I have long wanted to construct a general bullshit detection system that helps people detect bad or spurious arguments, and for that I need some good examples of bullshit (and non-bullshit).
Making a specific bullshit detector is easy: just learn about the subject. For example, if you say that you’ve carbon dated some dinosaur bones, then I automatically know you’re lying because carbon dating only works for things that are younger than about 50,000 years, and dinosaur bones are at least 65 million years old. (Also, dinosaur bones don’t contain a lot of carbon.)
But knowing more about the subject than the person you are talking to doesn’t generalize–for practical reasons, it is impossible for everyone to know everything.
So what’s a bullshit argument that you’ve encounter related to a field that you know but I don’t? For example, I know very little about chemistry, how the electrical grid works, or the Belorussian national anthem. I don’t know what temperature melts steel beams nor medieval Chinese history.
Each example of bullshit needs to be paired with a comparable piece of non-bullshit from the same field, otherwise I’ll automatically know it’s bullshit. Don’t tell me which is which.
Links, memes, Facebook posts, blog posts, youtube videos, “try googling this,” etc, are all fine. The arguments should be framed and phrased the way their proponents actually make them, because phrasing and formatting might be important.
I would love to assemble a really vast data set, and super appreciate anything and everything you send.
All of the mtDNA and Y chromosome haplogroups we observe at Shum Laka are associated today with sub-Saharan Africans. The two earlier individuals carry mtDNA haplogroup L0a (specifically L0a2a1), which is widespread in Africa, and the two later individuals carry L1c (specifically L1c2a1b), which is found among both farmers and hunter-gatherers in Central and West Africa. Individuals 2/SE I and 4/A have Y chromosomes from macrohaplogroup B (often found today in hunter-gatherers from Central Africa17), and 2/SE II has the rare Y chromosome haplogroup A00, which was discovered in 2013 and is present at appreciable frequencies only in Cameroon—in particular, among the Mbo and Bangwa in the western part of the country. A00 is the oldest known branch of the modern human Y chromosome tree, with a split time of about 300,000–200,000 bp from all other known lineages.
At 1,666 positions… that differ between present-day A0018 and all other Y chromosomes, the sequence of the Shum Laka individual carries the nonreference allele at a total of 1,521, translating to a within-A00 split at about 37,000–25,000 bp.
As noted last week, there’s a lot of genetic diversity in Aka/Baka pygmies back around 20,000 years ago.
In other news, National Geographic has an interesting article on a Biblical enemy.
Modern archaeologists agree that the Philistines were different from their neighbors: Their arrival on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean in the early 12th century B.C. is marked by pottery with close parallels to the ancient Greek world, the use of an Aegean—instead of a Semitic—script, and the consumption of pork.
The “sea peoples” were a bunch of invaders who, like the Vikings, showed up suddenly in the coastal Mediterranean in the midst of the Bronze Age Collapse (indeed, they triggered much of it.)
The four early Iron Age DNA samples, all from infants buried beneath the floors of Philistine houses, include proportionally more “additional European ancestry” in their genetic signatures (roughly 14%) than in the pre-Philistine Bronze Age samples (2% to 9%), according to the researchers. While the origins of this additional “European ancestry” are not conclusive, the most plausible models point to Greece, Crete, Sardinia, and the Iberian peninsula.
Why were Philistines burying babies underneath their houses? (Answer: to keep the family together. Apparently a common practice to save the bones of your dearly departed.)
Interestingly, the “European” component in these burials is a blip-in-time, but the culture remained long after. When we put together the DNA, archaeology, and various written records from the various Mediterranean cultures, we can piece together a pretty coherent picture.
I remember reading back in highschool–I still have the book; it’s in the other room–about how the Trojan War was a real event, but that the ancient Greek narratives described a conflict that was actually geographically much bigger than what Homer described. During the Greek dark age caused by the Bronze Age Collapse, there were many oral poets and many stories composed about the deeds of the late heroes, and the ones that have made it down to represent only a small selection of these. Of the ones we have, people tend only to read the most famous and complete, but even here we can find differences in the narrative account between, say, Homer and the tragedians, who were all working from the same base material of popular oral poetry.
In one of the lesser-known accounts, the Greeks, having lost Helen to Paris, go through all of the effort of rounding up all of the heroes, making all of the requisite sacrifices to he gods, etc, set sail, and burn down some city in Egypt. They return home and realize, oopsies, we burned the wrong city and have to go do it all over again, this time at Troy.
Another story holds that Helen herself was never in Troy, but spent the war hanging out in peace and prosperity in Egypt while the Trojans themselves suffered.
Troy being, as far as I know, a rather small and unimportant city by the standards of the day, I have thus long believed that the “real” Trojan war was a conflict between Greek tribes and the Egyptians, who had a civilization worth looting, and that they happened to burn/loot a lot of other small towns along the way. We hear about Troy and not Egypt because the Greeks conquered Troy and got their butts kicked in Egypt, and no one likes to sing about their losses.
This whole business of the Greeks going a-Viking collapsed the local Mediterranean economy, but of course there was a lot of other stuff going on at the same time, too. Bronze Age Collapse can’t just be blamed on the Greeks. Not only were there non-Greek invaders in other places, there were also a bunch of crop failures, droughts, etc. The effects were big:
Interestingly, though, the pull-back of some of the bigger empires at the time, like the Egyptians, may have let some of the smaller players, like the Israelites, thrive. King David, if the accounts can be believed, got his start fighting Philistines. The reign of King David and his son, Solomon, can be basically taken as the high point of Israelite wealth and power, and notably while literacy was destroyed nearly everywhere else, it persisted in the Biblical lands (which is probably why we have the Old Testament at all).
As both the Biblical, Egyptian, Greek, and DNA accounts agree, the Philistines were mostly male invaders. They therefore married local women, and over the centuries either left, died, or got mixed into the local genetic milieu.
A paper has just been released on the first ancient DNA recovered from central African burials: Ancient West African Foragers in the Context of African Population History, by Lipson, Ribot, Reich, et al. This is exciting news because our ancient genetic coverage of central Africa has been, until now, completely nonexistent. The local climate tends to degrade human remains quickly, making it difficult to recover DNA, and most genetics researchers don’t live in Africa.
Researchers have recovered the remains of four people, two from about 8,000 years ago and two from 3,000 years ago, buried in Shum Laka, Cameroon. (Cameroon is the country right in the big turn in the curve of Africa’s coast; Shum Laka has been inhabited by humans for about 30,000 years.) The really interesting part is the “ghost population,” which we’ll get to soon.
The burials turned out to be Pygmy people, not Bantus, despite the belief among linguists that Cameroon is the Bantu homeland. From the paper:
One individual carried the deeply divergent Y chromosome haplogroup A00, which today is found almost exclusively in the same region12,13. However, the genome-wide ancestry profiles of all four individuals are most similar to those of present-day hunter-gatherers from western Central Africa, which implies that populations in western Cameroon today—as well as speakers of Bantu languages from across the continent—are not descended substantially from the population represented by these four people. We infer an Africa-wide phylogeny that features widespread admixture and three prominent radiations, including one that gave rise to at least four major lineages deep in the history of modern humans.
The Bantu language group is a branch of the larger Niger-Congo language family, one of the biggest (along with Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan) language families in the world. Niger-Congo contains about 1,740 languages (depending on how you count) with 700 million speakers. The Bantu branch accounts for half of them, or 350 million people.
The Bantu branch has clearly undergone a massive expansion over the past 3,000 years. 4,000 years ago, central Africa belonged to the Pygmies, Bushmen, and their relations. Today, those populations are tattered remnants of their former empires; the Bantus are dominant. The Bantu expansion is thus one of the great conquering events of recent history, comparable to the Indo-European expansion. The size of the Pygmy and Bushman population has consequently collapsed, though at what speed, we don’t know.
The presence of a significant Pygmy population in the supposed Bantu homeland back when the Bantu speakers were gearing up to conquer a huge chunk of the Earth’s surface indicates that Cameroon might not actually be the Bantu homeland. Of course there are easy fixes to this theory, like “the region just to the west of Cameroon is the Bantu homeland” or “there are still Pygmies in Cameroon today; researchers just happened to find some Pygmies,” but I propose a different possibility: the Bantu homeland is in the Sahara.
Yes, the Sahara is an enormous desert–today. Before 3,500 BC, the Sahara was significantly wetter. The Niger-Congo speakers started as agriculturalists who farm along the edge of the Sahara. During the African Humid Period, 3,500 years ago and before, much of the Sahara was green, full of plants and animals, flowing rivers and giant lakes. I propose that the Bantu homeland was in the vicinity of lake “Megachad,” which aside from having a great name, was an enormous lake in central Chad, overlapping the borders of Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger, fed by a suitably extensive network of tributaries. Today, only remnants of the lake remain.
The drying of the Sahara and Lake Megachad turned the Bantu’s homeland to dust; just based on the African topography and modern rivers, they probably headed into northern Cameroon, eastern Nigeria, and the Central African Republic. The area of Cameroon where these pygmy skeletons have been found looks a little harder to get to, cut off from the north/east by highlands. This area may have therefore been a bit of a refugia during the Bantu expansion.
