Guest Post: Ethnography of the SWPL

Note: Today we have a guest post, contributed by Monsieur le Baron. Please be polite and welcoming. 

Dearest fr-

Wait. Wrong blog.

Time for Anthropology! I’m your guest host, some asshole. But you can call me Lord Asshole.

Today, we’re going to talk about SWPLs. A decent amount of America only sees the rich from the outside, either on fakey fake reality TV, fakey fake fake Instagram, or real but incomplete glances at the coastal elite bumming around the coasts (the common sense sayings of proles are usually rooted in truth). This segment of society is understudied by academics because academics generally come from the SWPL class and fish don’t know what water is.

See: https://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/

Now, time has passed and many of those things have become less fashionable because proles do them now. More importantly, these posts don’t necessarily reach at the underlying principles governing SWPL behavior. I have some books here, which I will quote liberally to disguise my own lack of insight, as well as anecdotes to share, because I firmly believe the plural of anecdote is data.

Well, let’s begin.

First, proles frequently believe that the upper classes are afflicted by all sorts of weird problems, from degeneracy, to drowning in student loans for stupid degrees, to being unemployed. Short version: That’s projection. Long version: Read Murray. Or, if you’re libera-ahahahahahahaha!

Yeah, okay. If you’re liberal, read Putnam, which is like Murray, but every five minutes he stops to reassure the reader that the proles are not inherently bad because there’s nurture ‘n stuff.

Go read one of those books if you haven’t, then come back to me. Or, more probably, go read the Wikipedia synopsis and call it good enough. Ready? Good.

Governing this analysis and little walkthrough will be three main concepts. The first is something I paraphrase as “The Baron’s Race”, which is basically the distinction-making taste process of Bourdieu and the cultural lifecycle. The second is the idea of the Otium, or the intellectual leisure of the aristocracy. The third is a surprise.

Enter the Bobo.

From Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks:

[…]if you are in an elite based on brainpower, like today’s elite, you need to come up with the subtle signifiers that will display your own spiritual and intellectual identity – your qualification for being in the elite in the first place. You need invitations on handmade paper but with a traditional typeface. Selecting music, you need Patsy Cline songs mixed in with the Mendelssohn. You need a 1950s gown, but done up so retro it has invisible quotation marks around it. You need a wedding cake designed to look like a baroque church.

You need some of the crap I see on Facebook advertisements. You need a modular desk – what the fuck’s a modular desk? Great question! It’s a desk you can reconfigure to your needs as you desire… aka blocks of wood. You need a beer jacket, which is a jacket full of beer, which is sort of like a beer hat but infinitely more pretentious and infinitely less practical and also marketed as a natural weight jacket for the autistic, because what the world needs is drunk autistic SWPLs. You need an activated charcoal toothbrush, and, uhhh, what the fuck is activated charcoal? You need a machine that turns tap water into bleach because… really, why would anyone want this? But some SWProles have them and they’re drinking it, with predictable results. And, of course, you need a Harvard MBA.

You need to exchange meaningful objects with each other, like a snowboard engraved with your favorite Schiller quotation or the childhood rubber ducky that you used to cradle during the first dark days of your Supreme Court clerkship. It’s difficult to come up with your own nuptial wrinkle, which will be distinctive without being daring. But self-actualization is what educated existence is all about. For members of the educated class, life is one long graduate school. When they die, God meets them at the gates of heaven, totes up how many fields of self-expression they have mastered, then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in.

Brooks then spends several pages sucking off the UMC and bashing the WASPs. Retch. The key point is that the upper stratas (UMC, UC) define themselves by their taste. Because there are no longer formal markers of class, one must turn to signals to gatekeep class. Note the conflation of intellect and taste. That’s important. Remember that.

Today’s establishment is structured differently. It is not a small conspiracy of well-bred men with interlocking family and school ties who have enormous influence on the levels of power.

It is a large conspiracy of well-bred men with interlocking family and school ties who have enormous influence on the levels of power.

The members of this class are divided against themselves, and one is struck by how much of their time is spent earnestly wrestling with the conflict between their reality and their ideals.

Well put, David. Let’s see some of these earnest wrestlings now.

From Uneasy Street by Rachel Sherman:

Nadine said, ‘I don’t shop, you know? I wear the same stuff pretty much every day. I wear the same pair of shoes every day.’ Several women mentioned buying clothing at inexpensive stores such as Target, Kohl’s, and Costco or at discount outlets.

Most of my clothing is from Walmart or Costco, but if you’re very rich, high end tailors will give you a custom fit specifically designed to look like you got it at Walmart while being the apex of luxury. That’s class.

Other respondents gleefully recounted bargains they had picked up. Wendy, a corporate lawyer, had snagged a used $1,000 stroller for $100, which she ‘felt good’ about; Beatrice, a nonprofit executive, had gotten a $20,000 dining table for $6,000.

My Elizabethan table was *only* $6,000. We’re trying to stay frugal, you know. #saving #broke

David, an interior designer whose clients were of the same class as my respondents, told me, ‘Always, for every job, I always throw in Ikea and Crate and Barrel pieces. They love that. It makes them feel better.’

Life is eternal grad school, which is why you must always have grad school IKEA furniture.

Nicole said, ‘We don’t take fancy vacations. We’re pretty frugal about, kind of, everything. You know? We don’t buy stuff.’ Paul described his wife as ‘the woman who will price check, and this is not an exaggeration, Target versus Costco. It’s what she does. And so while she comes from money and likes nice things, she’s very prudent[…]’

And what sort of nice things?

high-end stoves, ovens, and refrigerators[…] necessary for resale value, even when they had no plans to sell the property.

Of course.

[Miranda] explained that they had put [the elevator] in partly so older family could visit them (a “basic” need) and so they could locate the guest room where they wanted it instead of on a lower floor. She also mentioned that the elevator was ‘not that expensive’ because they were renovating anyways. Sensing that she might feel embarrassed about it, I asked, ‘Are people like, ‘Oh my God, you have an elevator’?’ She responded, ‘Yeah, it seems a little-yeah. That’s why I have that little line, ‘You know what? If you’re doing that much work, an elevator isn’t that expensive.’

I walk up and down my house the same as everyone else, two feet at a time, via my private elevator.

’If I buy something, if I buy, like, clothes in the store, I take the tag off. I mean, we’re not talking about – I take the tag off of my Levi’s jeans. I mean, it’s not like it’s a mink coat or something. I take the label off our six-dollar bread…. I think again, for me, it’s a choices thing-the choices that I have are obscene. Six-dollar bread is obscene.’

Whenever I see a SWProle with their avocado toast and their VOSS water, I foam at the mouth a little. It is disgusting how luxuriously live when I had to save the latter for a very, very special occasion. I am, I admit, jealous, even if it is an irrational jealousy, since I know these things are paid for by debt.

My boss wears clothing with holes in it to help pay for the sentimental childhood vacation home his wife loves and for his childrens’ tuition, my mother won’t stop wailing at me that she’s broke, and the parents of one of my friends curse this blasted economy that won’t allow for a secure retirement, even though they have a middle seven figure net worth. I am often shocked by the money attitudes of the proles, who I am now geographically adjacent to.

It’s very different.

And this isn’t just idle posturing. Many of the surveyed families had domestic strife and some behavior that might be called abuse over beauty expenditures on things like haircuts and dye. It was viewed as unnecessary extravagance that might break the bank and then they’d be broke and woe upon them! So the wives learn how to Brazilian wax themselves. Besides, the wives agreed too. Beauty expenditure is vanity and hard to fit into that tight budget, while doing it yourself was artisan and necessitated learning a new skill, both good things. People admire their Calvinism.

