Race: A Clarification


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

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

source: Big Think: Genetic map of Europe

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

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

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

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

What do I mean?

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

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

People over-thought ancestry long before 23 and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Quite a bit.

First, a bit of history:

map of Neanderthal DNA in humans

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



EvX’s Greatest Hits: Do Black Babies Have Blue Eyes? and Other Baby Matters

In honor of reaching 800 posts, we’ve taken a look back at our most popular pieces. Some of them have been surprises–like Do Black Babies Have Blue Eyes? (I didn’t think they did, but I wanted to be sure, because I had run across general claims like “All babies are born with blue eyes.”)

Apparently people love babies, so here are some interesting baby facts:

Babies are born with less melanin than their parents, because there’s no need for protection from sunlight while in the womb. This is why black babies are often a bit paler than than parents. (I try not to invade other people’s privacy by posting photos of other people’s infants, but here is a stock photo in which the newborn’s color is about the same as their father’s palms, distinctly lighter than their father’s overall coloration.)

Melanin levels typically increase over time in babies of all races, darkening skin and eyes. So white babies are often born with blue, grey, or light brown eyes that darken to the normal white range of blue to dark brown, but most African and Asian babies start out with eyes that are already pretty dark because they naturally have more melanin–though even their eyes show a range of newborn colors, from dark grey to green.

Hair: Most babies, including black/African babies, are born with soft, silky hair. Baby hair is different from adult hair because it grows from round hair follicles (which produce straight hair) and lacks the central shaft (or medulla) that stiffens adult hair. Over the first few months of life, follicles flatten and medullas grow in, giving hair its stiffer, curlier, more adult form, though the extent of this process differs widely by population.

White babies end up with a variety of hair textures. Most Asian babies end up with thick, straight hair, due to a variant of the EDAR gene that arose about 65,000 years ago. Despite the great genetic variety found in Sub-Saharan Africa, almost all black babies end up with tightly coiled, curly hair. Black hair has probably therefore been very valuable to people in Africa, providing enough of an evolutionary advantage that it has become nigh universal.

(Note that our nearest human relatives, the chimps, do not have curly hair. It is tempting to say that infant hair resembles chimpanzee hair, but I have never petted a chimp and so cannot really judge.)

Interestingly, many facial expressions are universal–emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, and disgust are expressed similarly in people from Sub-Saharan Africa to New Zealand, from Norway to Argentina; in newborns and elderly [pdf]; in blind people and sighted.

What about differences between babies?

More science on reactivity differences in babies: 

433 4-mo-old infants from Boston, Dublin, and Beijing were administered the same battery of visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli to evaluate differences in levels of reactivity. The Chinese Ss were significantly less active, irritable, and vocal than the Boston and Dublin samples, with Boston Ss showing the highest level of reactivity. Data suggest the possibility of temperamental differences between Caucasian and Asian infants in reactivity to stimulation.

Pregnant ladies may be interested to learn that average gestation length varies by race/ethnicity: 

The average length of gestation is about 5 days shorter in black populations than in white populations. Although some of this difference is accounted for by higher preterm delivery rates in blacks, the most common gestational week of delivery at term is the 39th in black populations, the 40th in white. Black gestational age specific neonatal mortality is lower than that of whites until the 37th week of gestation, but higher thereafter.

Another article with similar findings (though I don’t know how they define “Asian” because the source is British and Brits often include south Asians like Pakistanis in the “Asian” category even though they are genetically closer to Europeans. So far I haven’t found any data that specifically addresses gestation length in East Asians.) This study found that pregnancies vary naturally in length by over a month, even excluding some premature births. There are many reasons why pregnancies may vary, including maternal age, size, stress, and genetics–important factors for Obgyns to keep in mind when evaluating the medical needs of different mothers and their fetuses.

There’s a lot of variety in humans.



Which Groups Have the most Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA?  


Neanderthal and Denisovan contributions to different populations by chromosome (source)

Here are the numbers I’ve found so far for Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in different populations:

 et al, in The Combined Landscape of Denisovan and Neanderthal Ancestry in Present-Day Humans, 2016, report:

Native Americans: 1.37%
Central Asia: 1.4%
East Asia: 1.39%
Oceana (Melanesians): 1.54%
South Asia: 1.19%
Europeans: 1.06%

(I have seen it claimed that the high Neanderthal percents for Oceanan populations (that is, Melanesians and their relatives,) could be a result of Denisovan DNA being incompletely distinguished from Neanderthal.)

