H. sapiens sailermoon?
I’m somewhat interested in genetics and evolution, to engage in a bit of understatement. My friends know this, so whenever a genetics and evolution themed story or meme explodes in the media they ask me about it. A large fraction of the time I get irritated, because the media often grasps upon very sensational nuggets, distorts them out of shape, and makes genuine understanding difficult. A few weeks ago it was the story of an artist being able to reconstruct portraits from DNA, credulously reported by NPR and The Smithsonian. As someone who tries to keep up on the latest genetic research in forensic genetics I knew the media depictions of what this individual was doing were simply not realistic. Either the artist in question was a fraud, or the media was engaging in conscious or unconscious misrepresentation and conflation. If Matthew Herper’s reporting is correct, and I see no reason to doubt it, seems more likely the latter than the former. Before that there was the genius Chinese babies meme, the robustness of which is attested to by its interjection into the Geoffrey Miller saga (an update was offered, but it is still notable that the original sensationalism has had more legs than subsequent corrections of that sensationalism). Finally, today there emerged a bizarre critique of weblogs over at Current Biology, which was nicely satirized by Christie Wilcox. It always strikes me as rich when institutions which still publish in print and have reasonable overhead costs (e.g. editors) make a big show of their oversight, but due to their power and prominence they are often invariably the exact sort of organization which is perfectly placed to launch a ridiculous meme in the first place!
The genetics and history of Tibet are fascinating to many. To be honest the primary reason here is elevation. The Tibetan plateau has served as a fortress for populations who have adapted biologically and culturally to the extreme conditions. Naturally this means that there has been a fair amount of population genetics on Tibetans, as hypoxia is a side effect of high altitude living which dramatically impacts fitness. I have discussed papers on this topic before. And I will probably talk more about it in the future, considering rumblings at ASHG 2012.
But to understand the character of the effect of natural selection on a population it is often very important to keep in mind the phylogenetic context. By this, I mean that evolutionary processes occur over history, and those historical events shape the course of subsequent of phenomena. Concretely, to understand how the Tibetans came to be adapted to high altitudes one must understand who they are related to, and what their long term history is. There is a paper in Molecular Biology and Evolution which attempts to do just that, Genetic evidence of Paleolithic colonization and Neolithic expansion of modern humans on the Tibetan Plateau:
For the past year or so I’ve been getting queries about what I think about Eran Elhaik’s preprint on the genetic character of European Jews. I found some of the conclusions frankly a little weird, but I assumed that things would be cleaned up for publication. Well, it’s been out for a while now: The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses. But some reporting in The Jewish Daily Forward has brought the author and his detractors a bit into the spotlight. The reason is that as you can tell from the title of the author takes a position on the Khazarian origin model of Ashkenazi Jews (in favor). Here is a non-genetic take over at GeoCurrents, the thrust of which I basically concur with.
In any case, many of the problems with the paper remain. Really it all begins and ends here:
National Geographic has an interesting article up, unoriginally titled Australia’s Aboriginals. There are lots of great data in there, though not much novel for anyone who has tread this territory before. For example, Aboriginals tend to have much lower morbidity and mortality when they are living their “traditional” lifestyle. This isn’t a particular novel or surprising outcome. Rather, it seems like a supercharged version of the same problem which occurs when immigrants move from developing to developed societies, and shift toward massive portions and processed food. This modern regime is even impacting native born segments of America’s population in a negative manner. Interesting and true.
But what concerns me is the background assumption that Aboriginals are timeless and static, arriving ~50,000 years ago from Sundaland, and remaining in a stasis. My issue isn’t normative. And I’m fascinated by the inferences some archaeologists have made about the continuity of specific motifs in Aboriginal art. Additionally, from what I understand the material culture of Aboriginals is especially changeless in relation to other populations in the world. But one thing we know about H. sapiens is that cultural forms of expression are quite protean, especially symbolic aspects which might not preserve too well. Would the Aboriginals of Australia be immune from this? I doubt it.
Kevin Mitchell of Wiring the Brain has a very long post up inveighing against the specter of eugenics. I don’t have a great deal of time to engage Kevin right now.* But in addition to Kevin’s post I highly recommend this episode of WBUR’s On Point. It has Steve Hsu on, and he articulates many of the positions that I myself hold. Steve’s work with BGI has triggered the latest discussion of eugenics thanks to Vice‘s sensational representation of the research project and its aims. But it’s a useful discussion to engage in, even if the starting point is a little unfortunate.
