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:
A few years ago Malcolm Gladwell made the “10,000 hour rule” famous in his book Outliers. In practice (e.g., discussions with people day to day or on this blog) the rule gets translated into the inference “practice is what matters.” When talking about genetics this often implicitly also entails that “genes don’t matter.” I’m not saying that this is necessarily what Gladwell’s own exposition taken literally would suggest, but ideas have a way of evolving once they’re outside of the pages of a book.
My own response is that this sort of rhetorical device is silly. In domains of virtuosity the intersection of innate talent and conscientiousness are often critical. That’s because for outstanding excellence gains on the extreme margin of performance are critical. There are many born with talent, and those who hone and refine that talent will have an edge over those who do not exhibit the same work ethic. But the converse is that there are those born without talent for whom 10,000 hours of invested effort is lunacy.
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.
The genetics of schizophrenia is a fertile if fraught topic. But I won’t be discussing that in this post. Rather, I want to put the spotlight on a peculiar contradictory and illogical tendency in the contemporary American Zeitgeist: the gene is all-powerful, and the gene is irrelevant. The same people who raise eyebrows with skepticism about the heritability of endophenotypes, nevertheless seem to believe that when it comes to the domain of disease genes are perfectly and frighteningly predictive! I know scientifically educated people who have expressed to me their confidence in the power of nurture, as opposed to nature, in the determination of the character of their potential offspring. And yet these same individuals may express serious worry that genetic testing might render the whole field of health insurance null and void. The problem with this perspective is that it is a robust behavior genetic finding that many traits have substantial heritable components. That is, the correlation between parent and offspring in a trait (e.g., personality) is not simply a function of environmental input. Similarly, for many diseases which have a biological basis the predictive value of a given set of genes, or even family history, is often imperfect. Biological development has a strong random component, which we can’t predict or control. This is true even for environmental inputs as well; there are people who have never smoked who die of lung cancer.
I was reviewing some literature for a blog-post-to-come and I noticed a figure in a paper I’ve long been aware of which indicates to me that Afrikaners surely have a non-trivial proportion of non-European ancestry. The paper is Population differences of two coding SNPs in pigmentation-related genes SLC24A5 and SLC45A2. It’s a forensics result. Basically SLC24A5 is useful for differentiating West Eurasians from Africans and East Asians, Amerindians, and Oceanians. But it is not too useful in distinguishing between West Eurasians. The “European” derived variant SNP within this locus is actually present at ~50% frequency as far south and east as India. In contrast, the “European” derived variant of SLC45A2 decreases much more rapidly outside of Europe, so it is a more plausible European-diagnostic-marker.
The figure below illustrates the results from the paper:
Bears are big deal today. I’ve talked about this before, so I won’t belabor the point in this post. Rather, I want to persuade you that there’s a really interesting paper out in PLOS Genetics right now, Genomic Evidence for Island Population Conversion Resolves Conflicting Theories of Polar Bear Evolution. I know that seems like a mouthful, and despite the fact that I nodded to the reality that this is highly relevant in part because of policy concerns, the paper itself makes salient the reality that oftentimes we are confronted with the juxtposition between useful abstractions and the empirical shape of the world. In this case the abstraction is that of species, the one taxonomic category which many people find to be a natural kind, so to speak. These sorts of confusions of our expectations are often highly informative. They illustrate the limits of our abstractions, and drive us toward more complex and/or elegant formalisms which are capable of modeling nature as it is, rather than as it we wish it would be.
This is a follow up to my post from yesterday. In case you care about the technical details (after I clean this stuff up I will put it on GitHub) I’m using R’s adehabitat package to create a 95% distribution curve after smoothing with kernel density. The goal is to give you a better intuition about where the populations are dispersed across two dimensional visualizations of genetic variation.
Thinking about how to plot text, I came up with a quick hack, which just used the initial data and found the median x and y position. That explains why some of the labels are shifted so, in populations with a huge range the label position is going to be sensitive to not being smoothed (if you know how to pull out the centroid out of the kver, tell!). I’ve given them colors and also used black. The latter actually seems to be clearer!
Note: This is not just for fun, as I plan to start rolling out results and methods from some of the data sets I have more regularly in the near future.
I’ve been thinking about how best to visualize PCA/MDS type of results, which allow for the two dimensional representation of genetic variation. Below are a few of my efforts with a data set I have. You can see the individuals in gray, but also ellipses which cover ~95% of the distribution of a given population.
