Archive for January, 2010


By Razib Khan | January 23, 2010 6:39 pm

mongol.pngI noticed that Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan was watchable online on Netflix the other day, so I checked it out. I liked it. As any movie there were liberties taken with aspects of Genghis Khan’s biography, but I felt like most of them were true to the general outlines of what really happened. The main downside was the whole warlord-with-a-heart-of-gold element to his personality. I’m definitely looking forward to The Great Khan, the rumored sequel.


James Patterson & the business of writing

By Razib Khan | January 23, 2010 4:25 am

James Patterson Inc.:

TO MAINTAIN HIS frenetic pace of production, Patterson now uses co-authors for nearly all of his books. He is part executive producer, part head writer, setting out the vision for each book or series and then ensuring that his writers stay the course. This kind of collaboration is second nature to Patterson from his advertising days, and it’s certainly common in other creative industries, including television. But writing a novel is not the same thing as coming up with jokes for David Letterman or plotting an episode of “24.” Books, at least in their traditional conception, are the product of one person’s imagination and sensibility, rendered in a singular, unreproducible style and voice. Some novelists have tried using co-authors, usually with limited success. Certainly none have taken collaboration to the level Patterson has, with his five regular co-authors, each one specializing in a different Patterson series or genre. “Duke Ellington said, ‘I need an orchestra, otherwise I wouldn’t know how my music sounds,’ ” Pietsch told me when I asked him about Patterson’s use of collaborators. “Jim created a process and a team that can help him hear how his music sounds.”

The idea of the author as the lonely genius is very powerful in our culture, but there’s no reason to be so attached to this. Sole authorship is no prerequisite for ancient classics. There are debates as to whether Homer is actually a composite of various poets, but there is no scholarly dispute as to the fact that the production of the the Bible was due to multiple individuals, often operating independently and with different visions. This is not to say that James Patterson’s works aren’t schlock (I’ve never read them myself, but my genre tastes are nerdier). Rather, there’s no reason that workmanlike collaborative writing process necessarily entail lowest-common denominator fiction. The main issue today is probably that the more people you have to pay, the fewer risks you would want to take, as the costs are going to be higher and you want to make your money back. But the film industry has a huge range of budgets and production values. With the rise of e-books I assume that the publishing industry will exhibit even more long tail distributions.



By Razib Khan | January 22, 2010 4:19 am

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Time never forgot the land

By Razib Khan | January 22, 2010 1:15 am

Modern civilization has extremely deleterious consequences in regards to species richness, primarily through destruction of habitat. Because of these negative aspects of modernity hunter-gatherers have been idealized as a model of humanity at equilibrium with their ecology. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus lays out the revisionist, and to some extent now mainstream, argument that the American wilderness which European settlers encountered was actually an instance of “re-wilding” in the wake of native demographic collapse due to disease. But setting this case aside, what about Australia? Its fauna was even more exotic to Eurasian sensibilities, and the Australian Aboriginals do not seem to have ever shifted away from obligate hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Perhaps they truly were at equilibrium with their environment, judging from the fact that Australia has so many endemic species.
I think the argument that Australian Aboriginals were at some equilibrium is correct; but only because the havoc that they wrought upon the native ecosystem was relatively deep in the past. The particular destructiveness of modern civilization is a function of its progressiveness and the constant roil of its development. Pre-modern societies characterized by Malthusian conditions whereby population growth was “checked” by natural limitations were static enough over the long term that after an initial transient period of ecological instability a new equilibrium had time to settle in. If humanity is an environmental condition, Malthusian humanity is like a storm which passes. Post-Malthusian humanity is like a perpetual hurricane.
A new paper in Science speaks to the specific case of Australia. And Then There Were None?:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Ecology

The Man Who Would Be A Barbarian

By Razib Khan | January 21, 2010 12:06 pm

A western Eurasian male is found in 2000-year-old elite Xiongnu cemetery in Northeast Mongolia:

We analyzed mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), Y-chromosome single nucleotide polymorphisms (Y-SNP), and autosomal short tandem repeats (STR) of three skeletons found in a 2,000-year-old Xiongnu elite cemetery in Duurlig Nars of Northeast Mongolia. This study is one of the first reports of the detailed genetic analysis of ancient human remains using the three types of genetic markers. The DNA analyses revealed that one subject was an ancient male skeleton with maternal U2e1 and paternal R1a1 haplogroups. This is the first genetic evidence that a male of distinctive Indo-European lineages (R1a1) was present in the Xiongnu of Mongolia. This might indicate an Indo-European migration into Northeast Asia 2,000 years ago. Other specimens are a female with mtDNA haplogroup D4 and a male with Y-SNP haplogroup C3 and mtDNA haplogroup D4. Those haplogroups are common in Northeast Asia. There was no close kinship among them. The genetic evidence of U2e1 and R1a1 may help to clarify the migration patterns of Indo-Europeans and ancient East-West contacts of the Xiongnu Empire. Artifacts in the tombs suggested that the Xiongnu had a system of the social stratification. The West Eurasian male might show the racial tolerance of the Xiongnu Empire and some insight into the Xiongnu society.

Some historical context. In the period around 200 BCE the Xiongnu confederation arose on the northern frontiers of China, which was being consolidated at that time under the Han dynasty. In other words, they were the first steppe people who existed in explicit tension with Imperial China, the beginning of a particular dyad which would recur throughout Chinese history. Prior to the Xiongnu the populations of the steppe seemed to be a rather inchoate group of barbarians from the viewpoint of the Chinese (some of whom were periodically assimilated into the Chinese system). After the Xiongnu rose to state of uncomfortable parity with the settled polities the Chinese ethnography becomes more detailed. The consolidation of nomad power seems to have been triggered by the spread of horse culture across northern China’s fringe, as well as the crystallization of the frontier of the Chinese state under the Qin and Han dynasties.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Genetics, History

Creation opens this week

By Razib Khan | January 21, 2010 10:29 am

Creation, the Charles Darwin biopic, is opening in a few large cities tomorrow.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Evolution

123456 most common password?

By Razib Khan | January 21, 2010 4:53 am

If Your Password Is 123456, Just Make It HackMe:

Back at the dawn of the Web, the most popular account password was “12345.”
Today, it’s one digit longer but hardly safer: “123456.”
Despite all the reports of Internet security breaches over the years, including the recent attacks on Google’s e-mail service, many people have reacted to the break-ins with a shrug.
According to a new analysis, one out of five Web users still decides to leave the digital equivalent of a key under the doormat: they choose a simple, easily guessed password like “abc123,” “iloveyou” or even “password” to protect their data.

Imperva found that nearly 1 percent of the 32 million people it studied had used “123456” as a password. The second-most-popular password was “12345.” Others in the top 20 included “qwerty,” “abc123” and “princess.”
More disturbing, said Mr. Shulman, was that about 20 percent of people on the RockYou list picked from the same, relatively small pool of 5,000 passwords.

Many people are assuming that Google’s current row with China has more to do with protecting the reputation of its cloud computing services than idealistic motives. But really, the end user is the root of some of the problems of security within the cloud.


Tiny dogs are freaks of evolution

By Razib Khan | January 20, 2010 4:04 pm

pekingese4.pngSometimes scientists report on research which clarifies what we already know. ‘Survival of the Cutest’ Proves Darwin Right:

The study, published in The American Naturalist on January 20, 2010, compared the skull shapes of domestic dogs with those of different species across the order Carnivora, to which dogs belong along with cats, bears, weasels, civets and even seals and walruses.
It found that the skull shapes of domestic dogs varied as much as those of the whole order. It also showed that the extremes of diversity were farther apart in domestic dogs than in the rest of the order. This means, for instance, that a Collie has a skull shape that is more different from that of a Pekingese than the skull shape of the cat is from that of a walrus.

Dr Drake explains: “We usually think of evolution as a slow and gradual process, but the incredible amount of diversity in domestic dogs has originated through selective breeding in just the last few hundred years, and particularly after the modern purebred dog breeds were established in the last 150 years.”