I will state though Kevin’s argument seems to be predicated on the implicit assumption that his interlocutors hold to some sort of Platonic ideal of the most-perfect-human. There’s no such thing obviously, and even those who sympathized with eugenic policies such as W. D. Hamilton rejected this notion at the end of the day. Rather, human traits are evaluated in terms of how they serve the flourishing of individuals and society according to understood values. Intelligence is generally assumed to benefit individuals, and, I believe that it benefits society as well through innovation. Innovation drives the productivity growth which is the foundation of our post-Malthusian age.
Standard apologies that I have had not the marginal time to blog much, but I thought it was important that I least note that Dr. Peter Ralph and Dr. Graham Coop’s paper on identity-by-descent segments and European populations and history is out in its final form in PLoS Biology, The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe. I’ve been familiar with the outlines of these results for about a year now, and to be frank I am still digesting them. The media hype will come and go, with true but to some extent trivial headlines that “all Europeans are related,” but the consequences of these sorts of genetic inquiries into the relatedness of populations are going to be long lasting. At least they should be.
But before I go on about that, if you find the paper itself a bit daunting (though the main body of the text strikes me as eminently readable for a piece of statistical genetics), see Carl Zimmer’s condensation. With this sort of result there is liable to be confusion, so note that Graham Coop has been posting comments on Carl’s blog (and elsewhere, and you can always send him a note on Twitter). Additionally he has a very readable FAQ out. Dr. Coop told me on Twitter that there would even be updates tomorrow as well! In particular one aspect of the paper which I noticed is that most relatively short, but detectable segments (~10 cM), between any two individuals in many nationalities is not going to be evidence of recent genealogical affinities, but deeper historical process.
Yesterday I pointed to a paper which was interesting enough, but didn’t pass the smell test in relation to other evidence we have (at least in my opinion!). A primary concern was the fact that uniparental (male and female lineages) show a peculiar distribution of variation in comparison to autosomal genetic variation (i.e., the vast majority of the genome) in the case of Europe (genome-wide analysis suggest more of Europe’s variation is partitioned north-south, but Y and mtDNA results often imply an east-west split). But a secondary concern I had was that I felt the models were a bit too stylized. In particular following Cavalli-Sforza and Ammerman the authors concluded that demic diffusion better fits their results of genetic variation in Europe (as opposed to continuity of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers). This is likely correct, but these are not the only two models.
A paper out in Nature Communications, using analysis of the phylogenetics of whole ancient mitchondrial genomes, outlines my primary concern when it comes to the models being tested, Neolithic mitochondrial haplogroup H genomes and the genetic origins of Europeans:
Haplogroup H dominates present-day Western European mitochondrial DNA variability (>40%), yet was less common (~19%) among Early Neolithic farmers (~5450 BC) and virtually absent in Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Here we investigate this major component of the maternal population history of modern Europeans and sequence 39 complete haplogroup H mitochondrial genomes from ancient human remains. We then compare this ‘real-time’ genetic data with cultural changes taking place between the Early Neolithic (~5450 BC) and Bronze Age (~2200 BC) in Central Europe. Our results reveal that the current diversity and distribution of haplogroup H were largely established by the Mid Neolithic (~4000 BC), but with substantial genetic contributions from subsequent pan-European cultures such as the Bell Beakers expanding out of Iberia in the Late Neolithic (~2800 BC). Dated haplogroup H genomes allow us to reconstruct the recent evolutionary history of haplogroup H and reveal a mutation rate 45% higher than current estimates for human mitochondria.
I read John Horgan’s The End of War a few month ago now, but I haven’t gotten around to saying much about it. Part of the problem is that I don’t know what to think. It’s a small book which manages to wander in many different directions, and the primary focus is Horgan’s mantra that war is not an inevitable fact of the human condition. Since I agree with that proposition much of the argumentation was lost on me.
And yet there is one aspect of the book which was notable: a disputation of the Richard Wrangham’s work in Demonic Males. I’m still quite a fan of Wrangham’s thesis, but over the years I’ve become much more skeptical of one of the primary methods he employs: extrapolation from another ape (in his case, chimpanzees). Similarly, I’m also skeptical of those who claim that we’re more more like bonobos (here’s looking at you Frans de Waal). No, we’re human beings, and our common ancestor with other apes may have been very different from all the descendant lineages. Our cousins are informative and interesting, but we shouldn’t confuse ourselves for our cousins.