I think it is common for people to think of African populations as relatively homogeneous because it is the origin point from which humanity spread to Asia, Europe, Australia, the Americas, etc. But Africa isn’t a point. It’s big, and people spread out and wandered around Africa for thousands of years before some of them headed north.
The oldest extant human splits aren’t between Africans and non-Africans, but between Pygmies/Bushmen and everyone else. This split happened around 250,000 years ago. This was followed by more splits within Africa, like the one between West and East Africans about 150,000 years ago, and the out-of-Africa event about 70,000 years ago. Here’s a mostly-accurate tree diagram, Bushmen and Pygmies on the right:
(The big inaccuracy in this diagram is the yellow line representing Eurasian back-migration leaving genetic traces in modern Bushmen/Khoisan peoples. That never happened; the results turned out to be a computer error.)
Before the Bantu expansion, Pygmies and Bushmen were among the biggest ethnic groups on the planet. The extremely high Baka Pygmy population on this graph is probably partially due to high genetic diversity due to the merger of multiple long-separated groups rather than a massive Pygmy boom and then genocide, but I think it is still fair to conclude that relatives of today’s Pygmies and Bushmen once controlled most of central and southern Africa.
(Today, the biggest ethnic group is the Han Chinese.)
From the Science article:
In the new study, geneticists and archaeologists took samples from the DNA-rich inner ear bones of the four children, who were buried 3000 and 8000 years ago at the famous archaeological site of Shum Laka. The researchers were able to sequence high-quality full genomes from two of the children and partial genomes from the other two. Comparing the sequences to those of living Africans, they found that the four children were distant cousins, and that all had inherited about one-third of their DNA from ancestors most closely related to the hunter-gatherers of western Central Africa. Another two-thirds of children’s DNA came from an ancient “basal” source in West Africa, including some from a “long lost ghost population of modern humans that we didn’t know about before,” says population geneticist David Reich of Harvard University, leader of the study.
I spent a while trying to figure out what this is saying, because it isn’t clear. First, I doubt they found that the 8,000 year olds were cousins to the 3,000 year olds. The notes in the extended data section of the paper claim to have found a nephew/aunt or niece/uncle relationship between two of the children; the other two were less closely related–possibly cousins.
This doesn’t tell us which skeletons they got the DNA from, but it turns out that one of the good ones was 8,000 years old.
The article claims that 1/3 of their DNA came from ancestors related to the [Aka] Pygmies and 2/3s from “basal West Africans”, who are also closely related to the modern Bantus.
This is confusing because it makes it sound like these children were a cross between Aka Pygmies and Bantus, and that the’re 2/3s Bantu, in which case they’d be more Bantu than Pygmy and this really wouldn’t upset the idea of Bantus in Cameroon.
The thing they didn’t say–and I only figured out from looking at theextended data–is that the modern Aka are not 100% “ancestral pygmy.” They are alsopart “basal West African.” (41% pygmy ancestor and 59% BWA, to be exact.) This is actually quite similar to the 1/3 and 2/3s found in the burials in Shum Laka. So there probably was an event where people related to modern Bantus mixed with an ancient Pygmy population, and their descendants include both the modern Aka Pygmies and the Shum Laka children.
The Aka Pygmies now live near the border between Cameroon and the DRC. (The “ba-” suffix, found in names like Bantu, Baka, and Batswana, means “people,” so “Baka” just means “Aka People.” Batswana means “Tswana people;” “bo-” means land, so Botswana is “Land of the Tswana.”)
The Mbuti Pygmies, whom you have probably also heard of, live much further from the Cameroonian border and have less Bantu DNA. The Mbuti Pygmies average only 4’6″, while the Aka Pygmies average a couple more inches. The average Aka man stands about 4’11”; the women a little less. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the Aka aren’t “real pygmies”–they’re still very short by modern standards, and as this paper shows, the mixing that created them occurred over eight thousand years ago. The Aka have been a distinct ethnic group for an extremely long time.
People always ask why the Pygmies are so small, but I think this question is backward. Bushmen are also short (compared to Dinka and Norwegians); I think our common human ancestors were only about 5′ tall. The pygmies got a little shorter, yes, but not by much; the rest of us got taller.
Now, the really interesting thing in this paper is the identification of three “ghost” populations.
Using 405 whole-genome sequences from four sub-Saharan African populations, we provide complementary lines of evidence for archaic introgression into these populations. Our analyses of site frequency spectra indicate that these populations derive 2-19% of their genetic ancestry from an archaic population 15 that diverged prior to the split of Neanderthals and modern humans.
That’s a lot of archaic! Since the populations with the highest rates of ghost archaic live in far West Africa, I assume the Ghost Archaic did, too.
Next we have the Ghost Modern, which I regretfully did not realize is different from the Ghost Archaic when I first wrote about it.
Here, we examine 15 African populations covering all major continental linguistic groups, ecosystems, and lifestyles within Africa through analysis of whole-genome sequence data of 21 individuals sequenced at deep coverage. … Regarding archaic gene flow, we test six complex demographic models that consider recent admixture as well as archaic introgression. We identify the fingerprint of an archaic introgression event in the sub-Saharan populations included in the models (~ 4.0% in Khoisan, ~ 4.3% in Mbuti Pygmies, and ~ 5.8% in Mandenka) from an early divergent and currently extinct ghost modern human lineage.
The Ghost Archaics were in the genus Homo, just like Homo erectus, Homo Neanderthalis, but they were not Homo sapiens. The Ghost Moderns were Homo sapiens. They split off from the rest at about the same time the Pygmies, Bushmen, and everyone else went their separate ways.
The Ghost Moderns later contributed to the ancestors of the Niger-Congo people of West Africa and the Mota burial, a 4,000 year old burial from Ethiopia. A branch later split from the Niger-Congo people, creating the “Basal West Africans” and carrying the Ghost Modern DNA (and a bit of the Ghost Archaic) with it. That branch eventually contributed to the Aka Pygmies, including the children found at Shum Laka.
The third ghost population is the Ghost North African.
GNA split from the West Africans well before the Ghost Moderns, shortly after they had split with the East Africans. They appear to be related to the folks buried at Toforalt, Morocco.
I don’t know anything about the Ghost North Africans, but apparently they also contributed to the Shum Laka people. We’ll have to leave that question open for later.
Perhaps it is this infusion of “ghost” DNA into the ancestors of the Aka Pygmies that that accounts for their apparent enormous population size around 20,000 years ago. In this case, their population probably wasn’t actually enormous so much as it had a lot of genetic variation, caused by the merger of several different groups.
All of these Ghost populations used to be full ethnic groups (or species) in their own right, but today they exist only as a trace of DNA in modern people; they no longer exist as a group. These ghost populations were most likely killed off by other human groups or completely absorbed into them. The Ghost Moderns, for example, were probably finished off during the Bantu expansion.
(Let’s remember that all of these numbers are estimates based on the genetic data we have so far, which is not very much. The numbers could change quite a bit as we uncover more information.)
The final interesting thing was the “deeply divergent Y chromosome haplogroup A00,” found in one of the children. The authors did not look into mtDNA (passed down from mothers to children,) but did investigate local Y-chromosome diversity. A00 is estimated to be around 270,000 years old and is relatively common in Cameroon and, as far as I know, nowhere else. (The relevant Wikipedia page unfortunately contains an error, claiming that the Shum Laka children are most closely related to the Mbuti. They are, as the paper actually says, most closely related to the Aka.)
That’s all for now, but here are a few related things if you want to read more:
Some thoughts on the ancient West African forager genomes paper (Nature). The reality is even more complex, as the next tweet will show… pic.twitter.com/mSZUA9zUwz
African Pygmies practicing a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle are phenotypically and genetically diverged from other anatomically modern humans, and they likely experienced strong selective pressures due to their unique lifestyle in the Central African rainforest. To identify genomic targets of adaptation, we sequenced the genomes of four Biaka Pygmies from the Central African Republic and jointly analyzed these data with the genome sequences of three Baka Pygmies from Cameroon and nine Yoruba famers. … Our two best-fit models both suggest ancient divergence between the ancestors of the farmers and Pygmies, 90,000 or 150,000 yr ago. We also find that bidirectional asymmetric gene flow is statistically better supported than a single pulse of unidirectional gene flow from farmers to Pygmies, as previously suggested. … We found that genes and gene sets involved in muscle development, bone synthesis, immunity, reproduction, cell signaling and development, and energy metabolism are likely to be targets of positive natural selection in Western African Pygmies or their recent ancestors.
To investigate the demographic history of Pygmy groups, a population approach was applied to the analysis of 205 complete mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences from ten central African populations. No sharing of maternal lineages was observed between the two Pygmy groups, with haplogroup L1c being characteristic of the Western group but most of Eastern Pygmy lineages falling into subclades of L0a, L2a, and L5. Demographic inferences based on Bayesian coalescent simulations point to an early split among the maternal ancestors of Pygmies and those of Bantu-speaking farmers (∼70,000 years ago [ya]). Evidence for population growth in the ancestors of Bantu-speaking farmers has been observed, starting ∼65,000 ya, well before the diffusion of Bantu languages. Subsequently, the effective population size of the ancestors of Pygmies remained constant over time and ∼27,000 ya, coincident with the Last Glacial Maximum, Eastern and Western Pygmies diverged, with evidence of subsequent migration only among the Western group and the Bantu-speaking farmers. Western Pygmies show signs of a recent bottleneck 4,000–650 ya, coincident with the diffusion of Bantu languages, whereas Eastern Pygmies seem to have experienced a more ancient decrease in population size (20,000–4,000 ya).