For reference, one family earned $2 million a year, before accounting for their passive income.

David, the interior designer, confirmed that this practice was common. During renovations, he said, ‘Things come in with big price tags on them. They all have to be removed, or Sharpied over, so the housekeepers and [staff] don’t see them.’

If you ever want to deflate your view of the elite, imagine a Master of the Universe furiously Sharpieing a price tag off his IKEA furniture to ease his guilty conscience.

From Bobos in Paradise:

Specifically, the members of the educated-class elite feel free to invest huge amounts of capital in things that are categorized as needs, but it is not acceptable to spend on mere wants. For example, it’s virtuous to spend $25,000 on your bathroom, but it’s vulgar to spend $15,000 on a sound system and a wide-screen TV. It’s decadent to spend $10,000 on an outdoor Jacuzzi, but if you’re not spending twice that on an oversized slate shower stall, it’s a sign that you probably haven’t learned to appreciate the simple rhythms of life.

Similarly, it is acceptable to spend hundreds of dollars on top-of-the-line hiking boots, but it would be vulgar to buy top-of-the-line patent leather shoes to go with formal wear. It is acceptable to spend $4,400 on a Merlin XLM road bike because people must exercise, but it would be a sign of superficial nature to buy a big, showy powerboat. Only a shallow person would spend hundreds of dollars on caviar, but a deep person would gladly shell out that much for top-of-the-line mulch.

You can spend as much as you want on anything that can be classified as a tool, such as a $65,000 Range Rover with plenty of storage space, but it would be vulgar to spend money on things that cannot be seen as tools, such as a $60,000 vintage Corvette. (I once thought of writing a screenplay called Rebel Without a Camry, about the social traumas a history professor suffered when he bought a Porsche.)”

This is SWPL frugality, the art of saving money by not buying things that you wouldn’t have bought anyways, and then status signaling about it. Would David Brooks have ever bought a powerboat? Probably not. The expenditures that provoked worry were ones that were hard or impossible to justify as practical luxury. The UMC+ cannot signal using things, because resources are abundant, unlike the situation of the prole. Instead, they must signal by taste. Buying things which are pure luxury is signaling by expending resources, not by showing taste, which is inescapably prole and vulgar.

In short…

Bobos don’t want gaudy possessions that make extravagant statements. That would make it look like they are trying to impress. They want rare gadgets that have not yet been discovered by the masses but are cleverly designed to make life more convenient or unusual […] it’s charming to start a conversation about the host’s African-inspired salad serving forks.

 

Rule 5. The elites are expected to practice one-downmanship. Cultured people are repelled by the idea of keeping up with the Joneses. Nothing is more disreputable than competing with your neighbors by trying to more effectively mimic the style of the social class just above you.

How fortunate for our Bobos that they have no one above them to disreputably imitate.

They do drugs too. Brooks says this is done in the most boring way possible. For instance, I have been offered cocaine.

As a study drug.

Nootropics r gud 4 u.

Speaking of which, one of my tenants, all of his high school friends have overdosed. I don’t know anyone who has. Funny, that.

Instead, as members of the educated class, you reject status symbols in order to raise your status with your equally cultivated peers. Everything about you must be slightly more casual than your neighbor. Your funishings must be slightly more peasanty. Your lives should have a greater patina of simplicity.

Which means what matters is to examine taste.

But now it is the formidable French places that have had to adjust. The restaurant La Fourchette has changed its name to the less pretentious Fourchette 110.

Less pretentious?

The Great Harvest Bread Company has opened up a franchise in town, one of those gourmet bread stores where they sell apricot almond or spinach feta loaf for $4.75 a pop. This particular store is owned by Ed and Lori Kerpius. Ed got his MBA in 1987 and moved to Chicago, where he was a currency trader. Then, as if driven by the inelectuable winds of the Zeitgeist, he gave up on the Decade of Greed stuff so he could spend more time with his family and community. So he and his wife opened this shop.

They greet you warmly as you walk in the door and hand you a sample slice (I chose Savannah dill) about the size of a coffee table book. A short lecture commences on the naturalness of the ingredients and the authenticity of the baking process, which, in fact, is being carried out right there in front of you.

Rich people love their obscene bread. It’s not only obscenely expensive, but obscenely delicious. And smart! That’s important.

To the west of town, there is a Zany Brainy, one of those toy stores that pretends to be an educational institution. It sells lifelike figurines of endangered animals, and it’s driven the old Wayne Toytown, which carried toys that didn’t improve developmental skills, out of business.

Everything is education. Everything is of the intellect.

The ABC Carpet & Home store on 19th Street and Broadway in New York endorses Keats’s dictum ‘I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.’ I don’t know what that means, but it sounds elevated. …

The enlightened Williams-Sonoma catalogue doesn’t try to flog us morally neutral sausages. The sausage links it advertises derive, the catalogue informs us, from the secrets of curing that Native Americans taught the first European settlers in Virginia (the mention of Native Americans gives the product six moral points right off the bat). The ‘sausages are made from pure pork and natural spices, using family recipes passed down through the generations.’ …

We prize old things whose virtues have been rendered timeless by their obsolescence: turn-of-the-century carpentry tools, whaling equipment, butter churns, typesetting trays, gas lamps, and hand-operated coffee grinders. Lightship baskets made from rattan with oak bottoms now sell for between $1,000 and $118,000. We can appreciate the innate wisdom of the unlettered seaman and the objects he created.

If only they could appreciate the deplorable seaman himself.

To calculate a person’s status, you take his net worth and multiply it by his antimaterialistic attitudes.

What’s the unifying theme of upper caste luxury? Taste. And not just taste, but taste intertwined with intellect. Why?

What is good taste? Good taste is the art of puzzling out depth. That which is prolish is that which is shallow, something which is good on its face and which has no nuances beyond that. For something to be fitting for the Otium (to be covered more in part 2), it must occupy the MIND. The more complex something is, the longer the mind is occupied. Having good taste is thus a g-signal. Example?

From Privilege by Shamus Khan

“Grace, who used to drop by my office to talk about violin (she and I both played), stopped by to ask about something quite different. ‘Mr. Khan, um, have you ever heard of DMX?’

‘You mean, ‘It’s dark and hell is hot’ DMX?’

‘Um…’ Grace had no idea what I was talking about, when referring to an old album.

‘The rapper?’

‘Yeah!’

‘Sure. But not in a while. I don’t really listen to rap.’ After I said this, Grace looked at me, slightly disappointed. Though I was a young faculty member, I felt, at that moment, old.

‘I just got Grand Champ!’

Grand Champ?’ I wondered out loud.

‘His new album!’

‘I guess I’m out of it.’

Taking an opportunity to bring me more up-to-date, Grace told me, ‘You should check it out.’ I was surprised by our conversation. For Grace, a girl from suburban Boston, this seemed an unlikely-and sudden-transformation.

It did not stick. Within a couple of months Grace and I were back to talking about violin repertoire and technique. Yet Grace had tried hard-core rap, with great enthusiasm. Months later I asked her why she had bought that album.

‘I don’t know. I mean, I guess, you know, I went to the first dance here and I didn’t really know any of the songs. In middle school I totally did. And it was fun. So I guess I felt left out. And Amber-in my dorm-she listened to DMX all the time. And so I guess I just wanted to learn it. I don’t really listen to it that much anymore. It’s weird. I mean, I still kinda like it. I don’t know.’

Months after this conversation I chapered a dance and there was Grace, singing along to DMX, jumping up and down, her hands bouncing from her shoulders to knees-mimicking the movements of the latest hip-hop video.

[…]

All three learned from older students how to transform themselves into a more appropriate ‘Paulie’.

