Review: Dignity, by Chris Arnade, pt 1

51fq6wczpil._sx377_bo1204203200_Part 2 is here.

Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is a difficult book to review. Dire poverty is a tough subject to face head-on without reflexive squirming. It is very tempting to impose one’s own interpretations on the author and his subjects. We want to make it, somehow, better. If we blame people for their situations, then our discomfort fades. If we shift the focus from poor people to rich people, the author, or ourselves, the discomfort fades. etc.

1. What the book is

Dignity is an unflinching series of portraits of some of America’s poorest and unluckiest people. The author visits poor neighborhoods across the country, photographing and interviewing residents about their lives. He talks to prostitutes, criminals, drug dealers, junkies, preachers, single mothers, abuse victims, the disabled, the homeless, and the destitute.

It is not, for the most part, a commentary. It does not propose solutions. The author’s intention is to simply talk to people and hear their stories. If you are looking for a book full of solutions, look elsewhere. If you want to know more about what the problems are, this is your book.

Note: I “read” this book in audiobook form, so I will not be quoting and all references are made from memory. I also, obviously, could not see the pictures that come with the paper version. 

The author is fairly liberal, and this comes through in his writing. This is a bone of contention for some people, with folks who’ve only read the summaries lambasting the author for being “pro Trump,” and the most prominent Amazon reviews lambasting the author for being “anti-Trump,” (much to the author’s consternation). Personally, I don’t care about the author’s political views, but if they bother you too much, you won’t enjoy the book. If you are interested in my views on race and democracy, I recommend you read my Open Letter to Liberals and Centrists.

I would have liked to read some stories in the book from American Indians–the situation out on the reservations is quite concerning. I also would have appreciated some statistical information on overall trends–are things getting better or worse over time?

2. Why I read it:

I like anthropology because I want to learn about the lives of real people. Literature is pleasant to read because it well-written, but its characters are generally fictions drawn from the author’s experiences or the kinds of people the author wants to write about. I am interested in the sorts of people who don’t normally show up in books.

Too many novels fall into the trap of trying to paint the poor as sympathetic because they are secretly like the author–usually plucky orphans with a love of literature. Certainly some orphans love literature, but I wager most do not. These type of characters show that these authors lack real insight into their subjects and their bias that the character is worth saving because she is improbably like the author.

In real life, the poor are not simply high-class people waiting to be discovered, maybe given a few books and a makeover. They are simply people, with their own unique problems.

Was the book effective?

I think the author wants us to identify with and feel sympathy for his subjects’s struggles. Some people I did feel sympathy for, like the woman who was born in a prison hospital to an incarcerated mom, or the man who suffered permanent brain damage when a friend accidentally smashed his head open. They were given really shitty hands in life through no fault of their own. Others I didn’t feel sorry for; they had made obviously bad decisions that led to bad places. (Even if I did feel bad for them, I am unable to stop other people from making bad decisions.)

This is true, of course, of any system–some people suffer because due to bad luck, others from bad choices. Many are in the gray zone of low-IQ, which isn’t a choice but leads to things we call bad choices. 

One of the difficulties I have with the book is that because there are so many interviews, most are, by necessity, fairly superficial. This gives us insight into many different neighborhoods and problems, but it doesn’t give us much depth for any particular problem. Since few of us like to be entirely honest about our own flaws, judging the source of a problem based on a few pages of interview is difficult.

When we talk about problems, we have to be clear what the problems are, where they come from, and if they are solvable at all. (Some problems aren’t.)

Things I think we can’t change: intelligence, drug addiction, manufacturing jobs heading to China (sorry), automation.

Things we can change: mental illness, regular illness, schools, paperwork, prisons, number of criminals on the street.

Just kidding, paperwork is here to stay until the apocalypse.

A lot of problems in this book are blamed, more or less, on white people. A typical example is someone claiming that they elected a black mayor and “the next day” all of the whites left town, hauling all of the jobs with them. Another interviewee was more honest, noting that the whites left after a riot.

There have been a lot of riots in US history, eg, 159 race riots during the Long Hot Summer of 1967. The Detroit Riot was the biggest of these:

The 1967 Detroit Rebellion, also known as the 1967 Detroit Riot or 12th Street riot was the bloodiest incident in the “Long, hot summer of 1967“.[2] Composed mainly of confrontations between black residents and the Detroit Police Department, it began in the early morning hours of Sunday July 23, 1967, in Detroit, Michigan.

The precipitating event was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar then known as a blind pig, on the city’s Near West Side. It exploded into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history, lasting five days and surpassing the violence and property destruction of Detroit’s 1943 race riot 24 years earlier.

Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit to help end the disturbance. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the United States Army‘s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The result was 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed[citation needed]

The black community in Detroit received much more attention from federal and state governments after 1967, and … money did flow into black-owned enterprises after the riot. However, the most significant black politician to take power in the shift from a white majority city to a black majority city, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, wrote in 1994:

The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The rebellion put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totaling twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.[84]

Riots can coerce governments into handing out more benefits or pumping more money into schools, but they also drive away anyone who can get out.

I’ve looked at the data six ways to Sunday, and it looks like “white flight” was driven primarily by black crime, which was a big deal in the seventies and eighties:


Homicide rates are still disproportionately high among blacks even if we control for income:


In the first decade, 66-75, African Americans in the 75th-90th percent of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%. In 76-95, blacks in the top 10% of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%.

The author talks a bit about his own experiences with racism. He grew up in a small town in the South where he was bullied by the other white kids for having parents who supported the NAACP and desegregation. Like many “successful” people, the author did well in school, went to college, and eventually settled in a much whiter neighborhood than the racist one he left behind.

Arnade reflects on this fact–on how most of the kids he grew up with eventually mellowed, probably finding more in common with each other than with people like him who moved up and out. He’s the one who white-flighted, and I’d wager that crime, jobs, and “good schools” have driven most white movement over the past 50 years, not black mayors.

Arnade rejects simple solutions to the problems of poverty. Affirmative action, for example, pits poor minorities against poor whites, while still affirming the upper-class belief that what matters is how smart, rich, and successful you are. Arnade challenges his reader to envision a world in which we don’t value people based on how smart or successful they are.

As I said, it is nearly impossible to change someone’s intelligence for the better. (If someone has some technique that has stood the test of randomized long-term trials that control for genetics, please let me know so I can use them on my kids.) Most would-be reformers run up against this fact like a brick wall, but once you accept that you cannot fundamentally make people smarter (or more conscientious, harder working, etc), you can focus on the things that you actually can change.

The difficulty, of course, is that intelligence is really important. Not because I value it (though I do) but because “intelligence” is a rough shorthand for “being able to run your own life.” Even if we could somehow not have any “values” and love each other equally, the dumber people would still make more mistakes and end up, on average, with shittier lives than the smart people (unless we have also instituted some sort of highly coercive state to prevent people from making their own decisions).

At least Arnade does not claim that everyone is equally intelligent, that if we just made more kids do more math, they’d all become physicists. He knows and has the grace to recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to be smart. Some of us are dumb.

Perhaps his hope is not that we will vote for this candidate or that program, support this law or that institution, but that we’ll be kinder and more understanding of the troubles other people are going through.

I propose that we reduce paperwork.

Lizard people (metaphorical, not literal) love paperwork. Paperwork is how they show that they are better than you. Paperwork shows how deserving they are. Paperwork is an arbitrary hurdle used to distinguish the “deserving” poor from the undeserving, and how we discourage people from applying for welfare, food stamps, SSDI, etc. Paperwork is how big corporations drive smaller competitors out of business or prevent them from existing in the first place. Paperwork keeps poor, low-education entrepreneurs from starting businesses and keeps them trapped in low-end jobs.

Paperwork is the goddamn devil.

Unfortunately, many of the programs put in place to “help” the poor just increase the regulatory burden in their lives and make everything worse. For example, a friend of mine was homeless in San Francisco for many years. He had a fairly regular income, but also schizophrenia. San Francisco has many tenants’ rights laws, which are supposed to protect tenants from eviction, but in practice make renters unwilling to take on the lowest classes of renters–that is, folks they have reason to think they may have to evict. Dealing with all of that paperwork, lawyer fees, etc., is just too expensive for the landlords to make leasing to a high-risk tenant worthwhile, so especially poor people, even if they have the money to pay for a month’s rent, simply are not allowed to live in one place for that long, not even in the crappiest of homeless hotels.

In this case it’s not the tenants who have to fill out the paperwork, but the procedural burden placed on the landlords is still having a negative effect on their lives.

This is not me coming from a radical libertarian perspective, but the opinion I’ve formed via conversation with my friend about what it was like being on the streets and the various barriers he faced.

Many people who have spent years working with the homeless repeat that you cannot fundamentally change people. Aside from treating their mental illnesses and helping them get off drugs, the basic personality traits that lead to long-term homeless will in all likelihood persist. However, that does not mean that we need to increase the regulatory burden on landlords. There are always some people on the edge between homelessness and not, and we don’t need to make it artificially more difficult for them.


One conclusion I draw from Arnade’s account is that the war on drugs (and prostitution) is not going so well. As one woman he interviews says, you can’t do prostitution if you don’t have some drugs first to numb you to the experience.

Many of us use drugs–alcohol, Xanax, adderal, heroin, etc–to smooth over the stresses of our jobs or the parts of life we hate. We drink or pop medication to forget, to be popular, to make it all more bearable, and so, argues Arnade, do the poor.

I think in these discussions of why people do drugs (trauma? rejection? loneliness?) we should consider another possibility: drugs make people feel better and are really addicting. Of course not everyone gets addicted to drugs, and many people who use drugs manage to do so without destroying their lives, but it is clear that for many people, the appeal of drugs is nigh over-powering. Many drug addicts, even the ones with family who love them and try to save them, eventually lose everything and end up dead in a ditch.

If people live in an area where drugs are common, then there is a good chance that at some point in their lives they will try them, and of the people who do, a good chance that they’ll become addicted, simply because drugs are addicting.

drug graphdrug graph4Drug graph3

drug graph5
Source: USA Facts

The War on Drugs doesn’t seem to be working.

Decriminalization is one potential approach. Several US states have tried decriminalizing marijuana, so we now have some preliminary results to discuss. According to Wikipedia:

In Colorado, effects since 2014 include increased state revenues,[4] violent crime decreased,[5][6] and an increase in homeless population.[7] One Colorado hospital has received a 15% increase in babies born with THC in their blood.[8]

Since legalization, public health and law enforcement officials in Colorado have grappled with a number of issues, serving as a model for policy problems that come with legalization. Marijuana-related hospital visits have nearly doubled between 2011, prior to legalization, and 2014.[9] Top public health administrators in Colorado have cited the increased potency of today’s infused products, often referred to as “edibles”, as a cause for concern.

Summary: less crime, more people using pot. It’s a trade-off.

Slate Star Codex did some analysis/summarizing of the effects of marijuana legalization and found that it increased traffic accidents, which resulted in a lot more innocent people getting killed.

As far as I know, we don’t have good studies on the effects of marijuana on fetal development that control for genetics (or environment,) but the relevant mouse studies aren’t hopeful–looks like prenatal exposure to THC causes permanent brain damage.

So legalizing drugs looks like a bad idea, though decriminalization + increased funding for drug treatment programs might be good.

Another possibility is trying to give non-drug users more options to get away from high-use communities, and to give drug users community-based options that will help them escape their addictions, too.

Mental Illness:

Many of the desperately poor are suffering from untreated mental illnesses. Thankfully, mental illness is actually one of the things we can treat. We have very good medications that can radically decrease the negative effects from diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement here, because it’s a fairly simple mechanical fix that we can actually do, if we just identify the people who need medications and convince them to take them. (People who have just discovered that all of their “friends” were really delusions do need support, however.)

Less mental illness could also result in fewer people trying to self-medicate with drugs.

Cabrini Green

As Arnade discusses, the official places set up to help the poor, like rehab clinics and welfare offices, are generally unpleasant and uninviting. Take Cabrini Green: it looks like it was designed by someone who was suffering and wanted everyone else to suffer, too.