Update: First, people coming to this weblog for the first time should know that I moderate comments. So if you leave an obnoxious one it’s basically like an email to me (no one will see it). Second, the correlation between height and intelligence is not that high. This association is probably not going to be intuitively visible to anyone, but rather only shows up in large data sets. So please stop offering yourself as a counter-example of the trend (also, the key is to look within families, because the signal here is going to be swamped by other factors when you compare across populations). Third, a friend has sent me another paper which does confirm that even within sibling cohorts there does seem to be a correlation between height and I.Q. The problem is that it is a very small one, so you need large data sets with a lot of power to see it.
One moderately interesting social science finding is that there is a positive correlation between height and measured intelligence (e.g., on an I.Q. test). Setting aside the possibility that I.Q. tests designs are culturally biased against shorter people, one wonders why this is so. Height is a highly heritable trait where most of the variation within the population is due to variation as numerous genes. In other words, there isn’t a “tall” or “short” gene, but thousands and thousands of variants which shape the variation of the trait across the population. When I say it is highly heritable, I mean to imply that most of the variation in height in developed societies is due to genes (80-90%). As it happens intelligence is somewhat similar in its genetic architecture, heritable due to small effects across many genes. In general estimates for the heritability of intelligence tend to be somewhat lower, on the order of ~50% rather than 80-90%.
It is due to the highly polygenic nature that both of these traits have been posited as candidates for a “good genes” model of sexual selection. Presumably individuals with a higher mutational load will have lower intelligence and be shorter, all things equal, because these traits have extensive genome-wide coverage and are big targets. Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, was predicated on this logic. If the mutational load argument holds then the reduced I.Q. of shorter individuals may simply be due to the same cause: “bad genes.”
I remember the specific moment when I was 13 that I became aware of the 1950s hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. I’m rather sure I heard it before, but it didn’t penetrate my consciousness. But as we all know puberty changes things, and the idea of love becomes more comprehensible. As I’ve grown older I’ve also started to ponder the lyrics a bit more. Not out of any sense of sensitivity toward music criticism, but because of the evolutionary implications. Here are some relevant sections:
Another Neandertal paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. But, because there is a delay between when the press is released to talk about it, and when it goes live, I haven’t gotten a look at the primary material. There’s a lot of juicy stuff in this piece at NBC Science though, Brain comparison suggests that Neanderthals lacked social skills. The two scientists giving quotes, Chris Stringer and Robin Dunbar, know their stuff (one of Dunbar’s graduate students also contributed heavily). In case you don’t know Stringer, he is the paleoanthropologist who was most forceful in pushing for the “Out of Africa” model. Dunbar is the popularizer of Dunbar’s number. I’m assuming Stringer brings the anatomy to the game, while Dunbar frames the bigger theoretical picture. Basically the morphology of the cranium implies that Neandertals may have allocated more of their cognitive capacity to vision and coordination, and less to social activities (because there’s not as much room for the latter). This explains how Neandertals could have a larger cranial capacity than modern humans (they did, though so did Ice Age modern humans) but be somewhat less “intelligent” than us (regular readers know I’m not a big fan of scare quotes for intelligence, but in this case I think it’s warranted).
An email from a long time correspondent who recounts some graduate school interview experiences:
Hi, Razib. Last week I attended a 2-day long interview for grad school, during which I spoke with about 15 faculty, all of whom were biological anthropologists, though of varying specialities. During these informal meetings, the topic of bio vs cultural anthropology came up a few times and a couple of professors spoke very candidly about the divide that exists between the two disciplines and their desire to have bio anthropology split from the rest of anthro. A very common argument was the one you’ve made: that many cultural anthropologists have become glorified activists. This sort of ran counter to the attitude I encountered during my undergrad [identifying information redacted] wherein a ‘four field’ approach was pumped up. I thought this was an interesting little quirk. Basically, when bio anthropologists are amongst only their own (the grad program is separate from the 3 other subfields), they speak openly about the need for separation from cultural anthro because of the latter’s non-scientific ways, but when some of those same bio anthropologists are in the same building as their cultural anthro colleagues, they tout a holistic approach to the field as a whole. I suppose this is to cultivate a positive attitude in the young minds of students interested in all subfields, but it doesn’t seem crazy to think it could have a little bit to do with cultural anthro’s domination of department politics.
