Gore Vidal has died. As a younger man I found his heterodox views bracing, but I would commend to readers two books Vidal wrote which I feel often get forgotten in the shadow of his American historical novels, Creation and Julian. As a polemicist one must always view Vidal’s claims of fact with some suspicion (granted, I suspect I’m in more sympathy with some of his interpretations of history than most), but his historical fiction can rise above such a critique.
This is an “inside baseball” post for regular readers, but looking through site referrals I’ve noticed that German Dziebel has started to blog regularly again. For those who don’t know Dziebel is the author of The Genius of Kinship: The Phenomenon of Kinship and the Global Diversity of Kinship Terminologies. Here is the summary from Amazon:
This highly acclaimed book brings the cumulative results of a century and a half of kinship studies in anthropology into the focus of current debates on the origin of modern humans in Africa and on an entangled bit of human evolutionary history commonly subsumed under the heading of the “peopling of the Americas.” This erudite study is based on a database of some 2,500 kinship vocabularies representing roughly 600 African languages, 140 Australian languages, 500 Austronesian languages, 200 Papuan languages, 350 languages of Eurasia (excluding Indo-Europeans), 440 North and Middle American Indian languages, and 200 South American languages. This valuable reference will take the reader to the dawn of kinship studies in the 19th century Western science in order to elicit the wider context of anthropological interest in kinship systems and the interdisciplinary salience of the phenomenon of kinship. The book also examines the founder of kinship studies in anthropology, American lawyer and Iroquois ethnographer, Lewis Henry Morgan, and the circumstances of his life that generated his interest in human kinship. The study ventures into the intricacies of scientific and quasi-scientific debates in the 19th century, and treats 19th century science as embedded in a myth featuring divinity, humanity and animality as principal characters. This account is divided into four sections, each of which is structured as a triad (philosophy, psychology and physiology; logic, semiotics and reproduction; religion, hermeneutics and evolution; law, grammar and speech). This far-reaching historical journey aims at formulating an idea of what human kinship might be all about, especially in the light of the widespread uncertainties about this question caused by the constructivist turn in anthropology. Eventually our ideas regarding human origins, ancient population dispersals and the homeland of modern humans are inextricably linked to our ideas about kinship. As a book that brings together evolutionary and sociocultural anthropology, The Genius of Kinship will be a critical addition for all Anthropology collections.
As they say, read all about it. I’m rather ambivalent. 23andMe has a business rationale to go in this direction, so I don’t begrudge them their decision. The problem, at least from a legal perspective, is that they’re providing medical advice at least implicitly. And I think this medical direction is really where the big money is in any case. There’s no angle standing on principle.
Dienekes reflects on the seemingly simultaneous appearance of behavioral modernityin South Africa and Europe and Australia, pending the acceptance of the most recent finds. This part is very important in my opinion:
The San people still live in several countries of southern Africa, and until the latter part of the 20th century were still mainly hunter-gatherers. But Dr. Stringer cautioned not to think of them as “living fossils,” unchanged by time. “Their genes, cultures and behaviors have undoubtedly continued to evolve in the intervening millennia,” he said.
I see no reason to think that these were the ancestors of the San. Over 45,000 years I think the most likely option is that genetic and cultural continuity will not be maintained, and these are probably a sister group to the modern peoples of Southern Africa. In any case, to address Dienekes’ confusion, I think this is one case where his non-American background shows. We know exactly what happened so long ago to kick-start modern humanity. The answer has been with us for over 40 years.
There’s a cliche, which isn’t totally false, that more education tends to lead one toward heterodox viewpoints which challenge conventional norms. But one issue that has been coming to the fore over the last 10 years or so is that college educated Americans tend toward social liberalism, and yet often continue to live very bourgeois lives. In other words, the freedoms which they favor are those freedoms which are ever operative in their own lives. In contrast those Americans without college educations tend to have a less libertarian attitude toward personal mores, but have lives characterized by greater disturbance and disastrous choices.
And yet this does not hold in the case of what articles such as this report, How Divorce Lost Its Groove:
Though she wasn’t entirely surprised. Ever since her divorce three years ago, Ms. Thomas said, she has been antisocial, “nervous about what people would say.”
After all, she had gone from Park Slope matron, complete with involved husband (“We had cracked the code of Gen X peer parenthood”) and gut-renovated brownstone, to “a Red Hook divorcée,” she said, remarried with a new baby and two children-of-divorce barely out of preschool. “All of a sudden, this community I’d lived in for 13 years became this spare and mean savannah,” she said.