[…]

Though Michael, Ken, and Grace each were elites before they entered St. Paul’s, they still had to learn from the ground up-their homegrown ease did not suffice.”

DMX? Ah yes, DMX. My favorite is X Gon’ Give It To Ya, a postmodern deconstruction of the anxieties of the late capitalist gig-economy and the psychic tolls it exacts on its deliverymen, who are forced to shuttle anonymized packages-merely it-for many years at a time, in lieu of a stable career, a man alienated from his own labor, who, regardless, refuses to give up.

So today a ‘Days of Rage’ T-shirt can be worn by health-conscious aerobicizers.

But wait, doesn’t stuffwhitepeoplelike.com say these shirts are for badwhites? Very perceptive!

As seen at St. Paul’s, the taste of the elites is culturally promiscuous. And this has long been documented by Bourdieu, who noted, in his distinction, that the highest strata individuals liked every presented picture. How does this play into taste as g?

The ability to make a competent argument for ANYTHING as meaningful is an exercise in verbal IQ. It’s g-weighted. The highest example of this is enjoying modern art, which is inherently meaningless without the smart person to give it a strong argument as meaningful. The more transparently meaningless something is, the more honorable it is to make a solid argument that it is meaningful. A person who does this successfully, like Brooks’ arguments about how great Montana is, gains much favor among his peers. A fashion then spreads, as Bobos use it to augment their status. But as it spreads, more and more MC aspirants notice it. For early adopters, using the cultural signal may work to secure status, but the MC won’t understand why it works, and as more and more MC flock in to imitate this success, the fad is abandoned as uncool. It is no longer signaling g, but an attempt to signal status, misunderstanding it was a g signal that brought status. It becomes middlebrow, something adopted by the MC to signal their own sophistication, which is a misunderstanding of the original fashion.

Behold the Baron’s Race, the life cycle of cultural trends.

The speed at which the Baron’s Race occurs depends on the inherent g-weighting of the underlying activity. Wearing clothing takes no g at all, so it is easily adopted once noticed, so fashion must fashion extremely quickly, so quickly that it may be a meaningless signal for most articles of clothing (except big brand names, which are always prole). Whereas multilingualism and classical music have remained fashionable for CENTURIES because of how difficult they are to properly appreciate. That’s why the stuffwhitepeoplelike actions are only trying to learn a second language and trying to like classical music. The original SWPL described is a hybrid creature – sometimes he is self-confidently affluent, and sometimes he is a middle-class pretender anxious about his own good taste.

And what is one’s reward for mastering these complex signals?

For the most striking thing about Latte Towns is that, though they are havens for everything that now goes by the name ‘alternative’-alternative music, alternative media, alternative lifestyles-they are also fantastic business centers. […] Ben & Jerry’s, the most famous company in town, is not even among the 20 largest employers. People with Burlington mores now apparently feel comfortable working at IBM[…], General Dynamics, GE, Bank of Vermont, and Blodgett Holdings. And business is chic in Burlington. There are four local business publications that heavily cover the town, and sometimes you can read two or three sentences in a row in each of them before some executive says something about the need for businesses to practice socially responsible investing. […] Today’s Latte Town mogul remembers that business is not about making money; it’s about doing something you love. Life should be an extended hobby. …

This is Bobo capitalism in a nutshell. College, learning, growth, travel, climbing, self-discovery. […] Don’t care call it a sweatshop. It’s a sandbox! This isn’t business. This is play!

How do these firms hire? Per Pedigree (by Lauren Rivera), “interviewers were hoping to find ‘buddies’”, people they could spend late nights with. This sounds really interesting, with booze and delivery sushi, but I have been with SWPLs for long nights and we talked about the French Revolution for several hours. So it’s really only interesting if you’re the kind of person who finds that interesting.

And uhh… play. Right. Well, it’s not play, but as my coworker said, “If they never invented computers, we’d have to do real work.”

Now, you may object that this is only the highest class SWPLs. But the highest class SWPLs set the agenda. To see what the SWProle will do, take Bobo-SWPL behavior that’s out of date a few years and add unironic poverty.

Oh, bah. Fine. Next time, we shall cover The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, and the subjects of nerds, SWProles, and the Otium.

Please buy these books if you’re interested. Wizard Academic needs fancy bread badly!

 

Why is community dead: In which I blame colleges.

2300_white_death_1_0323

By any objective analysis, life in modern America is pretty darn good. You probably didn’t die in childbirth and neither did half of your children. You haven’t died of smallpox or polio. You probably haven’t lived through a famine or war. Cookies and meat are cheap, houses are big, most of us do rather little physical labor, and we can carry the collected works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Wikipedians in our pockets. We have novacaine for tooth surgery. If you avoid drugs and don’t eat too much, there’s a very good chance you’ll survive into your eighties.

Yet anxiety is skyrocketing.  Something about modern life doesn’t seem to agree with people.

In the past, people grew up in small towns or rural areas near small towns, knew most of the people in their neighborhoods, went to school, got jobs, and got married. They moved if they needed more land or saw opportunities in the gold fields, but most stayed put.
We know this because we can read about it in historical books.

One of the results was strong continuity of people in a particular place, and strong continuity of people allowed the development of those “civic associations” people are always going on about. Kids joined clubs at school, clubs at church, then transitioned into adult-aged clubs when they graduated. At every age, there were clubs, and clubs organized and ran events for the community.

Of course club membership was mediated by physical location–if you live in a town you will be in more clubs than if you live in the country and have to drive an hour to get there–but in general, life revolved around clubs (and church, which we can generously call another kind of club, with its own sub clubs.)

In such an environment, it is easy to see how someone could meet their sweetheart at 16, become a functioning member of society at 18, get a job, put a down payment on a house, get married by 20 or 22 and start having children.

Today, people go to college.

Forget your highschool sweetheart: you’re never going to see her again.

After college, people typically move again, because the job they’ve spent 4 years training for often isn’t in the same city as their college.

So forget all of your college friends: chances are you’ll never see any of them again, either.

Now you’re living in a strange city, full of strangers. You know no one. You are part of no clubs. No civic organizations. You feel no connection to anyone.

county-economic-status_fy2015_map“Isn’t diversity great?” someone crows over kebabs, and you think “Hey, at least those Muslims over there have each other to talk to.” Soon you find yourself envying the Hispanics. They have a community. You have a bar.

People make do. They socialize after work. They reconnect with old friends on Facebook and discover that their old friends are smug and annoying because Facebook is a filter that turns people smug and annoying.

But you can’t repair all of the broken connections.
Meanwhile, all of those small, rural towns have lost their young adults. Many of them have no realistic future for young people who stay; everyone who can leave, does. All that’s left behind are children, old people, and the few folks who didn’t quite make it into college.

The cities bloat with people who feel no connection to each other and small towns wither and die.

As the Guardian Reports: Why are so many people dying of opiate overdoses?:

Never mind the ‘war on drugs’ or laying all blame with pharmas, this epidemic exists because millions live in a world without hope, certainty and structure…

The number one killer of Americans under the age of 50 isn’t cancer, or suicide, or road traffic accidents. It’s drug overdoses. They have quadrupled since 1999. More than 52,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year. Even in the UK, where illegal drug use is on the decline, overdose deaths are peaking, having grown by 10% from 2015 to 2016 alone. …

Opioids, whatever their source, bond with receptors all over our bodies. Opioid receptors evolved to protect us from panic, anxiety and pain – a considerate move by the oft-callous forces of evolution. …

The overdose epidemic compels us to face one of the darkest corners of modern human experience head on, to stop wasting time blaming the players and start looking directly at the source of the problem. What does it feel like to be a youngish human growing up in the early 21st century? Why are we so stressed out that our internal supply of opioids isn’t enough? …

You get opioids from your own brain stem when you get a hug. Mother’s milk is rich with opioids, which says a lot about the chemical foundation of mother-child attachment. When rats get an extra dose of opioids, they increase their play with each other, even tickle each other. And when rodents are allowed to socialise freely (rather than remain in isolated steel cages) they voluntarily avoid the opiate-laden bottle hanging from the bars of their cage. They’ve already got enough. …

So what does it say about our lifestyle if our natural supply isn’t sufficient and so we risk our lives to get more? It says we are stressed, isolated and untrusting.