Western Pygmies, ie the Mbuti, were killed by the Bantus during the Bantu expansion of the past 3,000 years.
Eastern Pygmies, ie the Aka, probably experienced a genetic diversification event about 20,000 years ago that makes it look like their population was much bigger back then than it is now. Their population probably has dropped over the years, but probably not as precipitously as the data shows.
As I mentioned yesterday, Carl Zimmer’s article in the New York Times on the new ancient DNA paper with its ho-hum title, Ancient DNA from West Africa Adds to Picture of Humans’ Rise, is a model of how to construct articles upside down to bore complacent NYT subscribers with the opening paragraphs before revealing the unsettling details toward the end. Carl doesn’t mention the word “pygmy” until his 18th paragraph and the word “ghost” until the 24th paragraph.
The Green Revolution, or Third Agricultural Revolution, is a set of research technology transfer initiatives occurring between 1950 and the late 1960s, that increased agricultural production worldwide, particularly in the developing world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s. The initiatives resulted in the adoption of new technologies, including high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of cereals, especially dwarf wheats and rices, in association with chemical fertilizers and agro-chemicals, and with controlled water-supply (usually involving irrigation) and new methods of cultivation, including mechanization.
Most people would say that this has been good because we now have a lot fewer people starving to death. We also have a lot more fat people. There’s an obvious link, inasmuch as it is much easier to be fat if there is more food around, but we’re investigating a less obvious link: does the nutritional/other content of new wheat varieties contribute to certain modern health problems?
Continuing with Wikipedia:
The novel technological development of the Green Revolution was the production of novel wheat cultivars. Agronomistsbred cultivars of maize, wheat, and rice that are the generally referred to as HYVs or “high-yielding varieties“. HYVs have higher nitrogen-absorbing potential than other varieties. Since cereals that absorbed extra nitrogen would typically lodge, or fall over before harvest, semi-dwarfing genes were bred into their genomes. …
Dr. Norman Borlaug, who is usually recognized as the “Father of the Green Revolution”, bred rust-resistant cultivars which have strong and firm stems, preventing them from falling over under extreme weather at high levels of fertilization. … These programs successfully led the harvest double in these countries.
Plant scientists figured out several parameters related to the high yield and identified the related genes which control the plant height and tiller number. … Stem growth in the mutant background is significantly reduced leading to the dwarfphenotype. Photosynthetic investment in the stem is reduced dramatically as the shorter plants are inherently more stable mechanically. Assimilates become redirected to grain production, amplifying in particular the effect of chemical fertilizers on commercial yield.
HYVs significantly outperform traditional varieties in the presence of adequate irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizers. In the absence of these inputs, traditional varieties may outperform HYVs.
In other words, if you breed a variety of wheat (or rice, or whatever) that takes up nutrients really fast and grows really fast, it tends to get top-heavy and fall over. Your wheat then lies on the ground and gets all soggy and rotten and is impossible to use. But if you make your fast-growing wheat shorter, by crossing it with some short (dwarf) varieties, it doesn’t fall over and it can devote even more of its energy to making nice, fat wheat berries instead of long, thin stems.
(I find it interesting that a lot of this research was done in Mexico. Incidentally, Mexico is also one of the fattest countries–on average–in the world.)
But we are talking about making the plant grow faster than it normally would, via the intake of more than usual levels of nutrients. This requires the use of more fertilizers, as these varieties can’t grow properly otherwise.
I’ve just started researching this, so I’m just reading papers and posting some links/quotes/summaries.
… However, deficiencies in certain amino acids, minerals, vitamins and fatty acids in staple crops, and animal diets derived from them, have aggravated the problem of malnutrition and the increasing incidence of certain chronic diseases in nominally well-nourished people (the so-called diseases of civilization). …
The inadequacy of cereal grains as a primary food for humans arises from the fundamentals of plant physiology. … Their carbohydrate, protein and lipid profiles reflect the specific requirements for seed and seedling survival. This nutrient profile, especially after selection during domestication , is far from optimal for human or animal nutrition. For example, the seeds of most cultivated plants contain much higher concentrations of omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids than is desirable for human nutrition [15, 16], with few exceptions such as flax, camelina (Camelina sativa) and walnuts. …
The authors then describe what’s up up with the fats–for plants to germinate in colder temperatures, they need more omega-3s, which are more liquid at colder temperatures. Plants in warmer climates don’t need omega-3s, so they have more omega-6s. (Presumably omega-6s are more heat tolerant, making them more stable during high-temperature cooking.)
Flax and walnut have low smokepoints (that is, they start turning to smoke at low temperatures) and so are unsuited to high-temperature cooking. People prefer to cook with oils that can withstand higher temperatures, like peanut, soy, corn, and canola.
I think one of the issues with fast food (and perhaps restaurant food in general) is that it needs to be cooked fast, which means it needs to be cooked at high temperatures, which requires the use of oils with high smokepoints, which are not necessarily the best for human health. The same food cooked more slowly at lower temperatures might be just fine, though.
There is a side issue that while oil smoking is unpleasant and bad, the high-temperature oils that don’t smoke aren’t necessarily any better, because I think they are undergoing other undesirable internal changes to prevent smoking.
Then there’s the downstream matter of the feed cattle and chickens are getting. My impression of cattle raising (from having walked around a cattle ranch a few times) is that most cattle eat naturally growing pasture grass most of the time, because buying feed and shipping it out to them is way too expensive. This grass is not human feed and is not fungible with human feed, because growing food for humans requires more effort (and water) than just letting cows wander around in the grass. Modern crops require a lot of water and fertilizer to grow properly (see the Wikipedia quote above.) This is why I am not convinced by the vegetarian argument that we could produce a lot more food for humans if we stopped producing cows–cattle feed and human feed are not energy/resource equivalent.
However, once the cows are grown, they are generally sent to feedlots to be fattened up before slaughter. Here they are given corn and other grains. The varieties of grains they are fed at this point may influence the nature of the fats they subsequently build:
Modern grain-fed meat and grain-rich diets are particularly abundant in omega-6 fatty acids, and it is thought that a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids, especially the EPA and DHA found in fish oils, can be linked to many of the inflammatory diseases of the western diet, such as cardiovascular disease and arthritis (Hibbeln et al., 2006). DHA has been recognized as being vitally important for brain function, and a deficiency of this fatty acid has been linked to depression, cognitive disorders, and mental illness (Conklin et al., 2007).
Let’s get back to the article about plant breeding. I thought this was interesting:
The biological basis of protein limitation in seed-based foods appears to be the result of evolutionary strategies that plants use to build storage proteins. Seed storage proteins have evolved to store amino nitrogen polymerized in compact forms, i.e. in storage proteins such as zein in maize, gluten in wheat and hordein in barley. As the seed germinates, enzymes hydrolyze the storage proteins and the plant is able to use these stored amino acids as precursors to re-synthesize all of the twenty amino acids needed for de novo protein synthesis.
So if we make plants that absorb more nitrogen, and we dump a lot more nitrogen on them, do we get wheat with more gluten in it?
Another book I read, Nourishing Traditions, which is really a cookbook, claims that our ancestors generally ate their grains already sprouted. This was more accidental than on purpose–grains often sat around in storage, got wet, and sprouted. Sprouting (or germinating) makes the wheat use stored gluten to make amino acids. Between sprouting, fermentation (sourdough bread) and less nitrogen-loving wheat varieties, our ancestors’ breads and porridges may have had less gluten than ours.
In the laboratory of the first author we have taken two different approaches to improving the protein quality of crops. First, we successfully selected a series of high lysine wheat cultivars over a period of twenty years, by standard breeding methods . … Surviving embryos consistently had elevated levels of lysine relative to parental populations and the seed produced from these embryos also had increased levels of lysine. The increased nutritional value of these lines, however, carried a cost in terms of lower total yield. A striking result was that grasshoppers, aphids, rats and deer preferentially feasted on the foliage of these high lysine wheats in the field, rather than on neighboring conventional low lysine wheats. The highest lysine wheat had the highest predation and subsequently the lowest yield (D.C. Sands, unpublished field observations). … Thus, we are led to the hypothesis that selection for insect resistance may have inadvertently resulted in the selection for lower nutritional value…
Then the authors talk about peas, of Gregor Mendel fame. Two varieties of peas are wrinkled and smooth. The smooth, plump ones look nicer (and probably taste sweeter). The plump ones store sugar in a form that we digest more quickly, resulting in faster increases in blood sugar. They are thus more likely to get stored as fat.
Breeders and buyers are biased toward plump seeds and tubers, in peas and many other crops.
Incidentally, the outside of the wheat grain–the part we discard when producing white flours but keep when making “whole” wheat flour–contains phytates which interfere with iron absorption and other irritants designed by the plant to increase the chance of grazers passing the seed out the other end without digestion. (However, the creation of white flours may remove other nutrients.)
It’s getting late, so I’d better wrap up. The authors end by noting that fermentation is another way to potentially increase the nutritional content of foods and suggest a variety of ways scientists could make grains or yeasts that enhance fermentation.
