Finnish DNA

800px-Lenguas_finougrias
Distribution of the Finno-Ugric languages

In honor family, Thanksgiving, and the discovery that my husband is about as Finnish as Elisabeth Warren is Cherokee, today’s post is on Finnish DNA. (No, I did not just “finish” the field of genetics.)

Finland is one of the few European countries that doesn’t speak an Indo-European language. (Well, technically a lot of them speak Swedish, but obviously that’s because of their long contact with Sweden.) Both Finnish and the Sami language hail from the appropriately named Finno-Ugric family, itself a branch of the larger Uralic family, which spreads across the northern edge of Asia.

While there is one cave that might have housed pre-ice age people in Finland, solid evidence of human occupation doesn’t start until about 9,000 BC (11,000 YA), when the ice sheets retreated. These early Finns were hunter-gatherers (and fishers–one of the world’s oldest fishing nets, from 8300 BC, was found in Finland). For a thousand years or so Baltic Sea was more of a Baltic Lake (called Ancylus Lake), due to some complex geologic processes involving uplift in Sweden that we don’t need to explore, but it seems the lake had some pretty good fishing.

Pottery shows up around 5300 BC, with the “Comb Ceramic Culture” or “Pit-Comb Ware.” According to Wikipedia:

The distribution of the artifacts found includes Finnmark (Norway) in the north, the Kalix River (Sweden) and the Gulf of Bothnia (Finland) in the west and the Vistula River (Poland) in the south. In the east the Comb Ceramic pottery of northern Eurasia extends beyond the Ural mountains to the Baraba steppe adjacent to the Altai-Sayan mountain range, merging with a continuum of similar ceramic styles.[1]

Comb Ceramic was not limited in Europe, being widely distributed in the BalticFinland, the Volga upstream flow, south SiberiaLake BaikalMongolian Plateau, the Liaodong Peninsula and the Korean Peninsula.[2] The oldest ones have been discovered from the remains of Liao civilization – Xinglongwa culture (6200 BC – 5400 BC).[3]

The Xinglongwa are from northern China/inner Mongolia.

This distribution is a pretty decent match to the distribution of Finno-Ugric and Uralic languages before the march of Indo-European (Hungarian arrived in Hungary well after the IE invasion), so it’s pretty decent evidence that the language and pottery went together. Pottery usually indicates the arrival of agricultural peoples (who need pots to store things in,) but in this case, the Comb Ceramic people were primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers/fishers/herders, much like modern people in the far north.

While I usually assume that the arrival of a new toolkit heralds the arrival of a new group of people, the general lifestyle continuity between hunter-gatherers with baskets and hunter-gatherers with pots suggests that they could have been the same people. DNA or more information about their overall cultures would tell the story with more certainty.

Oddly, one variety of pit-comb ware is known as “asbestos ware”, because the locals incorporated asbestos into their pots. The point of asbestos pots, aside from aesthetics (the fibers could make large, thin-walled vessels,) was probably to accommodate the high temperatures needed for metal working.

The Corded Ware people–aka the Yamnaya aka Indo Europeans–showed up around 3,000 BC. They seem to have brought agriculture with them, though Mesopotamian grains didn’t take terribly well to the Finnish weather.

Bronze arrived around 2,000 BC (or perhaps a little later), having spread from the Altai mountains–a route similar to the earlier spread of Comb Ware pottery. (Wikipedia speculates that these bronze artifacts mark the arrival of the Finno-Ugric languages.) Iron arrived around 500 BC.

Since Finland is a difficult place to raise crops, people have gone back and forth between agriculture, hunting, fishing, herding, gathering, etc over the years. For example, around 200 BC, the “hair temperature” pottery disappeared as people transitioned away from agriculture, to a more nomadic, reindeer-herding lifestyle.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the genetics:

A new genetic study carried out at the University of Helsinki and the University of Turku demonstrates that, at the end of the Iron Age, Finland was inhabited by separate and differing populations, all of them influencing the gene pool of modern Finns.