People do not feel welcome in such spaces, nor do they want to stay and hang out. The poor opt to hang out in other, more comfortable places, like McDonald’s, church, or drug dens. There is probably room for improvement in making the spaces where people try to improve themselves more pleasant.


School is the government institution most of us have the most contact with. In my experience, most school teachers are well-intentioned and want schools to be pleasant places for children. Certainly they want kids to learn.

In my experience, though, most kids don’t like school. It’s work, it’s coercive, and for about 50% of the kids the pace is consistently too fast or too slow. Our mainstream model is based on German schools and is focused primarily on raising student test scores. Many kids simply want to run and play and aren’t suited to this particular style of learning.

As a kid I attended public school and hated it; as a homeschooling parent I use a different teaching model for my own children.

One thing kids from very deprived backgrounds generally lack is a stable adult presence in their lives. In traditional schools, students change teachers ever year (or every 50 minutes in the higher grades.) In Waldorf schools, students stay with the same teacher for their first 8 years, providing stability and the chance for a deep relationship.

There is one Waldorf school in California, Birney, that is also a public school, drawing from the general neighborhood, much of which is low-income minorities. A study of the effectiveness of this school vs conventional schools showed positive results:

African American and Lation students at Birney have a suspension rate that is ten times lower than similar students in the district.

Over five years duration for African American, Latino and other socio-economically disadvantaged students the effect of attending Birney was correlated with an increase of 8 percentile ranks (i.e. from 50th percentile to 58th percentile) in ELA. Attending Birney had a smaller but positive effect size for these students in math.

Birney’s good test scores might be a side effect of which parents chose to send their kids to a Waldorf school, but the overall happiness of the students shines in study’s many interviewees:

I remember how excited I was every single day. I was so excited to go to school. That was a feeling that was shared throughout the class. “What are we going to do today, where are we going, what are we going to learn?” and that’s the biggest thing about Waldorf. It infuses that excitement, that love for learning.

I’m not convinced that Waldorf schools are perfect; they are just one example of a different way to run schools that still works.


I’ve never seen a consistent enough definition of “systematic oppression” that I could figure out what it really means and how to test it, but I bet if you were a smart kid in foster care trying to apply to college, you’d be facing it.

Our current college application system is needlessly complicated (see: paperwork). Just do like we do when kids go to highschool and assign each kid as they near the end of highschool to the nearest branch of the State U, community college, or trade school, with some adjusting for SAT scores, and let them apply elsewhere if they want to. This way, everyone can at least get some basic job skills.

This is not a recommendation for how we should pay for college.


source: Audacious Epigone

Arnade spends a lot of time at McDonald’s and inside churches. The role of religion in the lives of the poor is notable, though as an atheist, Arnade admits observing it all from a certain distance. Why are the poor so much more devout than the wealthy?

I recently happened upon Bryan, Choi, and Karlan’s paper, Randomizing Religion: The Impact of Protestant Evangelism on Economic Outcomes (h/t Alexander Berger):

We study the causal impact of religiosity through a randomized evaluation of an evangelical Protestant Christian values and theology education program. We analyze outcomes for 6,276 ultrapoor Filipino households six months and 30 months after the program ended. At six months, we find increases in religiosity and income, no statistically significant changes in total labor supply, consumption, food security, or life satisfaction, and a decrease in perceived relative economic status. Exploratory analysis suggests that the income treatment effect may operate through increasing grit. These effects fade away at 30 months. We conclude that this church-based program may represent a method of increasing non-cognitive skills and reducing poverty in the short run among adults in developing countries, but more work is required to understand whether the effects can persist and if not, why not.

This seems reasonably likely to hold true for folks in the US as well. A commitment to Jesus results in a simultaneous commitment to being honest, hard working, avoiding drugs, etc, and provides an environment full of other people with similar commitments. This works for a while, resulting in more money, which is evident to both the individual and his family and friends.

After a while, the effect wears off. People go back to their old ways. But life is long, and there are many opportunities for people to get clean, get sober, and return to the church–for at least a while.

I think that’s enough for now; I want to get this post up on time, so we’ll continue with our discussion on Monday. Edit: Part two is now up. Click here to read it.

If you’ve read the book or would like me to discuss something in particular, I’d love to hear your opinions over the weekend.

I have read a number of similar books, some of which I’ve reviewed here on the blog. If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day; Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio; Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die; The Slave Narrative Collection; Bergner’s God of the Rodeo (Angola prison); Dobyns’s No Angel (Hells Angels); Frank Lucas’s Original Gangster; and Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Micheal Nest. 

Islamic Law

Photo of the lovely Samarkand Ulugbek Madrassa by Arian Zwegers

Welcome back to Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. Today we’ll be discussing Islamic law; with any luck, someone who actually knows something on the subject will drop by and weigh in.

Strictly speaking, what traditional Islamic courts enforced was not Shari’a, God’s Law, but fiqh, jurisprudence, the imperfect human attempt to deduce from religious sources what human law ought to be. That fact helps explain how Sunni Islam was able to maintain four different but mutually orthodox schools of law. There could be only one correct answer to what God wanted humans to do but there could be more than one reasonable guess.

This sounds like a bit of technicality that I am skeptical of people observing in practice, so I went over to Pew.

The World’s Muslims: Beliefs about Sharia: 


According to the survey findings, most Muslims believe sharia is the revealed word of God rather than a body of law developed by men based on the word of God. Muslims also tend to believe sharia has only one, true understanding, but this opinion is far from universal; in some countries, substantial minorities of Muslims believe sharia should be open to multiple interpretations. …

Although many Muslims around the world say sharia should be the law of the land in their country, the survey reveals divergent opinions about the precise application of Islamic law.

Pew doesn’t distinguish between “sharia” and “fiqh”

In 17 of the 23 countries where the question was asked, at least half of Muslims say sharia is the revealed word of God. (For more information on sharia see text box.) In no country are Muslims significantly more likely to say sharia was developed by men than to say it is the revealed word of God. …

gsi2-chp1-3In 17 out of 21 countries, “there is only one interpretation of sharia” beat “there are multiple interpretations.”

Support for making sharia the official law of the land varies significantly across the six major regions included in the study. In countries across South Asia, Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East-North Africa region most favor making sharia their country’s official legal code. By contrast, only a minority of Muslims across Central Asia as well as Southern and Eastern Europe want sharia to be the official law of the land.

In South Asia, high percentages in all the countries surveyed support making sharia the official law, including nearly universal support among Muslims in Afghanistan (99%). More than eight-in-ten Muslims in Pakistan (84%) and Bangladesh (82%) also hold this view. The percentage of Muslims who say they favor making Islamic law the official law in their country is nearly as high across the Southeast Asian countries surveyed (86% in Malaysia, 77% in Thailand and 72% in Indonesia).

In sub-Saharan Africa, at least half of Muslims in most countries surveyed say they favor making sharia the official law of the land, including more than seven-in-ten in Niger (86%), Djibouti (82%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (74%) and Nigeria (71%).

Support for sharia as the official law of the land also is widespread among Muslims in the Middle East-North Africa region – especially in Iraq (91%) and the Palestinian territories (89%). Only in Lebanon does opinion lean in the opposite direction: 29% of Lebanese Muslims favor making sharia the law of the land, while 66% oppose it.

So I have a little skepticism of the authors’ claim that Muslims normally distinguish between Sharia and Fiqh and that they’re totally okay with multiple, co-existing interpretations of the law.

More likely, the average Muslim believes multiple, vaguely contradictory things about Sharia that are basically piety signals, because most Muslims are just trying to live their lives and feed their families, not legal scholars.

“Should we run the country according to God’s laws?” the pollster asks, and the faithful reasonably respond that “Yes, of course we should run things according to God’s laws.”

“Does God’s law come from God or from man?” the pollster asks, and the faithful responds, “From God, obviously. It’s in the name.”

With those caveats, let’s get back to Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. The authors then explain the five-fold division of acts in Islamic law, which I have converted to a rough table:

Obligatory act:         God rewards for performing,      Punishes for not performing
Recommended act: God rewards for performing,      No punishment for not performing
Permissible act:       No reward for performing,          No punishment for not performing
Offensive act:          No punishment for performing,   Reward for abstaining
Unlawful act:           Punishment for performing,         Reward for avoiding

… Islamic law is more nearly a system of morality than a system of law, since its rules primarily describe how one ought to act, only secondarily the legal consequences of action. …

How was fiqh deduced and applied? The scholar started with the sources of revealed knowledge–the Koran itself and the words and acts of Mohammad and his companions as reported in hadith, traditions. From that information a sufficiently learned religious scholar, a mujtahid, deduced legal rules. Over time, the scholars separated into four schools… The schools were generally similar but differed in the details of their approaches to interpretation and the rules they deduced; each regarded the others as orthodox.

Any Muslim readers want to weigh in on how accurate this is?

Anyway, Islamic law then developed over the years the same problems of any legal system: bloat, excessive writing, technological and cultural change, and multiple conflicting interpretations, all of which could make it difficult to determine what the “original” idea of the law had been.

It was necessary to decide for each hadith how certain one could be that it was neither invented by someone at some point down the purported chain [of legal descent] nor inaccurate due to an error in transmission.

The basic rule accepted by all schools was that if there were a sufficient number of independent chains supporting the same hadith, it could be accepted as genuine with certainty.

Muslims inventing the blockchain.

It followed that if at any one time all of the scholars were agreed upon a question, that question was permanently settled.

Law and the State:

After first few centuries and until the rise of the Ottomans, political authority in the Islamic world was fragmented. The local rulers were frequently foreigners to the populations they ruled… What they wanted from the legal scholars was support for their legitimacy. … they were willing for the most part to leave the legal system in the hands of the scholars. … Think of the resulting system as what Anglo-American common law would be if law professors ran the world, law defined not by the precedents set by judges but by the medieval equivalent of law review articles.

So… does it work? How well does it work? In the chapter on Icelandic law, the authors are willing to actually interrogate why Icelandic law broke down (in the Middle Ages) and what made it initially effective and then ineffective. There’s a little discussion in the chapter on Chinese law on how people managed to conduct business effectively despite (or because) of the lack of relevant formal legal rules. But in general the authors shy away from asking how effective the legal systems actually are, which seems like a critical piece of information. If a system works well and the people in it are pleased with the results, then it seems reasonable to see if it is a system with parts that can be felicitously copied, borrowed, or implemented; if a system works badly, (as many do) then it is wise to examine what makes it dysfunctional and try to avoid those components in our own system.

Of course, the functioning of many legal systems probably does come down, as Confucian scholars might say, to the ethics/wisdom inherent in the people in them.

But anyway:

From the perspective of modern American law, the final two stages of the process look like our system turned upside down. In ours,t he court of first impression applies the law to the facts and produces a verdict. If the case is appealed, the appeals court takes the facts as already decided and gives a second and authoritative opinion on the law In their system, the opinion on the law came first, provided by the mufti, followed by the qadi’s application of the law to the facts as he saw them. Under most circumstances there was no way to appeal the qadi’s verdict.

Prominent schools of Islamic law (aka madhhab) by region

The authors note that they have described the “traditional account” of how Islamic law developed; some modern scholars claim this is all kind of retconned from existing Arabic law and modified over time as new provinces were conquered. I’m sure this is also to some extent true, as whatever laws people were already using on matters like marriage and murder probably persisted post-conversion.

Anyway, so there are multiple “schools” of Islamic legal thought:

While the schools differed in detail they regarded each other as mutually orthodox. In this respect as in others, the history of Islamic law both resembles and differs from that of Jewish Law. The schools of Hillel and Shammai tolerated each other for several generations, but eventually the majority school suppressed the minority. In the parallel Islamic case, the four schools of Sunni law have continued their mutual toleration up to the present day. …

The four schools of law are all Sunni; the Shia have their own schools and legal rules… While different schools were dominant in different areas, a medieval Muslim city could have had separate courts for the four Sunni schols, the Shia, and the other tolerated religions. It was a polylegal system; disputes within each community would go to that community’s courts. Non-Muslims had to use Muslim courts for criminal cases but had choice of law for civil matters. … What happened in a dispute between parties adhering to different legal systems is not entirely clear…

I wonder how this worked in practice.