Nine wheat cultivars were grown at two test sites in Saskatoon, each at fertilizer levels of 0, 56, 224 kgN ha−1. Proportions of leaf, stem, chaff and grain were obtained for each level. Significant cultivar differences were observed at each site for plant component yields. A significant increase in the proportion of leaf components and a significant decrease in the proportion of the grain components was observed as soil nitrogen levels increased. Crude protein contents of plant components varied significantly with both cultivar and fertilizer level. Significant differences in digestibility in vitro also existed among cultivars. Increasing fertilizer levels significantly improved the digestibility in vitro of the leaf but not of the chaff.
Seven wheat genotypes, one or barley and one of oats were compared for their sensitivity to sub optimal supplies of copper, and their ability to recover from copper deficiency when copper was applied at defined stages of growth Copper deficiency delayed maturity, reduced the straw yield and severely depressed the gram yield In all genotypes. …
Genotypes with relatively higher yield potential were less sensitive to copper deficiency than those with lower yield potential … There was no apparent association between dwarfness and sensitivity to copper deficiency in wheat.
… The production and food-relevant use of domesticated modern-day wheat varieties face increasing challenges such as the decline in crop yield due to adverse fluctuating climatic trends, and a need to improve the nutritional and phytochemical content of the grain, both of which are a result of centuries of crop domestication and advancement of dietary calorie requirements demanding new high-yield dwarf varieties in the last five decades. The focus on improving phenotypic traits such as grain size and grain yield towards calorie-driven macronutrients has inadvertently led to a loss of allelic function and genetic diversity in modern-day wheat, which suffers from poor tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses, as well as poor nutritional and phytochemcial profiles against high-calorie-driven non-communicable chronic diseases (NCDs).The low baseline phytochemical profile of modern-day wheat varieties along with highly mechanized post-harvest processing have resulted in poor health-relevant nutritional qualities in end products against emerging NCDs. …
Ancient wheat, such as emmer with its large genetic diversity, high phytochemcial content, and better nutritional and health-relevant bioactive profiles, is a suitable candidate to address these nutritional securities…
There’s a lot of information about emmer wheat nutrition in this article/book.
This blog is now 1,000 posts long, which I think calls for a bit of celebration.
I started this blog because I found the idea that evolution–a process normally thought of as turning fins to feet and gills to lungs–could also code for emergent, group-level behavior like the building of termite mounds or nation states fascinating. Could evolution code for other things? Could it give us male and female behavior? Emotions? Political preferences?
Evolution is ultimately a numbers game: if more people who do X have children than people who do Y, then X is likely to become more common than Y–even if we all believe that Y is better than X.
This gets interesting when X is not obviously mediated by genetics–your eye color, sans contacts, is clearly genetic, but the number of years you spend in school is influenced by external factors like whether schools exist in your society. This is where some people get hung up on causation. We don’t need to posit a gene that causes people to get more or less school. Maybe your village has a school because a mountain climber got lost nearby, your village rescued him, and in gratitude, he built you a school, while the village on the other side of the mountain doesn’t have a school because no mountain climber got lost there. Once a school exists, though, it can start having effects, and if those effects are not random, we’ll see genetic correlations.
If people who have more education make more money and end up buying more food and raising more children, then school is exerting a selective effect on society by causing the kids who happened to live near the school to have more children. From an ecological standpoint, the school is operating like a spring in a desert–we get more growth near the spring than far away from it, and whatever traits were common in the village–even ones that have nothing to do with education–will become more numerous in the overall population. If this trend continues, then the cultural habit of “going to school” will continue to proliferate.
We can also posit the opposite case: in the village with the school, kids spend many years at school and end up marrying later and are more educated about things like “birth control” than their neighbors on the other side of the mountain. The kids on the other side of the mountain marry younger and have a bunch of unintended children. In this case, education is suppressing fertility; in this niche, education is like a drought. The educated kids have fewer children of their own, and whatever traits the uneducated kids happen to have spread through society because there are now much more of them (at least as a percent of the total). If this trend continues, then the cultural habit of “going to school” may well die out.
In both of these cases, education caused a change in the distribution of genetic traits in the overall population without requiring any genetic predispositions from the students involved. We are looking at the evolution of the whole society.
But this is a highly constrained example; it is rare in places like the modern US to find areas where one village has a school and the next does not. Once schools are everywhere, they’re not going to select for (or against) “living near a school.” The traits that cause a person to attend more years of schooling or do better in school will be less random–traits like conscientiousness, ability to recognize letters, or family income. In an agricultural society with no schools, raw, physical strength may be at a premium as people must wrest their living from the soil, rocks, trees, and beasts. This selects for physical strength. Once we introduce schools, if the better educated have more children, then physical strength becomes less important, and its prominence in the next generation diminishes. The ability to sit in a chair for long hours may be positively selected, leading to a proliferation of this trait.
This is gene-culture co-evolution–a cultural change can shift the balance of genes in a society, and that in turn can cause further cultural changes, which cause more genetic changes.
I would like to pause and note just how annoying the “but you haven’t proven causation!” crowd is:
Why Evolutionary Psychology (Probably) Isn’t Possible: “evolutionary psychologists have not shown that there are specific psychological programs that are written in our bio-historical document” https://t.co/9iXnVgirUN
Imagine if I said that I thought the blood circulates through the body in a loop instead of being generated anew by the heart with every pump, and someone protested that blood couldn’t possibly circulate because I hadn’t shown any way for blood to get from the arteries to the veins and back to the heart.
This was a real debate in physiology. That the heart pumps is obvious. That veins and arteries carry blood is also obvious. That people die if you cut them open and let the blood drain out, though, mystified doctors for centuries.
Capillaries, unfortunately for many patients, are too small to see with the naked eye. Without any mechanism to return blood from the arteries to the heart, doctors refused to believe that it did. They instead believed that blood was produced anew with every heartbeat and was consumed at our extremities. Bleeding patients, therefore, shouldn’t cause any great difficulties.
The fact that we could not see capillaries before the invention of the microscope should not have caused doctors to reject the theory of circulation, only to say that a mechanism had not yet been found to make it work. The circulation hypothesis did a better job of explaining various facts of human anatomy–like the existence of veins carrying blood to the heart and the habit of patients to die after bleeding–than the heart-generation hypothesis.
The insistence on clinging to the older theory due to the lack of a capillary mechanism lead, of course, to the deaths of thousands of patients. (For more on the history of medicine, anatomy, and circulation, I recommend William Bynum’s A Little History of Science.)
How something works is vastly secondary to the question of whether it works at all in the first place. If it works, it works. If you can’t figure out how, you call it magic admit that you don’t know and hope that someday it’ll be clear. What you don’t do is claim that a thing cannot be true or cannot actually work simply because you don’t understand how it happens.
I don’t understand how airplanes stay in the sky, but that doesn’t make them fall down. Reality doesn’t stop just because we don’t understand it; to think that it does is pure, asinine hubris.
The next objection I commonly hear to the idea that cultural changes (like the proliferation of schools) could trigger changes in the genetic makeup of society is that “evolution doesn’t work that fast.”
This is a funny objection. The speed of evolution depends on the nature of the trait we are discussing. Developing a radically new trait, or greatly modifying an existing one, such as developing the ability to breath air instead of water, does indeed take a long time–sometimes millions or even billions of years. But simply modifying the distribution of existing traits in a population can be done nearly instantly–if an invading army lops the heads off of anyone over 5’9″, the average height of the population will fall immediately. From a genetic perspective, this is “negative selection” against height, and the population has “evolved” to be shorter.
(You might object that this is too artificial an example, so consider the inverse: a situation where everyone over a certain size used to die, but due to environmental changes they now survive. Modern obstetrics and the cesarean section have rescued mothers of large babies from the once-common fate of death in childbirth. This was of course often fatal to the infants, as well, and prevented their parents from producing any further children. Large babies were a serious evolutionary problem for our ancestors, but much less so for us, which has probably contributed to the rise in average heights over the past century.)
Usually selection is less extreme, but the point remains: traits that already exist (and vary) in a population, like height, weight, blood type, or temperament, can be selected for (or against) on very short timescales.
In fact, human societies are always selecting for some traits; this means that we are always evolving. The distribution of traits in humans today is not the same as the distribution of traits in humans 20 years ago, much less 100 years ago.
And we can look at all of the things humans are being selected for (or selecting themselves for) and speculate how this will change society. Religious people have more children than atheists, and some religions produce far more children than other religions. This trend is juxtaposed against the massive rise in atheism over the past few decades. Will atheism continue to spread to the children of the religious, or will the religious “core” be effectively immune and overwhelm the remaining agnostics with numbers?
Education (or perhaps it is just a proxy for intelligence) seems to have different effects on different folks and different levels of society. Highschool dropouts have a lot of kids. People with PhDs have a fair number of kids. People who have merely graduated from college, by contrast, have the fewest kids.
Fertility is also different for men and women, with more educated women taking a bigger fertility hit than educated men.
Any discussion of “what’s up with the American middle/working class” has to address facts like these–our country is effectively bifurcating into two “success” models: one very high achieving and one very low achieving. The middle, it seems, is getting cut out.