(Gotta love how Science Daily Trumps this as “diverse origins”)

The authors, Oversti et al, actually title their paper “Human mitochondrial DNA lineages in Iron-Age Fennoscandia suggest incipient admixture and eastern introduction of farming-related maternal ancestry” :

Here we report 103 complete ancient mitochondrial genomes from human remains dated to AD 300–1800, and explore mtDNA diversity associated with hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers. The results indicate largely unadmixed mtDNA pools of differing ancestries from Iron-Age on, suggesting a rather late genetic shift from hunter-gatherers towards farmers in North-East Europe. …

… aDNA has recently been recovered from c. 1500 year-old bones from Levänluhta in western central Finland18,19. Genomic data from these samples show a Siberian ancestry component still prominently present today, particularly in the indigenous Saami people, and to a lesser extent in modern Finns.

The authors have an interesting observation about a line running through Finland:

Within Finland, an unusually strong genetic border bisects the population along a northwest to southeast axis24,26,27, and is interpreted to reflect an ancient boundary between hunter-gatherer and farmer populations28. The expanse of agriculture north-east of this border was probably limited by environmental factors, especially the length of the growing season.

I thought this part was really neat:

A total of 95 unique complete-mitogenome haplotypes were observed among the 103 complete sequences retrieved: three haplotypes were shared between sampling sites and five within a site. In the latter cases, the placement of the skeletal samples suggests that the shared haplotypes have been carried by different individuals, who may have been maternally related: identical haplotypes (haplogroup U5a2a1e) were obtained from remains of a c. 5-year-old child (grave 18, TU666) and an older woman (grave 7, TU655) from Hollola.

Obviously the death of a child is not neat, but that we can identify relatives in an ancient graveyard is. I have relatives who are all buried near each other, and if some future archaeologist dug them up and realized “Oh, hey, here we have a family,” I think that’d be nice.

The authors discovered something interesting about the direction of the introduction of agriculture.

If you look at a map of Finland, you might guess that agriculture came from the south west, because those are the areas where agriculture is practiced in modern Finland. You’d certainly be correct about the south, but it looks like agriculture was actually introduced from the east–it seems these early farmers didn’t fare well in eastern Finland, and eventually migrated to the west. Alternatively, they may have just failed/given up, and more farmers arrived later from the west and succeeded–but if so, they were related to the first group of farmers.

Overall, the authors found evidence of three different groups in the ancient graveyards: at the oldest site, a Saami-like population (found further south that modern Saami populations); a non-Saami group of hunter gatherers, and Neolithic farmers.

The non-Saami hunter gatherers had high rates of haplogroup U4, which is rare in modern Finns (Saami included). According to the article:

Instead, in contemporary populations, U4 exists in high frequencies in Volga-Ural region (up to 24% in Komi-Zyryans)36 and with lower frequencies around the Baltic Sea, such as in Latvians and Tver Karelians (both around 8%)37. Taking into account that U4 have been prevalent in neighboring areas among Scandinavian10,39,40,41,42,43 and Baltic hunter-gatherers12,13,44, Baltic Comb Ceramics Culture12,13,14 and in Siberia during the Early metal period11, we might be observing ancestries belonging to an earlier layer of ancient inhabitants of the region.

Anyway, it’s an interesting article, so if you’re interested in Finland or polar peoples generally, I hope you give it a read.

Happy Thanksgiving!

An Historian of Science Discovers the “Light Switch”

Historian and philosopher Emma Houston interrogates the science of electricity and light bulbs

The light switch was at the center of Houston’s first big foray into the history of electricity and lights. The story told in introductory electrical engineering textbooks is relatively simple: flipping the switch up turns the lights “on”; flipping the switch down turns the lights “off.” Whether a switch is in the on or off position has for for decades been seen as an expression of a light bulb’s “true” state or of “light itself.” It is the job of a science historian to discover where these stories come from, and why.