Anyway, long story short: your name popped up! It was referenced by a paleoanthropologist who was particularly keen on bashing of cultural anthro. I just thought it was a little amusing and that you should know that the biological anthropologists are with you! Although, I’m sure you know that based on the twitter conversation you had with John Hawks the other day.
The broader concept of finding “patterns of culture” isn’t worthless. And I’m pretty sure that the biological anthropologists above wouldn’t be ashamed to be on the same faculty as someone like Joe Heinrich, who is asking serious questions with sound and transparent methods. Then there is someone like Michael Scroggins, who can write with a straight face that “in this conception, a gene is more rhetorical topic than scientific fact”, who makes a big point of pointing out that I used the term gene in a singular. Are there really people who reduce everything to linguistic analysis? Why yes! Cato had the right of it in some ways. Perhaps sadder is the fact that Scroggins’ ruminations are awesomely persuasive to his colleagues. I’ll leave you a typical example of “Scrogging”:
Over at Ethnography.com a late response to my post Against the cultural anthropologists from someone named Michael Scroggins. He accuses me of being “The hyperbolic leader in this round of hippie bashing.” That’s a defensible proposition, but speaking of hyperbole, he says:
The paradigm that informs Chagnon, Diamond and their chorus of supporters in the blogosphere is an adherence to the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology. To be more specific, they are both, more or less, sociobiologists who believe in genetic determinism.
First, the way cultural anthropologists use the term “genetic determinism” is similar to the way propagandists bandy about the terms “fascism” and “communism.” They’re usually not descriptions of real individuals or movements in the modern age, but point to a reality which connotes a particular odious intellectual flavor worthy of shunning, shaming, and asphyxiating. More precisely, there are almost no “genetic determinists” as such who adhere to the proposition that genes determine in some physics-like manner the specific manifestation of human nature. Rather, genes matter, just as culture matters.
The accusation of being a genetic determinist is clearly off the mark for Chagnon, and even less of Jared Diamond (who has written whole books centered upon the premise of biological egalitarianism and the overwhelming power of environmental conditions on the course of human affairs!). Even in the case of Chagnon, a self-identified sociobiologist, the accusation of genetic determinism is a matter of rhetorical flash and slander, the stock and trade of modern cultural anthropology. In Nobles Savages he recounts that his great antagonist Marvin Harris repeatedly references the lie that Chagnon believed in a “gene for war.” This is a lie because Chagnon repeatedly challenged this characterization, but Harris and his fellow travelers apparently repeated the accusation because of its rhetorical bite even when corrected on the record. This seems plausible because a self-described hippie, John Horgan, has reported that not only does Chagnon reject the idea of a gene for war, but believes that war is a cultural artifact! (Horgan wrote about his encounter with Chagnon in The End of War).
And yet the most interesting aspect of the post above is the long rumination on the nature of the gene.
When I read Genome-Wide Diversity in the Levant Reveals Recent Structuring by Culture in PLoS Genetics last week, one of my thoughts was “where is the tree”? Thankfully all the data is online, so I simply ran TreeMix on it. After a number of runs I know understand perhaps why there is no figure emphasizing a tree. There just isn’t that much informative yield from what I can tell, though the basic inference from the paper is recapitulated. You can see the results in the figure above, from one of my TreeMix runs. Overall, what this paper reinforces is that there are sharp genetic distinctions across ethno-religious boundaries within the modern Middle East which confound attempts to use geography to predict variation.
I encountered Joe Henrich’s work about 10 years ago. As a fellow traveler of Robert Boyd, and admired by Dan Sperber, none of this is coincidental. These are the sorts of cultural anthropologists who I can understand in my bones. Benearth the jargon there is no attempt at signalling artifice. For a taste of Henrich’s research, see the anthology Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies. For those who prefer more theoretical heft, The Origin and Evolution of Cultures will satisfy you (Not by Genes Alone is a popularized condensed form of this book).