But we can apply evolutionary theory to much more than humans and their societies. We can analyze ideas, transportation networks, technology, etc.
My first–and probably best–idea in this area was that the idea that the way we transmit ideas influences the nature of our ideas. One of the biggest changes of the past century has been a massive change in the way we communicate, from the rise of mass media to the explosion of social media. Before radio and TV, most people got most of their information from people they knew personally, mostly their families. Today, we get most of our information from total strangers.
Ideas we get from strangers I refer to as meme viruses, (meme as in “unit of idea,” not “funny picture on the internet”) because horizontal transmission resembles the transmission of viruses. Ideas we get from our families I refer to as mitochondrial memes, because vertical transmission resembles the transmission of mitochondrial DNA.
Since the interests of strangers are different from the interests of your close family (your parents are much more interested in you making lots of money, getting married, and making grandbabies than strangers are), they will tend to promote different sorts of ideas. Your parents generally want you to succeed, while strangers would prefer that you do things that help them succeed.
It is this change in the way we communicate, rather than the actions or intentions of any particular group, that I think explains the rise of many modern political trends. (This is the condensed version; I recommend reading one of my posts on memes if you want more.)
I am obviously interested in politics, but not in the conventional sense. I have very little interest in anything associated with particular people in politics, outside of a few historical figures. I have no interest in the latest thing Nancy Pelosi or Emmanuel Macron has been up to. I think people place too much importance on individuals; I am more interested in broad trends (like the spread of technology) that are much bigger and further-reaching than any individual politicians (often their bigger than individual countries).
I’ve come over the years to the conclusion that conventional politics drive people to do (and say) very stupid things. People develop a tribal identity attached to one side or another, and suddenly everything their side does is good and sensible, and everything the other side does is nefarious and dumb. This is not a bad instinct when your enemies have pointy spears and want to turn you into lunch, but it’s terrible when your enemy disagrees with you on optimal interest rates.
My second purpose in founding this blog was to reach out to people who were, as I see it, harmed by the cult-like behavior of modern leftism. When I say “cult-like,” I mean it. Atheism is on the rise, but religious thinking and behavior remains strong. When peoples’ self-identities as “good people” become linked to their membership in political tribes, the threat of excommunication becomes particularly powerful.
… far more unsettling was what happened two weeks later, when knitters who claim to be champions of social justice went after a gay man within the community because he’d written a satirical poem suggesting (correctly) that all the recent anti-racism mobbings might be having a toxic effect on the community. …
The next day, Taylor’s husband Benjamin Till, a composer (who also happens to be Jewish) posted on Sockmatician’s account: “This is Nathan’s husband, Benjamin. At 3 pm today, Nathan was admitted to [the emergency room at] Barnet Hospital. …
Till also wrote on his blog about what had happened:
… Nathan disabled comments when the sheer weight of them became too much, but the following morning, his other Instagram posts, and then his Twitter feed had been hijacked by the haters. The taunts continued. He was a white supremacist, a Nazi apologist…He started obsessively reading the posts but became increasingly worked up, then more and more erratic and then suddenly he snapped, screaming like a terrified animal, smashing boxes and thumping himself. I was forced to wrestle him to the ground and hold onto him for dear life as the waves of pain surged through his body. He made a run for the car keys. He said he wanted to drive at 100 miles per hour until he crashed. I called our doctor and they could hear him screaming in the background and said I was to immediately take him to [the hospital], where he was instantly assessed and put on suicide watch …
This was not the end of Nathan’s ordeal at the hands of people who supposedly believe in “social justice” and helping the powerless, as people continued piling on (yelling at him in public) because of the “harm” he had caused.
I wish I could reach out to everyone like Nathan and tell them that they’re not bad, cults are bad.
The right has its own issues, but I come from a leftist background and so am responding to what I know personally, not abstractly.
From time to time I get a question about the future of HBD (human bio-diversity). The online HBD community was quite vibrant about a decade ago, but many of the brightest lights have faded. Henry Harpending of Westhunter and co-author of The 10,000 Year Explosion has sadly passed away. HBD Chick and Jayman are both occupied with their own lives.
The future of HBD isn’t in blogs or the internet generally (though we can read about it here). It’s over in real genetics research. Yes, there are some subjects that academics don’t want to touch for fear of losing their jobs, but there are many researchers forging paths into fascinating new territory. The field of ancient DNA is unlocking the story of human migration and dispersal, from Neanderthals to Anglo Saxons. Thanks to aDNA, we’ve discovered a whole new Human species, the Denisovans, that interbred with the ancestors of modern Homo sapiens (as did the Neanderthals). We have also discovered “ghost” species in our DNA that we have no name for.
The field of modern DNA is also advancing; we’re learning new things all the time. CRISPRing humans is just one fascinating possibility.
Imagine the ability to remove simple genetic flaws that cause painful and fatal diseases, make ourselves beautiful or smarter. How much are 20 IQ points worth? One study found that people with IQs of 100 average $58,000 a year, while 120s made $128,000. $70,000 a year, averaged over a few decades of working life, (less intelligent people tend to enter the workforce and start earning younger, so it’s not a simple multiplication problem), adds up quickly.
Let’s imagine a scenario in which CRISPR actually works. Only the wealthy–and perhaps those with genetic diseases willing to shell out thousands or covered by insurance–will be able to afford it. The current bifurcation trend will become even more extreme as the poor continue reproducing normally, while the wealthy make themselves smarter, healthier, and prettier.
But if CRISPR confers advantages to society as a whole–for example, if smarter people make fabulous new inventions that everyone benefits from–then we could see foundations, charities, and even welfare programs aimed at making sure everyone has the CRISPR advantage.
After all, if an extra year in school boosts IQ by 3.4 points (I’m not saying it does, but let’s assume), then 6 extra years in school will give you 20.4 points. We pay about $10,600 per pupil per year for public schools, so those six years are worth $63,600. If you can CRISPR 20 IQ points for less, then it’s a better deal.
Of course, CRISPR might just be a pipe dream that gives people cancer.
Whatever happens, the real future of HBD lies in real labs with real budgets, not online blogs. I’m just here to share, discuss, and think–and hopefully there will be enough interesting ideas to discuss for another thousand posts.
Thanks for being part of all these discussions. Blogs are nothing without readers, after all.
Arnade spends most of his time in the book in three places: McDonald’s, drug dens, and churches. Two of these–McD’s and the drug Ds–are capitalist enterprises: they exist to sell you things, legal or not. Churches are not explicitly capitalist, but can be understood using the same model. They are interested in attracting enough members to cover their operating costs, so a church that does a better job of “selling” religion or provides a more enjoyable religious experience will probably attract more parishioners and will do better financially. (A church that can attract no members is, ultimately, dead.)
The lack of good common spaces that do not require spending money is one of the minor annoyances of my life. I like being outdoors, but it rains out there. National parks are lovely, but not near the house. It’s especially difficult to find locations that are attractive to multiple generations, or both children and childless adults (if I want to socialize with friends who do not have kids of their own).
As Arnade notes, for poor neighborhoods, McDonald’s fills that niche. It has a playground and happy meals for kids; it has booths and hamburgers for adults. It is warm and dry in the winter, cool in the summer, and even has a bathroom. The price of admission is low–a cup of coffee.
In Arnade’s telling, the organizations that ought to be providing community spaces, like the local government, really don’t. From a libertarian perspective, if attracting more people to these places doesn’t directly benefit the people running them, then they won’t put effort into making these spaces comfortable and attractive. Since McDonald’s (or the other locations Arnade visits) do make money off customers, even homeless ones who just order a cup of coffee, McD’s has an incentive to make its environs comfortable and welcoming to as many people as possible.
We can find other examples of capitalist enterprises providing communal spaces, like salons, barber shops, shopping malls, bars, and sports bars.
Of course, this inevitably runs up against class issues. McD makes plenty of money selling food to the poor, and Whole Foods makes plenty selling food to the rich, but it is difficult to sell to both markets. Back in our review of Auerswald’s The Code Economy, we discussed his observation that capitalistic markets tends to bifurcate into supplying low and high class versions of products, with a dearth in between. Auerswald discusses the evolution of watch making, from expensive luxuries to common watches to the clock included on your phone. He writes that both the clock-in-your phone and the luxury Rolex markets are doing fine, while sales of mid-price watches have withered.
Community seems to have undergone a similar process. McDonald’s is doing fine, financially, and I’m sure ski clubs in Alta are doing fine, too. It’s in between that we find people who are watching their money and can’t afford to spend $80-$120 a day on trips to the museum/zoo/movies, etc, but don’t want to hang out at McDonald’s, either. In general I think of “let’s avoid the poors” social signaling as a scam–products/services that signal your social class will happily increase in cost until they’ve sucked up all of your money–but sometimes avoiding other people legitimate. Personally, I would go to McDonald’s more often if my children weren’t prone to getting horribly ill when we visit–social class may be socially constructed, but diarrhea is real. Avoiding criminals, drug addicts, diseases, and folks who haven’t bathed recently is perfectly reasonable.