(Note: college itself is enjoyable and teaches people valuable skills. This thread is not opposed to “learning things,” just to an economic system that separates people from their loved ones.)

Some Migration-Related Studies

I have too many tabs open on my computer, so here are some studies/writings which all touch on migration/population movements in some way:

Biographical Memoirs of Henry Harpending [pdf]:

The late Henry Harpending of West Hunter blog, along with Greg Cochran, wrote the 10,000 Year Explosion, did anthropological field work among the Ju/’hoansi, and pioneered population genetics. The biography has many interesting parts:

Henry’s early research on population genetics also helped establish the close relationship between genetics and geography. Genetic differences between groups tend to mirror the geographic distance between them, so that a map of genetic distances looks like a geographic map (Harpending and Jenkins, 1973). Henry developed methods for studying this relationship that are still in use. …

Meanwhile, Henry’s Kalahari field experience also motivated an interest in population ecology. Humans cope with variation in resource supply either by storage (averaging over time) or by mobility and sharing (averaging over space). These strategies are mutually exclusive. Those who store must defend their stored resources against others who would like to share them. Conversely, an ethic of sharing makes storage impossible. The contrast between the mobile and the sedentary Ju/’hoansi in Henry’s sample therefore represented a fundamental shift in strategy. …

Diseases need time to cause lesions on bone. If the infected individual dies quickly, no lesion will form, and the skeleton will look healthy. Lesions form only if the infected individual is healthy enough to survive for an extended period. Lesions on ancient bone may therefore imply that the population was healthy! …

In the 1970s, as Henry’s interest in genetic data waned, he began developing population genetic models of social evolution. He overturned 40 years of conventional wisdom by showing that group selection works best not when groups are isolated but when they are strongly connected by gene flow (1980, pp. 58-59; Harpending and Rogers, 1987). When gene flow is restricted, successful mutants cannot spread beyond the initial group, and group selection stalls.

Genetic Consequences of Social Stratification in Great Britain:

Human DNA varies across geographic regions, with most variation observed so far reflecting distant ancestry differences. Here, we investigate the geographic clustering of genetic variants that influence complex traits and disease risk in a sample of ~450,000 individuals from Great Britain. Out of 30 traits analyzed, 16 show significant geographic clustering at the genetic level after controlling for ancestry, likely reflecting recent migration driven by socio-economic status (SES). Alleles associated with educational attainment (EA) show most clustering, with EA-decreasing alleles clustering in lower SES areas such as coal mining areas. Individuals that leave coal mining areas carry more EA-increasing alleles on average than the rest of Great Britain. In addition, we leveraged the geographic clustering of complex trait variation to further disentangle regional differences in socio-economic and cultural outcomes through genome-wide association studies on publicly available regional measures, namely coal mining, religiousness, 1970/2015 general election outcomes, and Brexit referendum results.

Let’s hope no one reports on this as “They found the Brexit gene!”

Can you Move to Opportunity? Evidence from the Great Migration [PDF]:

The northern United States long served as a land of opportunity for black Americans, but today the region’s racial gap in intergenerational mobility rivals that of the South. I show that racial composition changes during the peak of the Great
Migration (1940-1970) reduced upward mobility in northern cities in the long run,
with the largest effects on black men. I identify urban black population increases
during the Migration at the commuting zone level using a shift-share instrument,
interacting pre-1940 black southern migrant location choices with predicted outmigration from southern counties. The Migration’s negative effects on children’s
adult outcomes appear driven by neighborhood factors, not changes in the characteristics of the average child. As early as the 1960s, the Migration led to greater white enrollment in private schools, increased spending on policing, and higher crime and incarceration rates. I estimate that the overall change in childhood environment induced by the Great Migration explains 43% of the upward mobility gap between black and white men in the region today.

43% is huge and, IMO, too big. However, the author may be on to something.

Lineage Specific Histories of Mycobacterium Tuberculosis Dispersal in Africa and Eurasia:

Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M.tb) is a globally distributed, obligate pathogen of humans that can be divided into seven clearly defined lineages. … We reconstructed M.tb migration in Africa and Eurasia, and investigated lineage specific patterns of spread. Applying evolutionary rates inferred with ancient M.tb genome calibration, we link M.tb dispersal to historical phenomena that altered patterns of connectivity throughout Africa and Eurasia: trans-Indian Ocean trade in spices and other goods, the Silk Road and its predecessors, the expansion of the Roman Empire and the European Age of Exploration. We find that Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia have been critical in the dispersal of M.tb.

I spend a surprising amount of time reading about mycobacteria.

Racism OCD and Other Political Neuroses 

 

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Source: Evangelion/blog thereupon

In his post on the Chamber of Guf, Slate Star Codex discussed a slate of psychiatric conditions where the sufferer becomes obsessed with not sinning in some particular way. In homosexual OCD, for example, the sufferer becomes obsessed with fear that they are homosexual or might have homosexual thoughts despite not actually being gay; people with incest OCD become paranoid that they might have incestuous thoughts, etc. Notice that in order to be defined as OCD, the sufferers have to not actually be gay or interested in sex with their relatives–this is paranoia about a non-existent transgression. Scott also notes that homosexual OCD is less common among people who don’t think of homosexuality as a sin, but these folks have other paranoias instead.

The “angel” in this metaphor is the selection process by which the brain decides which thoughts, out of the thousands we have each day, to focus on and amplify; “Guf” is the store of all available thoughts. Quoting Scott:

I studied under a professor who was an expert in these conditions. Her theory centered around the question of why angels would select some thoughts from the Guf over others to lift into consciousness. Variables like truth-value, relevance, and interestingness play important roles. But the exact balance depends on our mood. Anxiety is a global prior in favor of extracting fear-related thoughts from the Guf. Presumably everybody’s brain dedicates a neuron or two to thoughts like “a robber could break into my house right now and shoot me”. But most people’s Selecting Angels don’t find them worth bringing into the light of consciousness. Anxiety changes the angel’s orders: have a bias towards selecting thoughts that involve fearful situations and how to prepare for them. A person with an anxiety disorder, or a recent adrenaline injection, or whatever, will absolutely start thinking about robbers, even if they consciously know it’s an irrelevant concern.

In a few unlucky people with a lot of anxiety, the angel decides that a thought provoking any strong emotion is sufficient reason to raise the thought to consciousness. Now the Gay OCD trap is sprung. One day the angel randomly scoops up the thought “I am gay” and hands it to the patient’s consciousness. The patient notices the thought “I am gay”, and falsely interprets it as evidence that they’re actually gay, causing fear and disgust and self-doubt. The angel notices this thought produced a lot of emotion and occupied consciousness for a long time – a success! That was such a good choice of thought! It must have been so relevant! It decides to stick with this strategy of using the “I am gay” thought from now on. …

Politics has largely replaced religion for how most people think of “sin,” and modern memetic structures seem extremely well designed to amplify political sin-based paranoia, as articles like “Is your dog’s Halloween costume racist?” get lots of profitable clicks and get shared widely across social media platforms, whether by fans or opponents of the article.

