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.

Homeschooling Corner: Erdos, Fibonacci, and some Really Big Numbers

One of the nice things about homeschooling is that it is very forgiving of scheduling difficulties and emergencies. Everyone exhausted after a move or sickness? It’s fine to sleep in for a couple of days. Exercises can be moved around, schedules sped up or slowed down as needed.

This week we finished some great books (note: I always try to borrow books from the library before considering buying them. Most of these are fun, but not books you’d want to read over and over):

The Boy who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, by Deborah Heligman, was a surprise hit. I’ve read a bunch of children’s biographies and been consistently disappointed; the kids loved this one. Improbable, I know.

I suppose the moral of the story is that kids are likely to enjoy a biography if they identify with the subject. The story starts with Erdos as a rambunctious little boy who likes math but ends up homeschooled because he can’t stand regular school. My kids identified with this pretty strongly.

The illustrations are nice and each page contains some kind of hidden math, like a list of primes.

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, by Dominic Walliman. This is a lovely book appropriate for kids about 6-11, depending on attention span and reading level. We’ve been reading a few pages a week and recently reached the end.

Minecraft Math with Steve, by Steve Math. This book contains 30 Minecraft-themed math problems (with three sub-problems each, for 90 total.) They’re fairly simple multiplication, subtraction, division, and multiplication problems, probably appropriate for kids about second grade or third grade. A couple of sample problems:

Steve wants to collect 20+20 blocks of sand. how much is that total?

Steve ends up with 42 blocks of sand in his inventory. He decides that is too much so drops out 12 blocks. How many blocks remain?

A bed requires 3 wood plank and 3 wools. If Steve has 12 wood planks and 12 wools, how many beds can he build?

This is not a serious math book and I doubt it’s “Common Core Compliant” or whatever, but it’s cute and if your kids like Minecraft, they might enjoy it.

We are partway into Why Pi? by Johnny Ball. It’s an illustrated look at the history of mathematics with a ton of interesting material. Did you know the ancient Greeks used math to calculate the size of the Earth and distance between the Earth and the moon? And why are there 360 degrees in a circle? This one I’m probably going to buy.

Really Big Numbers, by Richard Evan Schwartz. Previous books on “big numbers” contained, unfortunately, not enough big numbers, maxing out around a million. A million might have seemed really good to kids of my generation, but to today’s children, reared on Numberphile videos about Googols and Graham’s number, a million is positively paltry. Really Big Numbers delivers with some really big numbers.

Let’s Estimate: A book about Estimating and Rounding Numbers, by David A. Adler. A cute, brightly illustrated introduction. I grabbed notebooks and pens and made up sample problems to help the kids explore and reinforce the concepts as we went.

How Big is Big? How Far is Far? by Jen Metcalf. This is like a coffee table book for 6 yr olds. The illustrations are very striking and it is full of fascinating information. The book focuses both on relative and absolute measurement. For example,  5’9″ person is tall compared to a cat, but short compared to a giraffe. The cat is large compared to a fly, and the giraffe is small compared to a T-rex. My kids were especially fascinated by the idea that clouds are actually extremely heavy.

Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, by Joseph D’Agnes. If your kids like Fibonacci numbers (or they enjoyed the biography of Erdos,) they might enjoy this book. It also takes a look at the culture of Medieval Pisa and the adoption of Arabic numerals (clunkily referred to in the text as “Hindu-Arabic numerals,” a phrase I am certain Fibonacci never used.) Fibonacci numbers are indeed found all over in nature, so if you have any sunflowers or pine cones on hand that you can use to demonstrate Fibonacci spirals, they’d be a great addition to the lesson. Otherwise, you can practice drawing boxes with spirals in them or Pascal’s triangles. (This book has more kid-friendly math in it than Erdos’s)

Pythagoras and the Ratios, by Julie Ellis. Pythagoras and his cousins need to cut their panpipes and weight the strings on their lyres in certain ratios to make them produce pleasant sounds. It’s a fun little lesson about ratios, and if you can combine it with actual pipes the kids can cut or recorders they could measure, glasses with different amounts of water in them or even strings with rock hanging from them, that would probably be even better.

Older than Dirt: A Wild but True History of Earth, by Don Brown. I was disappointed with this book. It is primarily an overview of Earth’s history before the dinosaurs, which was interesting, but the emphasis on mass extinctions and volcanoes (eg, Pompeii) dampened the mood. I ended up leaving out the last few pages (“Book’s over. Bedtime!”) to avoid the part about the sun swallowing up the earth and all life dying at the end of our planet’s existence, which is fine for older readers but not for my kids.

Hope you received some great games and books last month!

The most racist post on this blog

Jesus loves the little children
All the little children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
All are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world

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From a review of Tomie dePaola’s Legend of the Indian Paintbrush:

The story is improperly sourced. Stories are a means to teach lessons for survival. Since this is a European perspective of a fantasy romanticized Indian of the past, this becomes another instance of whites with long lost culture dressing up and playing Indian . We need to know what tribe this story originates, the true setting and purpose of the original story, and the intended audience. The retelling doesn’t reflect the setting, material artifacts or even the specific nation it attempts to depict. The story and illustrations improperly depict native people as a mono-culture. The book makes native dialogue overly mystic. The use of words like “brave” “and papoose” instead of “man” and “child” dehumanize an entire group of people. Reading this to children will definitely perpetuate damaging stereotypes of the distinct cultures still alive and well today.