Please click the images for a larger version. They represent coordinate 1 on the y axis and 2 on the z axis derive from a multidimesional scaling representing identity by state across individuals.
A reader points me to a talk given by David Reich at the Center for Human Genetic Research 2013 Retreat. One of the issues Reich brought up is old, but perhaps worth reemphasizing: due to endogamy many South Asians carry a higher load of recessive ailments. This is not due to recent inbreeding (which is barred by custom in many South Asian groups, which enforce kin-level exogamy), but long term genetic isolation. Over time even a moderate sized population can be affected by drift. This was one of the major points in the 2009 paper Reconstructing Indian History, but not one particularly emphasized in the press follow up. A major implication is that a relatively simple public health measure for South Asians would be to marry outside of their jati. The social or genetic distance need not be great. But one generation of outbreeding should “mask” many of the deleterious alleles. If this model is correct one should be able to track decreases in morbidity within the American South Asian population, where there are many inter-caste and inter-regional marriages (yes, this is between people of putative high status, but this doesn’t matter).
Most people in South Asia speak one of two varieties of language, Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. These two are not particularly closely related. Indo-Aryan is an Indo-European language, as is evident in the plethora of obvious cognates with other Indo-European dialects. I have a minimal fluency in Bengali, the easternmost of the Indo-European languages, and quite a bit more fluency with English, one of the most westernmost, and it was evident to me rather early on (e.g., grass vs. gash, man vs. manush, nose vs. nak). In contrast to me Dravidian languages are peculiar because the accent and cadence are clearly South Asian, but they are utterly impenetrable (though there are many loan words into Indo-Aryan from Dravidian).
In the links below I alluded to a controversy over the “Neurodiversity movement”. The basic issue is that people with Asperger syndrome and high functioning autism are being accused of putting their concerns above and beyond those of the large number of mentally disabled autistic individuals (some of whom are non-verbal, and exhibit severe cognitive deficits) in the grab for “rights.” Rights here understood as the rights which black Americans, women, and gays have claimed, to be recognized as equal before the law and endowed with the same value in the eyes of society. As a deep philosophical matter I’m skeptical of Rights in a fundamental sense. As a conservative I’m skeptical of the push for a huge array of rights by a plethora identity groups. Socially recognized rights are valuable, and are cheapened and debased by dispensing them too liberally.
While reading The Founders of Evolutionary Genetics I encountered a chapter where the late James F. Crow admitted that he had a new insight every time he reread R. A. Fisher’s The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. This prompted me to put down The Founders of Evolutionary Genetics after finishing Crow’s chapter and pick up my copy of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. I’ve read it before, but this is as good a time as any to give it another crack.
Almost immediately Fisher aims at one of the major conundrums of 19th century theory of Darwinian evolution: how was variation maintained? The logic and conclusions strike you like a hammer. Charles Darwin and most of his contemporaries held to a blending model of inheritance, where offspring reflect a synthesis of their parental values. As it happens this aligns well with human intuition. Across their traits offspring are a synthesis of their parents. But blending presents a major problem for Darwin’s theory of adaptation via natural selection, because it erodes the variation which is the raw material upon which selection must act. It is a famously peculiar fact that the abstraction of the gene was formulated over 50 years before the concrete physical embodiment of the gene, DNA, was ascertained with any confidence. In the first chapter of The Genetical Theory R. A. Fisher suggests that the logical reality of persistent copious heritable variation all around us should have forced scholars to the inference that inheritance proceeded via particulate and discrete means, as these processes do not diminish variation indefinitely in the manner which is entailed by blending.
There’s an interesting piece in Slate, The Great Schism in the Environmental Movement, which seems to be a distillation of trends which have been bubbling within the modern environmentalist movement for a generation now (I’ve read earlier manifestos in a similar vein). I can’t assess the magnitude of the shift, but here’s the top-line:
But that is a false construct that scientists and scholars have been demolishing the past few decades. Besides, there’s a growing scientific consensus that the contemporary human footprint—our cities, suburban sprawl, dams, agriculture, greenhouse gases, etc.—has so massively transformed the planet as to usher in a new geological epoch. It’s called the Anthropocene.
Modernist greens don’t dispute the ecological tumult associated with the Anthropocene. But this is the world as it is, they say, so we might as well reconcile the needs of people with the needs of nature. To this end, Kareiva advises conservationists to craft “a new vision of a planet in which nature—forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems—exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes.”