Domestic dogs don’t live in the wild so they don’t have to run after things and kill them — their food comes out of a tin and the toughest thing they’ll ever have to chew is their owner’s slippers. So they can get away with a lot of variation that would affect functions such as breathing and chewing and would therefore lead to their extinction.
“Natural selection has been relaxed and replaced with artificial selection for various shapes that breeders favour.”

The team divided the dog breeds into categories according to function, such as hunting, herding, guarding and companion dogs. They found the companion (or pet) dogs were more variable than all the other categories put together.

According to Drake, “Dogs are bred for their looks not for doing a job so there is more scope for outlandish variations, which are then able to survive and reproduce.”

It is well known that feral dogs don’t usually look like Pekingese. Seeing as how strange looking small dogs often evoke hostility on the part of humans who are not their owners, the critical role of their owners in keeping these morphs around is self-evident. By contrast working dogs tend to look more “normal.” The difference is like contrasting the haute couture you’d see during fashion week, and the kind of apparel you’d actually wear in real life.
As noted by the researchers above, skull shape is probably the tip of the ice berg. There’s a lot of behavioral variation in dogs, no one would confuse a pitbull with a golden. Finally, I think one big picture analogy might be our own species, who are quite possibly self-domesticated….
The paper will be out in a few days in The American Naturalist.


Complex societies = simple languages

By Razib Khan | January 20, 2010 5:40 am

At least that was my take home message from a new paper in PLoS One, Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure:

Background: Languages differ greatly both in their syntactic and morphological systems and in the social environments in which they exist. We challenge the view that language grammars are unrelated to social environments in which they are learned and used.
Methodology/Principal Findings: We conducted a statistical analysis of .2,000 languages using a combination of demographic sources and the World Atlas of Language Structures— a database of structural language properties. We found strong relationships between linguistic factors related to morphological complexity, and demographic/socio-historical factors such as the number of language users, geographic spread, and degree of language contact. The analyses suggest that languages spoken by large groups have simpler inflectional morphology than languages spoken by smaller groups as measured on a variety of factors such as case systems and complexity of conjugations. Additionally, languages spoken by large groups are much more likely to use lexical strategies in place of inflectional morphology to encode evidentiality, negation, aspect, and possession. Our findings indicate that just as biological organisms are shaped by ecological niches, language structures appear to adapt to the environment (niche) in which they are being learned and used. As adults learn a language, features that are difficult for them to acquire, are less likely to be passed on to subsequent learners. Languages used for communication in large groups that include adult learners appear to have been subjected to such selection. Conversely, the morphological complexity common to languages used in small groups increases redundancy which may facilitate language learning by infants.
Conclusions/Significance: We hypothesize that language structures are subjected to different evolutionary pressures in different social environments. Just as biological organisms are shaped by ecological niches, language structures appear to adapt to the environment (niche) in which they are being learned and used. The proposed Linguistic Niche Hypothesis has implications for answering the broad question of why languages differ in the way they do and makes empirical predictions regarding language acquisition capacities of children versus adults.

The paper itself is almost total gibberish in the details to me, I’m pretty ignorant of the jargon of linguistics, but the gist seems rather evident in the figures:

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Scott Brown vs. Sarah Palin

By Razib Khan | January 20, 2010 3:21 am

Probably temporary, but check out Google Trends….


Face recognition not correlated with IQ

By Razib Khan | January 20, 2010 12:51 am

Heritability of the Specific Cognitive Ability of Face Perception:

What makes one person socially insightful but mathematically challenged, and another musically gifted yet devoid of a sense of direction? Individual differences in general cognitive ability are thought to be mediated by “generalist genes” that affect many cognitive abilities similarly without specific genetic influences on particular cognitive abilities. In contrast, we present here evidence for cognitive “specialist genes”: monozygotic twins are more similar than dizygotic twins in the specific cognitive ability of face perception. Each of three measures of face-specific processing was heritable, i.e., more correlated in monozygotic than dizygotic twins: face-specific recognition ability, the face-inversion effect, and the composite-face effect. Crucially, this effect is due to the heritability of face processing in particular, not to a more general aspect of cognition such as IQ or global attention. Thus, individual differences in at least one specific mental talent are independently heritable. This finding raises the question of what other specific cognitive abilities are independently heritable and may elucidate the mechanisms by which heritable disorders like dyslexia and autism can have highly uneven cognitive profiles in which some mental processes can be selectively impaired while others remain unaffected or even selectively enhanced.