There aren’t a lot of spaces that do this for the middle class. Chick-fil-A comes close, but their playgrounds are designed for kids under 5. The best place I can think of for middle class families to hang out and socialize (which is also a good place for the poor and upper class) is church. And indeed, Arnade meets lots of people at churches across the country. Churches (or other religions’ houses of worship) are generally warm (or cool), hold community events, mark lifecycle events, and generally even have dedicated areas for children. The only difficulty is that churches are structured around belief in a particular religion, which is awkward for the nation’s increasing numbers of atheists, and occasionally use their parishioners’ beliefs in the morality of the church for self-gratification/manipulation. (EG, every cult ever.)
Arnade also visits one other variety of social club in the book, the “Snowshoe Club” IIRC, dedicated not to snowshoeing, but to French Canadians in the US. Like many social clubs, the Snowshoes get together for dinner and social events, costs five dollars to join, and officially you don’t have to be French Canadian to be a member. These sorts of social clubs used to be much more common in the US (See: Bowling Alone), but have been on the wane for decades.
How do you feel about community in your own town? Are there good places to meet people and socialize, or do you feel a dearth? Does capitalism do a good job of filling this role, or would some other structure or institution perform better? Is the bifurcation I have described a real thing, or just an illusion of some sort? In short, what do you think?
As I read, I couldn’t help but compare human society to an anthill (mostly because I happened to also be reading the anthill dialogue in Godel, Escher, Bach at the same time).
Ants, honeybees, termites, and a variety of other insects are eusocial. Eusocial insects live massive colonies with social organization of a sort familiar to us humans, from division of labor to cooperative raising of the colony’s young (This is why my avatar is a bee.)
Eusocial insects can do some amazing things, like build bridges and towers out of their own bodies:
The fascinating thing about ants, bees, and the like is that, while they have “queens”, they don’t really have a conscious monarch calling the shots. The behavior of each individual ant somehow adds up to the behavior of the entire colony, yet the entire colony behaves in a way that is difficult to reduce to the behavior of individual ants.
The division of labor creates specialized behavioral groups within an animal society which are sometimes called castes. Eusociality is distinguished from all other social systems because individuals of at least one caste usually lose the ability to perform at least one behavior characteristic of individuals in another caste.
And according to Godel, Escher, Bach:
Anteater: [Aunt Hillary] is certainly one of the best-educated ant colonies I have ever had he good fortune to know. The two of us have spent many a long evening in conversation on the widest range of topics.
Achilles: I thought anteaters were devourers of ants, not patrons of ant intellectualism!
Anteater: Well, of course the two are not mutuaully inconsistent. I am on the best of terms with ant colonies. Its just ANTS that I eat, not colonies–and that is good for both parties: me, and the colony.
One of my conclusions from listening to many demands (and promises) for politicians to “create jobs” is that most people no longer have any idea where jobs come from, nor how to make them happen. Jobs seem to come from the job fairy, given or taken as her capricious will determines.
And the modern economy is complicated enough that this is… about accurate. No one could have prevented the Great Depression. No individual created the great post-war economic boom. Recessions come and go despite our best efforts to prevent them; bubbles inflate and burst. These things just happen, and ordinary people find themselves dragged along for the ride.
One of the things that happened over the past 40 years was Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 that paved the way for the wholesale transfer of the American manufacturing establishment to China. The older folks in Arnade’s account speak warmly of the manufacturing days, when you could walk off the highschool graduation stage and into a job at the local factory.
I have a children’s book written in the ’50s in which an American child tells a group of Canadian children about his country. He tells them all about the factories, which make all manner of fabulous things.
Today, such easy employment is so far from reality that I almost got angry reading these accounts. “What, it was easy for you? It’s not so damn easy for us young people, you know. We never got to walk out of highschool and straight into jobs.” But anger is not productive and it tells us nothing about how the world should be.
Whether we are better or worse with manufacturing jobs in China is debatable–I think we are worse off, but the migration of unpleasant jobs that damage the environment to areas with laxer worker and environmental protections might have been inevitable. But even if it was in our best interests as a whole, it certainly wasn’t in the interests of the workers who lost their jobs and the people who remain in communities that have completely lost their economic base. The deaths of a few ants may benefit the anthill, but it certainly doesn’t make those ants happy.
At least we have the decency to honor soldiers whose sacrifices benefit society; little concern is given for people whose jobs were sacrificed for efficiency, progress, profits, or avoiding environmental regulations.
It’s easy to ask, “Why don’t you make your own job? Found your own company? Start a business? Do something to pump life back into the community?” but this is easier said than done; not everyone can come up with successful entrepreneurial ideas.
I don’t like the idea of being a (semi)eusocial species. I want people to be able to adapt to a changing economic system. I don’t always get what I want, though. Economies come and go, wars start and end, society careens on like juggernaut, and most of us just hope for the best.
One of the interesting parts of the book is Arnade’s tour of the nation’s McDonalds’s.
In neighborhoods across the country, Arnade finds community (and people to interview) beneath the golden arches. Here people meet friends for breakfast, play dominoes, or just hang out and avoid the weather. In many areas, McDonald’s also has the only nice playground around, and kids are happy to have a place to play.
McDonald’s Corp would probably like Arnade’s depiction a lot better if it stopped at “neighborhood hotspot” and didn’t include all of the homeless and drug addicts who also find it a warm, dry, safe place to rest.
There are multiple reasons for this shift, including people having fewer kids and more kids opting to play video games at home rather than head to the playground, but one of the biggest is classism.
Back when we were kids, McDonald’s was simply seen as a tasty, affordable restaurant that catered to families with small children. I’m almost certain I attended birthday parties there.
McDonald’s still offers birthday parties, but today the idea seems… declasse. Not that the kids wouldn’t enjoy it– kids today have about the same opinion of McDonald’s as I did–but their parents would disapprove. On parenting forums you often hear moms proudly proclaim that the dreaded “fast food” has never passed her offspring’s lips.
I have changed my position on the “healthiness” of fast food since I wrote that piece; I am now concerned that the temperatures used to cook food quickly at fast food joints oxidizes oils, resulting in health problems. This doesn’t mean that organic cupcakes are good for you, just that oxidized oils are bad.
People talk a lot about “food deserts” and argue about whether the unhealthy food options in poor neighborhoods are a matter of preference or oppression.
It’s probably a bit of both. People like McDonald’s, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t eat other things if they could.
But there are reasons restaurants don’t like to locate in poor neighborhoods, mostly theft. In a relevant anecdote, Arnade describes how a sweltering summer day led locals to try to steal ice from the McDonald’s drink machine. Of course a bit of theft from the drink machine is routine, no matter the neighborhood, but the manager of this location did not appreciate having his store so blatantly robbed. The event is meant to be humorous in the book (which it probably was in real life,) but I couldn’t help but think, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” If people steal from the stores in their neighborhood, those stores shut down and new ones don’t open.
Of course, there are other ways people get poisoned besides probably willingly eating delicious junk food. Like pollution. Arnade doesn’t talk much about environmental toxins like lead or burning plastic, but I happened to watch a Netflix documentary about this last night, so I’ll talk about it anyway.
Apparently “plastic” is not really recyclable. Well, some kinds of plastic are, but many varieties effectively are not, and you can’t make new plastic products out of several varieties of plastic mixed together. So when you throw all of your recyclables into the big bin together, they are effectively useless to the recycling plant.
The recycling plant near your home has employees who sort through the recycling, separating cans from paper from plastics and attempting to send all of the useless trash like used napkins and pizza boxes to the landfill. Metal and glass are valuable and can be recycled, but–until recently–all of the plastic got bought up by Chinese recycling plants.
Until recently, China imported MASSIVE quantities of plastic trash. More humans were employed to sort through this trash (poor humans). The usable stuff–types 1, 2, and 5–got recycled. The unusable plastic got disposed of–by burning
This is your “recycling” on fire:
Eventually the Chinese government decided that burning plastic is noxious and disgusting and that Chinese lungs shouldn’t be a dumping ground for the world’s trash, so it banned the import of most waste plastic. Suddenly the “recycling” plants had a huge problem: no where to dump all of the plastic they were pretending to recycle.
Entrepreneurs in Malaysia (and other nations) stepped in to fill the gap, and locals were astonished when giant piles of burning garbage appeared overnight in their communities.
Soon the Malaysian government also decided that burning plastic is bad and started banning the stuff.
Goodness knows where our “recycling” will go now to get burned. Maybe, horror of horrors, we’ll have to bury it in a landfill instead of loading it on giant container ships and using fossil fuels to send it across the ocean. (I am generally against shipping things across oceans if we can avoid it.)
But pollution isn’t just a third world problem; the distribution of poor communities in the US was determined largely by the direction of the winds blowing pollution from factories and chemical plants.
“There’s a good reason burning household trash, including plastic, is prohibited in most of the U.S. — the toxic species,” says Noelle Eckley Selin, an assistant professor in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, as well as the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. When plastic is burned, it releases dangerous chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, furans and heavy metals, as well as particulates. These emissions are known to cause respiratory ailments and stress human immune systems, and they’re potentially carcinogenic.
It’s bad enough being poor, with all the difficulties that entails, without having to breathe burning plastic, smoke, or whatever’s in the local chemical plant. (Even in areas without such industries, the poor are more likely to live in houses that still have lead paint.)
The authors conclude by arguing that the legalization of prostitution brings a level of public scrutiny, official regulation, and bureaucratization to brothels that decreases the risk of these 3 types of systematic violence.