Prufer et al, [pdf] 2017, report somewhat higher values:

East Asians: 2.3–2.6%
Europeans: 1.8–2.4%

While Lohse and Frantz estimate an even higher rate of between 3.4–7.3% for Europeans and East Asians. (They found 5.9% in their Chinese sample and 5.3% in their European.)

The Mixe and Karitiana people of Brazil have 0.2% Denisovan (source); other estimates for the amount of Denisovan DNA in Native populations are much lower–ie, 0.05%.

I found an older paper by Prufer et al with estimates for three Hispanic populations, but doesn’t clarify if they have Native American ancestry:

Population Individuals Neandertal ancestry (%)
Autosomes X
Europeans CEU–Euros from Utah 85 1.17±0.08 0.21±0.17
FIN–Finnish 93 1.20±0.07 0.19±0.14
GBR–British 89 1.15±0.08 0.20±0.15
IBS–Spain 14 1.07±0.06 0.23±0.18
TSI–Tuscan 98 1.11±0.07 0.25±0.20

East Asians CHB–Han Chinese Beijing 97 1.40±0.08 0.30±0.21
CHS–Han Chinese South 100 1.37±0.08 0.27±0.21
JPT–Japan, Tokyo 89 1.38±0.10 0.26±0.21

Americans CLM: Colombians from Medellin 60 1.14±0.12 0.22±0.16
MXL: Mexicans from LA 66 1.22±0.09 0.21±0.15
PUR: Puerto Ricans 55 1.05±0.12 0.20±0.15

Africans LWK: Luhya in Webuye, Kenya 97 0.08±0.02 0.04±0.07
ASW: African Americans South West US 61 0.34±0.22 0.07±0.11

Since the paper is older, all of its estimates are lower than current estimates, because we now have more Neanderthal DNA to compare against. However, you can still see the general trend.

The difference between “autosomes” and “X” highlighted here is that (IIRC) autosomes includes all chromosomes except the XY pair, and X is the X from that pair. They’re breaking them up this way because the X chromosome tends to have very little Neanderthal on it (and the Y even less), probably because Neanderthal DNA on these particular chromosomes was selected against.

Neanderthal DNA appears to have been selected for in areas that control hair and skin–people who had just left Africa were adapted to the African environment, and Neanderthal hair and skin traits helped them survive in colder, darker winters. We also see a lot of Neanderthal DNA influencing inflammation/immune response–these may have helped people fend off new diseases. But we see almost no Neanderthal (or Denisovan) DNA in areas of the genome that code for sperm, eggs, testes, ovaries, etc. These parts of people were probably already finely tuned to work together, didn’t need to change with the environment, and changing anything probably just made them less efficient–so Neanderthal (and Denisovan) DNA on the X and Y chromosomes has been purged from the Homo Sapiens gene pool.

North African Populations Carry Signature of Admixture with Neanderthals reports its data relative to the European average (which I believe is the CEU pop, 1.17%, so I’ll do the math for you to figure how much Neanderthal they have.)

Algeria 44.57% = 0.52% Neanderthal
Tunisia 100.16% = 1.172 N
Tunisia 138.13% = 1.6% N (This is an interesting population that has been highly endogamous and thus better reflects historical populations in the area.)
Egypt 58.45% = 0.68% N
Libya 56.36% = 0.66% N
Morroco North 69.17% = 0.81% N
Morocco South 17.90% = 0.21% N
Saharawi 50.90% = 0.6% N
Canary Island* 101.44% = 1.187% N
China Beijing 193.43% = 2.26 % N
China 195.41% = 2.29% N
Texas Indu Gupti 84.37% =0.987% N
Andalusia*118.66% = 1.39% N
Tuscan 94.90% = 1.11% N
Basque BASC 129.48% = 1.51% N
Galicia* GAL 115.86% = 1.36% N
Yoruba YRI  0.00% = 0% N
Luyha LWK  −14.89% = N

The authors note that they are not sure how the Luyha received a negative score–perhaps the presence of admixed DNA from yet another species is interfering with the results.

According to Wikipedia:

Denisovan DNA is most commonly found in Melanesians, Papulans, Aboriginal Australians and Aboriginal Filipinos, who all have similar amounts around 4-6%, indicating that they probably were all one group when their ancestors met the Denisovans. However, the similar-looking but historically quite isolated Onge people have no Denisovan–so they split off before the event.

In Papuans, Neanderthal DNA tends to be expressed in brain tissue, Denisovan in bones and other tissues.

