Whilst traveling through the darkest depths of the unexplored heartland of America, I encountered a mysterious beast I had only glimpsed in the many years since I left home at 18:
What was this flag-waving, headshot-zooming, sound effects-ridden creature, and why did it care that someone in Ohio doesn’t like “Baby its Cold Outside?”
I really can’t stay (but baby there’s meth outside)
Extended viewing (or listening) to what now passes for “news” on the 24-hour cable channels strikes me as bad for one’s mental health (possibly physical, as well.)
What is so bad about the news?
First, it is a never-ending stream of disasters, and disasters naturally tend to make people anxious and worried. But the disasters featured on the news are rarely relevant to your own life–most of them take place on the other side of the country, if not the planet.
In the past couple of months, you probably heard about wildfires in California, the War in Yemen, ISIS, someone shooting up a Christmas Market in Europe, Ebola in Africa, protests in France, children being gassed at the border, and of course the dire threat of secular Christmas Carols being taken off the radio in Ohio and rap music in Russia.
Chances are good that none of these things directly affects you.
How many news stories can you think of that actually occurred in your local community and have some relevance to your actual life?
News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you.
Strong words from a newspaper.
At the very best, you are spending time and energy worrying about stuff that doesn’t actually affect you, while not learning about stuff–such as your neighbors’ thoughts on pest control–that actually does affect you.
And at worst, you are making yourself ill by feeding your mind constant disaster footage:
User Generated Content – photos and videos submitted to newsrooms by the public – has become a prominent source of information for news organisations. Journalists working with uncensored material can frequently witness disturbing images for prolonged periods. How this might affect their psychological health is not known and it is the focus of this study. …
Regression analyses revealed that frequent (i.e. daily) exposure to violent images independently predicted higher scores on all indices of the Impact of Event Scale-revised, the BDI-II and the somatic and anxiety subscales of the GHQ-28. …
The present study, the first of its kind, suggests that frequency rather than duration of exposure to images of graphic violence is more emotionally distressing to journalists working with User Generated Content material.
If being exposed to the news is bad for journalists, it’s probably bad for you, too:
In this study, we tested if self-report of depression (SRD), which is not a clinically based diagnosis, was associated with increased internet, television, and social media usage by using data collected in the Media Behavior and Influence Study (MBIS) database (N = 19,776 subjects). … These analyses found that SRD rates were in the range of published rates of clinically diagnosed major depression. It found that those who tended to use more media also tended to be more depressed, and that segmentation of SRD subjects was weighted toward internet and television usage, which was not the case with non-SRD subjects, who were segmented along social media use. This study found that those who have suffered either economic or physical life setbacks are orders of magnitude more likely to be depressed, even without disproportionately high levels of media use. However, among those that have suffered major life setbacks, high media users—particularly television watchers—were even more likely to report experiencing depression, which suggests that these effects were not just due to individuals having more time for media consumption.
One woman I know got so worked up reading/watching articles and news reports about the Catholic Priest Scandals that she spent a week weeping and is now undergoing therapy for PTSD.
Stupid? Yes. Nevertheless, people are doing this to themselves.
Another woman I know recently announced that she thought “God was weeping” because things have gotten so bad in the world. After some questioning, she claimed that wars and third-world poverty are “worse than ever”–despite the fact that poverty is actually at the lowest it’s ever been and she lived through WWII.
Does watching the news make you any better informed?
Since the invention of 24 hour Cable News Networks, general knowledge of political matters has gone down slightly.
Looking at those who get their news primarily through radio and television, for most, following the news more or less closely had no reliable relation to whether respondents believed clear evidence had been found that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were working closely together. Fox News was the exception. Those who followed the news closely were far more likely to have this misperception. Among those who did not follow the news at all 42% had the misperception, rising progressively at higher levels of attention to 80% among those who followed the news very closely. On the other hand, those respondents who get their news primarily from print sources were less likely to have this misperception if they were following the Iraq situation more closely. Of those not following the news closely, 49% had the misperception–declining to 32% among those who followed the news very closely.
This analysis is harsh on Fox, but keep in mind that it is specifically looking at misperceptions related to a war championed by Republicans–we might find a similar effect for different networks if we were looking for misperceptions related to something championed by a Democratic president.
The news makes money by convincing you to watch it–that is, it has a self-interest in being addictive, not in making your life better. The constant parade of anxiety-inducing disasters is one way they capture your attention; the nausea-inducing zooming camera pans and waving flags are another. Some news personalities are actually good at their jobs despite the distractions, but on average, the more boring stations and media do a better job of conveying actual facts, probably because they are less distracting.
The news is one-way communication: it is a voice constantly talking to you, not you talking back (well, you can talk back, but it can’t hear you.) Would you spend so much time listening, in real life, to someone who never listened to you?
There is something insidious about a voice that talks constantly to you, that decides what is an isn’t concerning, that uses psychological manipulation to keep you listening, and doesn’t listen to you.
None of which is to say that the news media is intentionally evil or trying to cause harm–these things are just natural side effects of the way media works–the network that convinces more people to watch makes more money than the one that doesn’t. You have a natural desire to hear about disasters, because before the invention of mass media, almost all of them were actually relevant to your life. This also need not condemn any particular news channel–these factors apply to them all.
You can always tell someone who pays too much attention to the news, because their attention shifts radically from week to week. One day, Russia–a nation with a GDP smaller than South Korea’s and a per capita GDP almost as low as Mexico’s–is a critical threat to democracy; the next week Saudi Arabia, a dictatorship well known for things like “funding 9-11,” “women must wear burkas and can’t drive,” and “starving Yemeni children,” is suddenly catapulted from “not a problem” to “defcon 12.”
A week later, all of these things are forgotten because Trump paid off a prostitute, which is clearly a pressing national problem, right up there with Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.
Remember, the European witch-hunt hysteria was spread via the newly-adopted printing press, which made it easy for reports of broom-riding, devil worshiping, and livestock metamorphosis to spread from town to town. The equally absurd Satanic Daycare Scare of the 1980s was also spread by the News, this time on TV and radio.
There are probably some good sides to the news–it’s probably worthwhile to be informed about the world on some level, and it’s certainly useful to know what’s going on in your local area or economic trends that affect your business.
But be careful about letting strangers determine what you know and what you care about.
When the examinees from the two test administrations were combined, 96% of 99 scores of 800 (the highest possible scaled score), 90% of 433 scores in the 780-790 range, 81% of 1479 scores between 750 and 770, and 56% of 3,768 scores of 600 were earned by boys.
The linked article notes that this was an improvement over the previous gender gap in high-end math scores. (This improvement may itself be an illusion, due to the immigration of smarter Asians rather than any narrowing of the gap among locals.)
I don’t know what the slant is among folks with 800s on the verbal sub-test, though it is probably less–far more published authors and journalists are male than top mathematicians are female. (Language is a much older human skill than math, and we seem to have a corresponding easier time with it.) ETA: I found some data. Verbal is split nearly 50/50 across the board; the short-lived essay had a female bias. Since the 90s, the male:female ratio for scores over 700 improved from 13:1 to 4:1; there’s more randomness in the data for 800s, but the ratio is consistently more male-dominated.
High SAT (or any other sort of) scores is isolating. A person with a combined score between 950 and 1150 (on recent tests) falls comfortably into the middle of the range; most people have scores near them. A person with a score above 1350 is in the 90th%–that is, 90% of people have scores lower than theirs.
People with scores that round up to 1600 are above the 99th%. Over 99% of people have lower scores than they do.
And if on top of that you are a female with a math score above 750, you’re now a minority within a minority–75% or more of the tiny sliver of people at your level are likely to be male.
Obviously the exact details change over time–the SAT is periodically re-normed and revised–and of course no one makes friends by pulling out their SAT scores and nixing anyone with worse results.
But the general point holds true, regardless of our adjustments, because people bond with folks who think similarly to themselves, have similar interests, or are classmates/coworkers–and if you are a female with high math abilities, you know well that your environment is heavily male.
This is not so bad if you are at a point in your life when you are looking for someone to date and want to be around lots of men (in fact, it can be quite pleasant.) It becomes a problem when you are past that point, and looking for fellow women to converse with. Married women with children, for example, do not typically associate in groups that are 90% male–nor should they, for good reasons I can explain in depth if you want me to.
A few months ago, a young woman named Kathleen Rebecca Forth committed suicide. I didn’t know Forth, but she was a nerd, and nerds are my tribe.
She was an effective altruist who specialized in understanding people through the application of rationality techniques. She was in the process of becoming a data scientist so that she could earn the money she needed to dedicate her life to charity.
I cannot judge the objective truth of Forth’s suicide letter, because I don’t know her nor any of the people in her particular communities. I have very little experience with life as a single person, having had the good luck to marry young. Nevertheless, Forth is dead.
At the risk of oversimplifying the complex motivations for Forth’s death, she was desperately alone and felt like she had no one to protect her. She wanted friends, but was instead surrounded by men who wanted to mate with her (with or without her consent.) Normal people can solve this problem by simply hanging out with more women. This is much harder for nerds:
Rationality and effective altruism are the loves of my life. They are who I am.
I also love programming. Programming is part of who I am.
I could leave rationality, effective altruism and programming to escape the male-dominated environments that increase my sexual violence risk so much. The trouble is, I wouldn’t be myself. I would have to act like someone else all day.
Imagine leaving everything you’re interested in, and all the social groups where people have something in common with you. You’d be socially isolated. You’d be constantly pretending to enjoy work you don’t like, to enjoy activities you’re not interested in, to bond with people who don’t understand you, trying to be close to people you don’t relate to… What kind of life is that? …
Before I found this place, my life was utterly unengaging. No one was interested in talking about the same things. I was actually trying to talk about rationality and effective altruism for years before I found this place, and was referred into it because of that!
My life was tedious and very lonely. I never want to go back to that again. Being outside this network felt like being dead inside my own skin.
Why Forth could not effectively change the way she interacted with men in order to decrease the sexual interest she received from them, I do not know–it is perhaps unknowable–but I think her life would not have ended had she been married.