If you haven’t heard of Henrich & his colleagues, you’ve heard of their work. They’re behind the popularization of W.E.I.R.D., “Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic.” The concept refers to the fact that much of psychology consists of observations and experiments on exactly such populations, and then extrapolation from those results to make general assertions as to the character of human nature. This is a very popular and widely known idea that crops up in everyday conversation. I’ve been patronizingly lectured about it numerous times by individuals who perceive that I’m being too insensitive about some barbarous cultural practice (in my personal communication I don’t make it a secrete that I prefer small-l liberal Western values; there’s no shame in W.E.I.R.D.ness). Speaking of insensitivity it seems Henrich was accused of exactly such early on in his career by the usual suspects:
Again, Chagnon, Sahlins, and science:
When we allow personal ideological bias rule to our scholarly work, we limit the value of our research to answer real questions and to contribute to broader social and scientific debates. If you have an ideological axe to grind, either leave scholarship and go into politics, or else find ways to achieve a level of scholarly objectivity in your research and writing. (yeah, I know, the postmodernists are going to smirk about how naive I am to even use the word “objectivity.” Check out my past posts on epistemology; one can employ objective methods and maintain an overall level of objectivity while admitting that the world is messy and researchers are never free of preconceptions or bias.).
To paraphrase John Hawks, “I think its time to reclaim the name ‘archaeology” from past generations.” We have lots of data and ideas to contribute to major scholarly and public debates today, but too often our writing and epistemological stance work against any wider relevance.
For various reasons cool detachment is harder in anthropology, nor should it always be employed. But the pretense and striving for detachment is an essential part of science (coupled with curiosity and passion about the subject of interest). A counterpoint can be found in the comments below:
I read Noble Savages, Napoleon Chagnon‘s memoir, last week. There isn’t much to say about this book that’s revelatory, but it definitely was a page turner. As far as my personal tastes go there was a little too much autobiography, and not enough science, in Noble Savages. But it’s a long work, so in absolute terms there’s a lot of science to dig into if you want to skim over the personal sections (frankly, I had a hard time keeping all the various tribes and individuals straight). There have been many reviews of Noble Savages since it came out last week. If you haven’t read the profile in The New York Time Magazine, I advise you to do so right now. At Scientific American John Horgan put up a post which illustrates how Chagnon has become a sort of token in the tribal wars between scientists (or scientists and no-scientists). You can see this in two reviews at The New York Times, one which consists of an extended sneer from a professor of cultural anthropology and gender studies, Elizabeth Povinelli, while the second treatment from Nicholas Wade reads almost as a panegyric. Charles C. Mann navigates the middle path in his review, being critical in some instances, but by and large praising the memoir.
Just pre-ordered a Kindle Edition of Napoleon Chagnon‘s new book Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. I didn’t even know this was coming out next week, but The New York Times Magazine has a piece up, The Indiana Jones of Anthropology, which chronicles the controversial the life & times of Chagnon. My previous posts about cultural anthropology were written with no knowledge about the impending publication of this article, or Napoleon Chagnon’s memoir. But the timing is fortuitous. One complaint by rightfully enraged cultural anthropologists (I didn’t deny that I was attacking their profession in the most extreme terms) is that I didn’t really offer an argument. As I said, the reason is that life is short and I’m not interested in convincing anyone.
But here’s a section of the article above which reflects just what I was alluding to:
In light of my two jeremiads against cultural anthropology, some readers may be curious if I have any positive vision, in the sense of any alternative model. To get a sense of my own orientation, Explaining Culture by Dan Sperber and The Origin and Evolution of Cultures by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd would be sufficient (Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust has been highly influential in my thought, but it is a rather dense work whose central topic may not be of interest to everyone). If books are not to your liking, see the resources at the Culture and Cognition Institute. Just to be explicit, an understanding of evolution or genetics is not necessary to gain a first order understanding of the nature of the phenomenon of human culture, but cognition is. When I say cognition, I mean the cognitive revolution and its rivals. An anthropology which binds disparate aggregate social phenomena and explains the variation which we see to any satisfaction must be rooted in what we know of the science of the mind.
My post below on Jared Diamond and his cultural anthropological critics has attracted a fair amount of attention (e.g., see the Twitter re-tweets of the post). But first I’d like to admit that I think it was wrong in its specific thrust. Though I’ve seen Stephen Corry of Survival International referred to as an anthropologist, he’s certainly not an academic. Corry is an explicit and open advocate, as is Jonathan Mazower. The Guardian piece which I linked to also was not entirely clear on this point. In other words, the example in that article was not particularly relevant to my broader thesis. But overall my position remains unchanged, because The Guardian was not presented as evidence, but an illustration of a trend which I have long commented upon. Many of the academics who re-tweeted my post focused on the assertion that “cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.” Those who agree with my position understand exactly why I would say this.