Asians have a small amount of Denisovan DNA; Tibetans have a particular gene that lets them absorb oxygen effectively at high altitudes that they got from the Denisovans.

The Mende People of Sierra Leon may derive 13% of their DNA from an as-yet unknown hominin species (ancient DNA and bones do not preserve well in parts of Africa, so finding remains and identifying the species may be difficult.)

The Yoruba derive 8 or 9% of their DNA from the same hominin.

Masai have a small fraction of Neanderthal–since they are 30% non-African, probably about 0.35% of their genome–but you can read the paper yourself. 

Biaka Pygmies and Bushmen (San): 2% from an unknown archaic.

With more testing, better and more comprehensive numbers are sure to turn up.

Greatest Hits: Native Americans and Neanderthal DNA.

Source: Ancient Beringians: A Discovery Changing Early Native American History

Over the years, a few of my posts have been surprisingly popular–Turkey: Not very Turkic, Why do Native Americans Have so much Neanderthal DNA?, Do Black Babies have Blue Eyes? and Can Ice packs help stop a seizure (in humans)?

It’s been a while since these posts aired, so I thought it was time to revisit the material and see if anything new has turned up.

Today, lets revisit Native Americans and Neanderthal DNA:

I’m sorry, but I no longer think Native Americans (aka American Indians) have higher than usual levels of Neanderthal DNA. Sorry. Their Neanderthal DNA levels are similar to (but slightly lower than) those of other members of the Greater Asian Clade. They also have a small amount of Denisovan DNA–at least some of them.

Why the confusion? Some Neanderthal-derived alleles are indeed more common in Native Americans than in other peoples. For example, the Neanderthal derived allele SLC16A11 occurs in 10% of sampled Chinese, 0% of Europeans, and 50% of sampled Native Americans. (Today, this gene makes people susceptible to Type 2 diabetes, but it must have been very useful to past people to be found in such a large percent of the population.)


And there was one anomalously high Neanderthal DNA measure in Natives living near the Great Slave Lake, Canada. (Look, I didn’t name the lake.)

But this doesn’t mean all Native Americans possess all Neanderthal alleles in greater quantities.

So how much Neanderthal do Native Americans have? Of course, we can’t quite be sure, especially since only a few Neanderthals have even had their DNA analyzed, and with each new Neanderthal sequenced, we have more DNA available to compare against human genomes. But here are some estimates:

Neanderthal and Denisovan contributions to different populations by chromosome (source)

 et al, in The Combined Landscape of Denisovan and Neanderthal Ancestry in Present-Day Humans, report:

Native Americans: 1.37%
Central Asia: 1.4%
East Asia: 1.39%
Oceana (Melanesians): 1.54%
South Asia: 1.19%
Europeans: 1.06%

I have seen it claimed that the high Neanderthal percents for Oceanan populations (that is, Melanesians and their relatives,) could be a result of Denisovan DNA being incompletely distinguished from Neanderthal.

Prufer et al, [pdf] 2017, report somewhat higher values:

East Asians: 2.3–2.6%
Europeans: 1.8–2.4%

While Lohse and Frantz estimate an even higher rate of between 3.4–7.3% for Europeans and East Asians. (They found 5.9% in their Chinese sample and 5.3% in their European.)

The Mixe and Karitiana people of Brazil have 0.2% Denisovan (source); other estimates for the amount of Denisovan DNA in Native populations are much lower–ie, 0.05%.

I found an older paper by Prufer et al with estimates for three Hispanic populations, but doesn’t clarify if they have Native American ancestry:

CLM–Colombians from Medellin: 1.14%
MXL–Mexicans in LA: 1.22%
PUR–Puerto Rico: 1.05%

Since this is an older paper, all of its estimates may be on the low side.

The absolute values of these numbers is probably less important than the overall ratios, since the numbers themselves are still changing as more Neanderthal DNA is uncovered. The ratios in different papers point to Native Americans having, overall, about the same amount of Neanderthal DNA as their relatives in East Asia.

Melanesians, though. There’s an interesting story lying in their DNA.