While law was in theory independent of the of the state, in practice, in most historical Islamic societies, state-created rules played a significant role. … One reason for the development of parallel state curts may have been the desire of the ruler to maintain control A second was that fiqh had serious limits as a legal system. …

The authors then look at the “breakdown” of the Islamic legal system.

The breakdown of the traditional legal system may, as Hallaq argues, be due to the rise of the nation state, but the connection between that and western imperialism is accident not essence. The causes that led to the rise of the nation state in the west, the replacement of feudalism by absolute monarchy, operated in the Islamic world as well… The annexation of the waqfs by the Ottoman authorities parallels the earlier confiscation of the lands of the monasteries by Henry VIII. The result in both cases was to eliminate institutions that competed with the sate for power and resources. 

This is the kind of theory I like.

Then there is a section with more details on the actual content of the legal code, eg:

The part of fiqh that applies to homicide or bodily injury is called jinyat and appears to be based on the pre-Islamic rules of Arab blood feud.

Blood feuds are interesting and I think there is a chapter later on that looks at feud systems in more detail. But I wonder how these systems translate over geography–that is, across the Islamic world, from Morocco to Indonesia. Did the spread of Islam result in these areas adopting laws that were originally Arabian, or did each region effectively retain its own existing legal system? And how is it all working out today?

Wikipedia has an interesting bit: 

The transformations of Islamic legal institutions in the modern era have had profound implications for the madhhab system.[65] Legal practice in most of the Muslim world has come to be controlled by government policy and state law, so that the influence of the madhhabs beyond personal ritual practice depends on the status accorded to them within the national legal system.[65] State law codification commonly utilized the methods of takhayyur (selection of rulings without restriction to a particular madhhab) and talfiq (combining parts of different rulings on the same question).[65] Legal professionals trained in modern law schools have largely replaced traditional ulema as interpreters of the resulting laws.[65] Global Islamic movements have at times drawn on different madhhabs and at other times placed greater focus on the scriptural sources rather than classical jurisprudence.[65] The Hanbali school, with its particularly strict adherence to the Quran and hadith, has inspired conservative currents of direct scriptural interpretation by the Salafi and Wahhabi movements.[65]Other currents, such as networks of Indonesian ulema and Islamic scholars residing in Muslim-minority countries, have advanced liberal interpretations of Islamic law without focusing on traditions of a particular madhhab.[65]

It’s not Stealing if they’re Gadje: Legal Systems very Different from Ours pt 2

51ta-us7crlWelcome back to Leeson, Skarbek, and Friedman’s Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. Today we will be discussing Gypsy law, in a chapter that I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t already read Isabella Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey.

Usage note: I use “Gypsy” instead of “Romani” for the same reason that I refer to “Germans” and not “Deutsch”: because “Gypsy” is the proper English ethnonym. Romani is not an English word, and it doesn’t even translate to Gypsy–it means “people,” and you and I are people, too. In American parlance, “Gypsy” is neither an insult nor a slur, so I will not dance around like it is one.

Furthermore, I am opposed to ethnonymic creep; it is a very annoying part of my job here at this blog to try to figure out what group I am reading about if the name it goes by has changed over the course of years and I cannot track down reliable references. This recent trend of accelerated ethnonymic shift exists mainly to give intellectuals with lots of time on their hands to learn the latest terms something to feel superior about while confusing ordinary people, who are left wondering “Huh? Romani?”

Don’t worry; we here at EvX have enough ways of feeling superior without resorting to confusion–like semicolons.

Background: The Gypsies are a peripatetic ethnic group that left India about a thousand years ago and have since spread across the rest of the Indo-European world. They have traditionally filled the economic niche of traveling blacksmiths, tinsmiths, tinkerers, salesmen, and occasional chicken thieves. Interestingly, in places where the Gypsies never reached, like Ireland, an equivalent group of people emerged to fill the same economic niche–the Travellers–suggesting that this is a real economic niche that people needed filled, albeit minus the part about the chickens.

Globally, there are about 2-20 million Gypsies, with concentrations in the United States, Brazil, Romania, and Turkey. About 1 million Gypsies live in America, a population bigger than the Amish. It’s hard to find really good statistics on Gypsies because Gypsies don’t believe in keeping statistics, much less cooperating with government officials who seem intent on prying into their business and pinning them down. Note that because Gypsy communities are widely scattered across the globe and have not had, until recently, any good way of communicating with each other across great distances, what is true of one band or group may not be even remotely true of another group. Gypsies in one country may be settled, school-going city dwellers, while Gypsies in another country move about in caravans. Few sell horses these days (but many sell cars). Some speak the dominant local language; some speak a Gypsy variety. Some Gypsy languages are mutually intelligible; others are not. To say anything of Gypsies as a whole is probably wrong, so please forgive the limits of language.

Back in the Middle Ages, people didn’t mind the traditional Gypsy lifestyle too much, so long as chicken thefts were kept to a minimum. People needed tinkerers, and if the Gypsies didn’t send their children to school, well, neither did the locals. The traditional lifestyle clashes tremendously with the modern state, which wants people to stay put, carry ID, fill out their forms, pay taxes, and send their children to school. Stalin grounded the Gypsies of the Soviet Union (and stole their gold–not that they were rich to begin with, but you know, people can’t have anything nice in the Soviet Union) so the state could better control them. Gypsies in less coercive modern states have been less coercively encouraged to settle, to varying degrees of success.

My impression is that America has been less coercive toward its Gypsies, encouraging mandatory school attendance, but otherwise putting up with folks who feel like moving from town to town.

Traditional Gypsy law, as the authors note, exists separate from the regular laws of the state. The extent to which state law applies to them has varied over time, depending on how much the local officials wish to interfere. Where they are left to mostly manage their own affairs, we have a polylegal system:

Polylegal systems, systems in which different people in the same country were under different legal authorities, existed in medieval and Renaissance Europe. The status of Jewish communities in the diaspora, discussed in Chapter 4, is one example, the millet system of the Ottoman Empire another. It is possible that the fifteenth century Romani persuaded Sigismund that they were entitled to similar treatment.

Whether or not fifteenth century Romani obtained a grant of de jure judicial autonomy from a fifteenth century emperor, Romani communities through the centuries have been strikingly successful in maintaining de facto autonomy, staying below the radar of the official legal system while imposing their own rules on their own members.

I have long wondered why anyone would bother obeying two legal systems at once–why obey both American and Jewish law, for example? Obeying complicated restrictions is annoying, even difficult, so why don’t people just slowly default to following only one to make their lives simpler?

This chapter offers no solution, but Chapter 9 does. The Amish, of course, are a community whose lifestyle can only be maintained by adherence to Amish law, but Gypsy law does not guarantee a Gypsy lifestyle. But adhering to Gypsy law does mean that one is part of a Gypsy community (since the strongest punishment available in Gypsy law is getting kicked out of the community,) and Gypsies love their communities:

Part of the painfulness of being denied contact with one’s own people, whether to be in a jail, a hospital, or a job, is that of being alone. To be among a group of Rom [masculine singular declinsion of Romani] is the natural everyday context within which a person lives, learns, and expresses his personality; to be among a group of gaje [outsiders] is to be alone. Wherever he travels or lives, a Rom is rarely alone. More often he is surrounded by large numbers of relatives and friends.

Of course, whether one follows the law also depends on whether there are any better options elsewhere, and for much of history, Gypsies have not had much hope of joining a nearby community if they decided their band’s purity laws were overly burdensome.

The authors’ analysis of Gypsy law is based off accounts of two groups of Gypsies–the Kaale of Finaland and the Vlach Rom of California, circa 1970 (and thus out of date). Be careful of over-extending any of this to other Gypsy groups, and frankly, given the described delight the Gypsies took in deceiving their ethnographer back in the 70s, I wouldn’t assume it was completely accurate back then, either.

(Ethnographers are often deceived by people who think it’s funny or that the ethnographers are being way too nosy.)

Social Structure:

The basic unit [of the Vlach Rom] is the familia, a couple their adult sons, daughters-in-law, unmarried daughters and grandchildren. Above the familia is the vitsa, a larger kinship group descended from an ancestor some generations back. … Above the vitsa is the Natsiya, nation. The Vlach Rom are divided into four Natsiya

So family, extended family, and clan.

Marriage is by purchase, a payment from the family of the groom to the family of the bride. Payments are substantial, typically several thousand dollars as of 1970. While consent of bride and groom is required, it is up to a man’s parents to find him a wife and negotiate with her parents. The wife lives in her husband’s familia; in the early years of the marriage she is expected to do much of the work of the household.

Note that the family structure of the Kaale Gypsies of Finland is completely different.

The geographical unit above the Familia is the kumpania. The original meaning seems to have been an encampment, a group of households camping together. In the modern American context, it describes a unit such as the Romani settlement in Richmond. A Kumpania usually has  Rom Baro, a “Big Man,” who plays an important role in interactions with authorities such as the police and welfare department and among the Rom.

Here we see the difficulties of using an ethnonym from a foreign language–“Rom” means man (eg, Rom Baro = Big Man). You cannot play an important role in interactions among the man. You play a role among the men, plural. The plural of Rom is Roma. (The adjective is Romani. Romni is a woman.)

Anyway, in a move that clearly violates American anti-discrimination laws that the rest of us are required to follow, different kumpanias decide who gets to live there:

It may be a closed Kumpania, meaning that Romani families require permission to move in, likely to be based on vitsa membership and kinship to those already there, or it may be open. Restrictions on entry are typically enforced by the Rom Baro’s influence with local authorities. An unwelcome family can be reported to the police for crimes they id or didn’t commit, to the welfare department for violations that would otherwise go unreported. Restrictions on entry serve in part to protect current residents against competition in income-earning activities such as fortune telling.

Remember that this only works if you’re a Gypsy; if a white person tries to prevent people from entering their town or country in order to protect their job, they’re a dirty racist and deserve universal condemnation. Gypsies using the police to kick their neighbors out of their homes on false charges is totally fine, but you doing that is illegal and a sign that you are a terrible shit person.

Anyway, on to the laws:

Romania, the system of rules can be grouped into two categories. One consists of ordinary legal rules covering the obligations of Romani to each other, including extensive obligations of mutual help, especially but not exclusively between relatives. …

Obligations apply to fellow Rom not to outsiders, Gaje. … swindling or stealing from an outsider comes under Romania only to the extent that it creates problems for other Rom.

“Gaje” means outsiders; it can also be spelled “gadje.” The authors quote the source they are relying on for this amusing tidbit:

There is no word for all men and women. Human beings are either Roma or gadje.

When you use the term “Romani,” you are implicitly agreeing with this notion that Gypsies are people are you are not.

It is only a mild exaggeration to say that Romani view the non-Romani population not as part of their society but as part of their environment.

Do you ever get the impression that different people are held to different standards?

I was surprised the authors were this frank on the matter; usually people try to dance around and hide such attitudes, since they definitely reflect badly on the Gypsies.

Gypsy neighborhood in Belgrade, Serbia: So much purity!

The second category covered by Romania is an elaborate system of purity and pollution Orthodox Judaism on steroids.

I would not believe this had I not also read it elsewhere. Many Gypsies do in fact have complicated, annoying purity laws regarding washtubs, pregnant women, clothes, and body parts, but for some reason these laws don’t extend to the trash around their communities.


Because pollution is contagious and Gaje neither know nor follow the rules to prevent it, association with them is sharply limited. Vlach Rom in America [in the 70s, at least] if they have to eat in a non-Romani setting such as a restaurant, prefer paper plates; they may eat with their fingers instead of utensils for fear that the latter may be polluted.

Note: I guarantee you that there are Gypsies who love restaurants and use the silverware.