Houston’s doctoral dissertation, published in 2004 as Light Itself: The Search for On and Off in the Electric Circuit does just this, tracing the history of the idea that electromagnetic radiation is turned “on” and “off” by switches found on the wall. Early in the twentieth century, she shows, it was controversial to refer to “light switches” because sometimes electricians accidentally wired around them when installing lights.

But the fact that switches are visible, (unlike electricity) made them useful for enough to two groups of engineers–those building electrical circuits, and those working to untangle the role of electricity in light generation–that the association between switches and light solidified for decades.

Associating “light” with the “light switch,” writes Richardson, has serious consequences, as when engineers tried to develop a “super flashlight” that used two light switches and multiple batteries.

The “super flashlight” was finally abandoned in the development stage when engineers decided it was simpler to use bigger batteries, but in Light Itself, Houston argues that it made the light switch the star of electrical engineering in a way that still reverberates. She points to engineers like Professor Book, whose research focused for decades on using light switches to design home lighting plans. Such a focus was not inevitable, Houston argues: from the 1920s through the 50s, based on evidence in lasers, researchers saw buttons as drivers of light output.

It turns out that “light switches” do not actually cause bulbs to emit electromagnetic radiation. Engineers now understand that light, produced by incandescent bulbs as well as LEDs and compact fluorescents, is the result of numerous interconnected capacitors, resistors, power sources, and wire circuits that all work together. So called “light switches” do not cause light at all–they merely open and close light circuits, allowing electricity to flow (or not) to the bulbs.

But in an interview, Professor Book disagrees with Houston’s account. In Houston’s history, the super flashlight looms large in later researchers’ decision to focus on the switch, but Professor Book responds that research on the super flashlight “did not interest me, it did not impress me, it did not look like the the foundations of a path forward.” Building circuits around the light switch, he says, was not inspired by the popular image of a super bright flashlight with two switches, but “was simply the easiest way to design practical lighting for people’s houses” and that “flipping the switch does actually turn the lights on and off.”

Houston responds that of course we can’t expect actual engineers to know what inspired them or their fields, which is why we need science historians like herself to suss out what was really motivating them.

Author’s note: Professor Houston has degrees in philosophy and literature, but oddly, none in engineering or physics.

This parody is thanks to Harvard Magazine’s The Science of Sex: Historian and Philosopher Sarah Richardson Interrogates the Science of Sex and Gender.

 

 

 

 

Since you asked…

Of course I believe in the importance of nature a bit more strongly than the average person. But our lives are still the sums of many different factors, some genetic, some nurture, some random. We also have something that feels like free will, crazy as that may sound; we are not doomed to eternally repeat the sins of our parents just because we saw them do something bad when we were three, nor are we condemned to robotically enact whatever flaws are encoded in our DNA. We are complicated.

I recently read a very interesting article about a man who discovered, via DNA testing, that his father (and grandfather) wasn’t really his father:

In the first phase, I was numb: no shock, anger, disappointment—just bewilderment. It was sohard to grasp. Unimaginable. It was hard to think clearly. And yet, a tiny bit of relief. Maybe truth would yield clarity and understanding of my father’s actions. This secondary sensation was the beginning of a wholly unexpected change in my internal being.

The second phase—feeling unmoored—was by far the hardest. Who am I? From where do I come? And who is this unknown man living in my body, coursing through my veins? I would subconsciously shake my hands trying to get him out of me. And worst, with my mother and the father who raised me both deceased, would I ever find the truth, get to the answers I was seeking? When you think you understand your origins, there is no obsessive need to explore and connect; you are satisfied knowing there is an origin and your ancestors and family members can be searched and contacted whenever needed. But when that assumption is taken away, you truly are an alien.

I should note that unlike Professor Schreiber, I had very decent parents; I have nothing to be ungrateful for beyond the normal vagaries of family life.