Here’s some more from ScienceDaily:

For the study, Liu and his colleagues recruited 102 pairs of identical twins and 71 pairs of fraternal twins aged 7 to 19 from Beijing schools. Because identical twins have 100 percent of their genes in common while fraternal twins have just 50 percent, traits that are strongly hereditary are more similar between identical twins than between fraternal twins. (Identical twins still show variability because of the influence of environmental factors.)

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Yes, Biblical fundamentalists are not bright

By Razib Khan | January 19, 2010 11:34 pm

Tom Rees reports on an analysis of the GSS which point to the correlation between low verbal skills and a Biblical literalist outlook. Well, I’ve talked about this at length. Religion & IQ, Biblical literalism or low IQ: which came first?, Pentecostals are stupid? Unitarians are smart? and Educational levels & denomination. Poking around the GSS the powerful correlates of belief in the literal truth of the Bible (variable “BIBLE”) jump out at you.


European man perhaps a Middle Eastern farmer

By Razib Khan | January 19, 2010 1:01 pm

For the past few decades there has been a long standing debate as to the origins of modern Europeans. The two alternative hypotheses are:
* Europeans are descended from Middle Eastern farmers, who brought their Neolithic cultural toolkit less than 10,000 years ago.
* Europeans are descended from Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, who acculturated to the farming way of life through diffusion of ideas.

The two extreme positions are not really accepted in such stark forms by anyone. Rather, the debate is over the effect size of #1 vs. #2. Bryan Sykes, a geneticist at Oxford, has been arguing for the primacy of #2 for many years. His argument is most fully laid out in The Seven Daughters of Eve. In short the model is that on the order of 80% of the ancestors of Europeans today derive from Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, while 20% derive from Middle Eastern farmers. Foremost amongst those who argue for #1 would be the famed genetic anthropologist L. L. Cavalli-Sforza. Cavalli-Sforza has objected strongly to Sykes’ characterization of his own position, and suggests that the most recent data do not refuse his model in any way. His point is that the “demic diffusion” model simply points to the critical role of demographic advance, and does not positive total genetic replacement. Or, even preponderant effect, seeing as how there will be dilution of the genetic signal along the wave of advance. It is therefore a glass-half-empty vs. glass-half-fully argument. Remember also that Sykes’ values are averaged across Europeans, so that the signal of Middle Eastern farmers would be greater in southeast Europe than in the British Isles.
Of course there are some methodological issues here; Sykes’ argument relied on mitochondrial DNA, passed only through mothers. Cavalli-Sforza initially relied on classical autosomal markers, though his group later focused on Y chromosomes, passed through males. Some workers have found values closer to 50% for Middle Eastern contribution. And most importantly, DNA extraction techniques are suggesting that inferences made from contemporary patterns of variation may not give us an accurate map of past patterns of variation. These techniques are coming together and suggesting that in fact European hunter-gatherers left a much smaller contribution to the ancestry of modern Europeans than Sykes et al. have inferred.
In this unsettled landscape comes a new paper which turns some assumptions about Y chromosomal variation in Europe on its head. The focus is on a subclade of the R1b haplogroup, which has its highest frequencies in Western Europe, in particular along the Atlantic fringe. The pattern of variation has led many to infer that this lineage, in particular the R1b1b2 haplgroup, is a marker of the Paleolithic populations of Western Europe. The high frequency of this marker among the Basques in particular is seen as evidence of this, because this group speaks a language which is a pre-Indo-European isolate (the Basques are used as a Paleolithic reference group in many papers). But perhaps not. A Predominantly Neolithic Origin for European Paternal Lineages:

The relative contributions to modern European populations of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers from the Near East have been intensely debated. Haplogroup R1b1b2 (R-M269) is the commonest European Y-chromosomal lineage, increasing in frequency from east to west, and carried by 110 million European men. Previous studies suggested a Paleolithic origin, but here we show that the geographical distribution of its microsatellite diversity is best explained by spread from a single source in the Near East via Anatolia during the Neolithic. Taken with evidence on the origins of other haplogroups, this indicates that most European Y chromosomes originate in the Neolithic expansion. This reinterpretation makes Europe a prime example of how technological and cultural change is linked with the expansion of a Y-chromosomal lineage, and the contrast of this pattern with that shown by maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA suggests a unique role for males in the transition.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Genetics, History

The laws of the superorganism

By Razib Khan | January 18, 2010 5:51 pm

Mathematical support for insect colonies as superorganisms. Click through for the scatterplot.


Minke whales not undergoing rapid demographic expansion

By Razib Khan | January 18, 2010 4:47 pm

Are Antarctic minke whales unusually abundant because of 20th century whaling?:

Severe declines in megafauna worldwide illuminate the role of top predators in ecosystem structure. In the Antarctic, the Krill Surplus Hypothesis posits that the killing of more than 2 million large whales led to competitive release for smaller krill-eating species like the Antarctic minke whale. If true, the current size of the Antarctic minke whale population may be unusually high as an indirect result of whaling. Here, we estimate the long-term population size of the Antarctic minke whale prior to whaling by sequencing 11 nuclear genetic markers from 52 modern samples purchased in Japanese meat markets. We use coalescent simulations to explore the potential influence of population substructure and find that even though our samples are drawn from a limited geographic area, our estimate reflects ocean-wide genetic diversity. Using Bayesian estimates of the mutation rate and coalescent-based analyses of genetic diversity across loci, we calculate the long-term population size of the Antarctic minke whale to be 670 000 individuals (95% confidence interval: 374 000-1 150 000). Our estimate of long-term abundance is similar to, or greater than, contemporary abundance estimates, suggesting that managing Antarctic ecosystems under the assumption that Antarctic minke whales are unusually abundant is not warranted.

Populations, such as humans, who have expanded rapidly from a small population tend to exhibit a particular genetic signature. ScienceDaily has more on this particular paper.
Citation: Are Antarctic minke whales unusually abundant because of 20th century whaling?, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04447.x

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, Genetics

Why professors are liberal

By Razib Khan | January 18, 2010 3:17 pm

Another idea, Professor Is a Label That Leans to the Left:

The overwhelmingly liberal tilt of university professors has been explained by everything from outright bias to higher I.Q. scores. Now new research suggests that critics may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of looking at why most professors are liberal, they should ask why so many liberals — and so few conservatives — want to be professors.
A pair of sociologists think they may have an answer: typecasting. Conjure up the classic image of a humanities or social sciences professor, the fields where the imbalance is greatest: tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular — and liberal. Even though that may be an outdated stereotype, it influences younger people’s ideas about what they want to be when they grow up.

He added that the gender-typing of a field like physics might also partly explain the dearth of women in it, another subject that has provoked heated disputes.
To Mr. Gross, accusations by conservatives of bias and student brainwashing are self-defeating. “The irony is that the more conservatives complain about academia’s liberalism,” he said, “the more likely it’s going to remain a bastion of liberalism.”