It was as if, she said, everyone she knew felt bad for her but no one wanted to be near her, either. Even though adultery was not part of the equation, Ms. Thomas said, “I feel like I have a giant letter A on my front and back.
Dienekes points to a David Reich video where he shows his hand as to future possible results to come out of his lab. The short of it is that it seems likely that most agricultural populations exhibit the same dynamic outlined in Reconstructing Indian History. At the least you have an intrusive group admixing with indigenes. At the extreme you have total replacement. The pattern is confirmed for India, Ethiopia, and Southeast Asia. It seems highly likely in Europe. There are other rumored results in East Asia which might shake things up.
On a minor note, I do want to add that I think many archaeologists aren’t going to be totally surprised that modern Europeans don’t derive by and large from Aurignacians. But, the relatively recent nature of the map of genetic variation which we take for granted probably will shock, and result in a high degree of skepticism. Yet if I had to bet I would bet on the model being sketched out by David Reich. These admixtures and replacements are likely to resolve some confusions of our understanding of the settlement of the world using simple tree models with branching points tens of thousands of years in the past (e.g., you already know that Oceanians will have a longer branch because of archaic admixture).
I’m kind of wary of getting into political debates at this point because it’s not my primary interest (additionally, people with stronger political views often end up willfully misrepresenting me because they think I’m taking specific sides, even if they actually guess my preferences incorrectly!). But the whole Mitt Romney-Anglo-Saxon heritage kerfuffle has now gotten under my skin. What prompted my agitation is a post over at The Atlantic by Max Fisher, Sorry, Romney: Neither America Nor the U.K. Are ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Countries. There are two dimensions to this, the positive and the normative.
Most of you are probably aware of David Barton, the conservative Christian scholar whose bread and butter is a revisionist history of the United States which rewrites the past into a fiction to serve his own political ends, in a manner which would make Michel Foucault proud. But believe it or not conservative Christians are not the only group wont to rewrite the past to serve their own contemporary political preferences. In the case of Max Fisher what you have is a conclusion in search of support, and so our enterprising young man went out looking for it in classic hack style. Reading through the comments very few spotted the errors and confusions, aside from a few British commenters.
In many ways the image of Africa in the minds of Westerners has become a trope. The “Dark Continent,” eternal, and primal. Like many tropes the realized existence of this Africa is only within the imagination. The real Africa is far different. For there is no real Africa, there Africas. This truth is on my mind this week as two papers of great importance in understanding African genetic history finally saw the light of day. First, Dr. Joseph Pickrell et al. posted their preprint, The genetic prehistory of southern Africa, to arXiv. Second, out of the Tishkoff lab came Evolutionary History and Adaptation from High-Coverage Whole-Genome Sequences of Diverse African Hunter-Gatherers. Let me step aside here and observe a secondary, but non-trivial, detail. The former is an open access preprint. The second is a complete paper published in a relatively high impact journal, Cell, for which the paper itself does not seem typical or appropriate. This is fair enough, most people do not read journals front to back in this day. But unlike Dr. Joseph Pickrell’s paper the paper in Cell is paywalled, and from what I can tell you can not obtain the supporting information without getting beyond the gate! So if you need that paper, email me and I will send it onward (I would just post it on a server, but I’ve gotten nasty emails from the legal departments of publishers, so I am wary of doing that).
Update: That charlatan David Klinghoffer seems to be enjoying this. As a rule I don’t follow dishonest propagandists, but it’s interesting how appealing this sort of “two sides” story is to Creationists. End Update
Reading this article this morning, DNA and Fossils Tell Differing Tales of Human Origins, really aggravated me. I believe that it’s totally misrepresenting the tensions in the scientific process here, and misleading the public. The standard conflict/”two views” format is used, and to disastrous effect. Here are some of the sections which I found alarming:
The geneticists reached this conclusion, reported on Thursday in the journal Cell, after decoding the entire genome of three isolated hunter-gatherer peoples in Africa, hoping to cast light on the origins of modern human evolution. But the finding is regarded skeptically by some paleoanthropologists because of the absence in the fossil record of anything that would support the geneticists’ statistical calculation….
In a report still under review, a third group of geneticists says there are signs of Neanderthals having interbred with Asians and East Africans. But Neanderthals were a cold-adapted species that never reached East Africa.
Although all known African fossils are of modern humans, a 13,000-year-old skull from the Iwo Eleru site in Nigeria has certain primitive features. “This might have indicated interbreeding with archaics,” said Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London. “For half of Africa we really have no fossil record to speak of, so I think it’s quite likely there were surviving archaic forms living alongside modern humans.”