As for lying, the authors quote:

The Rom often lie to each other about everyday matters, but they almost always lie to the gaje. There is no particular shame attached to lying to each other… but to lie to the gaje is certainly correct and acceptable behavior…

When ‘caught out’ in this way [that is, caught in a lie] I never saw anyone show embarrassment. They enjoyed it when a good story was put over on them as much as they enjoyed putting one over on someone else.

There is a Gypsy court system called a kris, at which major decisions are made. The court may decide to ostracize someone or declare that certain behavior is good or bad; it may declare a punishment on one group of Gypsies that caused trouble for another group, etc. The functioning of the court is not terribly consistent over time and space, since Gypsy law is unwritten and based primarily on whatever the local elders think it is.

The pollution and ostracism rules provide the most effective means (besides calling the police) that Gypsies have of regulating each others’ behavior:

Ostracism is a way in which an embedded legal system, one that exists under the rule of a state with much greater resource of coercion than the community possesses, can function. Refusing to associate with someone is not illegal, so the marime [unclean] penalty can be enforced without coming into conflict with state law.

(Oh really? It’s not illegal to refuse to associate with someone? I’ll be sure to remember that next time I’m selling a house.)


Outside the family structure, the Romani are strikingly unwilling to engage in hierarchical relationships. Men who work together in groups do it as partners, not employer/employee. When Romani find it necessary to work for the gaje, picking crops for example, they do it as day labor not long-term employees.

Exit means you don’t have to put up with annoying people lording it over you.

On feuds:

A Romanichal who believes his rights to have been violated responds by demanding, with threats of violence, compensation. … As with any well-functioning feud system, while the incentive to obey the laws or norms is provided by the threat of private violence, actual violence is the exception rather than the rule.

Feud systems are not actually known for their lack of violence, but people are easily misled by an ethnographer who says something like, “Well, I never personally saw anyone get murdered, so the murder rate in this community must be much lower than the nation as a whole.”

Now, I’ve been a bit harsh, but I do think this case shines an interesting light on how legal systems developed in the first place, top up and bottom down. Every pre-state community had some kind of norms and rules in place to manage relationships, ease business transactions (even hunter-gatherers trade with each other), and manage food production/distribution. Farmers must determine who gets which plot and how to cooperate during planting and harvesting; hunters must split their catches effectively in an environment where meat cannot be stored because refrigeration has not yet been invented. There are religious rules, intended to keep the gods happy, and purity rules to avoid contamination and germs. There are the obligations of children and parents to each other, and matters of marriage and kinship to iron out.

(We discussed this back Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.)

People did all of these things for themselves long before states got in on the game, and state law has historically not interfered too much with local administration. Take marriage, which we now see as indelibly tied up in the legal system: in the 1700s, most marriages had nothing to do with the state. People were married because they said they were married, told their friends and neighbors they were married, and then moved in together and started having children. Today we call this a “common law marriage.” People will of course have big wedding parties if they can afford them, but most people throughout history were poor, and even still, these parties did not need to involve the state.

It is only recently, for tax (and insurance) purposes, that the state has started getting particularly nosy about who is married to whom, and suddenly people have developed this ridiculous notion that only Uncle Sam can determine who is and isn’t married, even though marriage has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years longer than the US has even existed.

It is natural that these local, tribal laws people developed thousands of years ago would only dictate behavior within the local tribe and not dictate obligations to people outside one’s tribe; after all, they’re different people in different tribes who are following their own laws. We only see the emergence of “universal” laws like “murder is bad whether you murder a kinsman or a stranger” within empires that rule over multiple ethnic groups (though Hammurabi’s code still declares some murders less bad according to the victim’s hierarchical status). Empires don’t care about people so much as they care about taxes, and empires can collect more taxes when people get along, conduct trade, and don’t have feuds with each other.

Which leads naturally to the question of whether national or polynational systems are better. Empires by their nature, are polynational–that is, they contain more than one ethnic group. One of the beliefs enshrined in early 20th century liberalism was the Self-Determination of all Nations–see Woodrow Wilson’s 13 points at the end of WWI. Self-determination was the idea that the interests of the Irish people would be best served by a government composed of Irish people, who would be disinclined to let their kinsmen die of famine. The interests of Poles would be best served by an independent Poland; the interests of Germans would be best served by all of the German people living in one country run by Germans.

Current liberal thinking, however, is that polynational (or multiethnic) systems are best, presumably due to the difficulties inherent in creating single-nation states when a population is not located in a single place or two populations are already mixed together. In a polynational state, if no single ethnic group can get the upper hand and thus become dominant, then the interests of different groups may balance and the state can effectively mediate between them.

In practice, both systems have their downsides.

A true nation-state enjoys the simplicity of being able to declare local laws state laws, and the difference between how I treat my co-ethnics and foreigners is simplified by a national border between us and them.

A polyethnic state has to find a way to mange different legal systems in different regions. Sometimes states give local communities significant leeway to conduct their own affairs, staying out of the way for most everything except tax collection; sometimes, as in the USSR, states decide to completely stamp out local systems and bring everyone under a unified system. In general, modern states are far more nimble (since the invention of communication and transportation technologies like telephones, video cameras, cars, and planes that make gathering information and extending power over long distances much easier,) than their predecessors, and so take a much deeper interest in their citizens’ everyday lives.

America is in the process of transitioning from a nation of nations–it was about 90% white in 1900, with the remnants of federalism still somewhat functioning–to a polynational state in which an increasingly invasive government does its best to make sure that whites adhere to the empire’s desire for universal laws and norms.

But enough about that; on to the Kaale, Finnish Gypsies who seem to have convinced an ethnographer that they don’t understand this concept of “marriage.”

The Kaale, the Finnish Romani, a small population isolated for centuries, carry the Vlach Rom attitude towards the lower half of the body even further than other Romani, refusing to openly admit the facts of human reproduction. They have no institution of marriage. Couples that wish to reproduce are expected to first leave their family households, flee far enough away so that the woman’s kin cannot find them and retrieve her, and return only when their child is weaned and so no longer requires a visible association with its mother. On returning, the father is expected to show the humility appropriate to one who has violated the norms of his society while the women of the mother’s generation smuggle mother and child into the household, where the child will be expected to treat all of the women of his mother’s generation as equally mothers.

No way this story started as a way to avoid explaining kinship structures to some nosy outsider who kept asking too many question.

Several obvious problems suggest themselves. First, the system is stupid. Second, it makes no sense. Third, the couple have to like each other enough to want to elope for a couple of years, find a new home, and go through pregnancy, birth, and weaning before returning, but afterward are apparently supposed to pretend like they don’t have a relationship?

Let us assume that the Kaale have a fertility rate above 1 child per woman: must a woman who already has a child disappear again for two or three years every time she or a man she is interested in wants to have sex? Do they simply not have sex anymore after the birth of their first child?

One result of the Kaale rejection of sexuality is to eliminate many of the taboos associated with it among other Romani groups. There can be no restrictions associated with menstruation since enforcing them would require recognition of the fact of menstruation, and similarly with pregnancy.

Oh…kay.  I can tell this book was written by men. Guys, there is no way for women to not recognize the “fact of menstruation.” Not recognizing the fact that you menstruate means dripping blood down your legs and onto the floor/chairs. Absolutely not going to happen. Just because some women didn’t want to talk to an anthropologist or other nosy outsider about their menses doesn’t mean they aren’t aware that it happens and have some sort of way of dealing with it.

In most societies, the restrictions/taboos surrounding menstruation have little to do with pregnancy (which is pretty removed in most people’s minds) and has everything to do with keeping the bloody mess contained, (which was much trickier before the invention of modern menstrual hygiene products like pads and tampons,) and I guarantee you the Kaale don’t want blood all over their chairs anymore than you do.

A Kalle woman living in the household of her or her partner’s kin conceals the fact of pregnancy until shortly before delivery …

Guys, have you ever seen a pregnant woman? Pregnancy is not something you can conceal.

Then there are some bits about feuding, which sound more likely to be true: dead bodies are easy to count.

For Kaale feud, the relevant unit is the household, not, as among the Romanichal, the individual. All households are considered peers and here exists no mechanism above the household for peacefully settling disputes. …

Conflict between individuals of different households, if sufficiently serious, leads to duels. … If death or serious injury does occur,t he result is a blood feud. … There is no equivalent of the court procedures or arbitrated settlements that terminated Icelandic feuds.

The authors speculate for a while on why the Vlach Rom and Kaale Gypsies are so different from each other. If you ask me, it’s probably because they’re different groups of people living in completely different environments about 10,000 miles apart. Yes, they were probably part of the same group hundreds of years ago, but they split (perhaps because they didn’t like each other’s rules in the first place,) and have been developing on their own ever since. There is nothing about Kaale life that differs from Vlach Rom life in a way that leads us to conclude, “Ah, therefore it makes sense for them to pretend reproduction doesn’t exist and settle their disputes via feuds instead of courts.”

Different groups are just… different.

Book Club: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, pt 3/3


Chinua Achebe, Author and Nobel Prize winner

Welcome back to our discussion of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Today I wanted to take a closer look at some of the aspects of traditional Igbo society mentioned in the book.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know by now that just as early modern humans (Homo sapiens) mated with Neanderthals and Denisovans somewhere over in Eurasia, some sapiens mated with archaic humans in Africa.

Unfortunately, the state of knowledge about African genomes and especially archaic African genomes is very primitive. Not only does ancient DNA not preserve terribly well in many parts of Africa, but the continent is also rather poor and so people there don’t send their spit to 23 and Me very often to get DNA tested. Thus, sadly, I do not have archaic DNA percents for the Igbo.

“Approximate Bayesian computation estimates for the introgressing population across four African populations (Yoruba from Ibadan (YRI), Esan in Nigeria [ESN], Gambian in Western Divisions in the Gambia [GWD], and Mende in Sierra Leone [MSL]),” from Recovering Signals of Ghost Archaic Introgression in African Populations
However, we do have data for their neighbors, the Yoruba, Esan, Mende, and Gambians.

Keep in mind that so far, Eurasians measure about 1-4% Neanderthal and Melanesians about 6% Denisovan, so 10% Ghost in west Africans is a pretty big deal (if you’re into archaic DNA.) The authors of the study estimate that the admixture occurred about 50,000 years ago, which is coincidentally about the same time as the admixture in non-Africans–suggesting that whatever triggered the Out of Africa migration may have also simultaneously triggered an Into Africa migration. 

If you’re not familiar with some of these groups (I only know a little about the Yoruba,) the Esan, Mende, Gambians, and Yoruba are all speakers of languages from the Niger-Congo family (of which the Bantu languages are a sub-set.) The Niger-Congo family is one of the world’s largest, with 1,540 languages and 700 million speakers. It spread within the past 3,000 years from a homeland somewhere in west Africa (possibly Nigeria) to dominate sub-Saharan Africa. As far as I can tell, the Igbo are quite similar genetically to the Yoruba, and the admixture event happened tens of thousands of years before these groups spread and split, so there’s a good chance that the Igbo have similarly high levels of ghost-pop admixture.

Interestingly, a population related to the Bushmen and Pygmies used to dominate central and southern Africa, before the Bantu expansion. While the Bantu expansion and the admixture event are separated by a good 40 or 50 thousand years, this still suggests the possibility of human hybrid vigor.

Edit: A new paper just came out! Whole-genome sequence analysis of a Pan African set of samples reveals archaic gene flow from an extinct basal population of modern humans into sub-Saharan populations:

Here, we examine 15 African populations covering all major continental linguistic groups, ecosystems, and lifestyles within Africa through analysis of whole-genome sequence data of 21 individuals sequenced at deep coverage. We observe a remarkable correlation among genetic diversity and geographic distance, with the hunter-gatherer groups being more genetically differentiated and having larger effective population sizes throughout most modern-human history. Admixture signals are found between neighbor populations from both hunter-gatherer and agriculturalists groups, whereas North African individuals are closely related to Eurasian populations. Regarding archaic gene flow, we test six complex demographic models that consider recent admixture as well as archaic introgression. We identify the fingerprint of an archaic introgression event in the sub-Saharan populations included in the models (~ 4.0% in Khoisan, ~ 4.3% in Mbuti Pygmies, and ~ 5.8% in Mandenka) from an early divergent and currently extinct ghost modern human lineage.