A couple of years ago, I met someone who initiated a form of attraction I’d never experienced before. I was upset because of a sex offender and wanted to be protected. For months, I desperately wanted this person to protect me. My mind screamed for it every day. My survival instincts told me I needed to be in their territory. This went on for months. I fantasized about throwing myself at them, and even obeying them, because they protected me in the fantasy.
That is very strange for me because I had never felt that way about anyone. Obedience? How? That seemed so senseless.
Look, no one is smart in all ways at once. We all have our blind spots. Forth’s blind spot was this thing called “marriage.” It is perhaps also a blind spot for most of the people around her–especially this one. She should not be condemned for not being perfect, any more than the rest of us.
But we can still conclude that she was desperately lonely for normal things that normal people seek–friendship, love, marriage–and her difficulties hailed in part from the fact that her environment was 90% male. She had no group of like-minded females to bond with and seek advice and feedback from.
Forth’s death prompted me to create The Female Side, an open thread for any female readers of this blog, along with a Slack-based discussion group. (The invite is in the comments over on the Female Side.) You don’t have to be alone. (You don’t even have to be good at math.) We are rare, but we are out here.
(Note: anyone can feel free to treat any thread as an Open Thread, and some folks prefer to post over on the About page.)
Given all of this, why don’t I embrace efforts to get more women into STEM? Why do I find these efforts repulsive, and accept the heavily male-dominated landscape? Wouldn’t it be in my self-interest to attract more women to STEM and convince people, generally, that women are talented at such endeavors?
I would love it if more women were genuinely interested in STEM. I am also grateful to pioneers like Marie Curie and Lise Meitner, whose brilliance and dedication forced open the doors of academies that had formerly been entirely closed to women.
The difficulty is that genuine interest in STEM is rare, and even rarer in women. The over-representation of men at both the high and low ends of mathematical abilities is most likely due to biological causes that even a perfect society that removes all gender-based discrimination and biases cannot eliminate.
It does not benefit me one bit if STEM gets flooded with women who are not nerds. That is just normies invading and taking over my territory. It’s middle school all over again.
If your idea of “getting girls interested in STEM” includes makeup kits and spa masks, I posit that you have no idea what you’re talking about, you’re appropriating my culture, and you can fuck off.
Please take a moment to appreciate just how terrible this “Project Mc2” “Lip Balm Lab” is. I am not sure I have words sufficient to describe how much I hate this thing and its entire line, but let me try to summarize:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with lib balm. The invention of makeup that isn’t full of lead and toxic chemicals was a real boon to women. There are, in fact, scientists at work at makeup companies, devoted to inventing new shades of eye shadow, quicker-drying nail polish, less toxic lipstick, etc.
And… wearing makeup is incredibly normative for women. Little girls play at wearing makeup. Obtaining your first adult makeup and learning how to apply it is practically a rite of passage for young teens. Most adult women love makeup and wear it every day.
Female nerds just aren’t into makeup.
I’m not saying they never wear makeup–there’s even a significant subculture of people who enjoy cosplay/historical re-enactment and construct elaborate costumes, including makeup–but most of us don’t. Much like male nerds, we prioritize comfort and functionality in the things covering our bodies, not fashion trends.
And if anything, makeup is one of the most obvious shibboleths that distinguishes between nerd females and normies.
In other words, they took the tribal marker of the people who made fun of us throughout elementary and highschool and repackaged it as “Science!” in an effort to get more normies into STEM, and I’m supposed to be happy about this?!
I am not ashamed of the fact that women are rarer than men at the highest levels of math abilities. Women are also rarer than men at the lowest levels of math abilities. I feel no need to cram people into disciplines they aren’t actually interested in just so we can have equal numbers of people in each–we don’t need equal numbers of men and women in construction work, plumbing, electrical engineering, long-haul trucking, nursing, teaching, childcare, etc.
It’s okay for men and women to enjoy different things–on average–and it’s also okay for some people to have unusual talents or interests.
It’s okay to be you.
(I mean, unless you’re a murderer or something. Then don’t be you.)
One of my fine readers asked for “best of” recommendations for Cochran and Harpending’s blog, West Hunter. This is a good question, and as I have not yet found a suitable list, I thought I would make my own.
However, the West Hunter is long, so I’m only doing the first year for now:
Only a handful of Herero shared my skepticism about witchcraft. People in the neighborhood as well as several other employees were concerned about Kozondo’s problem. They told me that he had to be taken to a well known local witch doctor. “Witch doctor” I said, “you all have been watching too many low budget movies. We call them traditional healers these days, not witch doctors”. They all, including Kozondo, would have none of it. “They are bad and very dangerous people, not healers” he said. It quickly became apparent that I was making a fool of myself trying to explain why “traditional healer” was a better way to talk than “witch doctor”. One of our group had some kind of anti-anxiety medicine. We convinced Kozondo to try one but it had no effect at all. Everyone agreed that he must consult the witch doctor so we took him. …
That evening we had something like a seminar with our employees and neighbors about witchcraft. Everyone except the Americans agreed that witchcraft was a terrible problem, that there was danger all around, and that it was vitally important to maintain amicable relations with others and to reject feelings of anger or jealousy in oneself. The way it works is like this: perhaps Greg falls and hurts himself, he knows it must be witchcraft, he discovers that I am seething with jealousy of his facility with words, so it was my witchcraft that made him fall. What is surprising is that I was completely unaware of having witched him so he bears me no ill will. I feel bad about his misfortune and do my best to get rid of my bad feelings because with them I am a danger to friends and family. Among Herero there is no such thing as an accident, there is no such thing as a natural death, witchcraft in some form is behind all of it. Did you have a gastrointestinal upset this morning? Clearly someone slipped some pink potion in the milk. Except for a few atheists there was no disagreement about this. Emotions get projected over vast distances so beware.
Even more interesting to us was the universal understanding that white people were not vulnerable to witchcraft and could neither feel it nor understand it. White people literally lack a crucial sense, or part of the brain. An upside, I was told, was that we did not face the dangers that locals faced. On the other hand our bad feelings could be projected so as good citizens we had to monitor carefully our own “hearts”.
French Canadian researchers have shown that natural selection has noticeably sped up reproduction among the inhabitants of Île aux Coudres, an island in the St. Lawrence River – in less than 150 years. Between 1799 and 1940, the age at which women had their first child dropped from 26 to 22, and analysis shows this is due to genetic change.
… Today the French of Quebec must differ significantly (in those genes that influence this trait) from people in France, which has had relatively slow population growth. …
The same must be the case for old American types whose ancestors – Puritans, for example – arrived early and went through a number of high-fertility generations in colonial days. It’s likely the case for the Mormons, who are largely descended from New Englanders. I’ve heard of odd allele frequencies in CEU (involving FSH) that may relate to this.
Something similar must be true of the Boers as well.
I would guess that a similar process operated among the first Amerindians that managed to get past the ice in North America. America south of the glaciers would have been a piece of cake for anyone tough enough to make a living as a hunter in Beringia – lush beyond belief, animals with no experience of humans.
(Black Russians are, I think, an alcoholic beverage.)
Every now and then, I notice someone, often an anthropologist, saying that human cognitive capability just has to be the same in all populations. According to Loring Brace, “Human cognitive capacity , founded on the ability to learn a language, is of equal survival value to all human groups, and consequently there is no valid reason to expect that there should be average differences in intellectual ability among living human populations. ”
There are a lot of ideas and assumptions in that quote, and as far as I can tell, all of them are wrong. …
Populations vary tremendously in the fraction that contributes original work in science and technology – and that variation mostly agrees with the distribution of IQ.
As I have mentioned before, the mtDNA of European hunter-gathers seems to be very different from that of modern Europeans. The ancient European mtDNA pool was about 80% U5b – today that lineage is typically found at 10% frequency or lower, except in northern Scandinavia. Haplogroup H, currently the most common in Europe, has never been found in early Neolithic or pre-Neolithic Europeans. …
Interestingly, there is a very similar pattern in canine mtDNA. Today Europeans dogs fall into four haplotypes: A (70%), B(16%), C (6%), and D(8%). But back in the day, it seems that the overwhelming majority of dogs (88%) were type C, 12% were in group A, while B and D have not been detected at all.
Richard Lewontin argued that since most (> 85%) genetic variation in humans is within-group, rather than between groups, human populations can’t be very different. Of course, if this argument is valid, it should apply to any genetically determined trait. Thus the variation in skin color within a population should be larger than the skin color differences between populations – except that it’s not. The difference in skin color between Europeans and Pygmies is large, so large that there is no overlap at all.
There is a large region of homogeneity on European haplotypes with the mutation [for lactose tolerance], telling us that it has arisen to high frequency within the last few thousand years. …
In a dairy culture where fresh milk was readily available, children who could drink it obtained about 40% more calories from milk than children who were not LT.
Consider that 1 Liter of cow’s milk has
* 250 Cal from lactose * 300 Cal from fat * 170 Cal from protein
or 720 Calories per liter. But what if one is lactose intolerant? Then no matter whether or not flatulence occurs that person does not get the 250 Calories of lactose from the liter of milk, but only gets 470.
I was contemplating Conan the Barbarian, and remembered the essay that Robert E. Howard wrote about the background of those stories – The Hyborian Age. I think that the flavor of Howard’s pseudo-history is a lot more realistic than the picture of the human past academics preferred over the past few decades. …
Given the chance (sufficient lack of information), American anthropologists assumed that the Mayans were peaceful astronomers. Howard would have assumed that they were just another blood-drenched snake cult: who came closer? …
Most important, Conan, unlike the typical professor, knew what was best in life.
If there is any substantial heritability of merit, where merit is whatever leads to class mobility, then mobility ought to turn classes into hereditary castes surprisingly rapidly.
A start at looking into genetic consequences of meritocracy is to create the simplest possible model and follow its implications. Consider free meritocracy in a two class system, meaning that each generation anyone in the lower class who has greater merit than someone in the upper class immediately swaps class with them. …
Back to the book. Chapter 3: Agriculture: The Big Change
This chapter’s thesis is the crux of the book: agriculture simultaneously exposed humans to new selective pressured and allowed the human population to grow, creating a greater quantity of novel mutations for natural selection to work on.