Paleoanthropologists like Dr. Klein consider it “irresponsible” of the geneticists to publish genetic findings about human origins without even trying to show how they may fit in with the existing fossil and archaeological evidence. Dr. Akey said he agreed that genetics can provide only part of the story. “But hopefully this is just a period when new discoveries are being made and there hasn’t been enough incubation time to synthesize all the disparities,” he said.
Few principles are more depressingly familiar to the veteran scientist: the more surprising a result seems to be, the less likely it is to be true. We cannot know whether, or why, this principle was overlooked in any specific study. However, more generally, in a world in which unexpected results can lead to high-impact publication, acclaim and headlines in The New York Times, it is easy to understand how there might be an overwhelming temptation to move from discovery to manuscript submission without performing the necessary data checks.
This is not just an issue in genomics. I’ve discussed it before as being a major problem in psychology. Though the infamous centenarian study will do nothing for the careers of the scientists involved, I do wonder what the effects of publishing large numbers of false positive results in science are on an individuals’ career when it isn’t so inexpertly executed (i.e., in this particular case the technical errors were so glaring that the authors should never have submitted their findings). I wonder because apparently major newspapers are now running with stories which they know are highly likely to be exaggerations or misrepresentation to induce pageviews, and then subsequently ‘correcting’ them. More specifically, the number of corrections has been rising rapidly.
A few years ago I pointed out that as among American whites religious affiliation was often the best predictor of voting patterns among Asian Americans. The Republican party is for all practical purposes the white Christian party, but the minority of Asian Americans who are conservative Protestants are quite congenial to the Republicans. Their common religion transcends the racial gap. It is also no surprise that the two most prominent Indian American politicians who are Republicans are both avowed Christians (converts). It is unlikely that a non-Christian Indian could achieve national prominence as Republican; they would have two strikes against them, their race and their religion.
Pew’s new report on Asian American religiosity, Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths, highlights this well. American Hindus are stridently partisan Democrats. In contrast, evangelical Asian Americans leaned toward John McCain even in 2008 (though not as much as white evangelicals). People have made comparisons between Indian Americans and Jews before, and in some ways this is facile, but when it comes to socioeconomic status and politics the similarities are striking. Like Jews, American Hindus are well off and well educated. And like Jews they are strongly Democratic. 48 percent of Hindus live in families with incomes of $100,000 or above, and 57 percent have some graduate education. The respective value for all Americans are 16 and 12 percent. This seems to confirm Andrew Gelman’s supposition that it is among high income groups that cultural identity markers are particular relevant.
The Genographic Project is now moving beyond uniparental lineages with Geno 2.0. Spencer Wells kindly invited me to a conference call last month where he outlined a lot of the details, so I’ll hit the salient points for readers of this weblog:
A reader pointed me to this critique of Nick Wades’ telling in The New York Times Reports that the recent Reich et al. paper on Native Americans is a vindication of Joseph Greenberg’s ideas on the languages of the Americas. 90-Year-Old Consensus:
Nicholas Wade’s reported the Reich et al. research in the New York Times (July 11, 2012). Wade treats it as a vindication of a three-way genetic (historical linguistic) distinction among languages of the Americas proposed in Joseph Greenberg’s (1987) book of the same name, although Reich et al. do not cite it in their paper in Nature. (The only reference to Greenberg by Reich et al. is to a paper coauthored with Turner and Zegura and published in 1986 as one of the proponents of the three-way split.) The “vindication” here is entirely Wade’s. The bottom line is that this three-way distinction was known linguistically since the 1920s (for example, Sapir 1921). Basically, it’s a division among the Eskimo-Aleut languages, which straddle the Bering Straits even today, the Athabaskan languages (which were discovered to be related to a small Siberian language family only within the last few years, not by Greenberg as Wade suggested), and everything else. That’s essentially the three-way distinction that is constantly credited to Greenberg. We know of many major linguistic families among the “everything else”, worked out painstakingly through well-established methods, but don’t know how the “everything else” language families are connected to each other on a large-scale level.
Let me add that I am skeptical when someone says that a biological genetic grouping corroborates a historical linguistic grouping or vice versa for a simple reason: genetic material and language are transmitted by different mechanisms (I’ll skip my usual joke about this), so in principle a one-to-one correspondence should be surprising.