Anthropology Friday: Crackers pt 2

From JayMan’s post on the American Nations

I am frequently frustrated by our culture’s lack of good ethnonyms. Take “Hispanic.” It just means “someone who speaks Spanish or whose ancestors spoke Spanish.” It includes everyone from Lebanese-Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim to Japanese-Peruvian Alberto Fujimori, from Sephardi Jews to native Bolivians, from white Argentinians to black Cubans, but doesn’t include Brazilians because speaking Portuguese instead of Spanish is a really critical ethnic difference.*

*In conversation, most people use “Hispanic” to mean “Mexican or Central American who’s at least partially Native American,” but the legal definition is what colleges and government agencies are using when determining who gets affirmative action. People think “Oh, those programs are to help poor, brown people,” when in reality the beneficiaries are mostly well-off and light-skinned–people who were well-off back in their home countries.

This is the danger of using euphemisms instead of saying what you actually mean.

Our ethnonyms for other groups are equally terrible. All non-whites are often lumped together under a single “POC” label, as though Nigerian Igbo and Han Chinese were totally equivalent and fungible peoples. Whites are similarly lumped, as if a poor white from the backwoods of Georgia and a wealthy Boston Puritan had anything in common. There are technical names for these groups, used in historical or academic contexts, but if you tell the average person you hail from a mix of “Cavalier-Yeoman and Cracker ancestors,” they’re just going to be confused.

map of the American Nations

With the exception of Cajuns and recent immigrants who retain an old-world ethnic identity (eg, Irish, Jewish,) we simply lack common vernacular ethnonyms for the different white groups that settled the US–even though they are actually different.

The map at left comes from Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the 11 Rival Regional Cultures of North America. 

As Woodard himself has noted, DNA studies have confirmed his map to an amazing degree.

American ethnic groups are not just Old World ethnic groups that happen to live in America. They’re real ethnicities that have developed over here during the past 500 years, but we have failed to adopt common names for them.

Woodard’s map implies a level of ethnic separation that is probably not entirely accurate, as these groups settled the American frontier in waves, creating layers of ethnicity that are thicker or thinner in different places. Today, we call these social classes, which is not entirely inaccurate.

Take the South. The area is dominated by two main ethnic blocks, Appalachians (in the mountains) and Cavalier-Plantation owners in the flatter areas. But the Cavalier area was never majority wealthy, elite plantation owners; it has always had a large contingent of middling-class whites, poor whites, and of course poor blacks. In areas of the “Deep South” where soils were poor or otherwise unsuited to cultivated, elite planters never penetrated, leaving the heartier backwoods whites–the Crackers–to their own devices.

If their ancestors spoke French, we recognize them as different, but if not, they’re just “poor”–or worse, “trash.”

Southern identity is a curious thing. Though I was born in the South (and my ancestors have lived there for over 400 years,) I have no meaningful “Southern identity” to speak of–nor do, I think, most southerners. It’s just a place; the core historical event of going to war to protect the interests of rich elites in perpetuating slavery doesn’t seem to resonate with most people I’ve met.

My interest in the region and its peoples stems not from Southern Pride, but the conventional curiosity adoptees tend to feel about their birth families: Where did I come from? What were they like? Were they good people? and Can I find a place where I feel comfortable and fit in? (No.)

My immediate biological family hails from parts of the South that never had any plantations (I had ancestors in Georgia in the 1800s, and ancestors in Virginia in the 1700s, but they’ve been dead for a while; my father lives within walking distance of his great-grandparent’s homestead.)

Dust Storm, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1935 “This was a bad idea.”–Grandma

As previously discussed, I don’t exactly feel at home in cities;  perhaps this is because calling my ancestors “farmers” is a rather generous description for folks who thought it was a good idea to move to Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl.

(By the way, the only reason the prairies are consistently farmed today is due to irrigation, drawing water up from the Ogallala and other aquifers, and we are drawing water from those aquifers much faster than it is being replenished. If we keep using water at this rate–or faster, due to population growth–WE WILL RUN OUT. The prairies will go dry and dust storms will rage again.)

To be fair, some of my kin were successful farmers when it actually rained, but some were never so sedentary. Pastoralists, ranchers, hoe-farmers–they were the sorts of people who settled frontiers and moved on when places got too crowded, who drank hard and didn’t always raise their children. They match pretty closely Richard Sapp’s description of the Florida Crackers.


From a genetic standpoint, the Crackers are either descended from borderlanders and Scotch-Irish (the pink region on the map at the top of the post,) or from folks who got along well with borderlanders and decided to move alongside them. I find it amazing that a relatively small place like Britain could produce such temperamentally different peoples as Puritans and Crackers–the former hard working, domesticated, stiff, and proper; the latter loud, liberty-loving, and more violent.

Peter Frost (evo and proud) has a theory that “core” Europe managed to decrease its homicide rates by executing criminals, thus removing them from the gene pool; the borderlands of Scotland and Ireland were perhaps beyond the reach of the hangman’s noose, or hopping the border allowed criminals to escape the police.

from HBD Chick’s big summary post on the Hajnal Line

HBD Chick’s work focuses primarily on the effects of manorialism and outbreeding within the Hajnal line. Of the Crackers, she writes:

“The third American Revolution reached its climax in the years from 1779 to 1781. This was a rising of British borderers in the southern backcountry against American loyalists and British regulars who invaded the region. The result was a savage struggle which resembled many earlier conflicts in North Britain, with much family feuding and terrible atrocities committed on both sides. Prisoners were slaughtered, homes were burned, women were raped and even small children were put to the sword.” …

i’ve got a couple of posts related to those rambunctious folks from the backcountry whose ancestors came from the borderlands between england and scotland. libertarian crackers takes a quick look at why this group tends to love being independent and is distrustful of big gubmint — to make a long story short, the border folks married closely for much longer than the southern english — and they didn’t experience much manorialism, either (the lowland scots did, but not so much the border groups). did i mention that they’re a bit hot-headed? (not that there’s anything wrong with that! (~_^) ) see also: hatfields and mccoys. not surprising that this group’s war of independence involved “much family feuding.”

Less manorialism, less government control, less executing criminals, more cousin-marriage, more clannishness.

And the differences here aren’t merely cultural. As Nisbett and Cohen found (PDF; h/t HBD Chick):

During the experiment, a confederate bumped some subjects and muttered ‘asshole’ at them. Cortisol (a stress hormone) and testosterone (rises in preparation for violence) were measured before and after the insult. Insulted Southerners showed big jumps in both cortisol and testosterone compared to uninsulted Southerners and insulted Northerners. The difference in psychological and physiological responses to insults was manifest in behavior. Nisbett and Cohen recruited a 6’3” 250 lb (190 cm, 115 kg) American style football player whose task was to walk down the middle of a narrow hall as subjects came the other direction. The experimenters measured how close subjects came to the football player before stepping aside. Northerners stepped aside at around 6 feet regardless of whether they had been insulted. Un-insulted Southerners stepped aside at an average distance of 9 feet, whereas insulted Southerners approached to an average of about 3 feet. Polite but prepared to be violent, un-insulted Southerners take more care, presumably because they attribute a sense of honor to the football player and are normally respectful of others’ honor. When their honor is challenged, they are prepared and willing to challenge someone at considerable risk to their own safety.”

It’s genetic.

(The bit about honor is… not right. I witnessed a lot of football games as a child, and no one ever referred to the players as “honorable.” Southerners just don’t like to get close to each other, which is very sensible if people in your area get aggressive and angry easily. The South also has a lower population density than the North, so people are used to more space.)

As my grandmother says, “You don’t get to pick your ancestors.” I don’t know what I would think of my relatives had I actually grown up with them. They have their sins, like everyone else. But from a distance, as an adult, they’re fine people and they always have entertaining stories.

“Oh, yes, yet another time I almost died…”

As for racial attitudes, if you’re curious, they vary between “probably marched for Civil Rights back in the 50s” and “has never spoken a word, good or bad, generalizing about any ethnic group.” (I have met vocally anti-black people in the South; just not in my family.) I think my relatives are more interested in various strains of Charismatic Christianity than race.

It seems rather unfortunate that Southern identity is so heavily linked to the historical interests of the Plantation Elites. After all, it did the poor whites no good to die in a war fought to protect the interests of the rich. I think the desire to take pride in your ancestors and group is normal, healthy, and instinctive, but Southerners are in an unfortunate place where that identity is heavily infused with a racial ideology most Southerners don’t even agree with.

> Be white
> Be from the south
> Not into Confederacy
> Want an identity of some sort

> Now what?

In my case, I identify with nerds. This past is not an active source of ethnic identity, nor is the Cracker lifestyle even practical in the modern day. But my ancestors have still contributed (mostly genetically) to who I am.

Well, this was going to just be an introduction to today’s anthropology selection, but it turned out rather longer than expected, so let’s just save the real anthropology for next week.

Neanderthal Skull for 3D Printing

e3fa487b36f43641fc86d1fbe40665b4_preview_featured Meet Nandy the Neanderthal. You can download him at Thingiverse.

This is my first creation, Nandy the Neanderthal, based on the Chapelle-aux-Saints 1 skull and this side view. Note that he is based on two different skulls, but still very much a Neanderthal.

Since this is my very first creation and I don’t have a 3D printer yet, (I expect to receive one soon and am planning ahead,) I am still learning all of the ins and outs of this technology and so would appreciate any technical feedback.

Neanderthals evolved around 600,000-800,000 years ago and spread into the Middle East, Europe, and central Asia. They made stone tools, controlled fire, and hunted. They survived in a cold and difficult climate, but likely could make no more than the simplest of clothes. As a result, they may have been, unlike modern humans, hairy.

Cochran and Harpending of West Hunter write in The 10,000 Year Explosion: 

 Chimpanzees have ridges on their finger bones that stem from the way that they clutch their mothers’ fur as infants. Modern humans don’t have these ridges, but Neanderthals do.

Hoffecker, in The Spread of Modern Humans in Europe writes:

Neanderthal sites show no evidence of tools for making tailored clothing. There are only hide scrapers, which might have been used to make blankets or ponchos. This is in contrast to Upper Paleolithic (modern human) sites, which have an abundance of eyed bone needles and bone awls.

Their skulls were, on average, larger than ours, with wide noses, round eyes, and an elongated braincase. Their facial features were robust–that is, strong, thick, and heavy.

The Chappel-aux-Saints 1 Neanderthal lived to about 40 years old. He had lost most of his teeth years before his death, (I gave Nandy some teeth, though,) suffered arthritis, and must have been cared for in his old age by the rest of his tribe. At his death he was most likely buried in a pit dug by his family, which preserved his skeleton in nearly complete condition for 60,000 years.

Anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, encountered and interbred with Neanderthals around 40,000 years ago. (Neanderthals are also humans–Homo neanderthalensis.) Today, about 1-5% of the DNA in non-Sub-Saharan Africans hails originally from a Neanderthal ancestor. (Melanesians also have DNA from a cousin of the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, and Sub-Saharan Africans may have their own archaic ancestors.)

Unfortunately for Nandy and his relations, the Neanderthals also began to disappear around 40,000 years ago. Perhaps it was the weather, or Homo sapiens out competed them, or their enormous skulls just caused too much trouble in childbirth. Whatever happened, the Neanderthals remain a mystery, evidence of the past when we weren’t the only human species in town.

Denny: the Neanderthal-Denisovan Hybrid

Neanderthal Sites (source: Wikipedia)

Homo Sapiens–that is, us, modern humans, are about 200-300,000 years old. Our ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, lived in Africa around 700,000-300,000 years ago.

Around 700,000 years ago, another group of humans split off from the main group. By 400,000 years ago, their descendants, Homo neanderthalensis–Neanderthals–had arrived in Europe, and another band of their descendants, the enigmatic Denisovans, arrived in Asia.

While we have found quite a few Neanderthal remains and archaeological sites with tools, hearths, and other artifacts, we’ve uncovered very few Denisovan remains–a couple of teeth, a finger bone, and part of an arm in Denisova Cave, Russia. (Perhaps a few other remains I am unaware of.)

Yet from these paltry remains scientists have extracted enough DNA to ascertain that no only were Denisovans a distinct species, but also that Melanesians, Papuans, and Aborigines derive about 3-6% of their DNA from a Denisovan ancestors. (All non-African populations also have a small amount of Neanderthal DNA, derived from a Neanderthal ancestors.)

If Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred, and Denisovans and Homo sapiens interbred, did Neanderthals and Denisovans ever mate?

The slightly more complicated family tree, not including Denny


The girl, affectionately nicknamed Denny, lived and died about 90,000 years ago in Siberia. The remains of an arm, found in Denisova Cave, reveal that her mother was a Neanderthal, her father a Denisovan.

We don’t yet know what Denisovans looked like, because we don’t have any complete skeletons of them, much less good skulls to examine, so we don’t know what a Neanderthal-Denisovan hybrid like Denny looked like.

But the fact that we can extract so much information from a single bone–or fragment of bone–preserved in a Siberian cave for 90,000 years–is amazing.

We are still far from truly understanding what sorts of people our evolutionary cousins were, but we are gaining new insights all the time.

Why are there no Han Chinese Fields Medalists?

IQ by country

I am specifically referring to Han Chinese from the People’s Republic of China (hereafter simply called “China,”) but wanted to keep the title to a reasonable length.

There are about a billion Han Chinese. They make up about 90% of the PRC, and they have some of the highest average IQs on the planet, with particularly good math scores.