Sixty thousand years ago, before the expansion out of Africa, there were something like a quarter of a million modern humans. By the Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago that number was roughly 60 million.
Most random mutations fall somewhere between “useless” and “kill you instantly,” but a few, like lactase persistence, are good. I’m just making up numbers, but suppose 1 in 100 people has good, novel mutation. If your group has 100 people in it (per generation), then you get one good mutation. If your group has 1,000 people, then you get 10 good mutations.
Evolution isn’t like getting bitten by a radioactive spider–it can only work on the genetic variation people actually have. More genetic variation=more chances at getting a good gene that helps people survive.
Or to put it another way, we can look at a population and use “time” as one of our dimensions. Imagine a rectangle of people–all of the people in a community, over time–100 people in the first generation, 100 in the second, etc. After enough time, (10 generations or about 200 years,) you will have 1,000 people and of course hit 10 favorable mutations.
Increasing the population per generation simply increases the speed with which you get those 10 good mutations.
One might think that it would take much longer for a favorable mutation to spread through such a large population than it would for one to spread through a population as small as the one that existed in the Old Stone Ag. But sine the frequency of an advantageous allele increases exponentially with time in a well-mixed population, rather like the flu, it takes only twice as long to spread through a population of 100 million as it does to spread through a population of 10,000.
The authors note that larger populations can generate more good, creative ideas, not just genes.
Agriculture–and its attendant high population densities–brought about massive cultural changes to human life, from the simple fact of sedentism (for non-pastoralists) to the ability to store crops for the winter, build long-term housing, and fund governments, which in turn created and enforced laws which further changed how humans lived and interacted.
(Note: “government” pre-dates agriculture, but was rather different when people had no surplus grain to take as taxes.)
Plagues have been kind of a big deal in the history of civilization.
Combined with sedentism, these developments eventually led to the birth of governments, which limited local violence. Presumably, governments did this because it let them extract more resources from their subjects…
Peasants fighting among themselves interferes with the economy. Governments don’t like it and will tend to hang the people involved.
Some people call it self-domestication.
Recent studies have found hundreds of ongoing [genetic] sweeps–sweeps begun thousands of years ago that are still in progress today. Some alleles have gone to fixation, more have intermediate frequencies, and most are regional. Many are very recent: the rate of origination peaks at around 5,000 years ago in the European and Chinese samples, and about 8,500 years ago in the African sample.
I assume that these genes originating about 5,000 years ago are mostly capturing the Indo-European (pastoralist) and Anatolian (farming) expansions. I don’t know what happened in China around 5,000 years ago, but I wouldn’t be surprised if whatever triggered the Indo-Europeans to start moving in central Asia were connected with events further to the east.
IIRC, 8,500 years ago is too early for the Bantu expansion in Africa, so must be related to something else.
There is every reason to think that early farmers developed serious health problems from this low-protein, vitamin -short, high-carbohydrate diet. Infant mortality increased, and the poor diet was likely one of the causes. you can see the mismatch between the genes and the environment in the skeletal evidence Humans who adopted agriculture shrank: average height dropped by almost five inches.
I have seen this claim many times, and still find it incredible. I am still open to the possibility of it having been caused by a third, underlying factor, like “more people surviving diseases that had formerly killed them.”
There are numerous signs of pathology in the bones of early agriculturalists. In the Americas, the introduction of maize led to widespread tooth decay and anemia due to iron deficiency…
Of course, over time, people adapted to their new diets. You are not a hunter-gatherer. (Probably. If you are, hello!)
…Similarly, vitamin D shortages in the new die may have driven the evolution of light skin in Europe and northern Asia. Vitamin D is produced by ultraviolet radiation from the sun acting on our skin… Since there is plenty of vitamin D in fresh meat, hunter-gatherers in Europe may not have suffered from vitamin D shortages and thus may have been able to get by with fairly dark skin. In fact, this must have been the case, since several of the major mutations causing light skin color appear to have originated after the birth of agriculture. vitamin D was not abundant in the new cereal-based diet, and any resulting shortages would have been serious, since they could lead to bone malformations (rickets,) decreased resistance to infectious diseases, and even cancer. …
I have read that of the dark-skinned peoples who have recently moved to Britain, the vegetarians among them have been the hardest-hit by vitamin D deficiency. Meat is protective.
Peoples who have farmed since shortly after the end of the Ice Age (such as the inhabitants of the Middle East) must have adapted most thoroughly to agriculture. In areas where agriculture is younger, such as Europe or China, we’d expect to see fewer adaptive changes… In groups that had remained foragers, there would presumably be no such adaptive changes…
Populations that have never farmed or that haven’t farmed for long, such as the Australian Aborigines and many Amerindians, have characteristic health problems today when exposed to Western diets.
EG, Type 2 diabetes.
Dr. (of dentistry) Weston Price has an interesting book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, that describes people Price met around the world, their dental health, and their relationship to Western or traditional diets. (Written/published back in the 1930s.) I’m a fan of the book; I am not a fan of the kind of weird organization that publishes it. That organization promotes fringe stuff like drinking raw milk, but as far as I can recall, I didn’t see anything about drinking raw milk in the entirety of Dr. Price’s tome; Dr. Price wasn’t pushing anything fringe, but found uncontroversial things like “poverty-stricken children during the Great Depression did better in school when given nutritious lunches.” Price was big on improper nutrition as the cause of tooth decay and was concerned about the effects of industrialization and Western diets on people’s bones and teeth.
So we’ve reached the end of Chapter 3. What did you think? Do you agree with Greg and Henry’s model of how Type 2 Diabetes arises, or with the “thrifty genotype” promulgated by James Neel? And why do metabolic syndromes seem to affect poor whites more than affluent ones?
What about the higher rates of FAS among African Americans than the French (despite the French love of alcohol) or the straight up ban on alcohol in many Islamic (ancient farming) cultures? What’s going on there?
I’ve long wondered which group arrived first in Europe: the Indo-Europeans or the Finno-Ugrics. Most Europeans speak one of the hundreds of languages in the Indo-European family tree, but a few groups speak languages from the mostly Siberian Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic family.
(Sorry, guys, I’m out of practice writing and these sentences don’t sound good to me, but the only way to improve is to forge ahead, so let’s go.)
Major countries/ethnic groups that speak Finno-Ugric languages include the Finns (obviously,) Saami/Lapps, Hungarians, and Estonians. The most southerly of this family, Hungarian, arrived in the Carpathian Basin within the span of recorded History (in 894 or 895, followed by a few years of warfare to secure their territory,) but the origins of the other European Finno-Ugric languages remains mysterious.
Who arrived first, the Indo Europeans or the Finns? Did the Saami always live in their current homelands, or did they once range much further south or east? Did they migrate here recently or long ago (since the entire area was under ice sheets during the ice age, no one lived there tens of thousands of years ago.)
With the exception of Hungarian, these languages all hail from the far north (especially if you include the Samoyidic languages, which hail from north of Komi on the map,) a cold and forbidding land where herding, hunting, gathering, and fishing have remained the primary way of life until quite recently–the long winters making agriculture very difficult.
Here we analyse ancient genomic data from 11 individuals from Finland and north-western Russia. We show that the genetic makeup of northern Europe was shaped by migrations from Siberia that began at least 3500 years ago. This Siberian ancestry was subsequently admixed into many modern populations in the region, particularly into populations speaking Uralic languages today. Additionally, we show that ancestors of modern Saami inhabited a larger territory during the Iron Age, which adds to the historical and linguistic information about the population history of Finland.
Let’s cut to the pictures, because they are worth a thousand words:
Just in case you are unclear on the geography, the Modern Saami come from northern part of the Finnoscandian peninsula. Six of the ancient remains came from Bolshoy Oleni Ostrov in the Murmansk Region on the Kola Peninsula–that’s the topmost dot on the map, now in Russia. These remains are very old–dated to about 1610-1436 BC.
Seven remains came from Levänluhta in Isokyrö, Finland, from a more recent burial dated to around 300-800 AD. (Actually, I think Levanluhta is a lake, so This is the most southwestern burial on the map, in an area where the modern Finns live.
And the remains of two people came from a much more recent Saami cemetery in the Kola peninsula, Chalmny Varre, dating from the 17 or 1800s.
All of this DNA was compared against a variety of reference populations:
(I would just like to pause for a moment to appreciate both the beauty and hard work that went into these graphs.)
PC2 graphs are a little complicated, but what we’re basically looking at (in color) are two different human population axes. They very roughly correlate to north-south (up and down) and east-west, (left to right), because people tend to be more closely related to their neighbors than people thousands of miles away, but there’s another, more fascinating story going on here.
On the right-hand side, we have a cline that maps very nicely to north and south, from the Yukagir–a people from a part of Russia that’s so far to the northeast it’s almost in Alaska–at the top and the Semende of Indonesia and the Atayal, an indigenous Taiwanese group, at the bottom. (Most Taiwanese you meet are either newly arrived Han Chinese or older Han Chinese; the aboriginal Taiwanese are different, but likely the ancestors of Polynesians.)
Most east Asian DNA shows up as a blend of these two groups (which we may call roughly polar and tropical). In the chart to the right, taken from Haak et al, the polar DNA is red and the tropical is yellow. So the up-down cline on the right side of the map represents which particular mix of Polar/Tropical DNA these folks have.
On the left side of the graph, we have a farming/hunter-gatherer cline. The first farmers hailed from Anatolia (now Turkey, but that was before the Turks moved to Turkey,) and subsequently spread/conquered most of Europe and probably a few other places, because agriculture was quite successful. So the orange is Middle Easterners; above them are southern Europeans like Albanians and Basques; then the English, French, Hungarians, Finns, etc; and finally some older burials of people with descriptive names like “Eastern Hunter-Gatherer” [EHG] or “Scandinavian Hunter-gatherers” [SHG].
(I have to constantly remind myself what these little abbreviations mean, but The Genetic Prehistory of the Baltic Region probably clears things up a bit:
Similarly, in the Eastern Baltic, where foraging continued to be the main form of subsistence until at least 4000 calBCE15, ceramics technology was adopted before agriculture, as seen in the Narva Culture and Combed Ceramic Culture (CCC). Recent genome-wide data of Baltic pottery-producing hunter-gatherers revealed genetic continuity with the preceding Mesolithic inhabitants of the same region as well as influence from the more northern EHG21,22, but did not reveal conclusively whether there was a temporal, geographical or cultural correlation with the affinity to either WHG or EHG.