In the post below I offered up my supposition that Dan MacArthur’s ancestry is unlikely to be Northwest Indian, which precludes a Romani origin for his South Asian ancestry. Indeed this is almost certainly so, Dienekes Pontikos followed up my crude analyses with IBD-sharing calculations (IBD = ‘identity by descent,’ which is basically what you would think it is). The South Asian population which MacArthur has the closest affinity to is from Karnataka, which is one of the Dravidian speaking states of the South. This does not necessarily refute my earlier contention, as aside from Brahmins most Bengalis seem to have broad South Indian affinities, except for the fact that they often have more East Asian ancestry.
Most people are aware that altitude imposes constraints on individual performance and function. Much of this is flexible; athletes who train at high altitudes may gain a performance edge. But over the long term there are costs, just as there are with computers which are ‘overclocked.’ This is the point where you make the transition from physiology to evolution. Residence at high altitude entails strong selective pressures on populations. Over the past few years there has been a great deal of exploration of the genetics of long resident high altitude groups, the Tibetans, Peruvians, and Ethiopians.
In many cases there are questions of a historical and ethnographic nature which are subject to controversy and debate. Scholarly arguments are laid out, and further dispute ensues. For decades progress seems fleeting, as one hypothesis is accepted, only to be subject to later revision. This sort of pattern gives succor to the most cynical and jaded of ‘Post Modern’ set, especially when the ‘discourse’ in question is in the domain of science.
But thankfully these debates can come to an end in some cases. So it is with the origins of the European Romani, better known as ‘Gypsies’ (though the Roma are the most well known of the Romani, other groups within Europe have different ethnonyms). Obviously many of the basic elements have long been there, but I think the most recent genetic work now establishes a level of closure. Taking a step back, what do we know?
1) The Romani language seems to be Indo-Aryan, with a likely affinity with the northwest group of Indo-Aryan languages
2) The Romani presence in Europe only dates to the past ~1,000 years, with an entry point in the Byzantine Empire
3) They are an admixture between an ancestral Indian element, and local populations
4) Their history of endogamy has resulted in a strong genetic drift effect
The two papers which seem to nail the coffin shut on these questions use somewhat different methodologies. One relies on Y chromosomal STRs (hypervariable repeat regions) to generate a paternal phylogeny. Focusing just on the paternal phylogeny allows for one to make very robust genealogical inferences. Additionally, the authors had a very large data set across India. Their goal was to ascertain the exact region of origin of the Romani before they left India. As noted in bullet #1 there is already some evidence from their language that this must be in northwest India. The second paper uses a SNP-chip; hundreds of thousands of autosomal markers. This has been done to death for other populations, so the method isn’t new. Rather, it is that it is now being applied to the Romani.
First, the Y chromosomal paper. The Phylogeography of Y-Chromosome Haplogroup H1a1a-M82 Reveals the Likely Indian Origin of the European Romani Populations:
Linguistic and genetic studies on Roma populations inhabited in Europe have unequivocally traced these populations to the Indian subcontinent. However, the exact parental population group and time of the out-of-India dispersal have remained disputed. In the absence of archaeological records and with only scanty historical documentation of the Roma, comparative linguistic studies were the first to identify their Indian origin. Recently, molecular studies on the basis of disease-causing mutations and haploid DNA markers (i.e. mtDNA and Y-chromosome) supported the linguistic view. The presence of Indian-specific Y-chromosome haplogroup H1a1a-M82 and mtDNA haplogroups M5a1, M18 and M35b among Roma has corroborated that their South Asian origins and later admixture with Near Eastern and European populations. However, previous studies have left unanswered questions about the exact parental population groups in South Asia. Here we present a detailed phylogeographical study of Y-chromosomal haplogroup H1a1a-M82 in a data set of more than 10,000 global samples to discern a more precise ancestral source of European Romani populations. The phylogeographical patterns and diversity estimates indicate an early origin of this haplogroup in the Indian subcontinent and its further expansion to other regions. Tellingly, the short tandem repeat (STR) based network of H1a1a-M82 lineages displayed the closest connection of Romani haplotypes with the traditional scheduled caste and scheduled tribe population groups of northwestern India.