In regards to the last paragraph, a friend of mine noted what it would sound like if you replaced “conservative” with “women” and “liberalism” with “maleness.” Or “conservative” with “black” and “liberalism” with “whiteness.” Certain types of diversity are easy to dismiss as trivial, or worthy of only academic analysis, while other forms are not brushed aside in this manner. Presumably the fact that sociology professors are invariably center-Left, resulting in a discipline that lacks in any conservative perspectives, is less of a worry than, for example, the lack of Asian Americans.
Another issue is that from what I recall the professoriate is extremely in favor of proactive attempts to race and gender balance the makeup of the students whom they teach, but are far more skeptical of the same considerations being directly inserted into the process of hiring or awarding tenure. I suppose university admissions officers are less objective than faculty hiring and tenure boards?
I do think that the explanation above is correct; if a smart person wants to make money they go into the corporate world, and if they want to “make a difference” they go in to non-profits and academia. I think there’s going to be positive feedback loops here as people sort in a manner where they select environments which suit them, and so intensify the tinge of particular professions or disciplines.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Economics

People evolving to be shorter & stouter

By Razib Khan | January 18, 2010 5:00 am

hobbit.pngOne of the things about evolution you sometimes hear is that it has “stopped” for humans. Steve Jones, a British geneticist, is one of the more prominent public expositors of this viewpoint today. The key fact that most people latch on to is that infant and child mortality is very low, so the vast majority of humans reach the age of potential reproduction. Random genetic drift aside, evolution via natural selection does not necessarily need differential mortality as a necessary precondition (though this is obviously an efficacious mechanism from the viewpoint of evolution). All that needs to occur is for reproductive fitness to track variation in a heritable trait. Imagine for example that a woman was born with a mutation which prevented her from ever reaching menopause. Assuming that the allele does not go extinct, this is a variant which might actually spread in the modern world, as many women are delaying childbearing until the latter half of their fertility curve. A woman who might have one child at the age of 40 might very well wish to continue having more children before she retires (this is already happening).
But this is theory. What does the data say? As it happens a few months ago a paper came out which looked at this question. They used the Framingham Heart Study study sample, which goes back to 1948, and compared two generations, both with N’s somewhat in excess of 5,000. Natural selection in a contemporary human population:

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Pardis Sabeti in The Boston Globe

By Razib Khan | January 18, 2010 3:44 am

Researchers find clues to evolution by studying genes of living people. It’s a profile of her group’s composite test for natural selection.


Dogs adapting to urban ecologies

By Razib Khan | January 18, 2010 2:55 am

A friend pointed me to this fascinating article about stray dogs in Moscow:

… It has become a symbol for the 35,000 stray dogs that roam Russia’s capital – about 84 dogs per square mile. You see them everywhere. They lie around in the courtyards of apartment complexes, wander near markets and kiosks, and sleep inside metro stations and pedestrian passageways. You can hear them barking and howling at night. And the strays on Moscow’s streets do not look anything like the purebreds preferred by status-conscious Muscovites. They look like a breed apart.

They also acted differently. Every so often, you would see one waiting on a metro platform. When the train pulled up, the dog would step in, scramble up to lie on a seat or sit on the floor if the carriage was crowded, and then exit a few stops later. There is even a website dedicated to the metro stray ( on which passengers post photos and video clips taken with their mobile phones, documenting the savviest of the pack using the public transport system like any other Muscovite.
Where did these animals come from? It’s a question Andrei Poyarkov, 56, a biologist specialising in wolves, has dedicated himself to answering. His research focuses on how different environments affect dogs’ behaviour and social organisation. About 30 years ago, he began studying Moscow’s stray dogs. Poyarkov contends that their appearance and behaviour have changed over the decades as they have continuously adapted to the changing face of Russia’s capital. Virtually all the city’s strays were born that way: dumping a pet dog on the streets of Moscow amounts to a near-certain death sentence. Poyarkov reckons fewer than 3 per cent survive.

ecd7de2e-ff2b-11de-a677-001.pngWhat the author goes on to describe is a bit more interesting than the typical “pariah dog”. The descriptions of particular wild behavioral morphs seem reminiscent of the sort of evolutionary change one would expect from post-domesticates in an post-apocalyptic world. This is possibly the other side of the domesticated silver fox experiments, though it must be noted that contemporary dog breeds themselves exhibit a very wide range in behavioral orientations, so the Moscow strays may simply be reflecting extant variation.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Genetics

Avatar sex scene (SNL)

By Razib Khan | January 18, 2010 2:04 am

Haven’t laughed this hard in a while….

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