The transition from the Late (Final) Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age (LNBA) is seen as a major transformative period in European prehistory, accompanied by changes in burial customs, technology and mode of subsistence as well as the creation of new cross-continental networks of contact seen in the emergence of the pan-European Corded Ware Complex (CWC, ca. 2900–2300 calBCE) in Central2 and north-eastern Europe21.
If you remember your Guns, Germs, and Steel, Turkish farmers had a really hard time getting their wheat to grow up in really cold places like Northern Russia, Scandinavia and Narva (near the border between Estonia and Russia on the Baltic Sea,) which is why modern Finland is super poor and Turkey and Mexico, where corn was domesticated, are rich–what it doesn’t quite work like that?
So most Europeans today are a mix of Anatolian farmers and various European hunter gatherer groups, with exactly how much you got depending a lot on whether the local environment was hospitable to farming. The pure hunter-gatherer genomes therefore show up as “further north” than the mixed, modern genomes of modern French and British folks.
There were additional events besides the Anatolian conquest that shaped modern European genetics–mostly the aforementioned Indo-European conquest–but the Indo-Europeans were at least part hunter-gatherer by DNA (nomadic pastoralists by profession,) so on this scale, their contributions look a lot like the older hunter-gatherer DNA.
So the interesting part of the graph is the middle, where all of the central Eurasian peoples are plotted. The purple band is various Finno-Ugric/Uralic speakers.
Hungarians are solidly in Europe because the ancient conquering Magyars left behind their language, but not much of their DNA (as we’ve discussed previously.) The Nganasan are one of the most thoroughly Siberian peoples you can imagine; they historically survived by hunting reindeer.
The green swaths (light and dark teal) are mostly Turkic-language speaking peoples; the Turkic peoples originated near Mongolia/Korea and spread out from there, mostly absorbing the DNA of whomever they encountered and passing on their language. The authors have also included Mongolian (which is not in the Turkic language family) in the light green group and some Caucuses groups in the dark teal.
Interestingly, the Yukaghir language (far upper right) is (according to Wikipedia,) potentially in the greater Finno-Ugric/Uralic family:
The relationship of the Yukaghir languages with other language families is uncertain, though it has been suggested that they are distantly related to the Uralic languages, thus forming the putative Uralic–Yukaghir language family.
Based on the genetics, I’d say it looks very likely that the ancestors of Uralic-speaking Nganasan and the Yukagirs were conversing in some sort of mutually intelligible language. Unfortunately, Yukaghir has very few speakers and is likely to die, so there’s not much time to research it.
Finally in the Light Teal we have some groups from Pakistan/Afghanistan, like the Balochi.
(Note that all of the colors used in these studies are arbitrary; DNA doesn’t really have a color.)
So where do our ancient DNA remains fall on this graph?
Today, the Levanluhta site is in Finland, surrounded solidly by Finns (and maybe some random Scandinavians; who knows;) in 300-800 AD, the population was almost identical to modern Saami. So even though Saami and Finns both speak Finno-Ugric languages, the Finns replaces the Saami in this area sometime in the past 1,500 years or so.
One Levanlughta skeleton is an exception–the one marked Levanlughta_B; it is clearly closer to the Finns and English on this graph, but deeper mathematical analysis disputes this conclusion:
One of the individuals from Levänluhta (JK2065/Levänluhta_B) rejects a cladal position with modern Saami to the exclusion of most modern Eurasian populations. This individual also rejects a cladal position with Finns. We analysed low coverage genomes from four additional individuals of the Levänluhta site using PCA (Supplementary Figure 3), confirming the exclusive position of Levänluhta_B compared to all other six individuals (including the four low-coverage individuals) from that site, as is consistent with the ADMIXTURE and qpAdm results. The outlier position of this individual cannot be explained by modern contamination, since it passed several tests for authentication (see Methods) along with all other ancient individuals. However, no direct dating was available for the Levänluhta material, and we cannot exclude the possibility of a temporal gap between this individual and the other individuals from that site.
In other words, it is a mystery.
The remains from Chalmny Varre, which we know was a Saami cemetery, unsurprisingly cluster with the other Saami.
The Bolshoy remains, though, are quite interesting. They are shifted slightly in the direction of the ancient hunter-gatherers (perhaps their descendants, if still around, have mixed a bit with the agriculturalists.) Their physical location is about as far east as the Red Squares (ethnic Russians,) yet the more closely resemble the Mansi or the Selkups. (The modern Mansi live here; the modern Selkups live nearby.)
Getting down to the bar graphs, we see this data presented in a different way.
There are three groups that we can see contributing to most modern Europeans–Farmers, represented by the Orange LBK DNA; exclusively Indo-European, Green, notably not found in the Basque; and hunter-gatherers in Dark Blue. (Note that the ancestors of the Indo-Europeans hailed from the Central Eurasian steppes and so their DNA could have gotten around there, too.)
The modern Saami also have a Purple component to their DNA, which finds its highest expression in the Nganasan of far eastern polar Russia.
So the oldest burials–the Bolshoy–show no agricultural DNA. They are hunter-gatherers+Siberians, with a touch of Indo-European (probably from a steppe population that might have contributed to the Indos as well) and a bit they share with… the Karitiana of Brazil? Well, the Native Americans did descend from Paleo Siberians, so some genetic relatedness is expected.
The more recent burials, which cluster with the modern Saami, all show agricultural DNA–probably due to marrying a few of the local Finns/Russians who carry some agricultural DNA (who are almost genetically identical on this scale) rather than a pure LBK agriculturalist.
Here we see why the one outlier, Levanlughta_B, doens’t group with the Finns, either–modern Finns and Russians have some of that Nganasan-style Siberian DNA (probably from the same process that gifted Finnish/Russian DNA to the Saami), but Levanlughta_B doesn’t. Levanlughta_B looks more like the Baltic BA sample (Baltic Bronze Age.) Perhaps this individual was just a merchant, traveler, or lost–or represents a stage before the modern Finnish population had been produced.
The Finnish population itself is interesting, because it is genetically very similar to the Russian, but obviously speaks a language far more closely related to Saami (Lapp) than anything in the Indo-European tree. While it is therefore likely that the Finns replaced the Saami in the area around Lake Levanlughta, it seems also probable that in the process, they absorbed a large number of Uralic-speaking people. Who conquered (or married) whom? Did an ancient Balto-Slavic population move into what is now Finland, marry the local Saami girls, and adopt their language? Did an ancient Siberian population speaking a Uralic language conquer some ancient group of Russians, take their women, pass on their Uralic language, and later move into Finland and drive out the locals? Or perhaps something even more complicated occurred.
As for the Bolshoy, are they related (closely) to the modern Saami, or are they a group that simply died out?
The paper goes on:
While the Siberian genetic component presented here [Purple] has been previously described in modern-day populations from the region1,3,9,10, we gain further insights into its temporal depth. Our data suggest that this fourth genetic component found in modern-day north-eastern Europeans arrived in the area before 3500 yBP. It was introduced in the population ancestral to Bolshoy Oleni Ostrov individuals 4000 years ago at latest, as illustrated by ALDER dating using the ancient genome-wide data from the Bolshoy samples. The upper bound for the introduction of this component is harder to estimate. The component is absent in the Karelian hunter-gatherers (EHG)3 dated to 8300–7200 yBP as well as Mesolithic and Neolithic populations from the Baltics from 8300 yBP and 7100–5000 yBP respectively8.
Karelia is a region that crosses the border between Finland and Russia, so it is significant that this Siberian component isn’t found in ancient Karelian hunter-gatherers. Of course, the Siberians could have just been further north, however, the authors note that we have archaeological evidence of the spread of the Bolshoy people:
The large Nganasan-related component in the Bolshoy individuals from the Kola Peninsula provides the earliest direct genetic evidence for an eastern migration into this region. Such contact is well documented in archaeology, with the introduction of asbestos-mixed Lovozero ceramics during the second millennium BC50, and the spread of even-based arrowheads in Lapland from 1900 BCE51,52. Additionally, the nearest counterparts of Vardøy ceramics, appearing in the area around 1,600-1,300 BCE, can be found on the Taymyr peninsula, much further to the East51,52. Finally, the Imiyakhtakhskaya culture from Yakutia spread to the Kola Peninsula during the same period24,53. Contacts between Siberia and Europe are also recognised in linguistics. The fact that the Nganasan-related genetic component is consistently shared among Uralic-speaking populations, with the exceptions of absence in Hungarians and presence in the non-Uralic speaking Russians, makes it tempting to equate this genetic component with the spread of Uralic languages in the area.
The authors qualify this with a bit of “it’s complicated; people move around a lot,” but basically it’s People: not pots.
That was an enjoyable read; I look forward to the next paper from these folks.
A Colombian man’s lung tumors turned out to have an extremely unusual cause: The rapidly growing masses weren’t actually made of human cells, but were from a tapeworm living inside him, according to a report of the case.
This is the first known report of a person becoming sick from cancer cells that developed in a parasite, the researchers said.
“We were amazed when we found this new type of disease—tapeworms growing inside a person, essentially getting cancer, that spreads to the person, causing tumors,” said study researcher Dr. Atis Muehlenbachs, a staff pathologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Infectious Diseases Pathology Branch (IDPB).
The man had HIV, which weakens the immune system and likely played a role in allowing the development of the parasite cancer, the researchers said.
Fast forward to the spring of 2017. PreP had recently ushered in the second sexual revolution and everyone was now fucking each other like it was 1979. My wonderful boyfriend and I enjoyed a healthy sex life inside and outside our open relationship. Then he started experiencing stomach problems: diarrhea, bloating, stomach aches, nausea. All too familiar with those symptoms, I recommended he go to the doctor and ask for a stool test. …
His results came back positive for giardia. …
Well, just a few months later, summer of 2017, my boyfriend started experiencing another bout of diarrhea and stomach cramps. … This time the results came back positive for entamoeba histolytica. What the fuck is entamoeba histolytica?! I knew giardia. Giardia and I were on a first name basis. But entamoeba, what now?