But the sense of being alien is still there; I always feel myself floating between worlds. There’s the world I was raised in, which I know culturally and can imitate quite effortlessly, (aside from a certain striver efficiency that seems more innate); then the world I talk to on the telephone, where people make the same sort of stupid mistakes as I do, but the cultural context is missing.

The advent of the internet is easing this gab, by the way, as the younger folks in my generation and I share more online culture.

Cultural things can get a good laugh out of you–you and someone else liked the same show, or went to the same park, or enjoyed the same brand of hot dogs–while innate things can strike very deep. Finding out that your brother got in trouble for the same distinct habits that you got in trouble for, or that you see in your own children, is really something. You look at this person and realize that despite this cultural and experiential gulf between you, you understand them–and they understand you.

The fellow in the article ended up with a bunch of new relatives, which he found very rewarding. For most adoptees, contacting biological family is iffy. People who gave you up when you were an infant may not want you in their lives, may not be good people, or may just be dead. But extended family never gave you up; extended family tends not to have all of that awkward parental baggage, either. They’re just potential siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., you’ve never met, and meeting them can be quite interesting.

I find that people really focus on adoptees’ parents, so I would just like to reiterate that biological families are more than just parents. They are cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, etc. They are entire families. Even people whose biological parents have given them good reason to never contact them (or are dead) may want to contact the rest of their biological families.

And like the good professor, I’ve found that meeting family from very different walks of life than my own has exposed me to very different perspectives. It is interesting seeing how similar people cope with very different situations–the things that stay the same (eg, dorkiness); the things that differ (attitudes toward guns).

Like they say, it’s about half nurture, half nature, half random chance, and half what you make of it.

(Just to be clear, yes, I know that’s not how halves work.)

The Idiocy of Categoric Purity

I realized yesterday that the Left has an odd idea of “purity” that underlies many of their otherwise inexplicable, reality-rejecting claims.

The left has, perhaps unconsciously, adopted the idea that if groups of things within a particular category exist, the groups must be totally independent and not overlap at all.

In the case of genetics, they think that for a genetic group to “exist” and be “real”, it must hail from a single, pure, founding population with no subsequent mixing with other groups. We see this in a recently headline from the BBC: Is this the last of the Aryans? 

Deep in India’s Ladakh region live the Aryans, perhaps the last generation of pure-blooded people and holders of possibly the only untampered gene pool left in the world.

These actually-called-Aryans might be fabulous, interesting people, but there is no way they are more pure and “untampered” than the rest of us. The entire sub-headline is nonsense, because all non-Africans (and some Africans) have Neanderthal DNA. They aren’t even pure Homo sapiens! Africans btw have their own archaic DNA from interbreeding with another, non-Neanderthal, human species. None of us, so far as I know, is a “pure” Homo sapiens.

Besides that, the proto-Indo-European people whom these Aryans are descended from where themselves a fusion of at least two peoples, European hunter-gatherers and a so far as I know untraced steppe-people from somewhere about Ukraine.

Further, even if the Aryans settled in their little villages 4,000 years ago and have had very little contact with the outside world over that time, it is highly unlikely that they have had none.

Meanwhile, out in the rest of the world, there are plenty of other highly isolated peoples: The Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island, for example, who will kill you if you try to set foot on their island. There was a pretty famous case just last year of someone earning himself a Darwin award by trying to convert the Sentinelese.

Now let’s look at that word “untampered.” What on earth does that mean? How do you tamper with a genome? Were the rest of us victims of evil alien experiments with CRSPR, tampering with our genomes?

The Chinese might figure out how to produce “tampered” genomes soon, but the rest of us, all of us in the entire world, have “untampered” genomes.

To be honest, I am slightly flabbergasted at this author’s notion that the rest of the people in the world are walking around with “tampered” genomes because our ancestors married some Anatolian farming people 4,000 years ago.