Both religions and political systems have an interest in promoting such concerns, since they also sell the cures–forgiveness and salvation for the religious; economic and social policies for the political. This works best if it targets a very common subset of thoughts, like sexual attraction or dislike of random strangers, because you really can’t prevent all such thoughts, no matter how hard you try.

The original Tiny House
Medieval illustration of anchorite cell

Personal OCD is bad enough; a religious sufferer obsessed with their own moralistic sin may feel compelled to retreat to a monastery or wall themselves up to avoid temptation. If a whole society becomes obsessed, though, widespread paranoia and social control may result. (Society can probably be modeled as a meta-brain.)

I propose that our society, due to its memetic structure, is undergoing OCD-inducing paranoia spirals where the voices of the most paranoid are being allowed to set political and moral directions. Using racism as an example, it works something like this:

First, we have what I’ll call the Aristotelian Mean State: an appropriate, healthy level of in-group preference that people would not normally call “racism.” This Mean State is characterized by liking and appreciating one’s own culture, generally preferring it to others, but admitting that your culture isn’t perfect and other cultures have good points, too.

Deviating too far from this mean is generally considered sinful–in one direction, we get “My culture is the best and all other cultures should die,” and too far in the other, “All other cultures are best and my culture should die.” One of these is called “racism,” the other “treason.”

When people get Racism OCD, they become paranoid that even innocuous or innocent things–like dog costumes–could be a sign of racism. In this state, people worry about even normal, healthy expressions of ethnic pride, just as a person with homosexual OCD worries about completely normal appreciation of athleticism or admiration of a friend’s accomplishments.

Our culture then amplifies such worries by channeling them through Tumblr and other social media platforms where the argument “What do you mean you’re not against racism?” does wonders to break down resistance and convince everyone that normal, healthy ethnic feelings are abnormal, pathological racism and that sin is everywhere, you must constantly interrogate yourself for sin, you must constantly learn and try harder not to be racist, etc. There is always some new area of life that a Tumblrista can discover is secretly sinful, though you never realized it before, spiraling people into new arenas of self-doubt and paranoia.

As for the rest of the internet, those not predisposed toward Racism OCD are probably predisposed toward Anti-Racism OCD. Just as people with Racism OCD see racism everywhere, folks with Anti-Racism OCD see anti-racism everywhere. These folks think that even normal, healthy levels of not wanting to massacre the outgroup is pathological treason. (This is probably synonymous with Treason OCD, but is currently in a dynamic relationship with the perception that anti-racists are everywhere.)

Since there are over 300 million people in the US alone–not to mention 7 billion in the world–you can always find some case to justify paranoia. You can find people who say they merely have a healthy appreciation for their own culture but really do have murderous attitudes toward the out-group–something the out-group, at least, has good reason to worry about. You can find people who say they have a healthy attitude toward their own group, but still act in ways that could get everyone killed. You can find explicit racists and explicit traitors, and you can find lots of people with amplified, paranoid fears of both.

These two paranoid groups, in turn, can feed off each other, each pointing at the the other and screaming that everyone trying to promote “moderatism” is actually the worst sinners of the other side in disguise and therefore moderatism itself is evil. This feedback loop gives us things like the “It’s okay to be white” posters, which manages to make an entirely innocuous statement sound controversial due to our conviction that people only make innocuous statements because they are trying to make the other guy sound like a paranoid jerk who disputes innocuous statements.

Racism isn’t the only sin devolving into OCD–we can also propose Rape OCD, where people become paranoid about behaviors like flirting, kissing, or even thinking about women. There are probably other OCDs (trans OCD? food contamination OCD) but these are the big ones coming to mind right now.

Thankfully, Scott also proposes that awareness of our own psychology may allow us to recognize and moderate ourselves:

All of these can be treated with the same medications that treat normal OCD. But there’s an additional important step of explaining exactly this theory to the patient, so that they know that not only are they not gay/a pedophile/racist, but it’s actually their strong commitment to being against homosexuality/pedophilia/racism which is making them have these thoughts. This makes the thoughts provoke less strong emotion and can itself help reduce the frequency of obsessions. Even if it doesn’t do that, it’s at least comforting for most people.

The question, then, is how do we stop our national neuroses from causing disasters?

Donna Zuckerberg and Knowledge Production vs. Knowledge Community

800px-Homeric_Greece-en.svgDonna Zuckerberg–that is, Mark Zuckerberg’s less famous sibling–recently published a book titled Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age. This is a curious book–to quote from the summary on Amazon:

A virulent strain of antifeminism is thriving online that treats women’s empowerment as a mortal threat to men and to the integrity of Western civilization. Its proponents cite ancient Greek and Latin texts to support their claims―arguing that they articulate a model of masculinity that sustained generations but is now under siege.

Donna Zuckerberg dives deep into the virtual communities of the far right, where men lament their loss of power and privilege and strategize about how to reclaim them. She finds, mixed in with weightlifting tips and misogynistic vitriol, the words of the Stoics deployed to support an ideal vision of masculine life. On other sites, pickup artists quote Ovid’s Ars Amatoria to justify ignoring women’s boundaries. By appropriating the Classics, these men lend a veneer of intellectual authority and ancient wisdom to their project of patriarchal white supremacy. In defense or retaliation, feminists have also taken up the Classics online, to counter the sanctioning of violence against women.

800px-Relief_Herodotus_cour_Carree_Louvre
“If someone were to put a proposition before men bidding them to choose, after examination, the best customs in the world, each nation would certainly select its own”–Herodotus

Translation: “I read a blog and I didn’t like it.”

So Donna Zuckerberg, a white woman with enough wealth and leisure to study the classics for a living and sister of one of the richest, most powerful men in the world (who also loves the classics so much that he has named his daughters “Maxima,” Latin for “greatest,”* and “August,” after Emperor Augustus,) is complaining that Losers on the Internet are sullying the Classics by quoting Ovid.

This is a problem because White Men on the Internet are Privileged (even when they are poor whites who struggle to get a job or even friends,) while rich white women like Donna are the Oppressed.

*(Maxima is also named after two relatives named “Max,” though if honoring relatives were the only motive, Zuck could have gone with “Maxine,” or named her after a female relative.)

Realistically, these men aren’t a threat to Mrs. Zuckerberg; the aren’t going to rise up and force her back into the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. They are, however, icky, and Donna obviously doesn’t like them impinging on her turf: “By appropriating the Classics, these men lend a veneer of intellectual authority and ancient wisdom to their project of patriarchal white supremacy.”

Appropriating from whom? What culture owns Ovid and Homer? These books are considered the foundation of all of Western Civilization. Is Heartiste not a part of Western Civilization? I suppose you could argue that Roosh is Iranian/Armenian by blood, (despite being born in the US,) but arguing that Roosh can’t enjoy Ovid because he’s Iranian is, well, stupid.

I understand that Mrs. Zuckerberg doesn’t like pickup blogs, but you can’t appropriate the intellectual and literary foundations of your own culture. This is like accusing a Hindu of appropriating the Bhagavad Gita just because he’s a jerk.

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‘Mask of Agamemnon’, discovered by Schliemann, 1876.
“They sent forth men to battle,
But no such men return;
And home, to claim their welcome,
Come ashes in an urn”  Aeschylus, Agamemnon

The implication of “appropriating” is that Donna thinks the classics belong to some narrow class of people–most likely, academic dilettantes like herself. But as I’ve noted before, Donna Zuckerberg doesn’t own the Classics. Being rich doesn’t give her any more right to quote Plato than anyone else in the entire damn world.