Entamoeba histolytica, as it turns out, is another parasite common in developing countries spread through contaminated drinking water, poor hygiene when handling food, and…rimming. The PA treating him wasn’t familiar with entamoeba histolytica or how to treat it, so she had to research (Google?) how to handle the infection. The medical literature (Google search results?) led us back to metronidazole, the same antibiotic used to treat giardia.
When your urge to lick butts is so strong that this keeps happening, you’ve got to consider an underlying condition like toxoplasmosis or kamikaze horsehair worm.
Unless I have missed a paper somewhere, this is a remarkable chapter, for The 10,000 Year Explosion was published in 2009, and the first Neanderthal genome showing more overlap with Europeans (and Asians) than Sub-Saharans was published in 2010. Greg and Henry did know of genetic evidence that humans have about 5% admixture from some archaic sister-species, but no one yet had evidence of which species, nor was there popular agreement on the subject. Many scientists still rejected the notion of Sapiens-Neanderthal interbreeding when Cochran and Harpending laid out their bold claim that not only had it happened, but it was a critical moment in human history, jump-starting the cultural cultural effervescence known as behavioral modernity.
Homo sapiens have been around for 300,000 years–give or take a hundred thousand–but for most of that time, we left behind rather few interesting artifacts. As the authors point out, we failed to develop agriculture during the Eemian interglacial (though we managed to develop agriculture at least 7 times, independently, during the current interglacial). Homo sapiens attempted to leave Africa several times before 70,000 years ago, but failed each time, either because they weren’t clever enough to survive in their new environment or couldn’t compete with existing hominins (ie, Neanderthals) in the area.
Sapiens’ technology didn’t do much interesting for the first couple hundred thousand years, either. Yet 70,000 years ago, sapiens did manage to leave Africa, displace the Neanderthals, spread into radically new climates, developed long distance trade and art, and eventually agriculture and everything we now enjoy here in the modern world.
According to Wikipedia, behavioral modernity includes:
Burial, fishing, art, self-decoration via jewelry or pigment, bone tools, sharp blades, hearths, multi-part tools, long-distance transportation of important items, and regionally distinct artifacts.
This leaves two important questions re: Cochran and Harpending’s theory. First, when exactly did behavioral modernity emerge, and second, was it a gradual transition or a sudden explosion?
Prehistoric art is tricky to date–and obviously did not always get preserved–but Blombos Cave, South Africa, currently contains our earliest piece, from about 70,000-100,000 years ago. The Blombos art is not figurative–it’s patterns of crosshatched lines–but there’s a fair amount of it. Blombos appears to have been an ochre-processing spot (the art is made with or on pieces of ochre) littered with thousands of leftover scraps. According to Wikipedia:
In 2008 an ochre processing workshop consisting of two toolkits was uncovered in the 100,000-year-old levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Analysis shows that a liquefied pigment-rich mixture was produced and stored in the shells of two Haliotis midae (abalone), and that ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones and hammer-stones also formed a composite part of the toolkits. As both toolkits were left in situ, and as there are few other archaeological remains in the same layer, it seems the site was used primarily as a workshop and was abandoned shortly after the pigment-rich compounds were made. Dune sand then blew into the cave from the outside, encapsulated the toolkits and by happenstance ensured their preservation before the next occupants arrived, possibly several decades or centuries later.
The application or use of the compound is not self-evident. No resins or wax were detected that might indicate it was an adhesive for hafting.
70 beads made from shells with holes drilled in them have also been found at Blombos.
Blombos is interesting, but the “art” is not actually very good–and we can’t say for sure that it was meant as art at all. Maybe the locals were just scraping the rocks to get the ochre off, for whatever purposes.
Indisputable art emerges a little later, around 40,000 years ago–simultaneously, it appears, in Europe, Asia, Australia, and Indonesia. The archaeology of Africa is less well-documented (in part because things just disintegrate quickly in some areas), but the earliest known sub-Saharan figurative art is about 26,000 years old. This art is both more advanced (it actually looks like art) and more abundant than its predecessors–the Sungir burial, dated to around 30,000-34,000 BC, for example, contains over 13,000 beads–a stark contrast to Blombos’s 70.
If a specific event triggered the simultaneous development of figurative art–and other aspects of behavioral modernity–in four different parts of the world, that event would logically have occurred before those groups split up. The timing of our interbreeding with Neanderthals–“In Eurasia, interbreeding between Neanderthals and Denisovans with modern humans took place several times between about 100,000 and 40,000 years ago, both before and after the recent out-of-Africa migration 70,000 years ago”–is therefore temporaly perfect.
Subsequent back-migration could have then carried the relevant Neanderthal genomesinto Africa–for regardless of where or how behavioral modernity started, all humans now have it.
So what do you think? Did we talk the Neanderthals to death? Did we get the gene for talking from the Neanderthals? Did we out-think them? Or did we just carry some disease or parasite that wiped them out? Or did they wipe themselves out via maternal death in labor, due to their enormous skulls?
(As for FOXP2, it appears that the version found in humans and Neanderthals is slightly different, so I find it a little doubtful that we got it from them.)
A couple of interesting quotes:
In several places, most clearly in central and southwestern France and part of northern Spain, we find a tool tradition that lasted from about 35,000 to 28,000 years ago (the Chatelperronian) that appears to combine some of the techniques of the Neanderthals … with those of modern humans. … Most important, there are several skeletons clearly associated with the Chatelperronian industry, and all are Neanderthal. This strongly suggests that there were interactions between the populations, enough that the Neanderthals learned some useful techniques from modern humans.
The smoking gene?
P. D. Evans and his colleagues at the University of Chicago looked at microcephalin (MCPH1), a very unusual gene that regulates brain size. They found that most people today carry a version that is quite uniform, suggesting that it originated recently. At the same time, it is very different from other, more varied versions found at the same locus in humans today, all of which have many single-nucleotide differences among them. More than that, when there are several different versions of a gene at some locus, we normally find some intermediate versions created by recombination, that is, by chromosomes occasionally breaking and recombining. In the case of the unusual gene (called D for “derived”) at the microcephalin locus, such recombinants are very rare: It is as if the common, highly uniform version of microcephalin simply hasn’t been in the human race all that long in spite of the high frequency of the new version in many human populations. The researchers estimated that it appeared about 37,000 years ago (plus or minus a few tens of thousands of years.) And if it did show up then, Neanderthals are a reasonable, indeed likely, source.
So far as I know (and I looked it up a few weeks ago) no one has yet found microcephalin D in Neanderthals–and the date of 37,000 years ago sounds a bit too recent. However, we haven’t actually genotyped that many Neanderthals (it’s hard to find good 40,000 year old DNA), so we might just not have found it yet–and the date might simply be wrong.
It’s a remarkable genetic finding, even if it didn’t involve Neanderthals–and it might be simpler to dispense with other standards and define Homo sapiens as starting at this point.
On a related note, here’s a bit from Wikipedia about the ASPM gene:
A new allele (version) of ASPM appeared sometime between 14,100 and 500 years ago with a mean estimate of 5,800 years ago. The new allele has a frequency of about 50% in populations of the Middle East and Europe, it is less frequent in East Asia, and has low frequencies among Sub-Saharan African populations. It is also found with an unusually high percentage among the people of Papua New Guinea, with a 59.4% occurrence.
The mean estimated age of the ASPM allele of 5,800 years ago, roughly correlates with the development of written language, spread of agriculture and development of cities. Currently, two alleles of this gene exist: the older (pre-5,800 years ago) and the newer (post-5,800 years ago). About 10% of humans have two copies of the new ASPM allele, while about 50% have two copies of the old allele. The other 40% of humans have one copy of each. Of those with an instance of the new allele, 50% of them are an identical copy. The allele affects genotype over a large (62 kbp) region, a so called selective sweep which signals a rapid spread of a mutation (such as the new ASPM) through the population; this indicates that the mutation is somehow advantageous to the individual.
Testing the IQ of those with and without new ASPM allele has shown no difference in average IQ, providing no evidence to support the notion that the gene increases intelligence. However statistical analysis has shown that the older forms of the gene are found more heavily in populations that speak tonal languages like Chinese or many Sub-Saharan African languages.
Note: today we have a guest post, courtesy of Monsieur le Baron. I hope you enjoy it.
Welcome back. I’m happy to be here with another guest post.
Last time, we discussed the strange creature known as the Bobo. But not all SWPLs are rich. Many are, in fact, quite poor. What of these… SWProles? Today, we’ll be covering the Theory of the Aspirational Class, walking through some musings, and making some conclusions.
First, to explain terms. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the author’s analysis. They have a tendency to lump both Bobo and SWProle together into one homogeneous SWPL group, which they call “elite” or the Aspirational Class. I don’t think this is necessarily a valid leap – while it does capture some essential cultural similarities, the defining aspect of the SWProle WITH RELATION TO their more affluent brethren is their total lack of power or money – their lack of eliteness. Nor is “Aspirational Class” really totally valid for the whole class. I am the most aspirational of my cohort, but this is not held up as a virtue – I’m a dirty “striver” (although I must fall upon a phrase oft shared with my Russian friends: “A shark swims or it suffocates.”). And even this striving is not nearly at the scale of the SWProles. I want for very little, mostly some more money so I can sustain a lifestyle of truly excessive and vulgar spending, and obviously power and a spot in the upper class. I dream of one day exclusively shopping at Whole Foods while beginning every morning with avocado toast.
“Today’s aspirational class lacks such self-consciousness, and many members lack bobos’ financial means. The aspirational class is motivated by self-confident values and is actively choosing its way of life through an extensive process of information gathering and forming opinions and values, some of which involve moneybut many of which rest on cultural capital instead.”
Yes, money! A lot of goddamn money. A friend of mine trawls Dave Ramsay and other finance story places, and one couple, who made only about $150,000 a year, managed to get half a million dollars in debt financing their dissolute Whole Foods eating crunchy lifestyle. Unbelievable. An asparagus water here, a sushi roll there, and now you’re talking about real money. We live in a society obsessed with luxury and flash.