This strange idea pops up in liberal conversations about “race”, too. Take the recent AAPA Statement on Race and Racism:

Race does not provide an accurate representation of human biological variation. It was never accurate in the past, and it remains inaccurate when referencing contemporary human populations. Humans are not divided biologically into distinct continental types or racial genetic clusters.

But… no one said they did. At least, not since we stopped using Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth going their separate ways after the Flood as our explanation for why races exist.

“See, human races are’t descended from Shem, Ham, and Japheth, therefore races don’t exist!”

Two groups of things need not be completely separate, non-overlapping to nonetheless exist. “Pillows” and “cloth” contain many overlapping traits, for example; there are no traits in “cloth” that do not also exist in “pillows.”

Colin Wight on Twitter articulates this beautifully as the “Univariate Fallacy”:

Click the cube. Watch it turn.

This fallacy, when deployed, is commonly done using a single sentence buried within an article or essay couched around a broader narrative on the history of a particular type of oppression, such as sexism. Let me give you some recent examples of this fallacy in action.

You’ll remember this @nature piece arguing that sex is a spectrum and that perhaps there are more then 2 sexes, even though over 99.98% of humans can be classified at birth as being unambiguously male or female. … [Link to piece]

In this piece, they hold off deploying the Univariate Fallacy until the second-to-last sentence of a nearly 3500 word essay.

So if the law requires that a person is male or female, should that sex be assigned by anatomy, hormones, cells or chromosomes, and what should be done if they clash? “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter.”

Please read the whole thread. It is very insightful.

For example, if you look at the so called “big five” personality traits, you find only 10% overlap between men and women. This is why it is usually pretty easy to tell if you are talking to a man or a woman. But if you you look at only one trait at a time, there’s a lot more overlap. So the trick is to take a thing with multiple facets–as most things in the real world are–and claim that because it overlaps in any of its facets with any other thing, that it does not exist. It is not pure.

Are our categories, in fact, random and arbitrary? Is there some reality beneath the categories we use to describe groups of people, like “male” and “female,” “young” and “old,” “black” and “white”? Could we just as easily have decided to use different categories, lumping humans by different criteria, like height or eye color or interest in Transformers, and found these equally valid? Should we refer to all short people as “the short race” and everyone who owns a fedora as “untouchables”?

Liberals believe that the categories came first, were decided for arbitrary or outright evil reasons, bear no relation to reality, and our belief in these categories then created them in the world because we enforced them. This is clearly articulated in the AAPA Statement on Race and Racism:

Instead, the Western concept of race must be understood as a classification system that emerged from, and in support of, European colonialism, oppression, and discrimination. It thus does not have its roots in biological reality, but in policies of discrimination. Because of that, over the last five centuries, race has become a social reality that structures societies and how we experience the world.

Race exists because evil Europeans made it, for their own evil benefit, out of the completely undifferentiated mass of humanity that existed before 1492.

This statement depends on the Univariate Fallacy discussed above–the claim that biological races don’t actually exist is 100% dependent on the UF–and a misunderstanding of the term “social construct,” a term which gets thrown around a lot despite no one understanding what it means.

I propose a different sequence of events, (with thanks to Steven Pinker in the Blank Slate for pointing it out): Reality exists, and in many cases, comes in lumps. Plants, for existence, have a lot in common with other plants. Animals have a lot in common with other animals. Humans create categories in order to talk about these lumps of things, and will keep using their categories so long as they are useful. If a category does not describe things well, it will be quickly replaced by a more effective category.

Meme theory suggests this directly–useful ideas spread faster than non-useful ideas. Useful categories get used. Useless categories get discarded. If I can’t talk about reality, then I need new words.

Sometimes, new information causes us to update our categories. For example, back before people figured out much about biology, fungi were a bit of a mystery. They clearly act like plants, but they aren’t green and they seem to grow parasitically out of dead things. Fungi were basically classed as “weird, creepy plants,” until we found out that they’re something else. It turns out that fungi are actually more closely related to humans than plants, but no one outside of a molecular biologist has any need for a category that is “humans and fungi, but not plants,” so no one uses such a category. There are, additionally, some weird plants, like venus flytraps, that show animal-like traits like predation and rapid movement, and some animals, like sponges, that look more like plants. You would not think a man crazy if he mistook a sponge for a plant, but no one looks at these examples, throws up their hands, and says, “Well, I guess plants and animals are arbitrary, socially-constructed categories and don’t exist.” No, we are all quite convinced that, despite a few cases that were confusing until modern science cleared them up, plants, animals, and fungi all actually exist–moving sponges from the “plant” category to the “animal” category didn’t discredit the entire notion of “plants” and “animals,” but instead improved our classification scheme.

Updating ideas and classification schemes slightly to make them work more efficiently as we get more information about obscure or edge cases in no way impacts the validity of the classification scheme. It just means that we’re human beings who aren’t always 100% right about everything the first time we behold it.

To summarize: reality exists, and it comes in lumps. We create words to describe it. If a word does not describe reality, it gets replaced by a superior word that does a better job of describing reality. Occasionally, we get lucky and find out more information about reality, and update our categories and words accordingly. Where a category exists and is commonly used, therefore, it most likely reflects an actual, underlying reality that existed before the world and caused it to come into existence–not the other way around.

The belief that words create reality is magical thinking and belongs over in Harry Potter and animist religion, where you can cure Yellow Fever by painting someone yellow and then washing off the paint. It’s the same childish thinking as believing that monsters can’t see you if you have a blanket over your head (because you can’t see them) or that Bloody Mary will appear in the bathroom mirror if you turn out the lights and say her name three times while spinning around.

Of course, “white privilege” is basically the “evil eye” updated for the modern age, so it’s not too surprised to find people engaged in other forms of mystical thinking, like that if you just don’t believe in race, it will cease to exist and no one will ever slaughter their neighbors again, just as no war ever happened before 1492 and Genghis Khan never went on a rampage that left 50 million people dead.

“Purity” as conceived of in these examples isn’t real. It doesn’t exist; it never existed, and outside of the simplistic explanations people thought up a few thousand years ago when they had much less information about the world, no one actually uses such definitions. The existence of different races doesn’t depend on Ham and Shem; rain doesn’t stop existing just because Zeus isn’t peeing through a sieve. In reality, men and women are different in a number of different ways that render categories like “man” and “woman” functional enough for 99.99% of your daily interactions. Racial categories like “black” and “white” reflect real-life differences between actual humans accurately enough that we find them useful terms, and the fact that humans have migrated back and forth across the planet, resulting in very interesting historical stories encoded in DNA, does not change this at all.

I’d like to wrap this up by returning to the BBC’s strange article on the Aryans:

I asked Dolma if she was excited over her daughter participating in the festival. She replied that not many outsiders came to Biama, and that it was fun to meet foreigners. But even more importantly, she couldn’t wait to see friends from neighbouring villages, brought together by each year by the festival, as well as the chance to dress up, dance and celebrate. If the future generations continue to hold traditional ceremonies and celebrations and keep their vibrant culture alive, perhaps then, they won’t be the last of the Aryans.

smallisland
Source:  The Economist

One wonders what the author–or the BBC in general–thinks of efforts to keep the British pure or preserve British culture, untouched and unchanged through the millennia. Or is preserving one’s culture only for quaint foreigners whose entertaining exoticism would be ruined if they started acting and dressing just like us? What about those of us in America who think the British have a quaint and amusing culture, and would like it to stick around so we can still be entertained by it? And do the British themselves deserve any say in this, or are they eternally tainted with “impure,” “tampered” bloodlines due to the mixing of bronze-age peoples with Anglo Saxon invaders over a millennium and a half ago, and thus have no right to claim a culture or history of their own?

Goodness, what an idiotic way of looking at the world.

Pygmy-pocalypse?

I just want to highlight this graph I came across yesterday while trying to research archaic introgression in the Igbo:

Populationsize
source

From 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, by Lorente-Galdos et al.

There are three versions of this graph in the paper (check the supplemental materials for two of them), all showing about the same thing. It is supposed to be a graph of population size at different times in the past, and the most incredible thing is that for the past 100,000 years or so, the most numerically dominant populations in Africa were the Baka Pygmies, followed by various Bushmen (San) groups. The authors write:

To unravel the ancient demographic history of the African populations that are present in our data set, we used the Pairwise Sequentially Markovian Coalescent (PSMC) model that analyzes the dynamics of the effective population size over time [60]. We included at least one representative of each of the 15 African populations and two Eurasian samples in the analysis (Additional file 1: Figure S7.1) and considered both the classical mutation rate of 2.5 × 10−8 [61] and the 1.2 × 10−8 mutations per bp per generation reported in other analyses [6263]. The demographic trajectories of the sub-Saharan agriculturalist populations are very similar to each other; and only South African Bantu and Toubou individuals differ partly from the rest of sub-Saharan farmer samples; however, their considerable levels of admixture with other North African or hunter-gatherer populations (Fig. 2b) might explain this trend. Therefore, in order to ease visualization, we plotted a Yoruba individual (Yoruba_HGDP00936) and two Ju|‘hoansi individuals as representatives of the sub-Saharan agriculturalist and Khoisan populations, respectively (Fig. 3 and Additional file 1: Figure S7.2 considering a mutation rate of 1.2 × 10−8).

The authors note that the apparent large size of the pygmy groups could have been due to groups splitting and merging and thus getting more DNA variety than they would normally. It’s all very speculative. But still, the Baka Pygmies could have been the absolutely dominant group over central Africa for centuries.

What happened?

 

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

 

Chinua_Achebe_-_Buffalo_25Sep2008_crop
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.

WAfricaAdmixture
“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:

Populationsize

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?

What Ethic Group is This?

 

map

23 and Me map of genetic relatives, rounded. 

An ethnic group is a set of people with a common ancestry, culture, and language. The Han Chinese, at a 1.3 billion strong, are an ethnic group; the Samaritans, of whom there are fewer than a thousand, are also an ethnic group. Ishi was, before his death, an ethnic group of one: the last surviving member of the Yahi people of California. 

We sit within nested sets of genetic relatives:

Family<clan<tribe<ethnic group<race<species<genus

(You are most likely part Homo neanderthalensis, because different species within the Homo genus have interbred multiple times.)

Interestingly, Wikipedia lists African American as an ethnicity on its list of ethnic groups page (as they should, because it is). 

Four or five hundred relatives, from parents and children to fifth cousins, are enough to begin to describe an ethnic group. It certainly looks, based on the map, like I hail from an ethnic group–yet neither Wikipedia nor 23 and Me recognize this group.

According to Wikipedia

Larger ethnic groups may be subdivided into smaller sub-groups known variously as tribes or clans, which over time may become separate ethnic groups themselves due to endogamy or physical isolation from the parent group. Conversely, formerly separate ethnicities can merge to form a pan-ethnicity, and may eventually merge into one single ethnicity. Whether through division or amalgamation, the formation of a separate ethnic identity is referred to as ethnogenesis.

Of course, no one wants to submit their DNA to 23 and Me and get the result “You’re a white person from America.” (Nor “You’re a black person from America.”) We know that. People take these tests to look at their deeper history. 

But focusing only on the past makes it easy to lose sight of the present. You aren’t your ancestors. The world didn’t halt in 1492. I’m no more “British” or “European” than I am “Yamnaya” or “Anatolian farmer.” 

History moves on. New ethnic groups form. The past tells us something about where we’ve been–but not where we’re headed. 