Of the 56 Fields Medals (essentially, the Nobel for Math) awarded since 1936, 12 (21%) have been French. 14 or 15 have been Jewish, or 25%-27%.

By contrast, 0 have been Han Chinese from China itself.

France is a country of 67.15 million people, of whom about 51 million are native French. The world has about 14-17.5 million Jews. China has about 1.37 billion people, of whom 91.51% are Han, or about 1.25 billion.

Two relatively Chinese people have won Fields medals:

Shing-Tung Yau was born in China, but is of Hakka ancestry (the Hakka are an Asian “market-dominant minority,”) not Han. His parents moved to Hong Kong when he was a baby; after graduating from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he moved to the US, where he received his PhD from Berkley. Yau was a citizen of British-owned Hong Kong (not the People’s Republic of China), when he won the Fields Medal, in 1982; today he holds American citizenship.

Terence Tao, the 2006 recipient, is probably Han (Wikipedia does not list his ethnicity.) His father hailed from Shanghai, China, but moved to Hong Kong, where he graduated from medical school and met Tao’s mother, another Hong Kong-ian. Tao himself was born in Australia and later moved to the US. (Tao appears to be a dual Australian-American citizen.)

(With only 7.4 million people, Hong Kong is doing pretty well for itself in terms of Fields Medalists with some form of HK ancestry or citizenship.)

Since not many Fields Medals have been awarded, it is understandable why the citizens of small countries, even very bright ones, like Singapore, might not have any. It’s also understandable why top talent often migrates to places like Hong Kong, Australia, or the US. But China is a huge country with a massive pool of incredibly smart people–just look at Shanghai’s PISA scores. Surely Beijing has at least a dozen universities filled with math geniuses.

So where are they?

Is it a matter of funding? Has China chosen to funnel its best mathematicians into applied work? A matter of translation? Does the Fields Medal Committee have trouble reading papers written in Chinese? A matter of time? Did China’s citizens simply spent too much of the of the past century struggling at the edge of starvation to send a bunch of kids off to university to study math, and only recently achieved the level of mass prosperity necessary to start on the Fields path?

Whatever the causes of current under-representation, I have no doubt the next century will show an explosion in Han Chinese mathematical accomplishments.

Further thoughts on Epigenetics and Public Policy

Shea Robison of Epigenetics and Public Policy has kindly replied to my previous comment there with a post of his own, Why Epigenetics and Politics?

To briefly quote Robison:

In general, there are two main emphases for my interests in epigenetics: the scientific side, and the political/philosophical aspects. These are necessarily related to each other in many different ways (e.g., the political and philosophical aspects would not exist without the scientific work being done in epigenetics, just as politics has had a substantial influence on the development of the science—again, a major focus of my book), but they can also be quite disconnected from each other in different contexts (e.g., political uses can be made of the science which ignore important findings or critical assumptions).

He points out that there is in fact a fair amount of legislation criminalizing drug use during pregnancy:

… just after I read this comment someone posted an extensive thread on my Twitter feed loaded with references on just this issue of ‘crack babies,’ and particularly about the differences in framing and policy narratives due to politically salient issues such as race (here: http://bit.ly/2KQHWFh). I also did a quick Google search on “criminalization of drug use during pregnancy” (http://bit.ly/2wrpvE4), which came up with 31,900,000 results about all the different ways that this kind of thing is actually a substantial focus of public policy and government action. …

An interesting subject in its own right, but I shan’t quote the whole post; you can read it on Robison’s blog.

For those of you following along, here is my response:

Disclaimer: a friend of mine was a crack baby. She’s a lovely person, but is constantly in pain. I don’t want people to end up like her, but I’m glad she exists. My first impulse is that someone who would do such a horrible thing to a baby deserves to be punished, but would this kind of legislation simply encouraged her (biological) mother to have an abortion? My friend is not suicidal; she wants to be alive, even if life is difficult.

In general, such legislation strikes me as misguided. Getting the police involved is highly punitive (what are the effects on a developing fetus of being arrested and involuntarily committed?) and has a major negative effect on people’s ability to do the kind of productive behaviors that are associated with getting off drugs, like hold down a job or have stable housing.

We can look at the gov’t’s history with public health programs. Some turned out better than others. Prohibition went quite badly. Everything “Opioid Epidemic” looks like it’s spiraling out of control. On the other hand, regulation on cigarette advertising has probably been beneficial; I suppose the jury is still out on the long-term effects of marijuana deregulation in some states.

Gov’t nutrition policy was probably good when it gave people food stamps but quite bad when it promoted trans fats (based on nutrition “research” that was not nearly as sound as people thought it was–which should be a sobering lesson about the urge to let politicians make public policy off what they think the science says.)

Not that my opinions count for much, but I think programs that promote healthy behaviors would be more effective and beneficial in the long run.

But let’s look at another example. Drug use is generally limited to individual behavior, often of very poor or otherwise marginalized people. What about mining disasters, toxic waste spills, wars, etc? Perhaps the guilty parties should be made to pay–but mining companies already routinely declare bankruptcy to avoid paying for their mistakes–I doubt this behavior is going to change. Any legislation in this direction, while well-intended, seems likely to be ineffective at best.

Of course the gov’t itself has certain obligations. What about the children of the men marched into atomic bomb blasts, or exposed to agent orange? (eg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWSMoE3A5DI) But the gov’t has so far been really bad about paying up for the damage it caused directly, much less the claims of the children of those hurt, so I’m not holding my breath on this. [“I got tortured in a Nazi POW camp and all I got for it was an accusation of going AWOL.”]

There seems also a risk of discounting people’s present abilities based on epigenetic claims. Right now the left likes to claim things like “Native Americans suffer epigenetic trauma that makes them do badly in school and continue the cycle of violence,” but it is easy to see how this can morph into “Native Americans are helplessly destined to be dumb and violent.”

I think the Left wants epigenetics to be a “get out of genetics free” card, but in the process they’re replicating genetic determinism, just at a different point in the organism. They’re going to be very disappointed if the results of their advocacy are the police arresting poor black women because they couldn’t afford prenatal vitamins.

The question of what exactly the Founding Fathers (and common man) thought in 1776 is fascinating, but not necessarily relevant to current policies. Those Americans believed a wide variety of things, from Puritans (predestination) to Southern aristocrats (slavery) to affable Quakers. I suspect equality was not so much a philosophical position for the average man so much as a practical one–the man who survived by his wits in the wilderness, clearing the land, building his farm, etc., far from the civilizing and protective umbrella of the cities, was a law unto himself, enforced by violence or not at all. In essence, man was free not because he had read Locke, but because he had a gun and would shot anyone who said otherwise.

Regardless, no matter how, erm, clean your genome is, you don’t get from genes to Lockeian blank slates. You still have genes, some good, some bad.

Most people (even libs) acknowledge a combination of “nature and nurture” in shaping the individual. It’s only at the extremes that people start wholesale denying that genetic differences exist (“Women only do worse than men at sports because they’ve internalized norms of feminity that make them lose;” “Dog breeds are identical in temperament; any differences in behavior are entirely due to training,”) but there is always pressure on moderates not to contradict the extremes; not to mention a fear among libs that any acknowledgement of genetic differences between people or groups will embolden the conservatives.

In this they are simply wrong–genetic differences exist; the Blank Slate is nonsense; and people who think genes influence behavior tend to be more tolerant, not less (eg https://mobile.twitter.com/SteveStuWill/status/995978801518559234/photo/1#tweet_995978801518559234 ).

Modern liberalism cannot be saved so long as it rests on incorrect factual statements about the world. Sooner or later the results are either mass suffering (eg, the Soviet Union) or mass discrediting of the idea and the rise of a new one.

>”We already have ways of describing and discussing inheritance of behaviors from environmental exposures (e.g., psychology),”

Unfortunately, much of psychology is terribly broken. Priming, stereotype threat, implicit bias, Freudianism… they’re all either nonsense or have failed to replicate. The most reliable results, imo, are drug-related. Prozac works pretty well for depression; lithium works for bi-polar; risperidone lets schizophrenics lead relatively normal lives. Any drug can be abused or mis-prescribed, but the results with some of the most effective psychiatric drugs are really quite amazing. Psychology, by contrast, is at best talking with people about their problems, giving them a supportive space to vent and think things through.

In the end, I suppose my thoughts summarize to caution. It is easy to over-estimate how much we know and toss together legislation that ends up having unexpected effects. There might be some areas where better knowledge of epigenetic effects can lead to superior policy making (various dietary/nutrition supplementation programs like the promotion of folic acid for expectant mothers, fluoridated water, iodized salt, etc., have already IMO caused great improvement in public health.)

I hope people can be on the lookout for ways to improve life, rather than merely punish.