Review: Pete’s Dragon (the jr. novel) 2/5 stars

Warning: this post contains spoilers. Lots of spoilers.

I needed a break from politics, so I decided to read a book about a kid and his dragon. What better than the junior novelization of a Disney Movie?

Pete’s Dragon is a remake of the 1970s Disney live-action/animation mix of the same name. I saw the preview before finding Dory, thought it looked awesome, and so picked up the book-version. I assume that the book follows the movie’s plot accurately, though I do not expect it to capture the full cinematic experience.

Within the first chapter, that “awesome” feeling had diminished and I had the sinking feeling that the story was going to end with a generic, “kid goes to live among humans again” ending. And it did.

But let’s run through from the beginning:

5 year old Pete is on adventure with his parents in the woods when his dad crashes the car into a tree. His parents die. Pete emerges from the wreck, gets chased by wolves, and is saved by a big, shaggy dragon.

6 years later, Pete and the dragon (named Elliot) are best friends and run around the woods having fun, in a scene that I assume is spectacular in the movie.

The story then switches to the perspective of a bunch of grownups, each with their own plot and character arc. Mr. Meacham (IIRC) is an old guy who tells dragon stories to the local kids. His (grown) daughter, a forest ranger, doesn’t believe him. The forest ranger’s boyfriend has a brother who is a bumbling, vaguely evil logger who is illegally logging trees in the forest. The forest ranger, instead of arresting him for illegal logging, (which is what I assume happens when a forest ranger catches you illegally chopping down trees,) complains to her boyfriend that he’s not stopping his brother. He fails to stop his brother because he’s also useless.

To this cast of 6 (Pete, Elliot, Meacham, Forest Ranger, Boyfriend, and Brother,) we now add another eleven-year-old kid, Natalie. The Boyfriend is Natalie’s dad and he has for some reason brought her to the logging site in the woods, where she wanders around unsupervised while people chop down trees because that isn’t dangerous or anything.

Natalie notices Pete and the grown-ups catch him. Pete wakes up in the hospital, freaks out, and escapes in what I assume is another fun sequence in the movie. The grown-ups recapture him and the forest ranger and her boyfriend take him home, where they tame him with PBJ sandwiches and cookies.

Pete draws pictures of Elliot and promises to take his new friends to meet Elliot in the morning.

Meanwhile, Elliot has been looking everywhere for Pete. He follows Pete’s scent to the house where he’s staying, looks in the window, and decides that Pete has found a new family and doesn’t need him anymore. Elliot goes home.

Meanwhile, Forest Ranger lady is conflicted because she promised Pete she’d take him back to the woods to Elliot, who might be a dragon and might prove that her dad was right all along, but legally she’s required to take him to Child Protective Services. Finally she decides to take him to Elliot.

The Bumbling Brother shows up and shoots the dragon. With a gun. (With tranquilizer darts.) While Forest Ranger lady, Pete, Natalie, and Mr. Meacham are standing next to it. After the dragon collapses, the brother dances around proclaiming his success and no one punches him in the face, even though he could have killed them all (tranquilizers darts intended to bring down massive animals are potentially really bad if they hit children.)

The Bumbling Brother abducts the unconscious dragon, the grownups are useless, and Pete and Natalie (and Mr. Meacham) save the dragon. There’s a dramatic chase scene, at the end of which the Brother redeems himself by saving the Boyfriend and Forest Ranger’s lives.

Pete and the dragon escape back to the woods, where Pete suddenly decides that he doesn’t want to live with a dragon anymore and returns to the Forest Ranger’s house. You know, the lady who would have turned him over to CPS so he could go live in foster care without blinking an eye if he hadn’t claimed to have been living with a dragon.

In the final chapter, Pete and his new family (Forest Ranger, Boyfriend, and Natalie) drive to the mountains, where they visit the dragon, who (after Pete abandoned him) wandered off and randomly found his family of dragons.

So what’s wrong with this story?

For starters, it suffers from Too Many Characters. This is a kid’s book (movie.) Kids are interested in the antics of other kids; kids aren’t interested in adults trying to manage their adult relationships. With so many adult characters working through their own issues and character arcs, there is very little room in the story (it’s a short book) for Pete to have an arc of his own. In fact, Pete does not have a character arc. He does not debate whether or not he should join the humans, just spontaneously decides it for no particular reason at the end of the story.

Look, dragons are awesome. Living with a dragon is awesome. Most kids also think their own parents are pretty awesome. Random grownups you don’t know are not awesome. A life of wearing clothes, going to school, and doing homework is way less awesome than living in the woods with your dragon. Pete abandoning his dragon makes as much sense as a child spontaneously abandoning a beloved pet.

In short, the ending is completely unmotivated and makes no sense.

It still might be a fun movie (the special effects looked nice in the preview,) so long as the “gun-toting, ginger ale-swigging, bumbling logger” as bad guy doesn’t annoy you too much. But I was genuinely disappointed by the book.