First, when I first heard about Greenberg’s system in the late 1990s I chatted up a few people who were involved in the linguistics of Native Americans on the issue. They thought he was full of it, but, they were also pretty much opposed to imposing any real coarse structure on Native American languages, including the model which is claimed to be pretty well known above. My sample could be very unrepresentative. I’ll let readers who know more weigh in (note that I’m skeptical of classifying all the “First American” languages into one group after 15,000 years, even assuming they derive from a common ancestor).
On the other hand, the author caricatures the paper which he discusses by suggesting a “one-to-one correspondence.” In fact, the two non-First American groups are genetic, but not linguistic, hybrids. Additionally, the argument that cultural and genetic transmission differ is specious. Certainly it is true, but the two are also correlated due to the effect of culture and language on marriage networks. This seems common sense, but many social scientists in my experience seem to recoil from any disciplinary integration with genetics, and so totally distinguish the character of cultural heritability and genetic heritability.
Most of these stolen children were entrusted to the care of Catholics loyal to the regime. The aim behind this was to rid an entire people of the “Marxist gene,” at least according to the theories of Antonio Vallejo-Nájera, the national psychiatrist of Francoist Spain, that were widespread at the time.
More accurately it should be Marxist meme. But it brings up the question of looking into the correlation between the traits of biological parents and their long-lost children.
There has been some discussion in the comments why the posts on inbreeding are getting so much attention. I think this is a milder form of the same sort of curiosity about why young males have a fascination with pornography: we are obsessed with sex. This is not an arbitrary fascination, nor is it a loss of innocence which may have been avoided. Sex is our raison d’etre as sexual organisms. Evolutionary psychology gets a bad reputation for positing adaptive explanations for everything under the sun, from dancing to migraines. But, if there is anything which is the target of adaptive constraint and selective pressures, it is the suite of traits which relate to sex and mating in a direction fashion. It is sometimes stated that sex is about power, but the bigger reality is that power is about sex.
But reducing human behavior purely to one explanatory framework is too reductive even for me. An individualist framework where singular males and females operate as evolutionary versions of rational H. economicus, always optimizing fitness through subterfuge and inducement, leaves something to be desired in characterizing the true rich tapestry of human behavior. And this tapestry is not arbitrary; rather, its general shape and topography is anchored by particular innate parameters.
I need to rationalize my process of modulating the stream of comments I get. Toward that end I am going to be posting an “open thread” once every week (I’ve scheduled the next month already). If you have the urge to leave an off-topic comment on a post immediately, just put it here. You can of course contact me, but I understand that is often suboptimal, insofar as you may wish for input from other readers. Because this option is available I am inclined to simply delete off-topic comments more aggressively now, with repeated violations resulting in banning.
The nature of the restrictions of the comments are relatively loose on this post. You should maintain some decorum as usual. But you can post links, ask me or other readers questions, etc.
Nathaniel Pearson has an eminently readable post up on human effective population sizes. If you don’t know the importance of harmonic means in this domain, worth a read. He finishes though with an issue of practical importance, the proliferation of individually deleterious alleles at the large census sizes we see us today:
Along the way, our changing population size may shape public health in complex ways. In particular, a key question will be what happens to the likely sizable subset of newly arisen rare variants that pose health risks to people who carry them. As our population continues to skyrocket, more such variants will come into our midst.
At the same time, continued population growth should ultimately help natural selection purge such variants more efficiently than it can in a small population (where chance dominates the fate of variants, harmful or not).
But, to the extent that our future population growth itself depends on further advances in healthcare, we’ll also be altering the regime of such natural selection, ideally relaxing it in ways that help people live healthier lives no matter what variants they carry in their genomes.
As Mark Ridley observed in The Cooperative Gene natural operates in utero as well. Even assuming that natural selection is not purging deleterious alleles with great efficiency today, high human miscarriage rates are going to serve as a counterbalance to better healthcare for the genetically less fit.*
* On the order of ~50% of pregnancies miscarry, with the majority being cryptic, as women may not have known that fertilization occurred due to failure of implantation or problems in the first month).
The standard argument for why there is aversion to incest among humans as matter of innate disposition is the Westermarck effect, which is a model where aversion to mating emerges if you are raised with an individual of the opposite sex. Some basic illustrations are sketched out in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. But some comments below make me wonder if there is are alternative explanations. Robin Fox has made the claim, repeated in many places, that cousin marriage was ubiquitous in the human past:
This is probably relevant if you have a blog or run a webzine of some sort. It’ll be much more abstract if you are a commenter, and can’t relate concretely to weirdo creeps who persistently spam your comments and contact you via email. In relation to bloggingheads.tv my own two primary complaints from my experience on that web-show: