Chapter 7 of The 10,000 Year Explosion is about the evolution of high Ashkenazi IQ; chapter 8 is the Conclusion, which is just a quick summary of the whole book. (If you’re wondering if you would enjoy the book, try reading the conclusion and see if you want to know more.)
This has been an enjoyable book. As works on human evolution go, it’s light–not too long and no complicated math. Pinker’s The Blank Slate gets into much more philosophy and ethics. But it also covers a lot of interesting ground, especially if you’re new to the subject.
I have seen at least 2 people mention recently that they had plans to respond to/address Cochran and Harpending’s timeline of Jewish history/evolution in chapter 7. I don’t know enough to question the story, so I hope you’ll jump in with anything enlightening.
The basic thesis of Chapter 7 is that Ashkenazi massive over-representation in science, math, billionaires, and ideas generally is due to their massive brains, which is due in turn to selective pressure over the past thousand years or so in Germany and nearby countries to be good at jobs that require intellect. The authors quote the historian B. D. Weinryb:
More children survived to adulthood in affluent families than in less affluent ones. A number of genealogies of business leaders, prominent rabbis, community leaders, and the like–generally belonging to the more affluent classes–show that such people often had four, six, sometimes even eight or nice children who reached adulthood…
Weinryb cites a census of the town of Brody, 1764: homeowner household had 1.2 children per adult; tenant households had only 0.6.
As evidence for this recent evolution, the authors point to the many genetic diseases that disproportionately affect Ashkenazim:
Tay-Sachs disease, Gaucher’s disease, familial dysautonomia, and two different forms of hereditary breast cancer (BRCA1 and BRCA2), and these diseases are up to 100 times more common in Ashkenazi Jews than in other European populations. …
In principle, absent some special cause, genetic diseases like these should be rare. New mutations, some of which have bad effects, appear in every generation, but those that cause death or reduced fertility should be disappearing with every generation. … one in every twenty-five Ashkenazi Jews carries a copy of the Tay-Sachs mutation, which kills homozygotes in early childhood. This is an alarming rate.
What’s so special about these diseases, and why do the Ashkenazim have so darn many of them?
Some of them look like IQ boosters, considering their effects on the development of the central nervous system. The sphingolipid mutations, in particular, have effects that could plausibly boost intelligence. In each, there is a buildup of some particular sphingolipid, a class of modified fat molecules that play a role in signal transmission and are especially common in neural tissues. Researchers have determined that elevated levels of those sphingolipids cause the growth of more connections among neurons..
There is a similar effect in Tay-Sachs disease: increased levels of a characteristic storage compound… which causes a marked increase in the growth of dendrites, the fine branches that connect neurons. …
We looked at the occupations of patients in Israel with Gaucher’s disease… These patients are much more likely to be engineers or scientists than the average Israeli Ashkenazi Jew–about eleven times more likely, in fact.
Basically, the idea is that similar to sickle cell anemia, being heterozygous for one of these traits may make you smarter–and being homozygous might make your life considerably shorter. In an environment where being a heterozygous carrier is rewarded strongly enough, the diseases will propagate–even if they incur a significant cost.
Von Neumann was a child prodigy. When he was 6 years old, he could divide two 8-digit numbers in his head  and could converse in Ancient Greek. When the 6-year-old von Neumann caught his mother staring aimlessly, he asked her, “What are you calculating?”
Children did not begin formal schooling in Hungary until they were ten years of age; governesses taught von Neumann, his brothers and his cousins. Max believed that knowledge of languages in addition to Hungarian was essential, so the children were tutored in English, French, German and Italian. By the age of 8, von Neumann was familiar with differential and integral calculus, but he was particularly interested in history. He read his way through Wilhelm Oncken‘s 46-volume Allgemeine Geschichte in Einzeldarstellungen. A copy was contained in a private library Max purchased. One of the rooms in the apartment was converted into a library and reading room, with bookshelves from ceiling to floor.
Von Neumann entered the Lutheran Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium in 1911. Wigner was a year ahead of von Neumann at the Lutheran School and soon became his friend. This was one of the best schools in Budapest and was part of a brilliant education system designed for the elite. Under the Hungarian system, children received all their education at the one gymnasium. Despite being run by the Lutheran Church, the school was predominately Jewish in its student body  The school system produced a generation noted for intellectual achievement, which included Theodore von Kármán (b. 1881), George de Hevesy (b. 1885), Leó Szilárd (b. 1898), Dennis Gabor (b. 1900), Eugene Wigner (b. 1902), Edward Teller (b. 1908), and Paul Erdős (b. 1913). Collectively, they were sometimes known as “The Martians“.
One final thing in The 10,000 Year Explosion jumped out at me:
There are also reports of individuals with higher-than-average intelligence who have nonclassic congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH)… CAH, which causes increased exposure of the developing fetus to androgens (male sex hormones), is relatively mild compared to diseases like Tay-Sachs. At least seven studies show high IQ in CAH patients, parents, and siblings, ranging from 107 to 113. The gene frequency of CAH among the Ashkenazim is almost 20 percent.
Holy HBD, Batman, that’ll give you a feminist movement.
Heather Booth, Amy Kesselman, Vivian Rothstein and Naomi Weisstein. The names of these bold and influential radical feminists may have faded in recent years, but they remain icons to students of the women’s liberation movement …
The Gang of Four, as they dubbed themselves, were among the founders of Chicago’s Women’s Liberation Union. …
Over weeks, months and years, no subject went unturned, from the political to the sexual to the personal. They were “ready to turn the world upside down,” recalled Weisstein, an influential psychologist, neuroscientist and academic who died in 2015.
But one subject never came up: the Jewish backgrounds of the majority of the group.
“We never talked about it,” Weisstein said.
Betty Friedan was Jewish; Gloria Steinem is half Jewish. There are a lot of Jewish feminists.
Of course, Jews are over-represented in pretty much every intellectual circle. Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, and Noam Chomsky are all Jewish. Einstein and Freud were Jewish. I haven’t seen anything suggesting that Jews are more over-represented in feminism than in any other intellectual circle they’re over-represented in. Perhaps they just like ideas. Someone should come up with some numbers.
Here’s a page on Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. The “classic” variety is often deadly, but the non-classic (the sort we are discussing here) doesn’t kill you.
I’ve long suspected that I know so many trans people because some intersex conditions result in smarter brains (in this case, women who are better than average at math.) It looks like I may be on the right track.
Well, that’s the end of the book. I hope you enjoyed it. What did you think? And what should we read next? (I’m thinking of doing Pinker’s Blank Slate.)
Welcome back to the book club. Today we’re discussing Chapter 5 of The 10,000 Year Explosion, Gene Flow. In this chapter, Greg and Henry discuss some of the many ways genes can (and sometimes can’t) get around.
You know, sometimes it is difficult to think of something really interesting to say in reaction to something I’ve read. Sometimes I just think it is very interesting, and hope others find it so, too. This is one of those chapters.
So today I decided to read the papers cited in the chapter, plus a few more related papers on the subject.
Single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) analysis indicated that three major haplogroups, denoted as C, Q, and R, accounted for nearly 96% of Native American Y chromosomes. Haplogroups C and Q were deemed to represent early Native American founding Y chromosome lineages; however, most haplogroup R lineages present in Native Americans most likely came from recent admixture with Europeans. Although different phylogeographic and STR diversity patterns for the two major founding haplogroups previously led to the inference that they were carried from Asia to the Americas separately, the hypothesis of a single migration of a polymorphic founding population better fits our expanded database. Phylogenetic analyses of STR variation within haplogroups C and Q traced both lineages to a probable ancestral homeland in the vicinity of the Altai Mountains in Southwest Siberia. Divergence dates between the Altai plus North Asians versus the Native American population system ranged from 10,100 to 17,200 years for all lineages, precluding a very early entry into the Americas.
We found that sociocultural factors have played a more important role than language or geography in shaping the patterns of Y chromosome variation in eastern North America. Comparisons with previous mtDNA studies of the same samples demonstrate that male and female demographic histories differ substantially in this region. Postmarital residence patterns have strongly influenced genetic structure, with patrilocal and matrilocal populations showing different patterns of male and female gene flow. European contact also had a significant but sex-specific impact due to a high level of male-mediated European admixture. Finally, this study addresses long-standing questions about the history of Iroquoian populations by suggesting that the ancestral Iroquoian population lived in southeastern North America.
And in Mexico, your different racial mix has something to do with your risk of Type 2 Diabetes, but you know, race is a social construct or something:
Type 2 diabetes (T2D) is at least twice as prevalent in Native American populations as in populations of European ancestry, so admixture mapping is well suited to study the genetic basis of this complex disease. We have characterized the admixture proportions in a sample of 286 unrelated T2D patients and 275 controls from Mexico City and we discuss the implications of the results for admixture mapping studies. … The average proportions of Native American, European and, West African admixture were estimated as 65, 30, and 5%, respectively. The contributions of Native American ancestors to maternal and paternal lineages were estimated as 90 and 40%, respectively. In a logistic model with higher educational status as dependent variable, the odds ratio for higher educational status associated with an increase from 0 to 1 in European admixture proportions was 9.4 (95%, credible interval 3.8-22.6). This association of socioeconomic status with individual admixture proportion shows that genetic stratification in this population is paralleled, and possibly maintained, by socioeconomic stratification. The effective number of generations back to unadmixed ancestors was 6.7 (95% CI 5.7-8.0)…
In other words, Conquistador men had children with a lot of the local ladies.
Studies of Native South American genetic diversity have helped to shed light on the peopling and differentiation of the continent, but available data are sparse for the major ecogeographic domains. These include the Pacific Coast, a potential early migration route; the Andes, home to the most expansive complex societies and to one of the most spoken indigenous language families of the continent (Quechua); and Amazonia, with its understudied population structure and rich cultural diversity. Here we explore the genetic structure of 177 individuals from these three domains, genotyped with the Affymetrix Human Origins array. We infer multiple sources of ancestry within the Native American ancestry component; one with clear predominance on the Coast and in the Andes, and at least two distinct substrates in neighboring Amazonia, with a previously undetected ancestry characteristic of northern Ecuador and Colombia. Amazonian populations are also involved in recent gene-flow with each other and across ecogeographic domains, which does not accord with the traditional view of small, isolated groups. Long distance genetic connections between speakers of the same language family suggest that languages had spread not by cultural contact alone. Finally, Native American populations admixed with post-Columbian European and African sources at different times, with few cases of prolonged isolation.
The X chromosome in non-African populations has less diversity and less Neanderthal introgression than expected. We analyzed X chromosome diversity across the globe and discovered seventeen chromosomal regions, where haplotypes of several hundred kilobases have recently reached high frequencies in non-African populations only. The selective sweeps must have occurred more than 45,000 years ago because the ancient Ust’-Ishim male also carries its expected proportion of these haplotypes. Surprisingly, the swept haplotypes are entirely devoid of Neanderthal introgression, which implies that a population without Neanderthal admixture contributed the swept haplotypes. It also implies that the sweeps must have happened after the main interbreeding event with Neanderthals about 55,000 BP. These swept haplotypes may thus be the only genetic remnants of an earlier out-of-Africa event.
Why not a later out-of-Africa event? Or a simultaneous event that just happened not to mate with Neanderthals? Or sweeps on the X chromosome that happened to remove Neanderthal DNA due to Neanderthal and X being really incompatible? I don’t know.
Who are Europeans? Both prehistoric archaeology and, subsequently, classical population genetics have attempted to trace the ancestry of modern Europeans back to the first appearance of agriculture in the continent; however, the question has remained controversial. Classical population geneticists attributed the major pattern in the European gene pool to the demographic impact of Neolithic farmers dispersing from the Near East, but archaeological research has failed to uncover substantial evidence for the population growth that is supposed to have driven this process. … Both mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome analyses have indicated a contribution of Neolithic Near Eastern lineages to the gene pool of modern Europeans of around a quarter or less. This suggests that dispersals bringing the Neolithic to Europe may have been demographically minor and that contact and assimilation had an important role.
I wouldn’t call a quarter “minor.” But it is true that the Anatolian farming people who invaded Europe didn’t kill off all of the locals, and then later Europe was invaded by the non-Anatolian, Indo-European people.
(i) All Australian lineages are confirmed to fall within the mitochondrial founder branches M and N and the Y chromosomal founders C and F, which are associated with the exodus of modern humans from Africa ≈50–70,000 years ago. The analysis reveals no evidence for any archaic maternal or paternal lineages in Australians, despite some suggestively robust features in the Australian fossil record, thus weakening the argument for continuity with any earlier Homo erectus populations in Southeast Asia. (ii) The tree of complete mtDNA sequences shows that Aboriginal Australians are most closely related to the autochthonous populations of New Guinea/Melanesia, indicating that prehistoric Australia and New Guinea were occupied initially by one and the same Palaeolithic colonization event ≈50,000 years ago, … (iii) The deep mtDNA and Y chromosomal branching patterns between Australia and most other populations around the Indian Ocean point to a considerable isolation after the initial arrival. (iv) We detect only minor secondary gene flow into Australia, and this could have taken place before the land bridge between Australia and New Guinea was submerged ≈8,000 years ago…
Aboriginal Australians represent one of the oldest continuous cultures outside Africa, with evidence indicating that their ancestors arrived in the ancient landmass of Sahul (present-day New Guinea and Australia) ~55 thousand years ago. … We have further resolved known Aboriginal Australian mitochondrial haplogroups and discovered novel indigenous lineages by sequencing the mitogenomes of 127 contemporary Aboriginal Australians. In particular, the more common haplogroups observed in our dataset included M42a, M42c, S, P5 and P12, followed by rarer haplogroups M15, M16, N13, O, P3, P6 and P8. We propose some major phylogenetic rearrangements, such as in haplogroup P where we delinked P4a and P4b and redefined them as P4 (New Guinean) and P11 (Australian), respectively. Haplogroup P2b was identified as a novel clade potentially restricted to Torres Strait Islanders. Nearly all Aboriginal Australian mitochondrial haplogroups detected appear to be ancient, with no evidence of later introgression during the Holocene.
We find that recent population history within Indonesia is complex, and that populations from the Philippines made important genetic contributions in the early phases of the Austronesian expansion. Different, but interrelated processes, acted in the east and west. The Austronesian migration took several centuries to spread across the eastern part of the archipelago, where genetic admixture postdates the archeological signal. As with the Neolithic expansion further east in Oceania and in Europe, genetic mixing with local inhabitants in eastern Indonesia lagged behind the arrival of farming populations. In contrast, western Indonesia has a more complicated admixture history shaped by interactions with mainland Asian and Austronesian newcomers, which for some populations occurred more than once. Another layer of complexity in the west was introduced by genetic contact with South Asia and strong demographic events in isolated local groups.
I liked the quote from Jared Diamond (say what you will about him, I like Diamond. He at least tries hard to tackle difficult questions):
“When I was living among Elopi tribespeople in west New Guinea and wanted to cross the territory of the neighboring Fayu tribe in order to reach a nearby mountain, the Elopis explained tome matter-of-factly that the Fayus would kill me if I tried. From a New Guinea perspective, it seemed so perfectly natural and self-explanatory. Of course the Fayus will kill any trespasser…”
This is why people often claim that we moderns are the WEIRDOs.
Three Pakistani populations residing in northern Pakistan, the Burusho, Kalash and Pathan claim descent from Greek soldiers associated with Alexander’s invasion of southwest Asia. … In pairwise comparisons between the Greeks and the three Pakistani populations using genetic distance measures sensitive to recent events, the lowest distances were observed between the Greeks and the Pathans. Clade E3b1 lineages, which were frequent in the Greeks but not in Pakistan, were nevertheless observed in two Pathan individuals, one of whom shared a 16 Y-STR haplotype with the Greeks. The worldwide distribution of a shortened (9 Y-STR) version of this haplotype, determined from database information, was concentrated in Macedonia and Greece, suggesting an origin there. Although based on only a few unrelated descendants this provides strong evidence for a European origin for a small proportion of the Pathan Y chromosomes.
Of course, who can discuss genetic spread without mentioning that lord of men, Genghis Khan?
We have identified a Y-chromosomal lineage with several unusual features. It was found in 16 populations throughout a large region of Asia, stretching from the Pacific to the Caspian Sea, and was present at high frequency: ∼8% of the men in this region carry it, and it thus makes up ∼0.5% of the world total. The pattern of variation within the lineage suggested that it originated in Mongolia ∼1,000 years ago. Such a rapid spread cannot have occurred by chance; it must have been a result of selection. The lineage is carried by likely male-line descendants of Genghis Khan, and we therefore propose that it has spread by a novel form of social selection resulting from their behavior.
Several studies have shown that the OCA2 locus is the major contributor to the human eye color variation. By linkage analysis of a large Danish family, we finemapped the blue eye color locus to a 166 Kbp region within the HERC2 gene. … The brown eye color allele of rs12913832 is highly conserved throughout a number of species. … One single haplotype, represented by six polymorphic SNPs covering half of the 3′ end of the HERC2 gene, was found in 155 blue-eyed individuals from Denmark, and in 5 and 2 blue-eyed individuals from Turkey and Jordan, respectively. Hence, our data suggest a common founder mutation in an OCA2 inhibiting regulatory element as the cause of blue eye color in humans. In addition, an LOD score of Z = 4.21 between hair color and D14S72 was obtained in the large family, indicating that RABGGTA is a candidate gene for hair color.
What about you? What did you think of this chapter?
When they compared the DNA of the strain recovered from this cemetery to all published Y. pestis genomes, they found that it was the oldest (most basal) strain of the bacterium ever recovered. Using the molecular clock, they were able to estimate a timeline for the divergence and radiation of Y. pestis strains and tie these events together to make a new, testable model for the emergence and spread of this deadly human pathogen.
These analyses indicate that plague was not first spread across Europe by the massive migrations by the Yamnaya peoples from the central Eurasian steppe (around 4800 years ago)… Rascovan et al. calculated the date of the divergence of Y. pestis strains at between 6,000 and 5,000 years ago. This date implicates the mega-settlements of the Trypillia Culture as a possible origin point of Y. pestis. These mega-settlements, home to an estimated 10,000-20,000 people, were dense concentrations of people during that time period in Europe, with conditions ideal for the development of a pandemic.
The Cucuteni-Trypilia Culture flourished between the Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea from 4800-3000 BC. It was a neolithic–that is, stone age–farming society with many large cities. Wikipedia gives a confused account of its demise:
According to some proponents of the Kurgan hypothesis of the origin of Proto-Indo-Europeans … the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture was destroyed by force. Arguing from archaeological and linguistic evidence, Gimbutas concluded that the people of the Kurgan culture (a term grouping the Yamnaya culture and its predecessors) … effectively destroyed the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture in a series of invasions undertaken during their expansion to the west. Based on this archaeological evidence Gimbutas saw distinct cultural differences between the patriarchal, warlike Kurgan culture and the more peaceful egalitarian Cucuteni–Trypillia culture, … which finally met extinction in a process visible in the progressing appearance of fortified settlements, hillforts and the graves of warrior-chieftains, as well as in the religious transformation from the matriarchy to patriarchy, in a correlated east–west movement. In this, “the process of Indo-Europeanization was a cultural, not a physical, transformation and must be understood as a military victory in terms of successfully imposing a new administrative system, language, and religion upon the indigenous groups.
How does it follow that the process was a cultural, not physical transformation? They got conquered.
In his 1989 book In Search of the Indo-Europeans, Irish-American archaeologist J. P. Mallory, summarising the three existing theories concerning the end of the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture, mentions that archaeological findings in the region indicate Kurgan (i.e. Yamnaya culture) settlements in the eastern part of the Cucuteni–Trypillia area, co-existing for some time with those of the Cucuteni–Trypillia.Artifacts from both cultures found within each of their respective archaeological settlement sites attest to an open trade in goods for a period, though he points out that the archaeological evidence clearly points to what he termed “a dark age,” its population seeking refuge in every direction except east. He cites evidence of the refugees having used caves, islands and hilltops (abandoning in the process 600–700 settlements) to argue for the possibility of a gradual transformation rather than an armed onslaught bringing about cultural extinction.
How is “refugees hiding in caves” a “gradual transformation?” That sounds more like “people fleeing an invading army.”
The obvious issue with that theory is the limited common historical life-time between the Cucuteni–Trypillia (4800–3000 BC) and the Yamnaya culture (3300–2600 BC); given that the earliest archaeological findings of the Yamnaya culture are located in the Volga–Donbasin, not in the Dniester and Dnieper area where the cultures came in touch, while the Yamnaya culture came to its full extension in the Pontic steppe at the earliest around 3000 BC, the time the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture ended, thus indicating an extremely short survival after coming in contact with the Yamnaya culture.
How is that an issue? How long does Wikipedia think it takes to slaughter a city? It takes a few days. 300 years of contact is plenty for both trade and conquering.
Another contradicting indication is that the kurgans that replaced the traditional horizontal graves in the area now contain human remains of a fairly diversified skeletal type approximately ten centimetres taller on average than the previous population.
What are we even contradicting? Sounds like they got conquered, slaughtered, and replaced.
Then Wikipedia suggests that maybe it was all just caused by the weather (which isn’t a terrible idea.) Drought weakened the agriculturalists and prompted the pastoralists to look for new grasslands for their herds. They invaded the agriculturalists’ areas because they were lush and good for growing grain, which the pastoralists’ cattle love eating. The already weakened agriculturalists couldn’t fight back.
ANYWAY. Lets get on with Greg and Henry’s account, The 10,000 Year Explosion:
The population expansion associated with farming increased crowding, while farming itself made people sedentary. Mountains of garbage and water supplies contaminated with human waste favored the spread of infectious disease. …
Most infectious diseases have a critical community size, a number and concentration of people below which they cannot persist. The classic example is measles, which typically infects children and remains infectious for about ten days, after which the patient has lifelong immunity. In order for measles to survive, the virus that causes it, the paramyxovirus, must continually find unexposed victims–more children. Measles can only persist in a large, dense population: Populations that are too small or too spread out (under half a million in close proximity) fail to produce unexposed children fast enough, so the virus dies out.
Measles, bubonic plague, smallpox: all results of agriculture.
Chickenpox: not so much.
I wonder if people in the old Cucuteni–Trypillia area are particularly immune to bubonic plague, or if the successive waves of invading steppe nomads have done too much genetic replacement (slaughtering) for adaptations to stick around?
Harpending and Cochran then discuss malaria, which has had a big impact on human genomes (eg, sickle cell,) in the areas where malaria is common.
In general, the authors play it safe in the book–pointing to obvious cases of wide-scale genetic changes like sickle cell that are both undoubtable and have no obvious effect on personality or intelligence. It’s only in the chapter on Ashkenazi IQ that they touch on more controversial subjects, and then in a positive manner–it’s pleasant to think, “Why was Einstein so smart?” and less pleasant to think, “Why am I so dumb?”
It’s time to address the old chestnut that biological differences among human populations are “superficial,” only skin-deep. It’s not true: We’re seeing genetically caused differences in all kinds of functions, and every such differences was important enough to cause a significant increase in fitness (number of offspring)–otherwise it wouldn’t have reached high frequency in just a few millennia.
As for skin color, Cochran and Harpending lean on the side of high-latitude lightening having been caused by agriculture, rather than mere sunlight levels:
Interestingly, the sets of changes driving light skin color in China are almost entirely different from those performing a similar function in Europe. …
Many of these changes seem to be quite recent. The mutation that appears to have the greatest effect on skin color among Europeans and neighboring peoples, a variant of SLC24A5, has spread with astonishing speed. Linkage disequilibrium… suggests that it came into existence about 5,800 years ago, but it has a frequency of 99 percent throughout Europe and is found at significant levels in North Africa, East Africa, and as far east as India and Ceylon. If it is indeed that recent, it must have had a huge selective advantage, perhaps as high as 20 percent. It would have spread so rapidly that, over a long lifetime a farmer could have noticed the change in appearance in his village.
In humans, OAC2 … is a gene involved in the melanin pathway… Species of fish trapped in caves… lose their eyesight and become albinos over many generations. … Since we see changes in OCA2 in each [fish] case, however, there must have been some advantage in knocking out OCA2, at least in that underground environment. The advantage cannot like in increased UV absorption, since there’s no sunlight in those caves.
There are hints that knocking out OCA2, or at least reducing its activity, may he advantageous… in humans who can get away with it. We see a pattern that suggests that having one inactive copy of OCA2 is somehow favored even in some quite sunny regions. In southern Africa, a knocked-out version of OCA2 is fairly common: The gene frequency is over 1 percent.
And that’s an area with strong selection for dark skin.
A form of OCA2 albinism is common among the Navajo and other neighboring tribes, with gene frequencies as high as 4.5 percent. The same pattern appears in southern Mexico, eastern Panama, and southern Brazil. All of which suggests that heterozygotes…may ave some advantage.
So why do Europeans have such variety in eye and hair color?
The skeletal record clearly supports the idea that there has been rapid evolutionary change in humans over the past 10,000 years. The human skeleton has become more gracile–more lightly built–though more so in some populations than others. Our jaws have shrunk, our long bones have become lighter, and brow ridges have disappeared in most populations (with the notable exception of Australian Aborigines, who have also changed, but not as much; they still have brow ridges, and their skulls are about twice as thick as those of other peoples.)
This could be related to the high rates of interpersonal violence common in Australia until recently (thicker skulls are harder to break) or a result of interbreeding with Neanderthals and Denisovans. We don’t know what Denisovans looked like, but Neanderthals certainly are noted for their robust skulls.
Skull volume has decreased, apparently in all populations: In Europeans, volume is down about 10 percent from the high point about 20,000 years ago.
This seems like a bad thing. Except for mothers.
Some changes can be seen even over the past 1,000 years. English researchers recently compared skulls from people who died in the Black Death ([approximately] 650 years ago), from the crew of the Mary Rose,a ship that sank in Tudor times ([approximately] 450 years ago) and from our contemporaries. The shape of the skull changed noticeably over that brief period–which is particularly interesting because we know there has been no massive population replacement in England over the past 700 years.
Hasn’t there been a general replacement of the lower classes by the upper classes? I think there was also a massive out-migration of English to other continents in the past five hundred years.
The height of the cranial vault of our contemporaries was about 15 percent larger than that of the earlier populations, and the part of the skull containing the frontal lobes was thus larger.
This is awkwardly phrased–I think the authors want the present tense–“the cranial vault of our contemporaries is…” Nevertheless, it’s an interesting study. (The frontal lobes control things like planning, language, and math.)
We then proceed to the rather depressing Malthus section and the similar “elites massively out-breeding commoners due to war or taxation” section. You’re probably familiar with Genghis Khan by now.
We’ve said that the top dogs usually had higher-than-average fertility, which is true, but there have been important exceptions… The most common mistake must have been living in cities, which have almost always been population sinks, mostly because of infectious disease.
They’re still population sinks. Just look at Singapore. Or Tokyo. Or London.
The case of silphium, a natural contraceptive and abortifacient eaten to extinction during the Classical era, bears an interesting parallel to our own society’s falling fertility rates.
And of course, states domesticate their people:
Farmers don’t benefit from competition between their domesticated animals or plants… Since the elites were in a very real sense raising peasants, just as peasants raised cows, there must have been a tendency for them to cull individuals who were more aggressive than average, which over time would have changed the frequencies of those alleles that induced such aggressiveness.
On the one hand, this is a very logical argument. On the other hand, it seems like people can turn on or off aggression to a certain degree–uber peaceful Japan was rampaging through China only 75 years ago, after all.
Have humans been domesticated?
(Note: the Indians captured by the Puritans during the Pequot War may have refused to endure the yoke, but they did practice agriculture–they raised corn, squash and beans, in typical style. Still, they probably had not endured under organized states for as long as the Puritans.)
There is then a fascinating discussion of the origins of the scientific revolution–an event I am rather fond of.
Although we do not as yet fully understand the true causes of the scientific and industrial revolution, we must now consider the possibility that continuing human evolution contributed to that process. It could explain some of the odd historical patterns that we see.
Well, that’s enough for today. Let’s continue with Chapter 5 next week.
How about you? What are your thoughts on the book?
One of my fine readers asked for “best of” recommendations for Cochran and Harpending’s blog, West Hunter. This is a good question, and as I have not yet found a suitable list, I thought I would make my own.
However, the West Hunter is long, so I’m only doing the first year for now:
Only a handful of Herero shared my skepticism about witchcraft. People in the neighborhood as well as several other employees were concerned about Kozondo’s problem. They told me that he had to be taken to a well known local witch doctor. “Witch doctor” I said, “you all have been watching too many low budget movies. We call them traditional healers these days, not witch doctors”. They all, including Kozondo, would have none of it. “They are bad and very dangerous people, not healers” he said. It quickly became apparent that I was making a fool of myself trying to explain why “traditional healer” was a better way to talk than “witch doctor”. One of our group had some kind of anti-anxiety medicine. We convinced Kozondo to try one but it had no effect at all. Everyone agreed that he must consult the witch doctor so we took him. …
That evening we had something like a seminar with our employees and neighbors about witchcraft. Everyone except the Americans agreed that witchcraft was a terrible problem, that there was danger all around, and that it was vitally important to maintain amicable relations with others and to reject feelings of anger or jealousy in oneself. The way it works is like this: perhaps Greg falls and hurts himself, he knows it must be witchcraft, he discovers that I am seething with jealousy of his facility with words, so it was my witchcraft that made him fall. What is surprising is that I was completely unaware of having witched him so he bears me no ill will. I feel bad about his misfortune and do my best to get rid of my bad feelings because with them I am a danger to friends and family. Among Herero there is no such thing as an accident, there is no such thing as a natural death, witchcraft in some form is behind all of it. Did you have a gastrointestinal upset this morning? Clearly someone slipped some pink potion in the milk. Except for a few atheists there was no disagreement about this. Emotions get projected over vast distances so beware.
Even more interesting to us was the universal understanding that white people were not vulnerable to witchcraft and could neither feel it nor understand it. White people literally lack a crucial sense, or part of the brain. An upside, I was told, was that we did not face the dangers that locals faced. On the other hand our bad feelings could be projected so as good citizens we had to monitor carefully our own “hearts”.
French Canadian researchers have shown that natural selection has noticeably sped up reproduction among the inhabitants of Île aux Coudres, an island in the St. Lawrence River – in less than 150 years. Between 1799 and 1940, the age at which women had their first child dropped from 26 to 22, and analysis shows this is due to genetic change.
… Today the French of Quebec must differ significantly (in those genes that influence this trait) from people in France, which has had relatively slow population growth. …
The same must be the case for old American types whose ancestors – Puritans, for example – arrived early and went through a number of high-fertility generations in colonial days. It’s likely the case for the Mormons, who are largely descended from New Englanders. I’ve heard of odd allele frequencies in CEU (involving FSH) that may relate to this.
Something similar must be true of the Boers as well.
I would guess that a similar process operated among the first Amerindians that managed to get past the ice in North America. America south of the glaciers would have been a piece of cake for anyone tough enough to make a living as a hunter in Beringia – lush beyond belief, animals with no experience of humans.
(Black Russians are, I think, an alcoholic beverage.)
Every now and then, I notice someone, often an anthropologist, saying that human cognitive capability just has to be the same in all populations. According to Loring Brace, “Human cognitive capacity , founded on the ability to learn a language, is of equal survival value to all human groups, and consequently there is no valid reason to expect that there should be average differences in intellectual ability among living human populations. ”
There are a lot of ideas and assumptions in that quote, and as far as I can tell, all of them are wrong. …
Populations vary tremendously in the fraction that contributes original work in science and technology – and that variation mostly agrees with the distribution of IQ.
As I have mentioned before, the mtDNA of European hunter-gathers seems to be very different from that of modern Europeans. The ancient European mtDNA pool was about 80% U5b – today that lineage is typically found at 10% frequency or lower, except in northern Scandinavia. Haplogroup H, currently the most common in Europe, has never been found in early Neolithic or pre-Neolithic Europeans. …
Interestingly, there is a very similar pattern in canine mtDNA. Today Europeans dogs fall into four haplotypes: A (70%), B(16%), C (6%), and D(8%). But back in the day, it seems that the overwhelming majority of dogs (88%) were type C, 12% were in group A, while B and D have not been detected at all.
Richard Lewontin argued that since most (> 85%) genetic variation in humans is within-group, rather than between groups, human populations can’t be very different. Of course, if this argument is valid, it should apply to any genetically determined trait. Thus the variation in skin color within a population should be larger than the skin color differences between populations – except that it’s not. The difference in skin color between Europeans and Pygmies is large, so large that there is no overlap at all.
There is a large region of homogeneity on European haplotypes with the mutation [for lactose tolerance], telling us that it has arisen to high frequency within the last few thousand years. …
In a dairy culture where fresh milk was readily available, children who could drink it obtained about 40% more calories from milk than children who were not LT.
Consider that 1 Liter of cow’s milk has
* 250 Cal from lactose * 300 Cal from fat * 170 Cal from protein
or 720 Calories per liter. But what if one is lactose intolerant? Then no matter whether or not flatulence occurs that person does not get the 250 Calories of lactose from the liter of milk, but only gets 470.
I was contemplating Conan the Barbarian, and remembered the essay that Robert E. Howard wrote about the background of those stories – The Hyborian Age. I think that the flavor of Howard’s pseudo-history is a lot more realistic than the picture of the human past academics preferred over the past few decades. …
Given the chance (sufficient lack of information), American anthropologists assumed that the Mayans were peaceful astronomers. Howard would have assumed that they were just another blood-drenched snake cult: who came closer? …
Most important, Conan, unlike the typical professor, knew what was best in life.
If there is any substantial heritability of merit, where merit is whatever leads to class mobility, then mobility ought to turn classes into hereditary castes surprisingly rapidly.
A start at looking into genetic consequences of meritocracy is to create the simplest possible model and follow its implications. Consider free meritocracy in a two class system, meaning that each generation anyone in the lower class who has greater merit than someone in the upper class immediately swaps class with them. …
Back to the book. Chapter 3: Agriculture: The Big Change
This chapter’s thesis is the crux of the book: agriculture simultaneously exposed humans to new selective pressured and allowed the human population to grow, creating a greater quantity of novel mutations for natural selection to work on.
Sixty thousand years ago, before the expansion out of Africa, there were something like a quarter of a million modern humans. By the Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago that number was roughly 60 million.
Most random mutations fall somewhere between “useless” and “kill you instantly,” but a few, like lactase persistence, are good. I’m just making up numbers, but suppose 1 in 100 people has good, novel mutation. If your group has 100 people in it (per generation), then you get one good mutation. If your group has 1,000 people, then you get 10 good mutations.
Evolution isn’t like getting bitten by a radioactive spider–it can only work on the genetic variation people actually have. More genetic variation=more chances at getting a good gene that helps people survive.
Or to put it another way, we can look at a population and use “time” as one of our dimensions. Imagine a rectangle of people–all of the people in a community, over time–100 people in the first generation, 100 in the second, etc. After enough time, (10 generations or about 200 years,) you will have 1,000 people and of course hit 10 favorable mutations.
Increasing the population per generation simply increases the speed with which you get those 10 good mutations.
One might think that it would take much longer for a favorable mutation to spread through such a large population than it would for one to spread through a population as small as the one that existed in the Old Stone Ag. But sine the frequency of an advantageous allele increases exponentially with time in a well-mixed population, rather like the flu, it takes only twice as long to spread through a population of 100 million as it does to spread through a population of 10,000.
The authors note that larger populations can generate more good, creative ideas, not just genes.
Agriculture–and its attendant high population densities–brought about massive cultural changes to human life, from the simple fact of sedentism (for non-pastoralists) to the ability to store crops for the winter, build long-term housing, and fund governments, which in turn created and enforced laws which further changed how humans lived and interacted.
(Note: “government” pre-dates agriculture, but was rather different when people had no surplus grain to take as taxes.)
Plagues have been kind of a big deal in the history of civilization.
Combined with sedentism, these developments eventually led to the birth of governments, which limited local violence. Presumably, governments did this because it let them extract more resources from their subjects…
Peasants fighting among themselves interferes with the economy. Governments don’t like it and will tend to hang the people involved.
Some people call it self-domestication.
Recent studies have found hundreds of ongoing [genetic] sweeps–sweeps begun thousands of years ago that are still in progress today. Some alleles have gone to fixation, more have intermediate frequencies, and most are regional. Many are very recent: the rate of origination peaks at around 5,000 years ago in the European and Chinese samples, and about 8,500 years ago in the African sample.
I assume that these genes originating about 5,000 years ago are mostly capturing the Indo-European (pastoralist) and Anatolian (farming) expansions. I don’t know what happened in China around 5,000 years ago, but I wouldn’t be surprised if whatever triggered the Indo-Europeans to start moving in central Asia were connected with events further to the east.
IIRC, 8,500 years ago is too early for the Bantu expansion in Africa, so must be related to something else.
There is every reason to think that early farmers developed serious health problems from this low-protein, vitamin -short, high-carbohydrate diet. Infant mortality increased, and the poor diet was likely one of the causes. you can see the mismatch between the genes and the environment in the skeletal evidence Humans who adopted agriculture shrank: average height dropped by almost five inches.
I have seen this claim many times, and still find it incredible. I am still open to the possibility of it having been caused by a third, underlying factor, like “more people surviving diseases that had formerly killed them.”
There are numerous signs of pathology in the bones of early agriculturalists. In the Americas, the introduction of maize led to widespread tooth decay and anemia due to iron deficiency…
Of course, over time, people adapted to their new diets. You are not a hunter-gatherer. (Probably. If you are, hello!)
…Similarly, vitamin D shortages in the new die may have driven the evolution of light skin in Europe and northern Asia. Vitamin D is produced by ultraviolet radiation from the sun acting on our skin… Since there is plenty of vitamin D in fresh meat, hunter-gatherers in Europe may not have suffered from vitamin D shortages and thus may have been able to get by with fairly dark skin. In fact, this must have been the case, since several of the major mutations causing light skin color appear to have originated after the birth of agriculture. vitamin D was not abundant in the new cereal-based diet, and any resulting shortages would have been serious, since they could lead to bone malformations (rickets,) decreased resistance to infectious diseases, and even cancer. …
I have read that of the dark-skinned peoples who have recently moved to Britain, the vegetarians among them have been the hardest-hit by vitamin D deficiency. Meat is protective.
Peoples who have farmed since shortly after the end of the Ice Age (such as the inhabitants of the Middle East) must have adapted most thoroughly to agriculture. In areas where agriculture is younger, such as Europe or China, we’d expect to see fewer adaptive changes… In groups that had remained foragers, there would presumably be no such adaptive changes…
Populations that have never farmed or that haven’t farmed for long, such as the Australian Aborigines and many Amerindians, have characteristic health problems today when exposed to Western diets.
EG, Type 2 diabetes.
Dr. (of dentistry) Weston Price has an interesting book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, that describes people Price met around the world, their dental health, and their relationship to Western or traditional diets. (Written/published back in the 1930s.) I’m a fan of the book; I am not a fan of the kind of weird organization that publishes it. That organization promotes fringe stuff like drinking raw milk, but as far as I can recall, I didn’t see anything about drinking raw milk in the entirety of Dr. Price’s tome; Dr. Price wasn’t pushing anything fringe, but found uncontroversial things like “poverty-stricken children during the Great Depression did better in school when given nutritious lunches.” Price was big on improper nutrition as the cause of tooth decay and was concerned about the effects of industrialization and Western diets on people’s bones and teeth.
So we’ve reached the end of Chapter 3. What did you think? Do you agree with Greg and Henry’s model of how Type 2 Diabetes arises, or with the “thrifty genotype” promulgated by James Neel? And why do metabolic syndromes seem to affect poor whites more than affluent ones?
What about the higher rates of FAS among African Americans than the French (despite the French love of alcohol) or the straight up ban on alcohol in many Islamic (ancient farming) cultures? What’s going on there?
Unless I have missed a paper somewhere, this is a remarkable chapter, for The 10,000 Year Explosion was published in 2009, and the first Neanderthal genome showing more overlap with Europeans (and Asians) than Sub-Saharans was published in 2010. Greg and Henry did know of genetic evidence that humans have about 5% admixture from some archaic sister-species, but no one yet had evidence of which species, nor was there popular agreement on the subject. Many scientists still rejected the notion of Sapiens-Neanderthal interbreeding when Cochran and Harpending laid out their bold claim that not only had it happened, but it was a critical moment in human history, jump-starting the cultural cultural effervescence known as behavioral modernity.
Homo sapiens have been around for 300,000 years–give or take a hundred thousand–but for most of that time, we left behind rather few interesting artifacts. As the authors point out, we failed to develop agriculture during the Eemian interglacial (though we managed to develop agriculture at least 7 times, independently, during the current interglacial). Homo sapiens attempted to leave Africa several times before 70,000 years ago, but failed each time, either because they weren’t clever enough to survive in their new environment or couldn’t compete with existing hominins (ie, Neanderthals) in the area.
Sapiens’ technology didn’t do much interesting for the first couple hundred thousand years, either. Yet 70,000 years ago, sapiens did manage to leave Africa, displace the Neanderthals, spread into radically new climates, developed long distance trade and art, and eventually agriculture and everything we now enjoy here in the modern world.
According to Wikipedia, behavioral modernity includes:
Burial, fishing, art, self-decoration via jewelry or pigment, bone tools, sharp blades, hearths, multi-part tools, long-distance transportation of important items, and regionally distinct artifacts.
This leaves two important questions re: Cochran and Harpending’s theory. First, when exactly did behavioral modernity emerge, and second, was it a gradual transition or a sudden explosion?
Prehistoric art is tricky to date–and obviously did not always get preserved–but Blombos Cave, South Africa, currently contains our earliest piece, from about 70,000-100,000 years ago. The Blombos art is not figurative–it’s patterns of crosshatched lines–but there’s a fair amount of it. Blombos appears to have been an ochre-processing spot (the art is made with or on pieces of ochre) littered with thousands of leftover scraps. According to Wikipedia:
In 2008 an ochre processing workshop consisting of two toolkits was uncovered in the 100,000-year-old levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Analysis shows that a liquefied pigment-rich mixture was produced and stored in the shells of two Haliotis midae (abalone), and that ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones and hammer-stones also formed a composite part of the toolkits. As both toolkits were left in situ, and as there are few other archaeological remains in the same layer, it seems the site was used primarily as a workshop and was abandoned shortly after the pigment-rich compounds were made. Dune sand then blew into the cave from the outside, encapsulated the toolkits and by happenstance ensured their preservation before the next occupants arrived, possibly several decades or centuries later.
The application or use of the compound is not self-evident. No resins or wax were detected that might indicate it was an adhesive for hafting.
70 beads made from shells with holes drilled in them have also been found at Blombos.
Blombos is interesting, but the “art” is not actually very good–and we can’t say for sure that it was meant as art at all. Maybe the locals were just scraping the rocks to get the ochre off, for whatever purposes.
Indisputable art emerges a little later, around 40,000 years ago–simultaneously, it appears, in Europe, Asia, Australia, and Indonesia. The archaeology of Africa is less well-documented (in part because things just disintegrate quickly in some areas), but the earliest known sub-Saharan figurative art is about 26,000 years old. This art is both more advanced (it actually looks like art) and more abundant than its predecessors–the Sungir burial, dated to around 30,000-34,000 BC, for example, contains over 13,000 beads–a stark contrast to Blombos’s 70.
If a specific event triggered the simultaneous development of figurative art–and other aspects of behavioral modernity–in four different parts of the world, that event would logically have occurred before those groups split up. The timing of our interbreeding with Neanderthals–“In Eurasia, interbreeding between Neanderthals and Denisovans with modern humans took place several times between about 100,000 and 40,000 years ago, both before and after the recent out-of-Africa migration 70,000 years ago”–is therefore temporaly perfect.
Subsequent back-migration could have then carried the relevant Neanderthal genomesinto Africa–for regardless of where or how behavioral modernity started, all humans now have it.
So what do you think? Did we talk the Neanderthals to death? Did we get the gene for talking from the Neanderthals? Did we out-think them? Or did we just carry some disease or parasite that wiped them out? Or did they wipe themselves out via maternal death in labor, due to their enormous skulls?
(As for FOXP2, it appears that the version found in humans and Neanderthals is slightly different, so I find it a little doubtful that we got it from them.)
A couple of interesting quotes:
In several places, most clearly in central and southwestern France and part of northern Spain, we find a tool tradition that lasted from about 35,000 to 28,000 years ago (the Chatelperronian) that appears to combine some of the techniques of the Neanderthals … with those of modern humans. … Most important, there are several skeletons clearly associated with the Chatelperronian industry, and all are Neanderthal. This strongly suggests that there were interactions between the populations, enough that the Neanderthals learned some useful techniques from modern humans.
The smoking gene?
P. D. Evans and his colleagues at the University of Chicago looked at microcephalin (MCPH1), a very unusual gene that regulates brain size. They found that most people today carry a version that is quite uniform, suggesting that it originated recently. At the same time, it is very different from other, more varied versions found at the same locus in humans today, all of which have many single-nucleotide differences among them. More than that, when there are several different versions of a gene at some locus, we normally find some intermediate versions created by recombination, that is, by chromosomes occasionally breaking and recombining. In the case of the unusual gene (called D for “derived”) at the microcephalin locus, such recombinants are very rare: It is as if the common, highly uniform version of microcephalin simply hasn’t been in the human race all that long in spite of the high frequency of the new version in many human populations. The researchers estimated that it appeared about 37,000 years ago (plus or minus a few tens of thousands of years.) And if it did show up then, Neanderthals are a reasonable, indeed likely, source.
So far as I know (and I looked it up a few weeks ago) no one has yet found microcephalin D in Neanderthals–and the date of 37,000 years ago sounds a bit too recent. However, we haven’t actually genotyped that many Neanderthals (it’s hard to find good 40,000 year old DNA), so we might just not have found it yet–and the date might simply be wrong.
It’s a remarkable genetic finding, even if it didn’t involve Neanderthals–and it might be simpler to dispense with other standards and define Homo sapiens as starting at this point.
On a related note, here’s a bit from Wikipedia about the ASPM gene:
A new allele (version) of ASPM appeared sometime between 14,100 and 500 years ago with a mean estimate of 5,800 years ago. The new allele has a frequency of about 50% in populations of the Middle East and Europe, it is less frequent in East Asia, and has low frequencies among Sub-Saharan African populations. It is also found with an unusually high percentage among the people of Papua New Guinea, with a 59.4% occurrence.
The mean estimated age of the ASPM allele of 5,800 years ago, roughly correlates with the development of written language, spread of agriculture and development of cities. Currently, two alleles of this gene exist: the older (pre-5,800 years ago) and the newer (post-5,800 years ago). About 10% of humans have two copies of the new ASPM allele, while about 50% have two copies of the old allele. The other 40% of humans have one copy of each. Of those with an instance of the new allele, 50% of them are an identical copy. The allele affects genotype over a large (62 kbp) region, a so called selective sweep which signals a rapid spread of a mutation (such as the new ASPM) through the population; this indicates that the mutation is somehow advantageous to the individual.
Testing the IQ of those with and without new ASPM allele has shown no difference in average IQ, providing no evidence to support the notion that the gene increases intelligence. However statistical analysis has shown that the older forms of the gene are found more heavily in populations that speak tonal languages like Chinese or many Sub-Saharan African languages.
For most of he last century, the received wisdom in the social sciences has been that human evolution stopped a long time ago–in the most up-to-date version, before modern humans expanded out of Africa some 50,000 years ago. This implies that human minds must be the same everywhere–the “psychic unity of mankind.” It would certainly make life simpler if it were true.
The book’s main thesis–as you can guess by reading the title–is that human evolution did not halt back in the stone age, but has accelerated since then.
I’ve been reading Greg and Henry’s blog for years (now Greg’s blog, since Henry sadly passed away.) If you’re a fan of the blog, you’ll like the book, but if you follow all of the latest human genetics religiously, you might find the book a bit redundant. Still, it is nice to have many threads tied together in one place–and in Greg & Henry’s entertaining style. (I am about halfway through the book as of this post, and so far, it has held up extremely well over the years since it was published.)
Chapter One: Conventional Wisdom explains some of the background science and history necessary to understand the book. Don’t worry, it’s not complicated (though it probably helps if you’ve seen this before.)
A lot of of our work could be called “genetic history.” … This means that when a state hires foreign mercenaries, we are interested in their numbers, their geographic origin, and the extent to which they settled down and mixed with the local population. We don’t much care whether they won their battles, as long as they survived and bred. …
For an anthropologist it might be important to look at how farmers in a certain region and time period lived; for us, as genetic historians, the interesting thing is how natural selection allowed agriculture to come about to begin with, and how the pressures of an agricultural lifestyle allowed changes in the population’s genetic makeup to take root and spread.
One of the things I find fascinating about humans is that the agricultural revolution happened more or less independently in 11 different places, all around 10,000 years ago. There’s a little variation due to local conditions and we can’t be positive that the Indus Valley didn’t have some influence on Mesopotamia and vice versa, but this is a remarkable convergence. Homo sapiens are estimated to have been around for about 200-300,000 years, (and we were predated by a couple million years of other human ancestor-species like Homo erectus) but for the first 280,000 years or so of our existence no one bothered to invent agriculture. Then in the span of a few thousand years, suddenly it popped up all over the darn place, even in peoples like the Native Americans who were completely isolated from developments over in Asia and Africa.
This suggests to me that some process was going on simultaneously in all of these human populations–a process that probably began back when these groups were united and then progressed at about the same speed, culminating in the adoption of agriculture.
One possibility is simply that humans were hunting the local large game, and about 10,000 years ago, they started running out. An unfortunate climactic event could have pushed people over the edge, reducing them from eating large, meaty animals to scrounging for grass and tubers.
Another possibility is that human migrations–particularly the Out of Africa Event, but even internal African migrations could be sufficient–caused people to become smarter as they encountered new environments, which allowed them to make the cognitive leap from merely gathering food to tending food.
A third possibility, which we will discuss in depth next week, is that interbreeding with Neanderthals and other archaic species introduced new cognitive features to humanity.
And a fourth, related possibility is that humans, for some reason, suddenly developed language and thus the ability to form larger, more complex societies with a division of labor, trade, communication, and eventually agriculture and civilization.
We don’t really know when language evolved, since the process left behind neither bones nor artifacts, but if it happened suddenly (rather than gradually) and within the past 300,000 years or so, I would mark this as the moment Homo sapiens evolved.
While many animals can understand a fair amount of language (dogs, for instance) and some can even speak (parrots,) the full linguistic range of even the most intelligent apes and parrots is still only comparable to a human toddler. The difference between human language abilities and all other animals is stark.
There is great physical variation in modern humans, from Pygmies to Danes, yet we can all talk–even deaf people who have never been taught sign language seek to communicate and invent their own sign language more complex and extensive than that of the most highly trained chimps. Yet if I encountered a group of “humans” that looked just like some of us but fundamentally could not talk, could not communicate or understand language any more than Kanzi the Bonobo, I could not count them members of my species. Language is fundamental.
But just because we can all speak, that does not mean we are all identical in other mental ways–as you well know if you have ever encountered someone who is inexplicably wrong about EVERYTHING here on the internet.
But back to the book:
We intend to make the case that human evolution has accelerated int he past 10,000 years, rather than slowing or stopping, and is now happening about 100 times faster than its long term average over the 6 million years of our existence.
A tall order!
To summarize Cochran and Harpending’s argument: Evolution is static when a species has already achieved a locally-optimal fit with its environment, and the environment is fairly static.
Human environments, however, have not been static for the past 70,000 years or so–they have changed radically. Humans moved from the equator to the polar circle, scattered across deserts and Polynesian islands, adapting to changes in light, temperature, disease, and food along the way.
The authors make a fascinating observation about hunting strategies and body types:
…when humans hunted big game 100,000 years ago, they relied on close-in attacks with thrusting spears. Such attacks were highly dangerous and physically taxing, so in those days, hunters had to be heavily muscled and have thick bones. That kind of body had its disadvantages–if nothing else, it required more food–but on the whole, it was the best solution in that situation. … but new weapons like the atlatl (a spearthrower) and the bow effectively stored muscle-generated energy, which meant that hunters could kill big game without big biceps and robust skeletons. Once that happened, lightly built people, who were better runners and did not need as much food, became competitively superior. The Bushmen of southern Africa…are a small, tough, lean people, less than five feet tall. It seems likely that the tools made the man–the bow begat the Bushmen.
Cro-magnons (now called “European Early Modern Humans” by people who can’t stand a good name,) were of course quite robust, much more so than the gracile Bushmen (Aka San.) Cro-magnons were not unique in their robustness–in fact all of our early human ancestors seem to have been fairly robust, including the species we descended from, such as Homo heidelbergensis and Homo ergaster. (The debate surrounding where the exact lines between human species should be drawn is long and there are no definite answers because we don’t have enough bones.)
We moderns–all of us, not just the Bushmen–significantly less robust than our ancestors. Quoting from a review of Manthropology: The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male:
Twenty thousand years ago six male Australian Aborigines chasing prey left footprints in a muddy lake shore that became fossilized. Analysis of the footprints shows one of them was running at 37 kph (23 mph), only 5 kph slower than Usain Bolt was traveling at when he ran the 100 meters in world record time of 9.69 seconds in Beijing last year. But Bolt had been the recipient of modern training, and had the benefits of spiked running shoes and a rubberized track, whereas the Aboriginal man was running barefoot in soft mud. …
McAllister also presents as evidence of his thesis photographs taken by a German anthropologist early in the twentieth century. The photographs showed Tutsi initiation ceremonies in which young men had to jump their own height in order to be accepted as men. Some of them jumped as high as 2.52 meters, which is higher than the current world record of 2.45 meters. …
Other examples in the book are rowers of the massive trireme warships in ancient Athens who far exceeded the capabilities of modern rowers, Roman soldiers who completed the equivalent of one and a half marathons a day, carrying equipment weighing half their body weight …
McAllister attributes the decline to the more sedentary lifestyle humans have lived since the industrial revolution, which has made modern people less robust than before since machines do so much of the work. …
According to McAllister humans have lost 40 percent of the shafts of the long bones because they are no longer subjected to the kind of muscular loads that were normal before the industrial revolution. Even our elite athletes are not exposed to anywhere near the challenges and loads that were part of everyday life for pre-industrial people.
Long story short: humans are still evolving. We are not static; our bodies do not look like they did 100,000 years ago, 50,000 years ago, nor even 1,000 years ago. The idea that humans could not have undergone significant evolution in 50–100,000 years is simply wrong–dogs evolved from wolves in a shorter time.
Dogs are an interesting case, for despite their wide variety of physical forms, from Chihuahuas to Great Danes, from pugs to huskies, we class them all as dogs because they all behave as dogs. Dogs can interbreed with with wolves and coyotes (and wolves and coyotes with each other,) and huskies look much more like wolves than like beagles, but they still behave like dogs.
The typical border collie can learn a new command after 5 repetitions and responds correctly 95% of the time, whereas a basset hound takes 80-100 repetitions to achieve a 25 percent accuracy rate.
I understand why border collies are smart, but why are bassets so stupid?
Henry and Greg’s main argument depends on two basic facts: First, the speed of evolution–does evolution work fast enough to have caused any significant changes in human populations since we left Africa?
How fast evolution works depends on the pressure, of course. If everyone over 5 feet tall died tomorrow, the next generation of humans would be much shorter than the current one–and so would their children.
The end of the Ice Age also brought about a global rise in sea level. … As the waters rose, some mountains became islands.. These islands were too small to sustain populations of large predators, and in their absence the payoff for being huge disappeared. … Over a mere 5,000 years, elephants shrank dramatically, from an original height of 12 feet to as little as 3 feet. It is worth noting that elephant generations are roughly twenty years long, similar to those of humans.
We have, in fact, many cases of evolution happening over a relatively short period, from dogs to corn to human skin tone.
No one is arguing about the evolution of something major, like a new limb or an extra spleen–just the sorts of small changes to the genome that can have big effects, like the minor genetic differences that spell the difference between a wolf and a poodle.
Second, human populations need to be sufficiently distinct–that is, isolated–for traits to be meaningfully different in different places. Of course, we can see that people look different in different places. This alone is enough to prove the point–people in Japan have been sufficiently isolated from people in Iceland that genetic changes affecting appearance haven’t spread from one population to the other.
What about the claim that “There’s more variation within races than between them”?
This is an interesting, non-intuitive claim. It is true–but it is also true for humans and chimps, dogs and wolves. That is, there is more variation within humans than between humans and chimps–a clue that this factoid may not be very meaningful.
Let’s let the authors explain:
Approximately 85 percent of human genetic variation is within-group rather than between groups, while 15 percent is between groups. … genetic variation is distributed in a similar way in dogs: 70 percent of genetic variation is within-breed, while 30 percent is between-breed. …
Information about the distribution of genetic variation tells you essentially nothing about the size or significance of trait differences. The actual differences we observe in height, weight, strength, speed, skin color, and so on are real: it is not possible to argue them away. …
It turns out that the correlations between these genetic differences matter. … consider malaria resistance in northern Europeans and central Africans. Someone from Nigeria may ave the sickle-cell mutation (a known defense against falciparum malaria,) while hardly anyone from northern Europe does, but even the majority of Nigerians who don’t carry the sickle cell are far more resistant to malaria than any Swede. They have malaria-defense versions of many genes. That is the typical pattern you get from natural selection–correlated changes in a population, change in the same general direction, all a response to the same selection pressure.
In other words: suppose a population splits and goes in two different directions. Population A encounters no malaria, and so develops no malria-resistant genes. Population B encounters malaria and quickly develops a hundred different mutations that all resist malaria. If some members of Population B have the at least some of the null variations found in Population A, then there’s very little variation between Pop A and B–all of Pop A’s variants are in fact found in Pop B. Meanwhile, there’s a great deal of variation within Pop B, which has developed 100 different ways to resist malaria. Yet the genetic differences between those populations is very important, especially if you’re in an area with malaria.
What if the differences between groups is just genetic drift?
Most or all of the alleles that are responsible for obvious differences in appearance between populations–such as the gene variants causing light skin color or blue eyes–have undergone strong selection. In these cases, a “big effect” on fitness means anything from a 2 or 3 percent increase on up. Judging from the rate at which new alleles have increased in frequency, this must be the case for genes that determine skin color (SLC24A5), eye color (HERC2), lactose tolerance (LCT), and dry earwax (ABCC11), of all things.
In fact, modern phenotypes are surprisingly young–blond hair, white skin, and blue eyes all evolved around a mere 10,000 years ago–maybe less. For these traits to have spread as far as they have, so quickly, they either confer some important evolutionary benefit or happen to occur in people who have some other evolutionarily useful trait, like lactose tolerance:
Lactose-tolerant Europeans carry a particular mutation that is only a few thousand years old, and so those Europeans also carry much of the original haplotype. In fact, the shared haplotype around that mutation is over 1 million bases long.
Recent studies have found hundreds of cases of long haplotypeles indicating recent selection: some have reached 100 percent frequency, more have intermediate frequencies, and most are regional. Many are very recent: The rate of origination peaks at around 5,500 years ago in the European and Chinese samples, and at about 8,500 years ago in the African sample.
(Note that the map of blue eyes and the map of lactose tolerance do not exactly correlate–the Baltic is a blue eyes hotspot, but not particularly a lactose hotspot–perhaps because hunter-gatherers hung on longer here by exploiting rich fishing spots.)
Could these explosions at a particular date be the genetic signatures of large conquering events? 5,5000 years ago is about right for the Indo-European expansion (perhaps some similar expansion happened in the East at the same time.) 8,000 years ago seems too early to have contributed to the Bantu Expansion–did someone else conquer west Africa around 8,500 years ago?
Let’s finish up:
Since we have sequenced the chimpanzee genome, we know the size of the genetic difference between chimps and humans. Since we also have decent estimates of the length of time since the two species split, we know the long-term rate of genetic change. The rate of change over the past few thousand years is far greater than this long-term rate over the past few million years, on the order of 100 times greater. …
The ultimate cause of this accelerated evolution was the set of genetic changes that led to an increased ability to innovate. …
Every major innovation led to new selective pressures, which led to more evolutionary change, and the most spectacular of those innovations was the development of agriculture.
Innovation itself has increased dramatically. The Stone Age lasted roughly 3.4 million years (you’ll probably note that this is longer than Homo sapiens has been around.) The most primitive stone tradition, the Oldowan, lasted for nearly 3 million of those 3.4; the next period, the Acheulean, lasted for about 1.5 million years. (There is some overlap in tool traditions.) By contrast, the age of metals–bronze, copper, iron, etc–has been going on for a measly 5,500 years, modern industrial society is only a couple of centuries old–at most.
What triggered this shift from 3 million years of shitty stone tools with nary an innovation in sight to a society that split the atom and put a man on the moon? And once culture was in place, what traits did it select–and what traits are we selecting for right now?
Is the singularity yet to come, or did we hit it 10,000 years ago–or before?
By the way, if you haven’t started the book yet, I encourage you to go ahead–you’ve plenty of time before next week to catch up.
Scientists have long believed that the “great leap forward” that occurred some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago in Europe marked end of significant biological evolution in humans. In this stunningly original account of our evolutionary history, top scholars Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending reject this conventional wisdom and reveal that the human species has undergone a storm of genetic change much more recently. Human evolution in fact accelerated after civilization arose, they contend, and these ongoing changes have played a pivotal role in human history. They argue that biology explains the expansion of the Indo-Europeans, the European conquest of the Americas, and European Jews’ rise to intellectual prominence. …
I just received the book, so I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been a big fan of Greg and Henry’s blog (now Greg’s blog, since Henry passed away,) for a long time. I expect to finish reading and get the relevant discussion posts up, therefore, in about two months–I’ll update the time frame as we get closer.
Please let me know if you prefer short form discussion (like our discussion of Kurzweil’s How to Build a Mind,) or long form discussion (like Auerswald’s The Code Economy,) or something in between.
Watson parses questions into different keywords and sentence fragments in order to find statistically related phrases. Watson’s main innovation was not in the creation of a new algorithm for this operation but rather its ability to quickly execute hundreds of proven language analysis algorithms simultaneously. The more algorithms that find the same answer independently the more likely Watson is to be correct. Once Watson has a small number of potential solutions, it is able to check against its database to ascertain whether the solution makes sense or not.
That is at least one reason why Watson represents such a significant milestone: Jeopardy! is precisely such a challenging language task. … What is perhaps not evident to many observers is that Watson not only had to master the language in the unexpected and convoluted queries, but for the most part its knowledge was not hand-coded. It obtained that knowledge by actually reading 200 million pages of natural-language documents, including all of Wikipedia… If Watson can understand and respond to questions based on 200 million pages–in three seconds!–here is nothing to stop similar systems from reading the other billions of documents on the Web. Indeed, that effort is now under way.
A point about the history of computing that may be petty of me to emphasize:
Babbage’s conception is quite miraculous when you consider the era in which he lived and worked. However, by the mid-twentieth century, his ideas had been lost in the mists of time (although they were subsequently rediscovered.) It was von Neumann who conceptualized and articulated the key principles of the computer as we know it today, and the world recognizes this by continuing to refer to the von Neumann machine as the principal model of computation. Keep in mind, though, that the von Neumann machine continually communicates data between its various units and within those units, so it could not be built without Shannon’s theorems and the methods he devised for transmitting and storing reliable digital information. …
You know what? No, it’s not petty.
Amazon lists 57 books about Ada Lovelace aimed at children, 14 about Alan Turing, and ZERO about John von Neumann.
(Some of these results are always irrelevant, but they are roughly correct.)
“EvX,” you may be saying, “Why are you counting children’s books?”
Because children are our future, and the books that get published for children show what society deems important for children to learn–and will have an effect on what adults eventually know.
I don’t want to demean Ada Lovelace’s role in the development of software, but surely von Neumann’s contributions to the field are worth a single book!
*Slides soapbox back under the table*
Anyway, back to Kurzweil, now discussing quantum mechanics:
There are two ways to view the questions we have been considering–converse Western an Easter perspective on the nature of consciousness and of reality. In the Western perspective, we start with a physical world that evolves patterns of information. After a few billion years of evolution, the entities in that world have evolved sufficiently to become conscious beings In the Eastern view, consciousness is the fundamental reality, the physical word only come into existence through the thoughts of conscious beings. …
The East-West divide on the issue of consciousness has also found expression in opposing schools of thought in the field of subatomic physics. In quantum mechanics, particles exist in what are called probability fields. Any measurement carried out on them by a measuring device causes what is called a collapse of the wave function, meaning that the particle suddenly assumes a particular location. A popular view is that such a measurement constitutes observation by a conscious observer… Thus the particle assume a particular location … only when it is observed. Basically particles figure that if no one is bothering to look at them, they don’t need to decide where they are. I call this the Buddhist school of quantum mechanics …
Or as Niels Bohr put it, “A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself.” He also claimed that we could describe electrons exercised free will in choosing their positions, a statement I do not think he meant literally; “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry,” as he put it.
Kurzweil explains the Western interpretation of quantum mechanics:
There is another interpretation of quantum mechanics… In this analysis, the field representing a particle is not a probability field, but rather just a function that has different values in different locations. The field, therefore, is fundamentally what the particle is. … The so-called collapse of the wave function, this view holds, is not a collapse at all. … It is just that a measurement device is also made up of particles with fields, and the interaction of the particle field being measured and the particle fields of the measuring device result in a reading of the particle being in a particular location. The field, however, is still present. This is the Western interpretation of quantum mechanics, although it is interesting to note that the more popular view among physicists worldwide is what I have called the Eastern interpretation.
For example, Bohr has the yin-yang symbol on his coat of arms, along with the motto contraria sunt complementa, or contraries are complementary. Oppenheimer was such a fan of the Bhagavad Gita that he read it in Sanskrit and quoted it upon successful completion of the Trinity Test, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one,” and “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” He credited the Gita as one of the most important books in his life.
Why the appeal of Eastern philosophy? Is it something about physicists and mathematicians? Leibnitz, after all, was fond of the I Ching. As Wikipedia says:
Leibniz was perhaps the first major European intellectual to take a close interest in Chinese civilization, which he knew by corresponding with, and reading other works by, European Christian missionaries posted in China. Having read Confucius Sinarum Philosophus on the first year of its publication, he concluded that Europeans could learn much from the Confucian ethical tradition. He mulled over the possibility that the Chinese characters were an unwitting form of his universal characteristic. He noted with fascination how the I Ching hexagrams correspond to the binary numbers from 000000 to 111111, and concluded that this mapping was evidence of major Chinese accomplishments in the sort of philosophical mathematics he admired. Leibniz communicated his ideas of the binary system representing Christianity to the Emperor of China hoping it would convert him. Leibniz may be the only major Western philosopher who attempted to accommodate Confucian ideas to prevailing European beliefs.
Leibniz’s attraction to Chinese philosophy originates from his perception that Chinese philosophy was similar to his own. The historian E.R. Hughes suggests that Leibniz’s ideas of “simple substance” and “pre-established harmony” were directly influenced by Confucianism, pointing to the fact that they were conceived during the period that he was reading Confucius Sinarum Philosophus.
Perhaps it is just that physicists and mathematicians are naturally curious people, and Eastern philosophy is novel to a Westerner, or perhaps by adopting Eastern ideas, they were able to purge their minds of earlier theories of how the universe works, creating a blank space in which to evaluate new data without being biased by old conceptions–or perhaps it is just something about the way their minds work.
As for quantum, I favor the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation of quantum mechanics, but obviously I am not a physicist and my opinion doesn’t count for much. What do you think?
But back to the book. If you are fond of philosophical ruminations on the nature of consciousness, like “What if someone who could only see in black and white read extensively about color “red,” could they ever achieve the qualia of actually seeing the color red?” or “What if a man were locked in a room with a perfect Chinese rulebook that told him which Chinese characters to write in response to any set of characters written on notes passed under the door? The responses are be in perfect Chinese, but the man himself understands not a word of Chinese,” then you’ll enjoy the discussion. If you already covered all of this back in Philosophy 101, you might find it a bit redundant.
Kurzweil notes that conditions have improved massively over the past century for almost everyone on earth, but people are increasingly anxious:
A primary reason people believe life is getting worse is because our information about the problems of the world has steadily improved. If there is a battle today somewhere on the planet, we experience it almost as if we were there. During World War II, tens of thousand of people might perish in a battle, and if the public could see it at all it was in a grainy newsreel in a movie theater weeks later. During World War I a small elite could read about the progress of the conflict in the newspaper (without pictures.) During the nineteenth century there was almost no access to news in a timely fashion for anyone.
As for the future of man, machines, and code, Kurzweil is even more optimistic than Auerswald:
The last invention that biological evolution needed to make–the neocortex–is inevitably leading to the last invention that humanity needs to make–truly intelligent machines–and the design of one is inspiring the other. … by the end of this century we will be able to create computation at the limits of what is possible, based on the laws of physics… We call matter and energy organized in this way “computronium” which is vastly more powerful pound per pound than the human brain. It will not jut be raw computation but will be infused with intelligent algorithms constituting all of human-machine knowledge. Over time we will convert much of the mass and energy in our tiny corner of the galaxy that is suitable for this purpose to computronium. … we will need to speed out to the rest of the galaxy and universe. …
How long will it take for us to spread our intelligence in its nonbiological form throughout the universe? … waking up the universe, and then intelligently deciding its fate by infusing it with our human intelligence in its nonbiological form, is our destiny.
Whew! That is quite the ending–and with that, so will we. I hope you enjoyed the book. What did you think of it? Will Humanity 2.0 be good? Bad? Totally different? Or does the Fermi Paradox imply that Kurzweil is wrong? Did you like this shorter Book Club format? And do you have any ideas for our next Book Club pick?
If you aren’t familiar with Ray Kurzweil (you must be new to the internet), he is a computer scientist, inventor, and futurist whose work focuses primarily on artificial intelligence and phrases like “technological singularity.”
Wikipedia really likes him.
The book is part neuroscience, part explanations of how various AI programs work. Kurzweil uses models of how the brain works to enhance his pattern-recognition programs, and evidence from what works in AI programs to build support for theories on how the brain works.
The book delves into questions like “What is consciousness?” and “Could we recognize a sentient machine if we met one?” along with a brief history of computing and AI research.
My core thesis, which I call the Law of Accelerating Returns, (LOAR), is that fundamental measures of of information technology follow predictable and exponential trajectories…
The quintessential example of the law of accelerating returns is the perfectly smooth, doubly exponential growth of the price/performance of computation, which has held steady for 110 years through two world was, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reemergence of China, the recent financial crisis, … Some people refer to this phenomenon as “Moore’s law,” but… [this] is just one paradigm among many.
Auerswald claims that the advance of “code” (that is, technologies like writing that allow us to encode information) has, for the past 40,000 years or so, supplemented and enhanced human abilities, making our lives better. Auerswald is not afraid of increasing mechanization and robotification of the economy putting people out of jobs because he believes that computers and humans are good at fundamentally different things. Computers, in fact, were invented to do things we are bad at, like decode encryption, not stuff we’re good at, like eating.
The advent of computers, in his view, lets us concentrate on the things we’re good at, while off-loading the stuff we’re bad at to the machines.
Kurzweil’s view is different. While he agrees that computers were originally invented to do things we’re bad at, he also thinks that the computers of the future will be very different from those of the past, because they will be designed to think like humans.
A computer that can think like a human can compete with a human–and since it isn’t limited in its processing power by pelvic widths, it may well out-compete us.
But Kurzweil does not seem worried:
Ultimately we will create an artificial neocortex that has the full range and flexibility of its human counterpart. …
When we augment our own neocortex with a synthetic version, we won’t have to worry about how much additional neocortex can physically fit into our bodies and brains, as most of it will be in the cloud, like most of the computing we use today. I estimated earlier that we have on the order of 300 million pattern recognizers in our biological neocortex. That’s as much as could b squeezed into our skulls even with the evolutionary innovation of a large forehead and with the neocortex taking about 80 percent of the available space. As soon as we start thinking in the cloud, there will be no natural limits–we will be able to use billions or trillions of pattern recognizers, basically whatever we need. and whatever the law of accelerating returns can provide at each point in time. …
Last but not least, we will be able to back up the digital portion of our intelligence. …
That is kind of what I already do with this blog. The downside is that sometimes you people see my incomplete or incorrect thoughts.
On the squishy side, Kurzweil writes of the biological brain:
The story of human intelligence starts with a universe that is capable of encoding information. This was the enabling factor that allowed evolution to take place. …
The story of evolution unfolds with increasing levels of abstraction. Atoms–especially carbon atoms, which can create rich information structures by linking in four different directions–formed increasingly complex molecules. …
A billion yeas later, a complex molecule called DNA evolved, which could precisely encode lengthy strings of information and generate organisms described by these “programs”. …
The mammalian brain has a distinct aptitude not found in any other class of animal. We are capable of hierarchical thinking, of understanding a structure composed of diverse elements arranged in a pattern, representing that arrangement with a symbol, and then using that symbol as an element in a yet more elaborate configuration. …
Through an unending recursive process we are capable of building ideas that are ever more complex. … Only Homo sapiens have a knowledge base that itself evolves, grow exponentially, and is passe down from one generation to another.
Kurzweil proposes an experiment to demonstrate something of how our brains encode memories: say the alphabet backwards.
If you’re among the few people who’ve memorized it backwards, try singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” backwards.
It’s much more difficult than doing it forwards.
This suggests that our memories are sequential and in order. They can be accessed in the order they are remembered. We are unable to reverse the sequence of a memory.
Funny how that works.
On the neocortex itself:
A critically important observation about the neocortex is the extraordinary uniformity of its fundamental structure. … In 1957 Mountcastle discovered the columnar organization of the neocortex. … [In 1978] he described the remarkably unvarying organization of the neocortex, hypothesizing that it was composed of a single mechanism that was repeated over and over again, and proposing the cortical column as the basic unit. The difference in the height of certain layers in different region noted above are simply differences in the amount of interconnectivity that the regions are responsible for dealing with. …
extensive experimentation has revealed that there are in fact repeating units within each column. It is my contention that the basic unit is a pattern organizer and that this constitute the fundamental component of the neocortex.
As I read, Kurzweil’s hierarchical models reminded me of Chomsky’s theories of language–both Ray and Noam are both associated with MIT and have probably conversed many times. Kurzweil does get around to discussing Chomsky’s theories and their relationship to his work:
Language is itself highly hierarchical and evolved to take advantage of the hierarchical nature of the neocortex, which in turn reflects the hierarchical nature of reality. The innate ability of human to lean the hierarchical structures in language that Noam Chomsky wrote about reflects the structure of of the neocortex. In a 2002 paper he co-authored, Chomsky cites the attribute of “recursion” as accounting for the unique language faculty of the human species. Recursion, according to Chomsky, is the ability to put together small parts into a larger chunk, and then use that chunk as a part in yet another structure, and to continue this process iteratively In this way we are able to build the elaborate structure of sentences and paragraphs from a limited set of words. Although Chomsky was not explicitly referring here to brain structure, the capability he is describing is exactly what the neocortex does. …
This sounds good to me, but I am under the impression that Chomsky’s linguistic theories are now considered outdated. Perhaps that is only his theory of universal grammar, though. Any linguistics experts care to weigh in?
The basis to Chomsky’s linguistic theory is rooted in biolinguistics, holding that the principles underlying the structure of language are biologically determined in the human mind and hence genetically transmitted. He therefore argues that all humans share the same underlying linguistic structure, irrespective of sociocultural differences. In adopting this position, Chomsky rejects the radical behaviorist psychology of B. F. Skinner which views the mind as a tabula rasa (“blank slate”) and thus treats language as learned behavior. Accordingly, he argues that language is a unique evolutionary development of the human species and is unlike modes of communication used by any other animal species. Chomsky’s nativist, internalist view of language is consistent with the philosophical school of “rationalism“, and is contrasted with the anti-nativist, externalist view of language, which is consistent with the philosophical school of “empiricism“.
Anyway, back to Kuzweil, who has an interesting bit about love:
Science has recently gotten into the act as well, and we are now able to identify the biochemical changes that occur when someone falls in love. Dopamine is released, producing feelings of happiness and delight. Norepinephrin levels soar, which lead to a racing heart and overall feelings of exhilaration. These chemicals, along with phenylethylamine, produce elevation, high energy levels, focused attention, loss of appetite, and a general craving for the object of one’s desire. … serotonin level go down, similar to what happens in obsessive-compulsive disorder….
If these biochemical phenomena sound similar to those of the flight-or-fight syndrome, they are, except that we are running toward something or someone; indeed, a cynic might say toward rather than away form danger. The changes are also fully consistent with those of the early phase of addictive behavior. … Studies of ecstatic religious experiences also show the same physical phenomena, it can be said that the person having such an experiences is falling in love with God or whatever spiritual connection on which they are focused. …
Religious readers care to weigh in?
Consider two related species of voles: the prairie vole and the montane vole. They are pretty much identical, except that the prairie vole has receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin, whereas the montane vole does not. The prairie vole is noted for lifetime monogamous relationships, while the montane vole resorts almost exclusively to one-night stands.
Learning by species:
A mother rat will build a nest for her young even if she has never seen another rat in her lifetime. Similarly, a spider will spin a web, a caterpillar will create her own cocoon, and a beaver will build a damn, even if no contemporary ever showed them how to accomplish these complex tasks. That is not to say that these are not learned behavior. It is just that he animals did not learn them in a single lifetime… The evolution of animal behavior does constitute a learning process, but it is learning by the species, not by the individual and the fruits of this leaning process are encoded in DNA.
I think that’s enough for today; what did you think? Did you enjoy the book? Is Kurzweil on the right track with his pattern recognizers? Are non-biological neocortexes on the horizon? Will we soon convert the solar system to computronium?
Let’s continue this discussion next Monday–so if you haven’t read the book yet, you still have a whole week to finish.
Ray Kurzweil is arguably today’s most influential—and often controversial—futurist. In How to Create a Mind, Kurzweil presents a provocative exploration of the most important project in human-machine civilization—reverse engineering the brain to understand precisely how it works and using that knowledge to create even more intelligent machines.