many scientists believe, living on to pass their genes to the next generation.
But these days, obesity is thought to be harmful, leading to chronic inflammation and metabolic disorders that set the stage for heart disease. So what went awry? When did excess fat stop being a protective mechanism that assured survival and instead become a liability?
A provocative new hypothesis suggests that in some people, fat not only stores energy but also revs up the body’s immune system. This subgroup may have enjoyed a survival advantage in the 1800s, when people were plagued by a disease that decimated Europe: tuberculosis.

The original paper is here. I’m skeptical, but I’d like people who know more about the history and distribution of tuberculosis to weigh in. My working assumption is that excess fat was helpful in most pre-modern contexts (i.e., female fertility) and obesity wasn’t common and simply a modern overshoot.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Health

The evolution of human intelligence

By Razib Khan | June 23, 2009 9:47 am

Social Competition May Be Reason For Bigger Brain:

“Our findings suggest brain size increases the most in areas with larger populations and this almost certainly increased the intensity of social competition,” said David Geary, Curator’s Professor and Thomas Jefferson Professor of Psychosocial Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science. “When humans had to compete for necessities and social status, which allowed better access to these necessities, bigger brains provided an advantage.”
The researchers also found some credibility to the climate-change hypothesis, which assumes that global climate change and migrations away from the equator resulted in humans becoming better at coping with climate change. But the importance of coping with climate was much smaller than the importance of coping with other people.

At the link above it says that the paper is in press in Human Nature. Actually I think they must be looking at an old press release, because the description of the paper matches perfectly this paper published in January, Testing Climatic, Ecological, and Social Competition Models:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture, Evolution

Links of note

By Razib Khan | June 22, 2009 2:59 pm

Why are most genetic associations found through candidate gene studies wrong?
What Darwin Said – Part 2: Mechanisms of Evolution.


Dinosaurs not as massive

By Razib Khan | June 22, 2009 9:51 am

So claims a researcher whose work will be published in the Journal of Zoology, Dinosaurs shed a few tons in science makeover:

“We have found that the statistical model is seriously flawed and the giant dinosaurs probably were only about half as heavy as is generally believed.”
The research does not suggest that dinosaurs were shorter in length or height. These dimensions are clear from the size of their bones. Instead, Packard’s work challenges the depiction of many giant herbivores. Until now they have been shown as well-rounded, powerful animals, when they are more likely to have been skinny and muscular.

I remember reading stuff in grade school in really old books about how sauropods spent most of their time in water they were so massive. So times change. But nevertheless it seems a bit disappointing that the biggest land creatures in the history of the world weren’t quite as big.


The greatest good for the greatest number?

By Razib Khan | June 22, 2009 3:18 am

Neda2.jpgOver the past week the political events in Iran have saturated the news. But the reality is that Pakistan still has an enormous refugee problem, right next door to Iran in fact. It’s striking though that there is little news coverage of this at this moment, at the same time that the public and media’s imagination has been captured by the shocking death of Neda Soltai, the young Iranian woman whose death was caught on video.
Below the fold are the number of tweets on #neda vs. #pakistan (currently the #pakistan hash-tag is concerned with a cricket win by their national team).

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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

By Razib Khan | June 21, 2009 11:21 am

0465013627.jpgA few weeks ago I commented on Richard Wrangham’s discussion with Robert Wright. Though most of the conversation was given over to the arguments in Wrangham’s latest book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, I focused on the older Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. One of the main reasons is that the latter was a book I had read. A few days ago I managed to get through Catching Fire. Though the content wasn’t particularly surprising or novel, Wrangham has been articulating the general model for years, the details were of interest and at ~200 pages it was a quick read. In some ways it resembles typical X-Made-Man books, such as Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, and so can get tiresome. Rather than focusing language, or human sociality, tool use, or the consumption of meat, Wrangham naturally draws everything back into the use of fire and cooking. Despite this the argument is so heavily larded with specific detail that even if you find the emphasis on the overall thesis a bit heavy-handed it’s worth a read. Obviously publishers would be less than excited by a book titled “How cooking, language, tools and bipedality made us human,” but I think some of these other factors are left implicit in the text.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Evolution

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