Two trees illustrate the results succinctly:
The bottom line:
- This particular Y chromosomal lineage which is highly diagnostic of South Asian origin in the Romani shows that the Romani seem to derive from the populations of northwest India
- Additionally, within these populations the Romani Y chromosomal lineages derive from the lower caste elements, the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes
But the above results don’t get directly at genome-wide admixture. The second paper does, using hundreds of thousands of markers to explore the Romani affinity to other populations. Reconstructing the Population History of European Romani from Genome-wide Data:
The Romani, the largest European minority group with approximately 11 million people…constitute a mosaic of languages, religions, and lifestyles while sharing a distinct social heritage. Linguistic…and genetic…studies have located the Romani origins in the Indian subcontinent. However, a genome-wide perspective on Romani origins and population substructure, as well as a detailed reconstruction of their demographic history, has yet to be provided. Our analyses based on genome-wide data from 13 Romani groups collected across Europe suggest that the Romani diaspora constitutes a single initial founder population that originated in north/northwestern India ∼1.5 thousand years ago (kya). Our results further indicate that after a rapid migration with moderate gene flow from the Near or Middle East, the European spread of the Romani people was via the Balkans starting ∼0.9 kya. The strong population substructure and high levels of homozygosity we found in the European Romani are in line with genetic isolation as well as differential gene flow in time and space with non-Romani Europeans. Overall, our genome-wide study sheds new light on the origins and demographic history of European Romani.
The plot to the left illustrates the relationship of the Romani to world-wide populations using multi-dimensional scaling, where genetic variation is decomposed into dimensions, and individuals are plotted on those dimensions. In short, the Romani exhibit a classic admixture cline pattern.That is, they are the products of a two-way admixture between populations which occupy distinct positions along a cline, and Romani individuals and populations are distributed along the cline in proportion to their admixture. One notable aspect is that the Romani are actually two clusters; one which manifests a strong ‘east’-'west’ distribution, and another which seems located purely within the European cluster. The latter seems to be the Welsh Romani, who in the neighbor-joining tree (see the supplements) fall on the same branch as European populations, as opposed to the other Romani, who form their own clade.
To drill down further you need to ascertain admixture with a model-based clustering algorithm. Ergo, ADMIXTURE. I’ve reedited the figure to illustrate the salient points. In particular, it is clear that the Roma populations except the Welsh have significant South Asian ancestry. The question is how much? To answer this question you need to know the source population in South Asia. A peculiar aspect of this plot is that the Romani have very little of the green ancestral component, which happens to be modal in the Middle East (not shown). This element happens to be highly enriched in many Pakistani populations, but not necessarily northwest Indian ones. Nevertheless, the issue that leaves me suspicious of this particular finding is that many of the European populations, in particular those groups (e.g., Balkans) which may have admixed with the Romani, have this element to extent not evident in one of their presumed ‘daughter’ populations. I wonder if perhaps the peculiarities of Romani inbreeding has skewed the allele frequency distribution so much that you get strangeness like this. I am not showing higher K’s because those break out with a Romani-cluster. Just like the Kalash-cluster this is to a great extent a feature of the long term endogamy of these communities. With high levels of drift the allele frequency of these groups moves into a very peculiar space in relation to their parental populations, but one must not become confused and assume that the Romani or Kalash are themselves appropriate independent clusters in the same way that Europeans or East Asians are.
Using various forms of admixture analysis the authors seem to conclude that the Balkan Romani are 30-50% South Asian. This seems in line with intuition. But that still leaves open the question of who those South Asians were. As I noted above the most thorough Y chromosomal data point to the lower caste elements of northwest India. What do the autosomes say?
I don’t want get into the technical details of how they tested the models, but it seems that one of the likely parental populations to the Romani had a close relationship to the Meghwal, a scheduled caste from northwest India. In other words, the autosome results align very well with the Y chromosomal inferences. Additionally, the models tested imply that the Romani likely left South Asian ~1,000 years before the present, which aligns well with what is known from the historical record (though this is a case where I put much more stock in the historical record than inferences from population genetic models; look at the intervals).
Finally, there is the question of inbreeding. One aspect of the Romani genome is jumps out you is that they have many long “runs-of-homozygosity” (ROH). This is totally expected, as decades of uniparental analyses suggested a great deal of population bottleneck events as the Romani spread throughout Europe. But the ROH patterns also unearth an interesting fact: some of the Balkan Romani clearly have recent European admixture, while the non-Balkan Romani had an initial period of admixture followed by endogamy. The latter scenario seems to resemble Askhenazi Jews, while the former would suggest that the boundary between Romani and non-Romani in the Balkans is more fluid than is sometimes portrayed.