But my complaints aside, I think this nicely illustrates a difficulty found in many academic disciplines:

It’s very difficult to make any new arguments about the Classics. Ovid has been around for a long time. So has Homer. Everything you can say about them has probably been said a thousand times already.

Schliemann managed to up the ante by actually finding Troy, but what’s left to discover? You will never be as great as Schliemann. You will always toil in the shadows of the greats of the past.

But there are rules in academia, most notably, “Publish or perish.” If you want to be a professor or otherwise taken seriously as an academic, you’ve got to publish papers.

What, exactly, are you going to publish on a subject that was thoroughly mined for all new ideas and concepts hundreds of years ago?

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Are we to believe the Egyptians managed to manufacture pigment from calcium copper silicate and use it in these elaborate paintings without being able to see it?

So I see two options:

1. Lie. Just make something  up, like “the ancients couldn’t see blue.” Totally untrue, but people have bought it, hook, line, and sinker.

2. Write things that aren’t new and don’t provide any new insights, but show that you are a member of the “classics community.”

We think of academic disciplines as “producing knowledge,” but it may be more accurate to think of them as “knowledge communities.” to be part of those communities, all you have to do is produce works that show what a good community member you are. People who fit in get friends, mentors, promotions, and opportunities. People who don’t fit in either get pushed out or leave of their own accord. There’s not much new to say about the Classics, but there are plenty of people who enjoy reading the classics and discussing them with others–and that makes a community, and where there’s a community, people will try to protect what is culturally “theirs.” Folks like Roosh and Heartiste, then, are moving in on academic territory.

What counts as being a “good member” of your community depends on the current social norms in that community. If your community is full of people who say things like “The Classics are the foundation for the greatness of Western Civilization,” then aspirant community members will publish things echoing that.

And if your community is full of people who say things like “If your feminism isn’t intersectional, it’s bullshit,” then you’re going to write things like that.

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Herodotus’s World “After all, no one is stupid enough to prefer war to peace; in peace sons bury their fathers and in war fathers bury their sons.” –Herodotus

Modern academia is not really comfortable with “Dead white males”* (much less “Alive white males,”) nor the idea of Western Civilization as anything particularly special or qualitatively different from other civilizations–which creates a bit of a conflict when your field is literally the semi-symbolic and literary basis of Western Civilization.

*Note: most people who study the classics know that the “Classical World” is really the circum-Mediterranean world, that Herodotus lived in now-Turkey, St. Augustine was born in now-Algeria, Alexander the Great’s empire stretched to India, etc. Whether these men were “white” (or men) is irrelevant to our understanding of the foundations of Western Civilization.

Now, I understand not liking everyone you meet on the internet. There are lots of wrong and terrible people in here. But this is why you get a blog where you can complain to the five people who can stand you about all of the other annoying people on the internet.

There are probably many academic disciplines which could, at this point, be transformed into blogs and tumblrs without much loss.

Mental Slavery

Defaming Prophet Muhammed not free expression: ECHR:

Defaming the Prophet Muhammed “goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate” and “could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace” and thus exceeds the permissible limits of freedom of expression, ruled the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on Thursday, upholding a lower court decision. …

According to a statement released by the court on Thursday, the Vienna Regional Criminal Court found that these statements implied that Muhammad had pedophilic tendencies, and in February 2011 convicted Mrs. S. for disparaging religious doctrines.

A free man may speak his conscience, at least on his own time. A slave may not.

I have never (that I recall) said anything negative (or positive) about Muhammad. He’s long dead, and I haven’t particularly studied Islam. But it remains a fact agreed upon in Islamic sources that 53-year old Mohammad married his third wife, Aisha, when she was six years old and consummated the marriage well before the legal age of consent in Western countries (most sources say 9 or 10 years old). Aisha herself became an important figure in Islam following Mohammad’s death, and is credited with having narrated 2,210 hadiths on subjects such as inheritance and Mohammad’s personal life–making her, it appears, something of an Islamic legal scholar.

Of course, it was not terribly unusual for girls to be married off at very young ages in the past–the Virgin Mary herself was probably only about 12-14 when she was betrothed, and child marriage is still quite common in much of the Middle East.

Regardless, 1. modern Christians don’t think it’s a good idea to imitate Joseph and marry a 12 year old, and 2. if you tried to pull something like this in the modern US, you would absolutely be branded a “pedophile” and sent to prison.

Note: The European Court of “Human Rights” is merely upholding a ruling under Austrian law–blame should probably laid first at Austria’s feet for convicting this woman in the first place. It has banned not just freedom of speech and conscience, but facts–simply because they are embarrassing.

Race: A Clarification

 

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(The distance between Native Americans and East Asians on this rough chart is too long.)

It has come to my attention that some of you (I am looking at you) don’t know what I mean by the word “race.” I try to be consistent, but unfortunately, the word is used pretty inconsistently out in society–“Human race,” “Asian race,” “English race,” “Female race,” etc. There is even a term, “landrace” used over in biology to denote a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant. “Race” was originally used similar to “breed” or “lineage;” today, people usually use it to denote a level of genetic relatedness one step up from ethnic group.

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source: Big Think: Genetic map of Europe

When I use it, I am (usually) referring to one of the three macro-races of humanity: Sub-Saharan Africans, Caucasians, and Asians.

People often treat “Caucasian” and “white” as synonyms, but they’re not. “Caucasians” includes North Africans, Middle Easterners, Europeans, and many Indians (from India.) Three of these groups are not generally thought of as being included in “white,” but from a genetic perspective they definitely cluster together in the Caucasian clade (depicted above.) People may tell you that “race is a social construct,” but human population clades are not.

Since people don’t use “race” in any consistent way, it would be valid to refer to a “white race” that is a subset of the greater Caucasian race–but this is confusing because two different levels of genetic similarity are being described with the same word.

I have personally come to regard “white” as an America-centric ethnonym, (but I can’t promise I have always used it consistently.)

What do I mean?

“Whites” and “Blacks” in America are not drawn equally from all pale and dark skinned groups back in Europe and Africa. Indeed, just having some kind of European identity (eg, Irish,) is often enough to incur an at least joking insistence that one is not white.

Remember that homo Sapiens is about 300,000 years old, give or take a decade, and the era of swift, long-range travel is only about 500 years old. The “races” and “ethnic groups” that existed in 1491 were largely a result of travel being difficult, with barriers like the Sahara desert and the Himalayas massively interfering with human movement. These barriers effectively separated most human groups, preventing them from interbreeding and thus sending them off in their own genetic directions–until 1492.

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People over-thought ancestry long before 23 and Me

Post 1492, the Americas became a mixing zone where Native Americans (Asian clade), Europeans (Caucasians) and West Africans (Sub Saharan Africans) met and interacted–the many degrees of mixed race ancestry found in Latin America are one result of this interaction.

American whites hailed, indeed, from a different race than American blacks and they, in turn, from American Indians. So within the American context, calling them different races made sense–and was accurate. But they were never drawn equally from all parts of their greater racial clades. They were drawn from particular ethnic groups back home–US “whites” initially from Northwest European countries like Britain, France, and the Netherlands.

When these different ethnic groups got here and started marrying each other, they became their own, new ethnic group.

So when people ask, “Is so-and-so white?” or “Is this group white?” it depends on what exactly you mean by white. Do you mean “light skinned”? Treated as white in the US? European? Hailing from one of the ethnic groups that contributed to “whites” in the US? Not possessing any competing European ethnic identity besides white?

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Light-skinned Hazara (red), Tajik and Pashtun girls, Afghanistan.

Usually meaning can be inferred from conversation, but things can get confusing when people are using two different definitions or when discussing groups that didn’t contribute much to America’s founding stock.

I have perhaps mentioned before my discomfort with the word “racism”–not because I don’t think people discriminate against other people, but because it privileges offenses that cross a certain level of genetic dissimilarity between people as worse than offenses that cross smaller differences.

Was the English genocide of the Boers somehow less bad simply because the English and Boers are both “white”? Yes, we could say that the English were racist against the Boers, despite being part of the same race, or declare that the “English race” is a thing, but this is confusing. Plus, people can dislike each other for reasons totally unrelated to race, such as being male or female, disabled, or unattractive. I doubt anyone who was turned down for a date or denied a job because they happen to have the misfortune of being ugly ever comforted themself that at least they weren’t turned down because of their race.

And then there is the recent trend of calling people racist for disliking particular religions, even though Americans have traditionally thought of religions as belief systems–matters of opinion–rather than ethnic groups. (Indeed, there is a deep conflict between the traditional American view that religion is a matter of conscience, enshrined in the Bill of Rights next to the Freedom of Speech, and thus freely criticisable like any other opinion, and the view put forth by various endogamous ethno-religious groups that religion is ethnicity and therefore any criticism is racist.)

But to sum: when I use “race,” I am referring to the macro-races of Caucasians, East Asians, and Sub-Saharan Africans. I try not to confuse matters by mixing up genetic levels, but I can’t promise I have always been consistent in every post.

Neanderthal DNA–hey!–what is it good for?

Quite a bit.

First, a bit of history:

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map of Neanderthal DNA in humans

It appears that there were (at least) 3 main cross-breeding events with Neanderthals. The first event most likely happened when one small band of humans had left Africa and ventured into the Middle East, where Neanderthals were living. The DNA acquired from that partnership can be found in all modern non-Africans, since they are all descended from this same group. (Since there has also been back-migration from the Middle East into Africa sometime in the past 70,000 years, many African groups also have a small amount of this DNA.)

Soon after, the group that became the Melanesians, Papuans, and Aborigines split off from the rest and headed east, where they encountered–and interbred with–the mysterious Denisovans, a third human species that we know mostly from DNA. Various sources claim this happened before the second neanderthal inter-breeding event, but just looking at the amount of admixed neanderthal in Oceanans suggests this is wrong.

Meanwhile, the rest of the non-African humans, probably still living in the Middle East or Eurasian Steppe, encountered a second band of Neanderthals, resulting in a second admixture event, shared by all Asians and Europeans, but not Melanesians &c. Then the Asians and Europeans went their separate ways, and the Asians encountered yet a third group of Neanderthals, giving them the highest rates of Neanderthal ancestry.

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During their wanderings, some of these Asians encountered Melanesians, resulting in a little Denisovan DNA in today’s south Asians (especially Tibetans, who appear to have acquired some useful adaptations to Tibet’s high altitude from ancient Denisovans.)

There were other interbreeding events, including a much older one that left homo sapiens DNA in Neanderthals, and one that produced Denny, a Neanderthal/Denisovan hybrid. There were also interbreeding events in Africa, involving as-yet unidentified hominins. (In the human family tree to the right/above, Melanesians are included within the greater Asian clade.)

Who married whom? So far, we’ve found no evidence of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA–passed from mothers to their children–in modern humans, so the pairings most likely involved Neanderthal men and human women. But we have also found extremely little Neanderthal DNA on the Y chromosome–so it is likely that they only had female children, or any male children they had were infertile.

Anthropogenesis-DenisovaAlleleMapInterestingly, we find higher amounts of Neanderthal DNA in older skeletons, like the 40,000 year old Tianyuan Man, or this fellow from Romania with 10% Neanderthal DNA, than in modern humans. Two potential explanations for the decrease: later mixing with groups that didn’t have Neanderthal DNA resulted in dilution, or people with more Neanderthal DNA just got out-competed by people with less.

Given the dearth of DNA on the Y chromosome and the number of diseases linked to Neanderthal DNA, including Lupus, Crohn’s, cirrhosis, and Type-2 diabetes, the fact that morphological differences between Sapiens and Neanderthals are large enough that we classify them as different species, and the fact that Neanderthals had larger craniums than Sapiens but Sapiens women attempting to give birth to hybrid children still had regular old Sapiens pelvises, gradual selection against Neanderthal DNA in humans seems likely.

However, the Neanderthals probably contributed some useful DNA that has been sorted out of the general mix and come down the ages to us. For example, the trait that allows Tibetans to live at high altitudes likely came from a Denisovan ancestor:

Researchers discovered in 2010 that Tibetans have several genes that help them use smaller amounts of oxygen efficiently, allowing them to deliver enough of it to their limbs while exercising at high altitude. Most notable is a version of a gene called EPAS1, which regulates the body’s production of hemoglobin. They were surprised, however, by how rapidly the variant of EPAS1spread—initially, they thought it spread in 3000 years through 40% of high-altitude Tibetans, which is the fastest genetic sweep ever observed in humans—and they wondered where it came from.

Modern humans have Neanderthal DNA variants for keratin (a protein found in skin, nails, hair, etc.,) and UV-light adaptations that likely helped us deal with the lower light levels found outside Africa. There’s circumstantial evidence that microcephalin D could have Neanderthal origins (it appeared about 37,000 years ago and is located primarily outside of Africa,) but no one has found microcephalin D in a Neanderthal, so this has not been proven. (And, indeed, another study has found that Neanderthal DNA tends not to be expressed in the brain.)

Yet on the other hand, Neanderthal admixture affected sapiens’ skull shapes:

Here, using MRI in a large cohort of healthy individuals of European-descent, we show that the amount of Neanderthal-originating polymorphism carried in living humans is related to cranial and brain morphology. First, as a validation of our approach, we demonstrate that a greater load of Neanderthal-derived genetic variants (higher “NeanderScore”) is associated with skull shapes resembling those of known Neanderthal cranial remains, particularly in occipital and parietal bones. Next, we demonstrate convergent NeanderScore-related findings in the brain (measured by gray- and white-matter volume, sulcal depth, and gyrification index) that localize to the visual cortex and intraparietal sulcus. This work provides insights into ancestral human neurobiology and suggests that Neanderthal-derived genetic variation is neurologically functional in the contemporary population.

(Not too surprising, given Neanderthals’ enormous craniums.)

Homo sapiens also received Neanderthal genes affecting the immune system, which were probably quite useful when encountering new pathogens outside of Africa, and genes for the “lipid catabolic process,”[19] which probably means they were eating new, fattier diets that Neanderthals were better adapted to digest.

Even Neanderthal-derived traits that today we cast as problems, like Type II Diabetes and depression, might have been beneficial to our ancestors:

“Depression risk in modern human populations is influenced by sunlight exposure, which differs between high and low latitudes, and we found enrichment of circadian clock genes near the Neanderthal alleles that contribute most to this association.”

Why would we find an association between Neanderthal DNA and circadian clock genes? Neanderthals had thousands of years more exposure to Europe’s long nights and cold winters than homo Sapiens’; it is unlikely that they developed these adaptations in order to become less well-adapted to their environment. It is more likely that Neanderthals downregulated their activity levels during the winter–to put it colloquially, they hibernated.

No problem for furry hunter-gatherers who lived in caves–much more problematic for information age workers who are expected to show up at the office at 9 am every day.

Type II diabetes affects digestion by decreasing the production of insulin, necessary for transporting converting carbs (glucose) into cells so it can be transformed into energy. However, your body can make up for a total lack of carbs via ketosis–essentially converting fats into energy.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors–whether Neanderthal or Sapiens–didn’t eat a lot of plants during the European and Siberian winters because no a lot of plants grow during the winter. If they were lucky enough to eat at all, they ate meat and fat, like the modern Inuit and Eskimo.

And if your diet is meat and fat, then you don’t need insulin–you need ketosis and maybe some superior lipid digestion. (Incidentally, the data on ketogenic diets and type II diabetes looks pretty good.)

In sum, Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA, while not always useful, seems to have helped Homo sapiens adapt to colder winters, high altitudes, new pathogens, new foods, and maybe changed how we think and perceive the world.

 

 

Mysticism and Greater Male Variability

ctqda7fweae8tnbBuzzwords like “the male gaze” “objectification” “stereotype threat” “structural oppression” “white privilege” etc. are all really just re-hashings of the Evil Eye. We’ve shed the formal structure of religion but not the impulse for mystical thinking.

Today while debating with a friend about whether men or women have it better, it became plain that we were approaching the question from very different perspectives. He looked at men’s higher incomes and over-representation among CEOs and government officials and saw what I’ll call the mystical explanation: male oppression of women. I looked at the same data plus male over-representation among the homeless, mentally ill, suicides, and murder victims, and advocated the scientific explanation: greater male variability. 

What do I mean by mystical?

In primitive tribes, an accusation of witchcraft can quickly get you killed. What might inspire an accusation of witchcraft? A sick cow, a sudden death, a snake in a spot where it wasn’t yesterday, a drought, a flood, a twisted ankle–pretty much anything unexpected or unfortunate.

People understand cause and effect. Things happen because other things make them happen. But without a good scientific understanding of the world, the true causes of many events are unfindable, so people turn to mystical explanations. Why does it rain? Because a goddess is weeping. Why do droughts happen? Because someone forgot to make a sacrifice and angered the gods. Why do people get sick and die? Because other people cursed them.

If you’ve never encountered animist or mystical thought before, I recommend starting with some of my previous posts on the subject, which are thoroughly-researched and include lots of quotes from first-hand sources: Animism 1, 2, and 3; Aboriginal Witchcraft, more Australia 1, 2, and 3; mysticism and voodoo 1, 2, and 3. In this post I will be drawing on summaries of these and similar works.

A curse need not be deliberate. Simply being mad at someone or bearing them ill-will might be enough trigger the Evil Eye, curse them, and be forced by angry villagers to undo the curse–however the witchdoctor determines the curse must be undone. (This can be quite expensive.)

In animist thinking, things do not just happen. Things happen for reasons–usually malicious reasons.

In The Life and Adventure of William Buckley, 32 Years a Wanderer amongst the Aborigines, Buckley recounts: “They have an odd idea of death, for they do not suppose that any one dies from natural causes, but from human agencies: such as those to which I have alluded in previous pages of this narrative.”

The death of a companion via snakebite (probably a  common occurrence among people who walk barefoot in Australia) triggered a brutal “revenge” killing once it was determined who had cast the curse that motivated the snake:

“The cause of this sudden unprovoked cruelty was not, as usual, about the women, but because the man who had been killed by the bite of the snake belonged to the hostile tribe, and they believed my supposed brother-in-law carried about with him something that had occasioned his death. They have all sorts of fancies of this kind, and it is frequently the case, that they take a man’s kidneys out after death, tie them up in something, and carry them round the neck, as a sort of protection and valuable charm, for either good or evil.”

Buckley’s adoptive Aboriginal family, his sister and brother-in-law, who had been helping him since the tribe saved his life years ago, was killed in this incident.

“I should have been most brutally unfeeling, had I not suffered the deepest mental anguish from the loss of these poor people, who had all along been so kind and good to me. I am not ashamed to say, that for several hours my tears flowed in torrents, and, that for a long time I wept unceasingly. To them, as I have said before, I was as a living dead brother, whose presence and safety was their sole anxiety. Nothing could exceed the kindness these poor natives had shown me, and now they were dead, murdered by the band of savages I saw around me, apparently thirsting for more blood. Of all my sufferings in the wilderness, there was nothing equal to the agony I now endured.” …

“I returned to the scene of the brutal massacre; and finding the ashes and bones of my late friends, I scraped them up together, and covered them over with turf, burying them in the best manner I could, that being the only return I could make for their many kindnesses. I did so in great grief at the recollection of what they had done for me through so many years, and in all my dangers and troubles. ”

An account of Florence Young’s missionary work in the Solomon Islands (which are near Australia) recounts an identical justification for the cycle of violence on the Solomon Islands (which was quite threatening to Florence herself.) Every time someone died of any natural cause, their family went to the local witch doctor, who then used magic to determine who had used evil magic to kill the dead guy, and then the family would go and kill whomever the witch doctor indicated.

The advent of Christianity therefore caused a power struggle between the missionaries and the witch doctors, who were accustomed to being able to extort everyone and trick their followers into killing anyone who pissed them off. (See also Isaac Bacirongo’s account of the witch doctor who extorted his pre-pubescent sister as payment for a spell intended to kill Isaac’s wife–note: Isaac was not the one buying this spell; he likes his wife.)

So why do women make less money than men? Why are they underrepresented among CEOs and Governors and mathematicians? Something about the patriarchy and stereotype threat; something about men being evil.

Frankly, it sounds like men have the Evil Eye. A man thinks “Women are worse at math” and women suddenly become worse at math.

To be fair, my friend had only half the data, and when you have only half the data, the situation for men looks a lot better than the situation for women. But men aren’t only over-represented at the high ends of achievement–they’re also over-represented at the bottom. If patriarchy and stereotypes keep women from getting PhDs in math, why are little boys over-represented in special ed classes? Why are they more likely to be homeless, schizophrenic, commit suicide, or be murdered? Neither patriarchy nor male privilege can explain such phenomena.

Biology supplies us with a totally different explanation: greater male variability.

To review genetics, you have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Most of them are roughly X-shaped, except for the famous Y chromosome.

You have two chromosomes because you received one from each of your parents. Much of what the chromosomes do is redundant–for example, if you have blue eyes, then you received a gene for blue eyes from one parent and one from your other parent. One blue eye gene would be enough to give you blue eyes, but you have two.

Eye color isn’t terribly important, but things like how your immune system responds to threats or how your blood clots are. A rare mutation might make you significantly better or worse at these things, but the fact that you have two (or more) genes controlling each trait means that each very rare mutation tends to be paired with a more common version–lessening its effect.

There is, however, one big exception: the XY pair. Men don’t have a pair of Xs or a pair of Ys; they have one of each. If something is wrong on the X, the Y may have nothing to fix it, and vice versa.

The upshot is that if a man happens to get a gene that makes him extra tall, smart, conscientious, creative, charismatic, etc. somewhere on his X or Y chromosomes, he may not have a corresponding gene on the other chromosome to moderate its effects–and if he has a gene that makes him extra short, dumb, impulsive, dull, or anti-social, he is still unlikely to have a corresponding gene to dull the effect.

ci_generos
ASVAB scores: women in pink, men in blue.

Height is an uncontroversial example. Yes, the average man is taller than the average woman, but the spread of male heights is wider than the spread of female heights. More women are clustered around the average female height, while more men are both taller than the average man and shorter than the average man.

The graph to the right shows test scores from the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, but it shows the same basic idea: different means with women clustered more closely around average than men.

Whether the greater male variability hypothesis is true or not, it is an explanation that assumes no malice on anyone’s part. No one is maliciously forcing little boys into special ed, nor grown men into homelessness and suicide. The architecture of the XY and XX chromosome pairs is simply part of how humans are constructed.

But notice that you are much more likely to hear the theory that uses mysticism to blame people than the theory that doesn’t. One is tempted to think that some people are just inclined to assume that others are malicious–while ignoring other, more mundane explanations.