Of course, some people argue that bureaucratizing prostitution will only increase the paperwork and push out the independent contractors.
What about prisons? Arnade does not visit any prisons, but many of the people he interviews have. The need for some kind of prison reform is a safe bet, since prisons are full of people whom society doesn’t like and doesn’t want to spend money on.
"Warehousing" in slave dehumanizing conditions will continue to manifest violence. This is exactly like my state slave quarters where I'm housed at. I hear we will soon receive new toilets and sinks. At heart none of this is the issue or solution #BurnThePrisonspic.twitter.com/L9u3LV2GBY
— Jailhouse Lawyers Speak — #PrisonersHumanRights (@JailLawSpeak) January 4, 2020
I am definitely in favor of imprisoning violent people, but this seems like… not what prison should be like.
Edited to add: Regardless of how you think Epstein died, his case highlights a number of “mistakes” in the way his prison–a relatively nice one, I believe–was run, from transferring a probably still suicidal guy off suicide watch to the non-functioning security cameras to the guards straight up not watching the prisoners and lying about doing their rounds. People are killed or commit suicide in prison all the time; we just don’t normally hear about it because they aren’t as rich and famous (or infamous) as Epstein.
Homicide has been up over the past few years, which is not good for anyone and probably means we need more street-level policing. Yes, the police sometimes kill innocent people (or dogs), but non-police kill more innocent people, so police are a net gain.
Montrealers discovered last week what it is like to live in a city without police and firemen. The lesson was costly: six banks were robbed, more than 100 shops were looted, and there were twelve fires. Property damage came close to $3,000,000; at least 40 carloads of glass will be needed to replace shattered storefronts. Two men were shot dead. At that, Montreal was probably lucky to escape as lightly as it did.
Well, it’s getting late, so I’d better wrap this up. This book covers many difficult topics and is not easy to discuss, and parts of the book I’ve neglected to mention–the author also interviews many immigrants from Mexico and Somalia, as well as locals in the areas where they’ve moved, for example. I apologize for wandering so far afield.
I feel compelled to offer solutions, but these are difficult problems to fix. People live their own lives, sometimes suffering, sometimes triumphing. Our World in Data has some interesting charts about income distributions in different countries that I’d like to end with:
How very differently the benefits of economic growth can be shared is shown by a comparison of the USA and the UK over the last 40 years. In the US incomes for the bottom half of the population were stagnating for most of the last 4 decades (with a notable exception over the second half of the 1990s). In the UK the first period resembles the experience of the US – incomes at the bottom of the distribution were stagnating, incomes at the top were rising rapidly. But over the second period – from 1991 onwards – the trend in the UK has changed significantly: economic growth was shared equally across the distribution from the lowest to the highest decile.
The comparison also show that growth in the UK – particularly for the lowest income group – was much stronger than in the US. A comparison with other rich countries shows that the experience of the US – strongly rising inequality and stagnation for a large part of the population – is unique to the US. Other rich countries were much more successful in sharing the benefits of growth across the distribution.
Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is a difficult book to review. Dire poverty is a tough subject to face head-on without reflexive squirming. It is very tempting to impose one’s own interpretations on the author and his subjects. We want to make it, somehow, better. If we blame people for their situations, then our discomfort fades. If we shift the focus from poor people to rich people, the author, or ourselves, the discomfort fades. etc.
1. What the book is
Dignity is an unflinching series of portraits of some of America’s poorest and unluckiest people. The author visits poor neighborhoods across the country, photographing and interviewing residents about their lives. He talks to prostitutes, criminals, drug dealers, junkies, preachers, single mothers, abuse victims, the disabled, the homeless, and the destitute.
It is not, for the most part, a commentary. It does not propose solutions. The author’s intention is to simply talk to people and hear their stories. If you are looking for a book full of solutions, look elsewhere. If you want to know more about what the problems are, this is your book.
Note: I “read” this book in audiobook form, so I will not be quoting and all references are made from memory. I also, obviously, could not see the pictures that come with the paper version.
The author is fairly liberal, and this comes through in his writing. This is a bone of contention for some people, with folks who’ve only read the summaries lambasting the author for being “pro Trump,” and the most prominent Amazon reviews lambasting the author for being “anti-Trump,” (much to the author’s consternation). Personally, I don’t care about the author’s political views, but if they bother you too much, you won’t enjoy the book. If you are interested in my views on race and democracy, I recommend you read my Open Letter to Liberals and Centrists.
I would have liked to read some stories in the book from American Indians–the situation out on the reservations is quite concerning. I also would have appreciated some statistical information on overall trends–are things getting better or worse over time?
2. Why I read it:
I like anthropology because I want to learn about the lives of real people. Literature is pleasant to read because it well-written, but its characters are generally fictions drawn from the author’s experiences or the kinds of people the author wants to write about. I am interested in the sorts of people who don’t normally show up in books.
Too many novels fall into the trap of trying to paint the poor as sympathetic because they are secretly like the author–usually plucky orphans with a love of literature. Certainly some orphans love literature, but I wager most do not. These type of characters show that these authors lack real insight into their subjects and their bias that the character is worth saving because she is improbably like the author.
In real life, the poor are not simply high-class people waiting to be discovered, maybe given a few books and a makeover. They are simply people, with their own unique problems.
Was the book effective?
I think the author wants us to identify with and feel sympathy for his subjects’s struggles. Some people I did feel sympathy for, like the woman who was born in a prison hospital to an incarcerated mom, or the man who suffered permanent brain damage when a friend accidentally smashed his head open. They were given really shitty hands in life through no fault of their own. Others I didn’t feel sorry for; they had made obviously bad decisions that led to bad places. (Even if I did feel bad for them, I am unable to stop other people from making bad decisions.)
This is true, of course, of any system–some people suffer because due to bad luck, others from bad choices. Many are in the gray zone of low-IQ, which isn’t a choice but leads to things we call bad choices.
One of the difficulties I have with the book is that because there are so many interviews, most are, by necessity, fairly superficial. This gives us insight into many different neighborhoods and problems, but it doesn’t give us much depth for any particular problem. Since few of us like to be entirely honest about our own flaws, judging the source of a problem based on a few pages of interview is difficult.
When we talk about problems, we have to be clear what the problems are, where they come from, and if they are solvable at all. (Some problems aren’t.)
Things I think we can’t change: intelligence, drug addiction, manufacturing jobs heading to China (sorry), automation.
Things we can change: mental illness, regular illness, schools, paperwork, prisons, number of criminals on the street.
Just kidding, paperwork is here to stay until the apocalypse.
A lot of problems in this book are blamed, more or less, on white people. A typical example is someone claiming that they elected a black mayor and “the next day” all of the whites left town, hauling all of the jobs with them. Another interviewee was more honest, noting that the whites left after a riot.
The 1967 Detroit Rebellion, also known as the 1967 Detroit Riot or 12th Street riot was the bloodiest incident in the “Long, hot summer of 1967“. Composed mainly of confrontations between black residents and the Detroit Police Department, it began in the early morning hours of Sunday July 23, 1967, in Detroit, Michigan.
The precipitating event was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar then known as a blind pig, on the city’s Near West Side. It exploded into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history, lasting five days and surpassing the violence and property destruction of Detroit’s 1943 race riot 24 years earlier.
The black community in Detroit received much more attention from federal and state governments after 1967, and … money did flow into black-owned enterprises after the riot. However, the most significant black politician to take power in the shift from a white majority city to a black majority city, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, wrote in 1994:
The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The rebellion put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totaling twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.
Riots can coerce governments into handing out more benefits or pumping more money into schools, but they also drive away anyone who can get out.
I’ve looked at the data six ways to Sunday, and it looks like “white flight” was driven primarily by black crime, which was a big deal in the seventies and eighties:
Homicide rates are still disproportionately high among blacks even if we control for income:
In the first decade, 66-75, African Americans in the 75th-90th percent of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%. In 76-95, blacks in the top 10% of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%.
The author talks a bit about his own experiences with racism. He grew up in a small town in the South where he was bullied by the other white kids for having parents who supported the NAACP and desegregation. Like many “successful” people, the author did well in school, went to college, and eventually settled in a much whiter neighborhood than the racist one he left behind.
Arnade reflects on this fact–on how most of the kids he grew up with eventually mellowed, probably finding more in common with each other than with people like him who moved up and out. He’s the one who white-flighted, and I’d wager that crime, jobs, and “good schools” have driven most white movement over the past 50 years, not black mayors.
Arnade rejects simple solutions to the problems of poverty. Affirmative action, for example, pits poor minorities against poor whites, while still affirming the upper-class belief that what matters is how smart, rich, and successful you are. Arnade challenges his reader to envision a world in which we don’t value people based on how smart or successful they are.
As I said, it is nearly impossible to change someone’s intelligence for the better. (If someone has some technique that has stood the test of randomized long-term trials that control for genetics, please let me know so I can use them on my kids.) Most would-be reformers run up against this fact like a brick wall, but once you accept that you cannot fundamentally make people smarter (or more conscientious, harder working, etc), you can focus on the things that you actually can change.