Which brings me to my second disagreement. The good doctor divides spending into conspicuous, inconspicuous, and other. But what she calls “inconspicuous” spending is not meant to be inconspicuous at all, but is merely a new form of status signaling. Instead, they could be called “Traditional” and “Modern”, or, even more aptly, “Tasteless” and “Stuff White People Like”.
But I still find it admirable for an academic to gather so much data. Most analyses are equally flawed and rely wholly on anecdote. This one has data. Lots of data. And the gathering of data is an inherently worthy goal. Without further ado, let’s begin.
To my chagrin, I often encounter the belief that rich people love to buy what one might call “expensive bullshit”. I call this a sort of “reality TV” or “Wolf of Wall Street” syndrome. It’s like Instagram reality, but for money. Many people spread this bullshit while few have an interest in debunking it. It allows buyers of dumb branded clothing to think they’re impressing others with a genuine status symbol. Makers of said dumb branded clothing obviously benefit. And the real upper castes benefit by obfuscating true class markers. But still, people should be able to figure this out. And especially those who keep abreast of these things.
Here’s a chart.
The short answer to the question of traditional (aka garish) status signaling and elites is “no”. The long answer is “nooooooooo”.
The more educated you are, the more you buy SWPL things. Also, the more you have to status signal in general. This is significant and we’ll return to it later.
The bigger the metro, the showier people get. People are least showy in that old stronghold of status, the Northeast. This means something too.
The older people get, the less they signal.
We’re getting there.
Let’s draw a graph.
In one corner, you have your classic prole. They have no culture and they have no elite competence or power. You know them! You love them! They’re classic proles. On the other end, we have people with lots of sociocultural status and power. They’re Bobos. They’re the reigning heavyweights of USG and the FEDGOV empire. They’ve got the aristocratic traditions, the power, the money, the institutions, the everything that matters.
But wait, this leaves two empty sectors. Ah, exactly. This is the explanation for Schrodinger’s SWPL, the fine fellow on stuffwhitepeoplelike which flips between self-confident, affluent elite, and nervous, anxious faker who only pretends to like classical music and can only speak English by the entry. Viewed solely through culture, as stuffwhitepeoplelike does and as Theory of the Aspirational Class does, one cannot properly distinguish the two. That’s because the difference between a mere aspirant and a true blue aristocrat is actual power.
So what is the SWProle doing then? The act of performing elite class culture is an act of self-affirmation, of belonging. By performing elite culture, they are making a symbolic claim to being elite. Of course, this claim is frequently challenged by a hostile society – I call this challenge of reality. In reality, they are not elite in any real sense of the word, and, indeed, can barely afford coffee without spiraling into debt. Only through constant and continuous signaling can they distinguish themselves from the proles they basically are. And how does one signal? Luxuries. Lots and lots of luxuries. Why do millennials spend so much of their income on luxury goods? Because so many millennials are educated, education is participation in a literal surviving organ of the Ancien Regime, and therefore it invites the young graduate to buy lots of luxuries to assert their new elite status (and, as seen in a previous chart, many take this invitation).
What happens when something threatens to pop this comfortable delusion bubble?
“Orwell goes on to point out that it is the anxious lower-upper-middle-class who have the most venom towards those below them–precisely because to preserve their status, they have to keep themselves sharply apart from the workers and tradesmen. And I think that that does apply here as well, at least to some extent. One of the interesting things about going back to my business school reunion earlier in the month was simply the absence of the sort of cutting remarks about flyover country that I have grown used to hearing in any large gathering of people. I didn’t notice it until after the events were over, because it was a slow accumulation of all the jokes and rants I hadn’t heard about NASCAR, McMansions, megachurches, reality television, and all the other cultural signifiers that make up a small but steady undercurrent of my current social milieu, the way Polish jokes did when I was in sixth grade.”
Familiarity breeds contempt. This is why I have so much of it against my fellow aristocrats.
The lot of the SWProle is a cold and miserable one.
And, I think, a fundamental error in approach.
Let’s discuss the right way to become elite, then. Let’s discuss our final sector.
I divide the upper middle class into a few different kinds. You have the noblesse de robe, the noblesse d’epee, the haute bourgeois, socialites, and the clergy. Let’s narrow our focus to a peacetime society midway through its development. This means our primary drivers of elite formation will be the haute bourgeois and the noblesse de robe.
Some neoreactionaries identify the aristocracy with top tier businessmen, and while I don’t think that’s totally true, I think there are grains of truth to it. They sense, rightly, there is something reactionary about the corporate structure. Similarly, I usually identify the aristocracy nigh totally with the noblesse de robe, which is a distortion on my part. To state things more accurately, I would say that different institutions inherited different segments of the aristocratic idea after the shattering of the Ancien Regime. The customs and practices of the royal court were carried away and eventually planted in fertile soil, and this little seed grew up into the idea of Big Business. And the universities and academies of the Ancien Regime which trained so many generations of bluebloods dissociated from the idea of aristocracy, at least explicitly, and so became today’s Ivory Towers.
What SWProles are essentially trying to do is to get into the elite via socialization. But this is flawed. First of all, it’s flawed because their act is too perfect. I discuss this in my post about sartorial correctness , but it’s basically like the differences between an educated foreigner and a native speaker. The latter makes certain classes of mistakes that make the language more fluid and natural. Second of all, it’s flawed because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the character of upper caste socialization. Proles like to imagine upper caste socialization as extremely smooth and elegant. And it is, in a sense. But it’s only elegant because the upper castes define what “elegant” is. It’s not true grace in the normie sense, it’s self-assuredness. An aristocrat is a creature that thinks hugging their kids is weird, but keeping a ferret in your breasts to eat lamb shanks is perfectly normal. They’re weird. Wealthier people have a higher incidence of autistic children.
It’s not normie social interaction but smoother. What are aristocrats actually doing? Who are the residents of our missing quadrant?
They’re doing nerdtalk and powertalk.
The chart is complete.
SWProles are almost certainly doomed to failure because they’re trying to socialize normally with people who are doing nerdtalk and powertalk. They just don’t get it. Even if they memorize all the quirks, their failure is the failure to grok the category of conversation.
By contrast, the main difference between nerds/boors and true Bobos is self-assuredness or the lack thereof.
What is powertalk? Powertalk is a concept taken from Ribbonfarm’s Gervais Principle, and it’s basically the naked discussion of gains and losses. Go read it if you haven’t, though I disagree with his characterization of the inner life of psychopaths. In powertalk, you’re always talking real shit. Successful businessmen do this really well. But, unfortunately, the normal world frowns on them. People from normal backgrounds who try to do well in business and FIRE are pulled down by their peers. People resent the wealthy. People resent early retirees. They’re surrounded by crabs in a bucket. The only choice is to hide. But when you hide, you become less self-assured. And the subject varies somewhat. Money remains a concern, but powertalk past a certain level of social status must also focus on the original burrito: Power. So they must learn a new subject matter.
Similarly, what do nerds do? Nerds talk and argue about the minutia of nerd cultural works like sci-fi and comics, and they discuss the fine technical details of various technologies. What do aristocrats do? They talk about and argue the minutia of art and music, and they discuss the fine details of various Important Ideas and Historical Events and Other Humanities. Don’t these look similar? In fact, they’re the same thing. Art criticism is just nerds geeking out about comic trivia except over something socially acceptable, and it’s socially acceptable because aristocrats decided it was. Again, the difference is not in category, but merely in subject matter. And the mildly autistic often wish socialization was more explicit and rule-based.
Good news! Aristocrats already had a highly rule-based way of socialization. They called it good manners and it involved signaling what the purpose of your conversation would be by folding a specific corner of a greeting card and many other arcane, bizarre rules. In Ancien Regime France, it was impolite to be the last to thank someone. Unfortunately, this rule has to be broken by someone. Needless to say, there were a lot of dangerously polite people, including one fellow who jumped out of a window to pounce upon someone and properly bid them farewell and thanks. It’s not that they’re not following a weird set of social rules, unlike normies who do things by instinct, it’s that nerds have the wrong rules.
“Eccentricity was central to the aristocracy’s mystique. It was inventive, often disconcerting and entirely natural to a self-confident caste which knew that it was different. Aristocrats were free to indulge their whims.”
“…anyone who lived by his wits could call himself a gentleman and have their presumption endorsed by a herald… The aristocracy have always been an open elite.”
This quadrant of the chart is the quadrant of eliteogenesis. Every so often, a mutant is born in Appalachia or some other backwater province. These mutants don’t fit in. Their environments abuse them and they lose their self-assuredness, being marked as abnormal. But through a creaming mechanism of the day, ambition, and their own thirst to find like-minded people, they are drawn inexorably towards the capital. And if they are able to find a mate and produce offspring, they will make people just as weird as them.
The difference is that their children will be self-assured, totally convinced that their weird little world is normal.
A noble house is born.
So if eliteogenesis is a knowable process, surely we can measure it? Yes, yes, we can. And someone did.
Turchin has many interesting ideas, but we’re going to focus on the idea of elite overproduction.
You have two forces, creation and extinction.
If we take the measured peacetime extinction rate of noble houses and do some math, we arrive at EXACTLY the same imputed mobility rates as given by Professor Clark’s equations in The Son Also Rises. And these mathematical rates match up with historical data about the lifespans of noble families across the world. About half of the modern corporate workers in Japan are samurai descendants. 42% of European high nobility descendants have PhDs. The median lifespan of a Chinese gentry family is about 250 years. In short, everything maths out extremely nicely and cleanly. Convenient, eh?
The other half of elite numbers is production. We have the mechanism of parvenus, by which nerds and boors become founders of new noble houses. But what happens if there’s not enough room? Society can only absorb so many people in the professions. A potential elite instead goes into a pool of prospective elites. A nerd is not hired by a major tech firm, but instead sits at home and makes a nuisance of himself writing exploits.
In the early stages of the secular cycle, there is an abundance of room and resources to grow. The peasants (primary producers) flood in to exploit these resources, resulting in widespread commoner prosperity. The elites begin a secular cycle impoverished and therefore do real work. Many advances are made across all sorts of indices. However, all the excess value created by the peasants results in spectacular potential surpluses for the elites, which begin to increase in number. This causes a shift into the stagflation phase. How do elites sustain themselves? In the long run, elite professions push the societal production frontier. Engineers produce new technologies that result in long-run efficiency gains, doctors increase societal lifespan resulting in more working years, priests produce new cultural memes which structure life, scientists deepen our understanding of the universe, and bankers allocate capital more efficiently to push growth. In short run, elites must feed themselves by transferring value into their own mouths. So the commoners produce all this value, but an increasing amount of elites consumes it all, resulting in stagnant incomes for the common man. The stagflation phases of this secular cycle and the last one both saw massive flowerings of Western science and technology, as the vast number of elites accomplish all sorts of brain work. The decades since 1970 have seen all sorts of transformations in our way of life. The Information Age really is a revolution.
But all their value transference takes a toll on the average worker. Inequality begins to rapidly increase, as elite incomes surge far past commoner incomes. These decades since 1970 have also seen massive gains in the income of the 1%. This greatly increases the incentive to become elite, so more and more people aspire to it. However, more people aspiring to be elite combined with a saturation of the societally allowable professionals drives all sorts of further dynamics. Since there’s so much competition, elites become more nervous and anxious. That causes them to trust their fellow elites (now competition instead of collaborators) less, reducing societal cohesion. Leftism, the extension of a society’s principles towards their inevitable (but disastrously idealistic) conclusions, reaches a fever pitch, as elites try to shore up their social position. And their need to shore up their financial position means they demand even higher and higher incomes and hoard even more cash, further driving up inequality. Their fear, hatred, and resentment of elite aspirants drives a new class war on the middle class. Their anxieties lead them to pass all sorts of bizarre and increasingly paranoid policy. The frustrated aspirants and rejected parvenus form new counterelites ready to launch revolutions. The weight of all these excess elite aspirants and the negative dynamics associated with them eventually prove to be too much, and society begins to decline. The oversupply of potential elite labor crushes the income of service elites, which has the additional nasty side effect of making rentierism the only game in town. That means elites now have to get their value transference through pure rent-seeking and exploitation of state mechanisms, which means that political jockeying overtakes brainwork. Social cohesion collapses. Society descends into civil war as counterelites battle elites for state spoils. Revolution shakes the core of the state. Elites are culled left and right. But those elites, as corrupt as they are in the late stage, still fill a valuable role. Society sees a rapid increase in complexity in the integrative half of the secular cycle, but as we all know from our Incerto, complexity implies fragility. And this fragility becomes a dire foe in the disintegrative part of the secular cycle. If you kill half the doctors in a hospital arbitrarily, does it run half as well or less than half as well? Globalization is abruptly deglobalized and complex systems of trade and knowledge collapse. Infrastructure is lost. Land is abandoned. Factories go silent. Occasionally there is peace, but until the elite oversupply is resolved, the state remains unstable and cannot permanently reform.
Finally, the elite numbers have been pruned. Adversity brings out the hidden strength in the remaining elites. Without extra elites to pick up the slack, and with all the wealth of the nation destroyed, the elites return to doing useful work. All the fallow land and abandoned infrastructure provides plenty of room for peasant expansion. A new secular cycle begins.
Below is the Secular Cycle chart. Our current situation matches the Stagflation phase pretty well, and we may be headed into the Crisis phase soon (or now).
I would like to thank EvolutionistX for this opportunity.
Please support academics by buying their books. For more of my thoughts and ravings, visit my blog.
Society has become, incredibly, even more obsessed with celebrities than it used to be.
I do not follow celebrities of any sort (unless “Niels Bohr” counts as a celebrity,) and my TV viewing is limited almost entirely to documentaries and children’s media, yet against my will I know who the Kardashians are, the basic plot of Rick and Morty (the Atlantic of all magazines ran an article on the show), way too much about Linda Sarsour, what Alexandria Cortez wore to work today, and every single Trump fart.
This is all gossip, and gossip is a sin.
How can you tell if something is gossip:
Are you talking about a conversation that happened between two other people, neither of whom are present? Then it’s probably gossip.
If you deleted the names, would it still be an interesting story? If not, then it’s gossip.
Along with this increase in gossip has come an increase in demands for purity in one’s acquaintances. These arguments tend to go like this: “Linda Sarsour once talked to a guy who said a bad thing, therefore Linda Sarsour agrees with these bad things.” Even worse, people demand purity in the people merely near famous people or talking about them, eg, “This guy went to a conference where a white supremacist was also in attendance, so he deserves to lose his job,” or “An evil guy said he liked something this other person wrote, therefore the thing this person wrote is evil.”
All of this gossip is coupled with endless demands that you remember who these people are. “Ben Shapiro said blah blah blah!” I don’t know who that is, nor do I care. “OMG, did you hear the stupid thing Jordan B. Peterson said?” I truly don’t care. If you think JBP is stupid, don’t read him. “Wow, just wow, this mildly famous male feminist just got accused of doing something bad so we all need to rally the entire country around attacking him RIGHT NOW.”
I don’t know how people manage to care this much about minor celebrities. It’s all getting really old.
Stop with all the gossip. Evaluate an argument on its merits, not based on who said it.
For most of he last century, the received wisdom in the social sciences has been that human evolution stopped a long time ago–in the most up-to-date version, before modern humans expanded out of Africa some 50,000 years ago. This implies that human minds must be the same everywhere–the “psychic unity of mankind.” It would certainly make life simpler if it were true.
The book’s main thesis–as you can guess by reading the title–is that human evolution did not halt back in the stone age, but has accelerated since then.
I’ve been reading Greg and Henry’s blog for years (now Greg’s blog, since Henry sadly passed away.) If you’re a fan of the blog, you’ll like the book, but if you follow all of the latest human genetics religiously, you might find the book a bit redundant. Still, it is nice to have many threads tied together in one place–and in Greg & Henry’s entertaining style. (I am about halfway through the book as of this post, and so far, it has held up extremely well over the years since it was published.)
Chapter One: Conventional Wisdom explains some of the background science and history necessary to understand the book. Don’t worry, it’s not complicated (though it probably helps if you’ve seen this before.)
A lot of of our work could be called “genetic history.” … This means that when a state hires foreign mercenaries, we are interested in their numbers, their geographic origin, and the extent to which they settled down and mixed with the local population. We don’t much care whether they won their battles, as long as they survived and bred. …
For an anthropologist it might be important to look at how farmers in a certain region and time period lived; for us, as genetic historians, the interesting thing is how natural selection allowed agriculture to come about to begin with, and how the pressures of an agricultural lifestyle allowed changes in the population’s genetic makeup to take root and spread.
One of the things I find fascinating about humans is that the agricultural revolution happened more or less independently in 11 different places, all around 10,000 years ago. There’s a little variation due to local conditions and we can’t be positive that the Indus Valley didn’t have some influence on Mesopotamia and vice versa, but this is a remarkable convergence. Homo sapiens are estimated to have been around for about 200-300,000 years, (and we were predated by a couple million years of other human ancestor-species like Homo erectus) but for the first 280,000 years or so of our existence no one bothered to invent agriculture. Then in the span of a few thousand years, suddenly it popped up all over the darn place, even in peoples like the Native Americans who were completely isolated from developments over in Asia and Africa.
This suggests to me that some process was going on simultaneously in all of these human populations–a process that probably began back when these groups were united and then progressed at about the same speed, culminating in the adoption of agriculture.
One possibility is simply that humans were hunting the local large game, and about 10,000 years ago, they started running out. An unfortunate climactic event could have pushed people over the edge, reducing them from eating large, meaty animals to scrounging for grass and tubers.
Another possibility is that human migrations–particularly the Out of Africa Event, but even internal African migrations could be sufficient–caused people to become smarter as they encountered new environments, which allowed them to make the cognitive leap from merely gathering food to tending food.
A third possibility, which we will discuss in depth next week, is that interbreeding with Neanderthals and other archaic species introduced new cognitive features to humanity.
And a fourth, related possibility is that humans, for some reason, suddenly developed language and thus the ability to form larger, more complex societies with a division of labor, trade, communication, and eventually agriculture and civilization.
We don’t really know when language evolved, since the process left behind neither bones nor artifacts, but if it happened suddenly (rather than gradually) and within the past 300,000 years or so, I would mark this as the moment Homo sapiens evolved.
While many animals can understand a fair amount of language (dogs, for instance) and some can even speak (parrots,) the full linguistic range of even the most intelligent apes and parrots is still only comparable to a human toddler. The difference between human language abilities and all other animals is stark.
There is great physical variation in modern humans, from Pygmies to Danes, yet we can all talk–even deaf people who have never been taught sign language seek to communicate and invent their own sign language more complex and extensive than that of the most highly trained chimps. Yet if I encountered a group of “humans” that looked just like some of us but fundamentally could not talk, could not communicate or understand language any more than Kanzi the Bonobo, I could not count them members of my species. Language is fundamental.
But just because we can all speak, that does not mean we are all identical in other mental ways–as you well know if you have ever encountered someone who is inexplicably wrong about EVERYTHING here on the internet.
But back to the book:
We intend to make the case that human evolution has accelerated int he past 10,000 years, rather than slowing or stopping, and is now happening about 100 times faster than its long term average over the 6 million years of our existence.
A tall order!
To summarize Cochran and Harpending’s argument: Evolution is static when a species has already achieved a locally-optimal fit with its environment, and the environment is fairly static.
Human environments, however, have not been static for the past 70,000 years or so–they have changed radically. Humans moved from the equator to the polar circle, scattered across deserts and Polynesian islands, adapting to changes in light, temperature, disease, and food along the way.
The authors make a fascinating observation about hunting strategies and body types:
…when humans hunted big game 100,000 years ago, they relied on close-in attacks with thrusting spears. Such attacks were highly dangerous and physically taxing, so in those days, hunters had to be heavily muscled and have thick bones. That kind of body had its disadvantages–if nothing else, it required more food–but on the whole, it was the best solution in that situation. … but new weapons like the atlatl (a spearthrower) and the bow effectively stored muscle-generated energy, which meant that hunters could kill big game without big biceps and robust skeletons. Once that happened, lightly built people, who were better runners and did not need as much food, became competitively superior. The Bushmen of southern Africa…are a small, tough, lean people, less than five feet tall. It seems likely that the tools made the man–the bow begat the Bushmen.
Cro-magnons (now called “European Early Modern Humans” by people who can’t stand a good name,) were of course quite robust, much more so than the gracile Bushmen (Aka San.) Cro-magnons were not unique in their robustness–in fact all of our early human ancestors seem to have been fairly robust, including the species we descended from, such as Homo heidelbergensis and Homo ergaster. (The debate surrounding where the exact lines between human species should be drawn is long and there are no definite answers because we don’t have enough bones.)
We moderns–all of us, not just the Bushmen–significantly less robust than our ancestors. Quoting from a review of Manthropology: The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male:
Twenty thousand years ago six male Australian Aborigines chasing prey left footprints in a muddy lake shore that became fossilized. Analysis of the footprints shows one of them was running at 37 kph (23 mph), only 5 kph slower than Usain Bolt was traveling at when he ran the 100 meters in world record time of 9.69 seconds in Beijing last year. But Bolt had been the recipient of modern training, and had the benefits of spiked running shoes and a rubberized track, whereas the Aboriginal man was running barefoot in soft mud. …
McAllister also presents as evidence of his thesis photographs taken by a German anthropologist early in the twentieth century. The photographs showed Tutsi initiation ceremonies in which young men had to jump their own height in order to be accepted as men. Some of them jumped as high as 2.52 meters, which is higher than the current world record of 2.45 meters. …
Other examples in the book are rowers of the massive trireme warships in ancient Athens who far exceeded the capabilities of modern rowers, Roman soldiers who completed the equivalent of one and a half marathons a day, carrying equipment weighing half their body weight …
McAllister attributes the decline to the more sedentary lifestyle humans have lived since the industrial revolution, which has made modern people less robust than before since machines do so much of the work. …
According to McAllister humans have lost 40 percent of the shafts of the long bones because they are no longer subjected to the kind of muscular loads that were normal before the industrial revolution. Even our elite athletes are not exposed to anywhere near the challenges and loads that were part of everyday life for pre-industrial people.
Long story short: humans are still evolving. We are not static; our bodies do not look like they did 100,000 years ago, 50,000 years ago, nor even 1,000 years ago. The idea that humans could not have undergone significant evolution in 50–100,000 years is simply wrong–dogs evolved from wolves in a shorter time.
Dogs are an interesting case, for despite their wide variety of physical forms, from Chihuahuas to Great Danes, from pugs to huskies, we class them all as dogs because they all behave as dogs. Dogs can interbreed with with wolves and coyotes (and wolves and coyotes with each other,) and huskies look much more like wolves than like beagles, but they still behave like dogs.
The typical border collie can learn a new command after 5 repetitions and responds correctly 95% of the time, whereas a basset hound takes 80-100 repetitions to achieve a 25 percent accuracy rate.
I understand why border collies are smart, but why are bassets so stupid?
Henry and Greg’s main argument depends on two basic facts: First, the speed of evolution–does evolution work fast enough to have caused any significant changes in human populations since we left Africa?
How fast evolution works depends on the pressure, of course. If everyone over 5 feet tall died tomorrow, the next generation of humans would be much shorter than the current one–and so would their children.
The end of the Ice Age also brought about a global rise in sea level. … As the waters rose, some mountains became islands.. These islands were too small to sustain populations of large predators, and in their absence the payoff for being huge disappeared. … Over a mere 5,000 years, elephants shrank dramatically, from an original height of 12 feet to as little as 3 feet. It is worth noting that elephant generations are roughly twenty years long, similar to those of humans.
We have, in fact, many cases of evolution happening over a relatively short period, from dogs to corn to human skin tone.
No one is arguing about the evolution of something major, like a new limb or an extra spleen–just the sorts of small changes to the genome that can have big effects, like the minor genetic differences that spell the difference between a wolf and a poodle.
Second, human populations need to be sufficiently distinct–that is, isolated–for traits to be meaningfully different in different places. Of course, we can see that people look different in different places. This alone is enough to prove the point–people in Japan have been sufficiently isolated from people in Iceland that genetic changes affecting appearance haven’t spread from one population to the other.
What about the claim that “There’s more variation within races than between them”?
This is an interesting, non-intuitive claim. It is true–but it is also true for humans and chimps, dogs and wolves. That is, there is more variation within humans than between humans and chimps–a clue that this factoid may not be very meaningful.
Let’s let the authors explain:
Approximately 85 percent of human genetic variation is within-group rather than between groups, while 15 percent is between groups. … genetic variation is distributed in a similar way in dogs: 70 percent of genetic variation is within-breed, while 30 percent is between-breed. …
Information about the distribution of genetic variation tells you essentially nothing about the size or significance of trait differences. The actual differences we observe in height, weight, strength, speed, skin color, and so on are real: it is not possible to argue them away. …
It turns out that the correlations between these genetic differences matter. … consider malaria resistance in northern Europeans and central Africans. Someone from Nigeria may ave the sickle-cell mutation (a known defense against falciparum malaria,) while hardly anyone from northern Europe does, but even the majority of Nigerians who don’t carry the sickle cell are far more resistant to malaria than any Swede. They have malaria-defense versions of many genes. That is the typical pattern you get from natural selection–correlated changes in a population, change in the same general direction, all a response to the same selection pressure.
In other words: suppose a population splits and goes in two different directions. Population A encounters no malaria, and so develops no malria-resistant genes. Population B encounters malaria and quickly develops a hundred different mutations that all resist malaria. If some members of Population B have the at least some of the null variations found in Population A, then there’s very little variation between Pop A and B–all of Pop A’s variants are in fact found in Pop B. Meanwhile, there’s a great deal of variation within Pop B, which has developed 100 different ways to resist malaria. Yet the genetic differences between those populations is very important, especially if you’re in an area with malaria.
What if the differences between groups is just genetic drift?
Most or all of the alleles that are responsible for obvious differences in appearance between populations–such as the gene variants causing light skin color or blue eyes–have undergone strong selection. In these cases, a “big effect” on fitness means anything from a 2 or 3 percent increase on up. Judging from the rate at which new alleles have increased in frequency, this must be the case for genes that determine skin color (SLC24A5), eye color (HERC2), lactose tolerance (LCT), and dry earwax (ABCC11), of all things.
In fact, modern phenotypes are surprisingly young–blond hair, white skin, and blue eyes all evolved around a mere 10,000 years ago–maybe less. For these traits to have spread as far as they have, so quickly, they either confer some important evolutionary benefit or happen to occur in people who have some other evolutionarily useful trait, like lactose tolerance:
Lactose-tolerant Europeans carry a particular mutation that is only a few thousand years old, and so those Europeans also carry much of the original haplotype. In fact, the shared haplotype around that mutation is over 1 million bases long.
Recent studies have found hundreds of cases of long haplotypeles indicating recent selection: some have reached 100 percent frequency, more have intermediate frequencies, and most are regional. Many are very recent: The rate of origination peaks at around 5,500 years ago in the European and Chinese samples, and at about 8,500 years ago in the African sample.
(Note that the map of blue eyes and the map of lactose tolerance do not exactly correlate–the Baltic is a blue eyes hotspot, but not particularly a lactose hotspot–perhaps because hunter-gatherers hung on longer here by exploiting rich fishing spots.)
Could these explosions at a particular date be the genetic signatures of large conquering events? 5,5000 years ago is about right for the Indo-European expansion (perhaps some similar expansion happened in the East at the same time.) 8,000 years ago seems too early to have contributed to the Bantu Expansion–did someone else conquer west Africa around 8,500 years ago?
Let’s finish up:
Since we have sequenced the chimpanzee genome, we know the size of the genetic difference between chimps and humans. Since we also have decent estimates of the length of time since the two species split, we know the long-term rate of genetic change. The rate of change over the past few thousand years is far greater than this long-term rate over the past few million years, on the order of 100 times greater. …
The ultimate cause of this accelerated evolution was the set of genetic changes that led to an increased ability to innovate. …
Every major innovation led to new selective pressures, which led to more evolutionary change, and the most spectacular of those innovations was the development of agriculture.
Innovation itself has increased dramatically. The Stone Age lasted roughly 3.4 million years (you’ll probably note that this is longer than Homo sapiens has been around.) The most primitive stone tradition, the Oldowan, lasted for nearly 3 million of those 3.4; the next period, the Acheulean, lasted for about 1.5 million years. (There is some overlap in tool traditions.) By contrast, the age of metals–bronze, copper, iron, etc–has been going on for a measly 5,500 years, modern industrial society is only a couple of centuries old–at most.
What triggered this shift from 3 million years of shitty stone tools with nary an innovation in sight to a society that split the atom and put a man on the moon? And once culture was in place, what traits did it select–and what traits are we selecting for right now?
Is the singularity yet to come, or did we hit it 10,000 years ago–or before?
By the way, if you haven’t started the book yet, I encourage you to go ahead–you’ve plenty of time before next week to catch up.
I’d like to write a quick post about Lise Meitner. Lise Meitner was an Austrian physicist who became the first female physics professor in Germany. She worked with Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where after many years she was finally allowed out of the basement and rose to become head of the physics department. Einstein referred to her as “the German Marie Curie.” It is now generally agreed that Meitner should have shared the Nobel Prize with Hahn, but there were some issues in evaluating interdisciplinary chemistry/physics research.
Meitner and her nephew, Frisch, were the first to figure out and articulate what exactly was happening when Enrico Fermi bombarded uranium atoms with neutrons. Fermi had been trying to create trans-uranic elements; it turned out he was splitting uranium–the first step in making a nuclear bomb.
When she made this discovery, Meitner and her nephew had just moved to Sweden–because the Nazis had kicked her out of her job at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for being ethnically Jewish. (Even though she was a baptized Lutheran.)
Nazi Germany did not recover, technologically, from the loss of its top scientists–men like Einstein, Fermi, and Bohr (technically Bohr fled Denmark after the Nazis took it over), women like Lise Meitner. They could have had the atomic bomb–instead they lost the war.