So there we have it. The Romani derive from lower castes populations from the northwest Indian subcontinent who seem to have left ~1,000 years ago. Over time they admixed with local populations, and are now 50-70% non-South Asian, with some groups being ~90% European (e.g., Welsh Romani). And, they have a long history as an endogamous group, judging by their inbreeding.
A month ago I posted Don’t trust an archaeologist about genetics, don’t trust a geneticist about archaeology, in response to James Fallows at At 5% Neanderthal, You Are an Outlier. Fallows has now put up a follow up, The Neanderthal Defense Committee Swings Into Action, where he links to my response post. This prompted the original archaeologist in question to reach out to me via email. I am posting the letter, with their permission, below.
There is a high likelihood that you know of which ABO blood group you belong to. I am A. My daughter is A. My father is B. My mother is A. I have siblings who are A, O, B, and AB. The inheritance is roughly Mendelian, with O being “recessive” to A and B (which are co-dominant with each other, ergo, AB). It is also generally common knowledge that O is a “universal donor,” while A and B can only give to individuals within their respective blood group and AB.
Because ABO was easy to assay it was one of the earliest Mendelian markers utilized in human genetics. In the first half of the 20th century while some anthropologists were measuring skulls, others were mapping out the frequency of A, B, and O. Today with much more robust genetic methods ABO has lost its old luster as a genetic marker, especially since there is a strong suspicion that the variants are strongly shaped by natural selection. This makes them only marginally useful for systematics, which rely upon loci which are honest mirrors of demographic history.
The Pith: Natural selection comes in different flavors in its genetic constituents. Some of those constituents are more elusive than others. That makes “reading the label” a non-trivial activity.
As you may know when you look at patterns of variation in the genome of a given organism you can make various inferences from the nature of these patterns. But the power of those inferences is conditional on the details of the real demographic and evolutionary histories, as well as the assumptions made about the models one which is testing. When delving into the domain of population genomics some of the concepts and models may seem abstruse, but the reality is that such details are the stuff of which evolution is built. A new paper in PLoS Genetics may seem excessively esoteric and theoretical, but it speaks to very important processes which shape the evolutionary trajectory of a given population. The paper is titled Distinguishing between Selective Sweeps from Standing Variation and from a De Novo Mutation. Here’s the author summary:
Considerable effort has been devoted to detecting genes that are under natural selection, and hundreds of such genes have been identified in previous studies. Here, we present a method for extending these studies by inferring parameters, such as selection coefficients and the time when a selected variant arose. Of particular interest is the question whether the selective pressure was already present when the selected variant was first introduced into a population. In this case, the variant would be selected right after it originated in the population, a process we call selection from a de novo mutation. We contrast this with selection from standing variation, where the selected variant predates the selective pressure. We present a method to distinguish these two scenarios, test its accuracy, and apply it to seven human genes. We find three genes, ADH1B, EDAR, and LCT, that were presumably selected from a de novo mutation and two other genes, ASPM and PSCA, which we infer to be under selection from standing variation.
The dynamic which they refer to seems to be a reframing of the conundrum of detecting hard sweeps vs. soft sweeps. In the former you case have a new mutation, so its frequency is ~1/(2N). It is quickly subject to natural selection (though stochastic processes dominate at low frequencies, so probability of extinction is high), and adaptation drives the allele to fixation (or nearly to fixation). In the latter scenario you have a great deal of extant genetic variation, present in numerous different allelic variants. A novel selection pressure reshapes the frequency landscape, but you can not ascribe the genetic shift to only one allele. It is no surprise that the former is easier to model and detect than the latter. Much of the evolutionary genomics of the 2000s focused on hard sweeps from de novo mutations because they were low hanging fruit. The methods had reasonable power to detect them (as well as many false positives!). But of late many are suspecting that hard sweeps are not the full story, and that much of evolutionary genetic process may be characterized by a combination of hard sweeps, soft sweeps (from standing variation), various forms of negative selection, not to mention the plethora of possibilities which abound in the domain of balancing selection.
Many of the details of the paper may seem overly technical and opaque (and to be fair, I will say here that the figures are somewhat difficult to decrypt, though the subject is not one that lends itself to general clarity), but the major finding is straightforward, and illustrated in figure 4 (I’ve added labels):