The difficulty, of course, is that intelligence is really important. Not because I value it (though I do) but because “intelligence” is a rough shorthand for “being able to run your own life.” Even if we could somehow not have any “values” and love each other equally, the dumber people would still make more mistakes and end up, on average, with shittier lives than the smart people (unless we have also instituted some sort of highly coercive state to prevent people from making their own decisions).
At least Arnade does not claim that everyone is equally intelligent, that if we just made more kids do more math, they’d all become physicists. He knows and has the grace to recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to be smart. Some of us are dumb.
Perhaps his hope is not that we will vote for this candidate or that program, support this law or that institution, but that we’ll be kinder and more understanding of the troubles other people are going through.
I propose that we reduce paperwork.
Lizard people (metaphorical, not literal) love paperwork. Paperwork is how they show that they are better than you. Paperwork shows how deserving they are. Paperwork is an arbitrary hurdle used to distinguish the “deserving” poor from the undeserving, and how we discourage people from applying for welfare, food stamps, SSDI, etc. Paperwork is how big corporations drive smaller competitors out of business or prevent them from existing in the first place. Paperwork keeps poor, low-education entrepreneurs from starting businesses and keeps them trapped in low-end jobs.
Paperwork is the goddamn devil.
Unfortunately, many of the programs put in place to “help” the poor just increase the regulatory burden in their lives and make everything worse. For example, a friend of mine was homeless in San Francisco for many years. He had a fairly regular income, but also schizophrenia. San Francisco has many tenants’ rights laws, which are supposed to protect tenants from eviction, but in practice make renters unwilling to take on the lowest classes of renters–that is, folks they have reason to think they may have to evict. Dealing with all of that paperwork, lawyer fees, etc., is just too expensive for the landlords to make leasing to a high-risk tenant worthwhile, so especially poor people, even if they have the money to pay for a month’s rent, simply are not allowed to live in one place for that long, not even in the crappiest of homeless hotels.
In this case it’s not the tenants who have to fill out the paperwork, but the procedural burden placed on the landlords is still having a negative effect on their lives.
This is not me coming from a radical libertarian perspective, but the opinion I’ve formed via conversation with my friend about what it was like being on the streets and the various barriers he faced.
Many people who have spent years working with the homeless repeat that you cannot fundamentally change people. Aside from treating their mental illnesses and helping them get off drugs, the basic personality traits that lead to long-term homeless will in all likelihood persist. However, that does not mean that we need to increase the regulatory burden on landlords. There are always some people on the edge between homelessness and not, and we don’t need to make it artificially more difficult for them.
One conclusion I draw from Arnade’s account is that the war on drugs (and prostitution) is not going so well. As one woman he interviews says, you can’t do prostitution if you don’t have some drugs first to numb you to the experience.
Many of us use drugs–alcohol, Xanax, adderal, heroin, etc–to smooth over the stresses of our jobs or the parts of life we hate. We drink or pop medication to forget, to be popular, to make it all more bearable, and so, argues Arnade, do the poor.
“Mothers little helpers” were prescribed to my late mother to sedate her trauma. She went onto to die by over dosing. Can’t help but think the medication made her worse.
I think in these discussions of why people do drugs (trauma? rejection? loneliness?) we should consider another possibility: drugs make people feel better and are really addicting. Of course not everyone gets addicted to drugs, and many people who use drugs manage to do so without destroying their lives, but it is clear that for many people, the appeal of drugs is nigh over-powering. Many drug addicts, even the ones with family who love them and try to save them, eventually lose everything and end up dead in a ditch.
If people live in an area where drugs are common, then there is a good chance that at some point in their lives they will try them, and of the people who do, a good chance that they’ll become addicted, simply because drugs are addicting.
The War on Drugs doesn’t seem to be working.
Decriminalization is one potential approach. Several US states have tried decriminalizing marijuana, so we now have some preliminary results to discuss. According to Wikipedia:
In Colorado, effects since 2014 include increased state revenues, violent crime decreased, and an increase in homeless population. One Colorado hospital has received a 15% increase in babies born with THC in their blood.
Since legalization, public health and law enforcement officials in Colorado have grappled with a number of issues, serving as a model for policy problems that come with legalization. Marijuana-related hospital visits have nearly doubled between 2011, prior to legalization, and 2014. Top public health administrators in Colorado have cited the increased potency of today’s infused products, often referred to as “edibles”, as a cause for concern.
Summary: less crime, more people using pot. It’s a trade-off.
Slate Star Codex did some analysis/summarizing of the effects of marijuana legalization and found that it increased traffic accidents, which resulted in a lot more innocent people getting killed.
As far as I know, we don’t have good studies on the effects of marijuana on fetal development that control for genetics (or environment,) but the relevant mouse studies aren’t hopeful–looks like prenatal exposure to THC causes permanent brain damage.
So legalizing drugs looks like a bad idea, though decriminalization + increased funding for drug treatment programs might be good.
Another possibility is trying to give non-drug users more options to get away from high-use communities, and to give drug users community-based options that will help them escape their addictions, too.
Many of the desperately poor are suffering from untreated mental illnesses. Thankfully, mental illness is actually one of the things we can treat. We have very good medications that can radically decrease the negative effects from diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement here, because it’s a fairly simple mechanical fix that we can actually do, if we just identify the people who need medications and convince them to take them. (People who have just discovered that all of their “friends” were really delusions do need support, however.)
Less mental illness could also result in fewer people trying to self-medicate with drugs.
As Arnade discusses, the official places set up to help the poor, like rehab clinics and welfare offices, are generally unpleasant and uninviting. Take Cabrini Green: it looks like it was designed by someone who was suffering and wanted everyone else to suffer, too.
People do not feel welcome in such spaces, nor do they want to stay and hang out. The poor opt to hang out in other, more comfortable places, like McDonald’s, church, or drug dens. There is probably room for improvement in making the spaces where people try to improve themselves more pleasant.
School is the government institution most of us have the most contact with. In my experience, most school teachers are well-intentioned and want schools to be pleasant places for children. Certainly they want kids to learn.
In my experience, though, most kids don’t like school. It’s work, it’s coercive, and for about 50% of the kids the pace is consistently too fast or too slow. Our mainstream model is based on German schools and is focused primarily on raising student test scores. Many kids simply want to run and play and aren’t suited to this particular style of learning.
As a kid I attended public school and hated it; as a homeschooling parent I use a different teaching model for my own children.
One thing kids from very deprived backgrounds generally lack is a stable adult presence in their lives. In traditional schools, students change teachers ever year (or every 50 minutes in the higher grades.) In Waldorf schools, students stay with the same teacher for their first 8 years, providing stability and the chance for a deep relationship.
There is one Waldorf school in California, Birney, that is also a public school, drawing from the general neighborhood, much of which is low-income minorities. A study of the effectiveness of this school vs conventional schools showed positive results:
African American and Lation students at Birney have a suspension rate that is ten times lower than similar students in the district.
Over five years duration for African American, Latino and other socio-economically disadvantaged students the effect of attending Birney was correlated with an increase of 8 percentile ranks (i.e. from 50th percentile to 58th percentile) in ELA. Attending Birney had a smaller but positive effect size for these students in math.
Birney’s good test scores might be a side effect of which parents chose to send their kids to a Waldorf school, but the overall happiness of the students shines in study’s many interviewees:
I remember how excited I was every single day. I was so excited to go to school. That was a feeling that was shared throughout the class. “What are we going to do today, where are we going, what are we going to learn?” and that’s the biggest thing about Waldorf. It infuses that excitement, that love for learning.
I’m not convinced that Waldorf schools are perfect; they are just one example of a different way to run schools that still works.
I’ve never seen a consistent enough definition of “systematic oppression” that I could figure out what it really means and how to test it, but I bet if you were a smart kid in foster care trying to apply to college, you’d be facing it.
Our current college application system is needlessly complicated (see: paperwork). Just do like we do when kids go to highschool and assign each kid as they near the end of highschool to the nearest branch of the State U, community college, or trade school, with some adjusting for SAT scores, and let them apply elsewhere if they want to. This way, everyone can at least get some basic job skills.
This is not a recommendation for how we should pay for college.
Arnade spends a lot of time at McDonald’s and inside churches. The role of religion in the lives of the poor is notable, though as an atheist, Arnade admits observing it all from a certain distance. Why are the poor so much more devout than the wealthy?
We study the causal impact of religiosity through a randomized evaluation of an evangelical Protestant Christian values and theology education program. We analyze outcomes for 6,276 ultrapoor Filipino households six months and 30 months after the program ended. At six months, we find increases in religiosity and income, no statistically significant changes in total labor supply, consumption, food security, or life satisfaction, and a decrease in perceived relative economic status. Exploratory analysis suggests that the income treatment effect may operate through increasing grit. These effects fade away at 30 months. We conclude that this church-based program may represent a method of increasing non-cognitive skills and reducing poverty in the short run among adults in developing countries, but more work is required to understand whether the effects can persist and if not, why not.
This seems reasonably likely to hold true for folks in the US as well. A commitment to Jesus results in a simultaneous commitment to being honest, hard working, avoiding drugs, etc, and provides an environment full of other people with similar commitments. This works for a while, resulting in more money, which is evident to both the individual and his family and friends.
After a while, the effect wears off. People go back to their old ways. But life is long, and there are many opportunities for people to get clean, get sober, and return to the church–for at least a while.