So the ghost population that shows up in the Pygmies the same ghost population as shows up in the Mende? Looks like it.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this paper, but I’d just like to highlight this one graph:


I don’t really understand how they compute these things, much less if this is accurate (though their present estimate for the size of the Han looks pretty good,) but assuming it is, we can say a few things: One, before 100,000 years ago, all of the groups–except the Laal of Chad–tracked closely together in size because they were one group. Most of the groups then got smaller simply because they split up. But there seems to have been some kind of really big population bottleneck a bit over a million years ago.

The other really interesting thing is the absolute Pygmy dominance of the mid-10,000-100,000 year range. The authors note:

It is noteworthy that we observed by PSMC a sudden Ne increase in Baka Pygmy around 30 kya. A similar increase was observed in another study that analyzed several Baka and Biaka samples [25]. In addition, this individual presents the highest average genome-wide heterozygosity compared to the rest of samples (Fig. 1b). Nevertheless, such abrupt Ne increase can be attributed to either a population expansion or episodes of separation and admixture [60]. Further analyses at population level are needed to distinguish between these two scenarios.

Until we get more information on the possible Pygmy-cide, let’s get back to Things Fall Apart, for the Igbo of 1890 aren’t their ancestors of 50,000 BC nor the conquerors of central Africa. Here’s an interesting page with information about some of the rituals Achebe wrote about, like the Feast of the New Yams and the Egwugwu ceremony:

 The egwugwu ceremony takes place in order to dispute the guilty side of a crime taken place, similar to our court trials… Nine egwugwu represented a village of the clan, their leader known as Evil Forest; exit the huts with their masks on.

Short page; fast read.

The egwugwu ceremony I found particularly interesting. Of course everyone knows the guys in masks are just guys in masks (well, I assume everyone knows that. It seems obvious,) yet in taking on the masks, they adopt a kind of veil of anonymity. In real life, they are people, with all of the biases of ordinary people; under the mask, they take on the identity of a spirit, free from the biases of ordinary people. It is similar to the official garb worn by judges in other countries, which often look quite silly (wigs on English barristers, for example,) but effectively demarcate a line between normal life and official pronouncements. By putting on the costume of the office, the judge becomes more than an individual.

I have long been fascinated by masks, masquerades, and the power of anonymity. Many famous writers, from Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Clemens, published under pseudonyms. The mask implies falseness–on Halloween, we dress up as things that we are not–but it also allows honesty by freeing us from the threat of retribution.

It is interesting that a small, tightly-knit society where everyone knows everyone and social relations are of paramount importance, like the Igbo, developed a norm of anonymizing judges in order to remove judicial decisions from normal social relations and obligations (as much as possible, anyway). Since most Igbo villages did not have kings or other aristocrats to dictate laws, rule was conducted by notable community members who had effectively purchased or earned noble titles. These nobles got to wear the masks and costumes of the egwgwu.

Ok, so it’s getting late and I need to wrap this up. This moment comes in every post.

I know I haven’t said much about the book itself. The plot, narrative, pacing, structure, writing style, etc. To be honest, that’s because I didn’t enjoy it very much. It was interesting for its content, along with a sense of “I’ve been trying to tell people this and I could have saved myself a lot of time by just pointing them to the book. And if this is a book taught in schools (we didn’t read it in my highschool, but I have heard that many people did,) then why aren’t people more aware of the contents?

What was tribal life like before the Europeans got there? Well, women got beaten a lot. Children were murdered to avenge tribal conflicts. Infant mortality was high. In other words, many things were pretty unpleasant.

And yet, interestingly, much of what we think was unpleasant about them was, in its own way, keeping the peace. As Will (Evolving Moloch) quotes from The Social Structure of Right and Wrong on Twitter:

“Much of the conduct described by anthropologists as conflict management, social control, or even law in tribal and other traditional societies is regarded as crime in modern [nation state] societies.” This is especially clear in the case of violent modes of redress such as assassination, feuding, fighting, maiming, and beating, but it also applies to the confiscation and destruction of property and to other forms of deprivation and humiliation. Such actions typically express a grievance by one person or group against another.

See, for example, when the village burned down Okonkwo’s house for accidentally killing a villager, when they burned down the church for “killing” a deity, or when they took a little girl and killed a little boy in revenge for someone in another village killing one of their women. To the villagers, these were all legal punishments, and the logic of burning down a person’s house if they have killed someone is rather similar to the logic of charging someone a fine for committing manslaughter. Even though Okonkwo didn’t mean to kill anyone, he should have been more careful with his gun, which he knew was dangerous and could kill someone.

Unlike penalties imposed by the state, however, private executions of this kind often result in revenge or even a feud—Moreover, the person killed in retaliation may not be himself or herself a killer, for in these societies violent conflicts between nonkin are virtually always handled in a framework of collective responsibility–or more precisely, collective liability–whereby all members of a social category (such as a family or lineage) are held accountable for the conduct of their fellows.

And, of course, penalties so meted out can be incredibly violent, arbitrary, and selfish, but ignoring that, there’s clearly a conflict when traditional, tribal ways of dealing with problems clash with state-based ways of dealing with problems. Even if everyone eventually agrees that the state-based system is more effective (and I don’t expect everyone to agree) the transition is liable to be difficult for some people, especially if, as in the book, they are punished by the state for enforcing punishments prescribed by their own traditional laws. The state is effectively punishing them for punishing law-breakers, creating what must seem to them a state of anarcho-tyranny.

As for polygamy, Achebe seems to gloss over some of its downsides. From Christakis’s Blueprint: The Origins of a Good Society (h/t Rob Henderson), we have:

Co-wife conflict is ubiquitous in polygynous households… Because the Turkana often choose wives from different families in order to broaden their safety net, they typically do not practice sororal [sister-wives] polygyny… When co-wives are relatives, they can more easily share a household and cooperate… But while sororal polygyny is especially common in cultures in the Americas, general polygyny tends to be the usual pattern in Africa. An examination of ethnographic data from 69 nonsororal polygynous cultures fails to turn up a single society where co-wife relations could be described as harmonious. Detailed ethnographic studies highlight the stresses and fears present in polygynous families, including, for example, wives’ concern that other wives might try to poison their children so that their own children might inherit land or property.

Anyway, let’s wrap this up with a little article on human pacification:

There is a well-entrenched schism on the frequency (how often), intensity (deaths per 100,000/year), and evolutionary significance of warfare among hunter-gatherers compared with large-scale societies. To simplify, Rousseauians argue that warfare among prehistoric and contemporary hunter-gatherers was nearly absent and, if present, was a late cultural invention. In contrast, so-called Hobbesians argue that violence was relatively common but variable among hunter-gatherers. … Furthermore, Hobbesians with empirical data have already established that the frequency and intensity of hunter-gatherer warfare is greater compared with large-scale societies even though horticultural societies engage in warfare more intensively than hunter-gatherers. In the end I argue that although war is a primitive trait we may share with chimpanzees and/or our last common ancestor, the ability of hunter-gatherer bands to live peaceably with their neighbors, even though war may occur, is a derived trait that fundamentally distinguishes us socially and politically from chimpanzee societies. It is a point often lost in these debates.

I think we should read Legal Systems Very Different from Ours for our next book. Any other ideas?

Harry Potter and the Coefficient of Kinship


Coefficient of kinship

The main character of the first 4 chapters of Harry Potter isn’t Harry: it’s the Dursleys:

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

The Dursleys are awful and abusive in an over-the-top, Roald Dahl way that somehow manages not to cause Harry any serious emotional problems, which even I, a hard-core hereditarian, would find improbable if Harry were a real boy. But Harry isn’t the point: watching the Dursleys get their comeuppance is the point.

JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling both focused on the same group of people–common English peasants–but Tolkien’s depiction of the Hobbits are much more sympathetic than Rowling’s Muggles, even if they don’t like adventures:

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighborhood of The Hill for time out of mind and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him.

We could wax philosophical (or political) about why Tolkien sees common folk as essentially good, despite their provinciality, and why Rowling sees them as essentially bad, for precisely the same reasons, but in the end both writers are correct, for there is good and bad in all groups.

Why are the Dursleys effective villains? Why is their buffoonish abuse believable, and why do so many people identify with young Harry? Is he not the Dursley’s kin, if not their son, their nephew? Shouldn’t they look out for him?

One of the great ironies of life is that the people who are closest to us are also the most likely to abuse us. Despite fears of “stranger danger” (or perhaps because of it) children are most likely to be harmed by parents, step-parents, guardians, or other close relatives/friends of the family, not strangers lurking in alleys or internet chatrooms.

The WHO reports: 

…there were an estimated 57 000 deaths attributed to homicide among children under 15 years of age in 2000. Global estimates of child homicide suggest that infants and very young children are at greatest risk, with rates for the 0–4-year-old age group more than double those of 5–14-year-olds…

The risk of fatal abuse for children varies according to the income level of a country and region of the world. For children under 5 years of age living in high-income countries, the rate of homicide is 2.2 per 100 000 for boys and 1.8 per 100 000 for girls. In low- to middle-income countries the rates are 2–3 times higher – 6.1 per 100 000 for boys and 5.1 per 100 000 for girls. The highest homicide rates for children under 5 years of age are found in the WHO African Region – 17.9 per 100 000 for boys and 12.7 per 100 000 for girls.

(Aside: in every single region, baby boys were more likely to be murdered than baby girls–how’s that “male privilege” for you?)

Estimates of physical abuse of children derived from population-based surveys vary considerably. A 1995 survey in the United States asked parents how they disciplined their children (12). An estimated rate of physical abuse of 49 per 1000 children was obtained from this survey when the following behaviours were included: hitting the child with an object, other than on the buttocks; kicking the child; beating the child; and threatening the child with a knife or gun. …

.In a cross-sectional survey of children in Egypt, 37% reported being beaten or tied up by their parents and 26% reported physical injuries such as fractures, loss of consciousness or permanent disability as a result of being beaten or tied up (17).
. In a recent study in the Republic of Korea, parents were questioned about their behaviour towards their children. Two-thirds of the parents reported whipping their children and 45% confirmed that they had hit, kicked or beaten them (26).
. A survey of households in Romania found that 4.6% of children reported suffering severe and frequent physical abuse, including being hit with an object, being burned or being deprived of food. Nearly half of Romanian parents admitted to beating their children ‘‘regularly’’ and 16% to beating their children with objects (34).
. In Ethiopia, 21% of urban schoolchildren and 64% of rural schoolchildren reported bruises or swellings on their bodies resulting from parental punishment (14).

Ugh. The Dursleys are looking almost decent right now.

In most ways, the Dursleys do not fit the pattern characteristic of most abuse cases–severe abuse and neglect are concentrated among drug-addicted single mothers with more children than they can feed and an unstable rotation of unrelated men in and out of the household. The Dursley’s case is far more mild, but we may still ask: why would anyone mistreat their kin? Wouldn’t natural selection–selfish genes and all that–select against such behavior?

There are a number of facile explanations for the Dursley’s behavior. The first, suggest obliquely by Rowling, is that Mrs. Dursley was jealous of her sister, Lily, Harry’s mother, for being more talented (and prettier) than she was. This is the old “they’re only bullying you because they’re jealous” canard, and it’s usually wrong. We may discard this explanation immediately, as it is simply too big a leap from “I was jealous of my sister” to “therefore I abused her orphaned child for 11 years.” Most of us endured some form of childhood hardship–including sibling rivalry–without turning into abusive assholes who lock little kids in cupboards.

The superior explanation is that there is something about Harry that they just can’t stand. He’s not like them. This is expressed in Harry’s appearance–the Dursleys are described as tall, fat, pink skinned, and blue eyed with straight, blond hair, while Harry is described as short, skinny, pale skinned, and green-eyed with wavy, dark hair.

More importantly, Harry can do magic. The Dursley’s can’t.

It’s never explained in the books why some people can do magic and not others, but the trait looks strongly like a genetic one–not much more complicated than blue eyes. Magic users normally give birth to magical children, and non-magic users (the term “muggle” is an ethnic slur and should be treated as such,) normally have non-magical children. Occasionally magical children are born to regular families, just as occasionally two brown-eyed parents have a blue-eyed child because both parents carried a recessive blue eyed gene that they both happened to pass on to their offspring, and occasionally magical parents have regular children, just as smart people sometimes have dumb offspring. On the whole, however, magical ability is stable enough across generations that there are whole magical families that have been around for hundreds of years and non-magical families that have done the same.

Any other factor–environmental, magical–could have been figured out by now and used to turn kids like Neville into competent wizards, so we conclude that such a factor does not exist.

Magic is a tricky thing to map, metaphorically, onto everyday existence, because nothing like it really exists in our world. We can vaguely imagine that Elsa hiding her ice powers is kind of like a gay person hiding the fact that they are gay, but being gay doesn’t let you build palaces or create sentient snowmen. Likewise, the Dursely’s anger at Harry being “one of them” and adamantly claiming that magic and wizardry don’t exist, despite the fact that they know very well that Mrs. Dursley’s sister could turn teacups into frogs, does resemble the habit of certain very conservative people to pretend that homosexuality doesn’t exist, or that if their children never hear that homosexuality exists, they’ll never become gay.

The other difficulty with this metaphor is that gay people, left to their own devices, don’t produce children.

But putting together these two factors, we arrive at the conclusion that wizards are a distinct, mostly endogamous ethnic group that the Dursleys react to as though they were flaming homosexuals.

How many generations of endogamy would it take to produce two genetically distinct populations from one? Not many–take, for example, the Irish Travellers:

Researchers led by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and the University of Edinburgh analysed genetic information from 42 people who identified as Irish Travellers.

The team compared variations in their DNA code with that of 143 European Roma, 2,232 settled Irish, 2,039 British and 6,255 European or worldwide individuals. …

They found that Travellers are of Irish ancestral origin but have significant differences in their genetic make-up compared with the settled community.

These differences have arisen because of hundreds of years of isolation combined with a decreasing Traveller population, the researchers say. …

The team estimates the group began to separate from the settled population at least 360 years ago.

That’s a fair bit of separation for a mere 360 years or so–and certainly enough for your relatives to act rather funny about it if you decided to run off with Travellers and then your orphaned child turned up on their doorstep.

How old are the wizarding families? Ollivander’s Fine Wands has been in business since 382 BC, and Merlin, Agrippa, and Ptolemy are mentioned as ancient Wizards, so we can probably assume a good 2,000 years of split between the two groups, with perhaps a 10% in-migration of non-magical spouses.

Harry is, based on his parents, 50% magical and 50% non-magical, though of course both Lily and Petunia Dursley probably carry some Wizard DNA.

In The Blank Slate, Pinker has some interesting observations on the subject of sociobiology:

As the notoriety of Sociobiology grew in the ensuing years, Hamilton and Trivers, who had thought up many of the ideas, also became targets of picketers… Trivers had argued that sociobiology is, if anything a force for political progress. It is rooted in the insight that organisms did not evolve to benefit their family, group, or species, because the individuals making up those groups have genetic conflicts of interest with one another and would be selected to defend those interests. This immediately subverts the comfortable belief that those in power rule for the good of all, and it throws a spotlight on hidden actors in the social world, such as female sand the younger generation.

Further in the book, Pinker continues:

Tolstoy’s famous remark that happy families are all alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way is not true at the level of ultimate (evolutionary) causation. Trivers showed how the seeds of unhappiness in every family have the same underlying source. Though relatives have common interests because of their common genes, the degree of overlap is not identical within all their permutations and combinations of family members. Parents are related to all of their offspring by an equal factor, 50 percent, but each child is related to himself or herself by a factor of 100 percent. …

Parental investment is a limited resource. A day has only twenty-four hours … At one end of the lifespan, children learnt hat a mother cannot pump out an unlimited stream of milk; at the other, they learn that parents do not leave behind infinite inheritances.

To the extent that emotions among people reflect their typical genetic relatedness, Trivers argued, the members of a family should disagree on how parental investment should be divvied up.

And to the extent that one of the children in a household is actually a mixed-ethnicity nephew and no close kin at all to the father, the genetic relationship is even more distant between Harry and the Dursleys than between most children and the people raising them.

Parents should want to split their investment equitably among the children… But each child should want the parent to dole out twice as much of the investment to himself or herself as to a sibling, because children share half their genes with each full sibling but share all their genes with themselves. Given a family with two children and one pie, each child should want to split it in a ratio of two thirds to one third, while parents should want it to be split fifty fifty.

A person normally shares about 50% of their genes with their child and 25% of their genes with a niece or nephew, but we also share a certain amount of genes just by being distantly related to each other in the same species, race, or ethnic group.

Harry is, then, somewhat less genetically similar than the average nephew, so we can expect Mrs. Dursley to split any pies a bit less than 2/3s for Dudley and 1/3 for Harry, with Mr. Dursley grumbling that Harry doesn’t deserve any pie at all because he’s not their kid. (In a more extreme environment, if the Dursleys didn’t have enough pie to go around, it would be in their interest to give all of the pie to Dudley, but the Dursleys have plenty of food and they can afford to grudgingly keep Harry alive.)

Let’s check in with E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology:

Most kinds of social behavior, including perhaps all of the most complex forms, are based in one way or another on kinship. As a rule, the closer the genetic relationship of the members of a group, the more stable and intricate the social bonds of its members. …

Parent-offspring conflict and its obverse, sibling-sibling conflict, can be seen throughout the animal kingdom. Littermates or nestmates fight among themselves sometimes lethally, and fight with their mothers over access to milk, food, and care…. The conflict also plays out in the physiology of prenatal human development. Fetuses tap their mothers’ bloodstreams to mine the most nutrients possible from their body, while the mother’s body resists to keep it in good shape for future children. …

Trivers touted the liberatory nature of sociobiology by invoking an “underlying symmetry in our social relationships” and “submerged actors in the social world.” He was referring to women, as we will see in the chapter on gender, and to children. The theory of parent-offspring conflict says that families do not contain all-powerful, all-knowing parents and their passive, grateful children. …

Sometimes families contain Dursleys and Potters.

Most profoundly, children do not allow their personalities to be shaped by their parents’ nagging, blandishments, or attempts to serve as role models.

Quite lucky for Harry!

Quoting Trivers:

The offspring cannot rely on its parents for disinterested guidance. One expects the offspring to be preprogrammed to resist some parental manipulation while being open to other forms. When the parent imposes an arbitrary system of reinforcement (punishment and reward) in order to manipulate the offspring to act against its own best interests, selection will favor offspring that resist such schedules of reinforcement.

(Are mixed-race kids more likely to be abused than single-race kids? Well, they’re more likely to be abused than White, Asian, or Hispanic kids, but less likely to be abused than Black or Native American children [Native American children have the highest rates of abuse]. It seems likely that the important factor here isn’t degree of relatedness, but how many of your parents hail from a group with high rates of child abuse. The Dursleys are not from a group with high child abuse rates.)

Let us return to E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology:

Mammalogists have commonly dealt with conflict as if it were a nonadaptive consequence of the rupture of the parent-offspring bond. Or, in the case of macaques, it has been interpreted as a mechanism by which the female forces the offspring into independence, a step designed ultimately to benefit both generations. …

A wholly different approach to the subject has been taken by Trivers (1974). … Trivers interprets it as the outcome of natural selection operating in opposite directions on the two generations. How is it possible for a mother and her child to be in conflict and both remain adaptive? We must remember that the two share only one half their genes by common descent. There comes a time when it is more profitable for the mother to send the older juvenile on its way and to devote her efforts exclusively to the production of a new one. To the extent that the first offspring stands a chance to achieve an independent life, the mother is likely to increase (and at most, double,) her genetic representation in the next breeding generation by such an act. But the youngster cannot be expected to view the matter in this way at all. …

If the mothers inclusive fitness suffers first from the relationship, conflict will ensue.

At some point, of course, the child is grown and therefore no longer benefits from the mother’s care; at this point the child and mother are no longer in conflict, but the roles may reverse as the parents become the ones in need of care.

As for humans:

Consider the offspring that behaves altruistically toward a full sibling. If it were the only active agent, its behavior would be selected when the benefit to the sibling exceeds two times the cost to itself. From the mother’s point of view, however, inclusive fitness is gained however the benefit to the sibling simply exceeds the cost to the altruist. Consequently, there is likely to evolve a conflict between parents and offspring in the attitudes toward siblings: the parent will encourge more altruism than the youngster is prepared to give. The converse argument also holds: the parent will tolerate less selfishness and spite among siblings than they have a tendency to display…

Indeed, Dudley is, in his way, crueler (more likely to punch Harry) and more greedy than even his parents.

Altruistic acts toward a first cousin are ordinarily selected if the benefit to the cousin exceeds 8 times the cost to the altruist, since the coefficient of relationship of first cousins is 1/8. However, the parent is related to its nieces and nephews by r=1/4, and it should prefer to see altruistic acts by its children toward their cousins whenever the benefit-to-cost ratio exceeds 2. Parental conscientiousness will also extend to interactions with unrelated individuals. From a child’s point of view, an act of selfishness or spite can provide a gain so long as its own inclusive fitness is enhanced… In human terms, the asymmetries in relationship and the differences in responses they imply will lead in evolution to an array of conflicts between parents and their children. In general, offspring will try to push their own socialization in a more egoistic fashion, while the parents will repeatedly attempt to discipline the children back to a higher level of altruism. There is a limit to the amount of altruism [healthy, normal] parents want to see; the difference is in the levels that selection causes the two generations to view as optimum.

To return to Pinker:

As if the bed weren’t crowded enough, every child of a man and a woman is also the grandchild of two other men and two other women. Parents take an interest in their children’s reproduction because in the long run it is their reproduction, too. Worse, the preciousness of female reproductive capacity makes it a valuable resource for the men who control her in traditional patriarchal societies, namely her father and brothers. They can trade a daughter or sister for additional wives or resources for themselves and thus they have an interest in protecting their investment by keeping her from becoming pregnant by men other than the ones they want to sell her to. It is not just the husband or boyfriend who takes a proprietary interest in a woman’s sexual activity, then, but also her father and brothers. Westerners were horrified by the treatment of women under the regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2001…

[ah such an optimist time Pinker wrote in]

Like many children, Harry is rescued from a bad family situation by that most modern institution, the boarding school.

The weakening of parents’ hold over their older children is also not just a recent casualty of destructive forces. It is part of a long-running expansion of freedom in the West that has granted children their always-present desire for more autonomy than parents are willing to cede. In traditional societies, children were shackled to the family’s land, betrothed in arranged marriages, and under the thumb of the family patriarch. That began to change in Medieval Europe, and some historians argue it was the first steppingstone in the expansion of rights that we associate with the Enlightenment and that culminated in the abolition of feudalism and slavery. Today it is no doubt true that some children are led astray by a bad crowd or popular culture. But some children are rescued from abusive or manipulative families by peers, neighbors, and teachers. Many children have profited from laws, such as compulsory schooling and the ban on forced marriages, that may override the preferences of their parents.

The sad truth, for Harry–and many others–is that their interests and their relatives’ interests are not always the same. Sometimes humans are greedy, self-centered, or just plain evil. Small children are completely dependent on their parents and other adults, unable to fend for themselves–so the death of his parents followed by abuse and neglect by his aunt and uncle constitute true betrayal.

But there is hope, even for an abused kid like Harry, because we live in a society that is much larger than families or tribal groups. We live in a place where honor killings aren’t common and even kids who aren’t useful to their families can find a way to be useful in the greater society. We live in a civilization.

Review: The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker 5/5 Stars

Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate was one of my top reads of 2018. Simultaneously  impassioned, philosophic, and rational, Pinker covers everything from art to parenting, morality to language. What makes us us? Where does human nature–and individual personality–come from? And what are the moral implications if blank slateist views of human nature are false?

Yes, Pinker writes from a liberal perspective, for a liberal audience–Pinker hails from a liberal culture and addresses the members of his own culture, just as a French writer addresses a French audience. But this is about as far as conventions like “left” and “right” can take you in this book, for it is clear that Pinker thinks breaking down political ideology and morality based on the seating patterns of an eighteenth-century French legislature is not terribly meaningful. 

Is the blank slate–the idea that humans are born essentially similar in personality, temperament, abilities, and potential, and that environmental plays a substantial role in determining whether we turn out to be Nobel Prize winners or drag queens, Jeff Bezos or homeless, criminals or lion tamers–moral? 

Its adherents claim that it is–indeed, some react to any suggestion that humans have any innate or biological nature with a vehemence normally reserved for rapists and murderers. 

Pinker responds that the denial of human nature causes unimaginable suffering. Humans cannot cast aside their natures simply because an ideology (or religion) tells them to. To attempt to remake man is to destroy him. 

Further, it is blatantly untrue, and the promotion of obvious lies in pursuit of ideological outcomes is bound to backfire–turning people away from the academics and fields that promote such lies. (Pinker may be overly optimistic on this point.) 

Chapter 1 is a bit slow if you are already familiar with the history of psychology and the blank slate in philosophy, but after that it picks up nicely. 

There is an unstated conclusion we may draw here that psychology as a discipline has been hampered by the kinds of people who go into the psychology. Perhaps this is my own theory I am imposing onto Pinker’s work, but it seems like people with a good, intuitive grasp of how people work don’t go into psychology–they go into sales. The folks in psychology (and psychiatry, perhaps) seem drawn to the field because they find people mysterious and fascinating and want to understand them better. 

But without an intuitive understanding of how people work, there are often big areas they miss. 

Since I listened to this in audio book format, quoting is tricky, but I have tried to transcribe this bit:

Until recently, psychology ignored the content of beliefs and emotions, and the possibility that the mind had evolved to treat biologically important categories in different ways. … Theories about memory and reasoning didn’t distinguish between thoughts about people and thoughts about rocks or houses. Theories of emotion didn’t distinguish fear from anger, jealousy, or love. Theories of social relation didn’t distinguish between family, friends, enemies, and strangers.

Indeed, the topics in psychology that most interest lay people–love, hate, work, play, food, sex, status, dominance, jealousy, friendship, religion, art–are almost completely absent from psychology textbooks.

It’s hard to see what you can’t see.

The field was also historically rather short on women, especially women with normal lives. Many of these blank slateist quotes from psychologists and philosophers about human nature and instincts seem like the kinds of ideas that raising a few children would quickly disabuse you of.  

Next he discusses Durkheim’s observation that people behave differently in groups than they do singly or would behave had they not been part of a group. From this I think Durkheim derives his idea that “human nature” and “human behavior” are not innate or instinctive, but culturally induced. 

Some years ago, I realized there is probably an important key to human behavior that is rarely explicitly discussed because if you have it, it is so obvious that you don’t even notice it, and if you don’t have it, it’s so non-obvious that you can’t figure it out: an imitation instinct.

People desire to be like the people around them, and for probably evolutionarily sound reasons. 

If everyone else in your tribe says, “Don’t drink that water, it’s bad,” you’re better off avoiding the water than taking your chances by doing an independent test on the water. If your tribe has a longstanding tradition of “don’t eat the red berries, no I don’t know why, grandpa just told me to never ever eat them,” it’s probably best to go along. As Chesterton says, don’t tear down a fence if you don’t know why it’s there. 

I think a compulsion to fit in, imitate, and go along with others is very deep. It’s probbly not something people are explicitly aware of most of the time. This results in people using arguments like “That’s weird,” to mean, “That’s bad,” without explaining why “weird” is bad. They just intuitively know, and expect that you understand and agree with the speaker’s intuition that weird and different are inherently bad things. 

This leads to 1. self-policing–people feel very out of place when they aren’t going along with the group and this can make them deeply unhappy; and 2. other-policing–people feel unhappy just looking at someone else who is out of place, and this makes them respond with anger, hostility, and sometimes even violence toward the other person. (Even when what that other person is doing is really quite inconsequential and harmless.)

Anyway, I think Durkheim has missed that step–that connection between group activity and individual activity.

Obviously people are shaped by their groups, since most hunter-gatherer babies grow up to be hunter-gatherers and most people in our society grow up and figure out how to use cell phones and computers and cars. But I think he has missed the importance of–and critically, the usefulness of–the underlying mental trait that lets us learn from our cultures.

So people don’t behave differently in groups than when they’re alone because they lack some inherent human nature, but because part of our nature compels us to act in concordance with our group. (Most of us, anyway.) 

(This is about where I stopped taking notes, so I’m working from memory.)

Pinker then discusses the neurology of learning–how do we learn language? How does the brain know that language is something we are supposed to learn? How do we figure out that the family pet is not named “No no bad dog, get off the sofa”? 

There are some interesting experiments done on mice and kittens where experimenters have done things like reverse the parts of the brain auditory or visual inputs go to, or raise the kittens in environments without vertical lines and then introduce them to vertical lines, etc. The brain shows a remarkable plasticity under very strange conditions–but as Pinker points out, these aren’t conditions humans normally encounter. 

Sure, you can teach people to be afraid of flowers or like snakes, but it is much, much easier to teach people to like flowers and be afraid of snakes. 

Pinker points to the ease with which we learn to fear some objects but not others; the ease with which we learn to talk (except for those of us with certain neurological disorders, like brain damage or autism) verses the difficulty we have learning other things, like calculus; the rapidity with which some behaviors emerge in infancy or childhood (like aggression) verses the time it takes to instill other behaviors (like sharing) in children. 

In short, we appear to come into this world equipped to learn certain things, to respond to certain stimuli, and behave in particular ways. Without this basic wiring, we would not have any instinct for imitation–and thus babies would not coo in response to their mothers, would not start babbling in imitation of the adults around them, and would not learn to talk. We would not stand up and begin to walk–and it would be just as easy to train people to enjoy being victims of violence as to train people not to commit violence. 

Throughout the book, Pinker discusses the response of the more extreme left–people whom we today call SJWs or antifa–to the work and theories put out by academics who are undoubtedly also culturally liberal, like Napoleon Chagnon, the famous anthropologist who studied the Yanomamo tribesmen in the Amazon. For his meticulous work documenting Yanomamo family trees and showing that the Yanomamo men who killed more people wound up wound up with more children than the men who killed fewer people, he was accused by his fellow academics of all sorts of outlandish crimes.

In one absurd case, he was accused of intentionally infecting the Yanomamo with measles in order to test a theory that Yanomamo men had more “dominant genes,” which would give them a survival advantage over the measles. This is a serious accusation because exposure to Western diseases tends to kill off the majority of people in isolated, indigenous tribes, and absurd because “dominant genes” don’t confer any more or less immunity to disease. The accuser in this case has completely misunderstood the meaning of a term over in genetics. (It is rather like someone thinking the word “straight” implies that heterosexuals are supposed to have straighter bones than homosexuals, and then accusing scientists of going around measuring people’s bones to determine if they are gay or not.)

The term “dominant” does not mean that a gene gives a person any form of “dominance” in the real world. It just means that in a pair of genes, a “dominant” one gets expressed. The classic example is blue verses brown eyes. If you have one gene for blue eyes from one parent, and one for brown eyes from your other parent, anyone looking at you will just see brown eyes because only that gene gets used. However, you might still pass on that blue eye gene to your children, and if they receive another blue gene from your spouse, they could have blue eyes. Since blue eyes only show up if both of a person’s eye color genes are blue, we call blue eyes “recessive.” 

But having a “dominant” gene for eye color doesn’t make someone any more “dominant” in real life. It doesn’t make you better at beating people up or surviving the flu–and nothing about the Yanomamo lifestyle suggests that they would have more “dominant genes” than anyone else in the world. 

Side note: this strange misconception of how genes work made it into Metal Gear Solid: 

“I got all of the recessive genes! You took everything from me before I was even born!”

The fact that the far left often engages in outright lies to justify real violence against the people they dislike–people who aren’t even conservatives on the American scale–makes one wonder why Pinker identifies at all with the left’s goals, but I suppose one can’t help being a part of one’s own culture. If a Frenchman objects to something happening in France, that doesn’t turn him into a German; a Christian doesn’t stop believing in Jesus just because he objects to Fred Phelps. 

The book came out in 2002, before “antifa” became a household term. I think Pinker expected the evils of communism to become more widely known–not less. 

There is an interesting discussion of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology and how a better understanding of human family dynamics (especially whether they become controlling and harmful) could improve women’s lives, not harm them. (Wilson’s work I would like to explore in more depth.) 

Pinker proceeds to a moving chapter parenting (I teared up at the end, though that might have just been the effects of several days of inadequate sleep.) How much effect do parents have on how their children turn out? At least within the normal range of parenting, not much–kids seem to turn out as they will, despite our best efforts. Sure, there’s plenty of evidence that you can damage kids by shaking them, dropping them on their heads, or locking them in the closet for years–but this is not normal parenting. Meanwhile, there’s very little evidence in favor of any interventions that can raise a child’s IQ (or any other trait) above what it would have been otherwise. It’s much easier to break a complicated system than enhance it. 

People often respond along the lines of “If I cannot shape my children like clay, determining how they turn out as adults, what’s the point of parenting at all?” 

It’s a terrible response, as Pinker points out. Children are human and deserve to be valued for the people they are (and will be,) not because you can change them. You are not kind to your spouse because you expect to change them, after all, but because you like them and value them. Likewise, be kind to your children because you love and value them, not because you can program them like tiny computers. 

In search of the reasons people turn out the way they do, Pinker (and other writers) turns to the random effects of “the environment”–things like “the friends you had in highschool.” Certainly environment explains a good deal, like what language you speak or what job options exist in your society, but I think he neglects an alternative possibility for some traits: random chance. There are aspects of us that are just “who we are” and aren’t obviously determined by anything external. One child loves dogs, another horses. One person enjoys swimming, another biking, a third Candy Crush. 

Here a religious person might posit a “soul” or some other inner essence. 

The difficulty with the theory that children take after their peers–they do what it takes to fit in with their friends–is it neglects the question of why a child becomes friends with a particular group of other children in the first place. I don’t know about you, but my friends aren’t chosen randomly from the people around me, but tend to be people I have something in common with or enjoy being around in the first place. 

At any rate, it is certainly possible for well-meaning parents to isolate a child from peers and friends in an attempt to alter personalty traits that are actually innate, or at least not caused by those other children.

The meat of the book wraps up with a discussion of “modern art” and why it is terrible. 

Overall, it was an excellent book that remains fresh despite its age. 

Book Club: The 10,000 Year Explosion: pt 4 Agriculture

Welcome back to EvX’s Book Club. Today we’re discussing Chapter 4 of The 10,000 Year Explosion: Consequences of Agriculture.

A big one, of course, was plague–on a related note, Evidence for the Plague in Neolithic Farmers’ Teeth:

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.[26] 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.[27]

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.[4]Artifacts from both cultures found within each of their respective archaeological settlement sites attest to an open trade in goods for a period,[4] 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.[4]

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 VolgaDonbasin, 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.[4]

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.

Here is an article on the possibility of sexual selection for albinism among the Hopi.

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?

A Little Review of Big Data Books

I recently finished three books on “big data”– Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier; Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet can tell us about who we Really Are, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz; and Big Data At Work: Dispelling the Myths, Uncovering the opportunities, by Thomas H. Davenport.

None of these books was a whiz-bang thriller, but I enjoyed them.

Big Data was a very sensible introduction. What exactly is “big data”? It’s not just bigger data sets (though it is also that.) It’s the opportunity to get all the data.

Until now, the authors point out, we have lived in a data poor world. We have had to carefully design our surveys to avoid sampling bias because we just can’t sample that many people. There’s a whole bunch of math done over in statistics to calculate how certain we can be about a particular result, or whether it could just be the result of random chance biasing our samples. I could poll 10,000 people about their jobs, and that might be a pretty good sample, but if everyone I polled happens to live within walking distance of my house, is this a very representative sample of everyone in the country? Now think about all of those studies on the mechanics of sleep done on whatever college students or homeless guys a scientist could convince to sleep in a lab for a week. How representative are they?

Today, though, we suddenly live in a data rich world. An exponentially data rich world. A world in which we no longer need to correct for bias in our sample, because we don’t have to sample. We can just get… all the data. You can go to Google and find out how many people searched for “rabbit” on Tuesday, or how many people misspelled “rabbit” in various ways.

Data is being used in new and interesting (and sometimes creepy) ways. Many things that previously weren’t even considered data are now being quantitized–like one researcher quantitizing people’s backsides to determine whether a car is being driven by its owner, or a stranger.

One application I find promising is using people’s searches for various disease symptoms to identify people who may have various diseases before they seek out a doctor. Catching cancer patients earlier could save millions of lives.

I don’t have the book in front of me anymore, so I am just going by memory, but it made a good companion to Auerswald’s The Code Economy, since the modern economy runs so much on data.

Everybody Lies was a much more lighthearted, annecdotal approach to the subject, discussing lots of different studies. Davidowitz was inspired by Freakonomics, and he wants to use Big Data to uncover hidden truths of human behavior.

The book discusses, for example, people’s pornographic searches, (as per the title, people routinely lie about how much porn they look at on the internet,) and whether people’s pornographic preferences can be used to determine what percent of people in each state are gay. It turns out that we can get a break down of porn queries by state and variety, allowing a rough estimate of the gay and straight population of each state–and it appears that what people are willing to tell pollsters about their sexuality doesn’t match what they search for online. In more conservative states, people are less likely to admit to pollsters that they are gay, but plenty of supposedly “straight” people are searching for gay porn–about the same number of people as actually admit to being gay in more liberal states.

Stephens-Davidowitz uses similar data to determine that people have been lying to pollsters (or perhaps themselves) about whom they plan to vote for. For example, Donald Trump got anomalously high votes in some areas, and Obama got anomalously low votes, compared to what people in those areas told pollsters. However, both of these areas correlated highly with areas of the country where people made a lot of racist Google searches.

Most of the studies discussed are amusing, like the discovery of the racehorse American Pharaoh. Others are quite important, like a study that found that child abuse was probably actually going up at a time when official reports said it wasn’t–the reports probably weren’t showing abuse due to a decrease in funding for investigating abuse.

At times the author steps beyond the studies and offers interpretations of why the results are the way they are that I think go beyond what the data tells, like his conclusion that parents are biased against their daughters because they are more concerned with girls being fat than with boys, or because they are more likely to Google “is my son a genius?” than “is my daughter a genius?”

I can think of a variety of alternative explanations. eg, society itself is crueler to overweight women than to overweight men, so it is reasonable, in turn, for parents to worry more about a daughter who will face cruelty than a boy who will not. Girls are more likely to be in gifted programs than boys, but perhaps this means that giftedness in girls is simply less exceptional than giftedness in boys, who are more unusual. Or perhaps male giftedness is different from female giftedness in some way that makes parents need more information on the topic.

Now, here’s an interesting study. Google can track how many people make Islamophobic searches at any particular time. Compared against Obama’s speech that tried to calm outrage after the San Bernardino attack, this data reveals that the speech was massively unsuccessful. Islamophobic searches doubled during and after the speech. Negative searches about Syrian refugees rose 60%, while searches asking how to help dropped 35%.

In fact, just about every negative search we cold think to test regarding Muslims shot up during and after Obama’s speech, and just about every positive search we could think to test declined. …

Instead of calming the angry mob, as everybody thought he was doing, the internet data tells us that Obama actually inflamed it.

However, Obama later gave another speech, on the same topic. This one was much more successful. As the author put it, this time, Obama spent little time insisting on the value of tolerance, which seems to have just made people less tolerant. Instead, “he focused overwhelmingly on provoking people’s curiosity and changing their perceptions of Muslim Americans.”

People tend to react positively toward people or things they regard as interesting, and invoking curiosity is a good way to get people interested.

The author points out that “big data” is most likely to be useful in fields where the current data is poor. In the case of American Pharaoh, for examples, people just plain weren’t getting a lot of data on racehorses before buying and selling them. It was a field based on people who “knew” horses and their pedigrees, not on people who x-rayed horses to see how big their hearts and lungs were. By contrast, hedge funds investing in the stock market are already up to their necks in data, trying to maximize every last penny. Horse racing was ripe for someone to become successful by unearthing previously unused data and making good predictions; the stock market is not.

And for those keeping track of how many people make it to the end of the book, I did. I even read the endnotes, because I do that.

Big Data At Work was very different. Rather than entertain us with the success of Google Flu or academic studies of human nature, BDAW discusses how to implement “big data” (the author admits it is a silly term) strategies at work. This is a good book if you own, run, or manage a business that could utilize data in some way. UPS, for example, uses driving data to minimize package delivery routes; even a small saving per package by optimizing routes leads to a large saving for the company as a whole, since they deliver so many packages.

The author points out that “big data” often isn’t big so much as unstructured. Photographs, call logs, Facebook posts, and Google searches may all be “data,” but you will need some way to quantitize these before you can make much use of them. For example, companies may want to gather customer feedback reports, feed them into a program that recognizes positive or negative language, and then quantitizes how many people called to report that they liked Product X vs how many called to report that they disliked it.

I think an area ripe for this kind of quantitization is medical data, which currently languishes in doctors’ files, much of it on paper, protected by patient privacy laws. But people post a good deal of information about their medical conditions online, seeking help from other people who’ve dealt with the same diseases. Currently, there are a lot of diseases (take depression) where treatment is very hit-or-miss, and doctors basically have to try a bunch of drugs in a row until they find one that works. A program that could trawl through forum posts and assemble data on patients and medical treatments that worked or failed could help doctors refine treatment for various difficult conditions–“Oh, you look like the kind of patient who would respond well to melatonin,” or “Oh, you have the characteristics that make you a good candidate for Prozac.”

The author points out that most companies will not be able to keep the massive quantities of data they are amassing. A hospital, for example, collects a great deal of data about patient’s heart rates and blood oxygen levels every day. While it might be interesting to look back at 10 years worth of patient heart rate data, hospitals can’t really afford to invest in databanks to store all of this information. Rather, what companies need is real-time or continuous data processing that analyzes current data and makes predictions/recommendations for what the company (or doctor) should do now.

For example, one of the books (I believe it was “Big Data”) discussed a study of premature babies which found, counter-intuitively, that they were most likely to have emergencies soon after a lull in which they had seemed to be doing rather well–stable heart rate, good breathing, etc. Knowing this, a hospital could have a computer monitoring all of its premature babies and automatically updating their status (“stable” “improving” “critical” “likely to have a big problem in six hours”) and notifying doctors of potential problems.

The book goes into a fair amount of detail about how to implement “big data solutions” at your office (you may have to hire someone who knows how to code and may even have to tolerate their idiosyncrasies,) which platforms are useful for data, the fact that “big data” is not all that different from standard analytics that most companies already run, etc. Once you’ve got the data pumping, actual humans may not need to be involved with it very often–for example you may have a system that automatically updates drives’ routes with traffic reports, or sprinklers that automatically turn on when the ground gets too dry.

It is easy to see how “big data” will become yet another facet of the algorithmization of work.

Overall, Big Data at Work is a good book, especially if you run a company, but not as amusing if you are just a lay reader. If you want something fun, read the first two.

Homeschooling Corner: Science (geology and geography)


I have yet to find any “science kits” that actually teach science–most are just science-themed toys. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t expect your kid to re-derive the principles of chemistry via a baking soda volcano.

Smaller kids aren’t ready for the kind of thinking required for actual scientific research, but they can still learn plenty of science the mundane way: by reading. So here are some of our favorite science books/activities:

We did geology over the winter, centered around Rocks, Rivers, and the Changing Earth. It’s a lovely book (reading level about second grade?) with instructions for many simple experiments (eg, put rocks, sand, water in a glass jar and carefully shake/swirl to observe the effects of different water speeds on riverbanks) and handily complements any nature walks, rock collecting trip, or expeditions to the seashore.

WARNING: This book was published before plate tectonics became widely accepted and so has a confused chapter or two on how mountains form. SKIP THIS CHAPTER.

We also tried making polished stones in a rock tumbler (verdict: not worth the cost.)

After geology, we transitioned to geography with A Child’s Introduction to the World: Geography, Cultures and People–from the Grand Canyon to the Great Wall of China. I admit that geography sounds more like social studies than science, but it flows so perfectly from our understanding of geology that I have to mention it here.

I like to read this with a globe and children’s atlas at hand, so I can easily demonstrate things like latitude and longitude, distances, and different map projections.

With spring’s arrival we also began a study of plants and insects.

If you’ve never started your own plants from seed, any common crop seeds sold at the store–beans, peas, corn, squash, and most flowers–will sprout quickly and easily. If you want to keep your plants indoors, I recommend you get a bag of dirt at the garden center. This dirt is supposed to be “clean”; the dirt found outside in your yard is full of bugs that you probably weren’t intending on studying in your living room.

Speaking of bugs, we bought the “raise your own ladybugs” and butterflies kits, but I don’t recommend these as real caterpillars are nowhere near as cute and interesting as the very hungry one in the story. I think you’re better off just collecting ladybugs in the wild and reading about them at home.

The Way Things Work (also by this author: How Machines Work: Zoo Break) This is a big, beautiful book aimed at older kids, maybe about 10+. Younger kids can enjoy it if you read it with them.

Super Science: Matter Matters is a fabulous pop-up/lift-the-flap book about chemistry. We were very lucky to receive this as a birthday gift. (Birthday hint: the homeschooling families in your life would always like more books.) The book is a little fragile, so not appropriate for younger children who might pull too hard on the tabs, but great for everyone else.

Magic Schoolbus anything. There are probably several hundred books in this series by now. Who Was Albert Einstein? We finished our math biographies, so on to science bios. Basher Science: Astronomy  This is cute, and there are a bunch in the series. I’m looking forward to the rest. Professor Astro Cat‘s Atomic Adventure (also, Space!)

Come read “The Code Economy: A 40,00 Year History” with us

I don’t think the publishers got their money’s worth on cover design

EvX’s Book Club is reading Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy: A 40,000 Year History looks at how everything humans produce, from stone tools to cities to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, requires the creation, transmission, and performance of “code,”  and explores the notion that human societies–and thus civilization–is built on a mountain of of encoded processes.

I loved this book and am re-reading it, so I would like to invite you to come read it, too.

Discussion of Chapter 1 Jobs: Divide and Coordinate, will begin on May 23 and last as long as we want it to.

Here’s Amazon’s blurb about the book:

What do Stone Age axes, Toll House cookies, and Burning Man have in common? They are all examples of code in action.

What is “code”? Code is the DNA of human civilization as it has evolved from Neolithic simplicity to modern complexity. It is the “how” of progress. It is how ideas become things, how ingredients become cookies. It is how cities are created and how industries develop.

In a sweeping narrative that takes readers from the invention of the alphabet to the advent of the Blockchain, Philip Auerswald argues that the advance of code is the key driver of human history. Over the span of centuries, each major stage in the advance of code has brought a shift in the structure of society that has challenged human beings to reinvent not only how we work but who we are.

We are in another of those stages now. The Code Economy explains how the advance of code is once again fundamentally altering the nature of work and the human experience. Auerswald provides a timely investigation of value creation in the contemporary economy-and an indispensable guide to our economic future.