What does “Heritable” mean? 

“Heritable” (or “heritability”) has a specific and unfortunately non-obvious definition in genetics.

The word sounds like a synonym for “inheritable,” rather like your grandmother’s collection of musical clocks. Musical clocks are inheritable; fruit, since it rots, is not very inheritable.

This is not what “heritable” means.

“Heritability,” in genetics, is a measure of the percent of phenotypic variation within a population that can be attributed to genetics.

Let me clarify that in normal speak. “Phenotype” is something you can actually see about an organism, like how tall it is or the nest it builds. “Phenotypic variation” means things like “variation in height” or “variation in nest size.”

Let’s suppose we have two varieties of corn: a giant strain and a dwarf strain. If we plant them in a 100% even field with the same nutrients, water, sunlight, etc at every point in the field, then close to 100% of the variation in the resulting corn plants is genetic (some is just random chance, of course.)

In this population, then, height is nearly 100% heritable.

Let’s repeat the experiment, but this time, we sow our corn in an irregular field. Some patches have good soil; some have bad. Some spots are too dry or too wet. Some are sunny; others shaded. Etc.

Here it gets interesting, because aside from a bit of random chance in the distribution of seeds and environmental response, in most areas of the irregular field, our “tall” corn is still taller than the “short” corn. In the shady areas, both varieties don’t get enough sun, but the tall corn still grows taller. In the nutrient-poor areas, both varieties don’t get enough nutrients, but the tall still grows taller. But when we compare all of the corn all over the field, dwarf corn grown in the best areas grows taller than giant corn grown in the worst areas.

Our analysis of the irregular field leads us to conclude that water, sunlight, nutrients, and genes are all important in determining how tall corn gets.

Height in the irregular field is still heritable–genes are still important–but it is not 100% heritable, because other stuff is important, too.

What does it mean to be 10, 40, or 80% heritable?

If height is 10% heritable, then most of the variety in height you see is due to non-genetic factors, like nutrition. Genes still have an effect–people with tall genes will still, on average, be taller–but environmental effects really dominate–perhaps some people who should have been tall are severely malnourished.

In modern, first world countries, height is about 80% heritable–that is, since most people in first world countries get plenty of food and don’t catch infections that stunt their growth, most of the variation we see is genetic. In some third world countries, however, the heritability of height drops to 65%. These are places where many people do not get the nutrients they need to achieve their full genetic potential.

How do you achieve 0% heritability?

A trait is 0% heritable not if you can’t inherit it, but if genetics explains none of the variation in the sample. Suppose we seeded an irregular field entirely with identical, cloned corn. The height of the resulting corn would would vary from area to area depending on nutrients, sunlight, water, etc. Since the original seeds were 100% genetically identical, all of the variation is environmental. Genes are, of course, important to height–if the relevant genes disappeared from the corn, it would stop growing–but they explain none of the variation in this population.

The heritability of a trait decreases, therefore, as genetic uniformity increases or the environment becomes more unequal. Heritability increases as genetics become more varied or the environment becomes more equal. 

Note that the genes involved do not need to code directly for the trait being measured. The taller people in a population, for example, might have lactase persistence genes, which let them extract more calories from the milk they drink than their neighbors. Or they might be thieves who steal food from their neighbors.

I remember a case where investigators were trying to discover why most of the boys at an orphanage had developed pellagra, then a mystery disease, but some hadn’t. It turns out that the boys who hadn’t developed it were sneaking into the kitchen at night and stealing food.

Pellagra is a nutritional deficiency caused by lack of niacin, aka B3. Poor Southerners used to come down with it from eating diets composed solely of (un-nixtamalized) corn for months on end.

The ultimate cause of pellagra is environmental–lack of niacin–but who comes down with pellagra is at least partially determined by genes, because genes influence your likelihood of eating nothing but corn for 6 months straight. Sociopaths who steal the occasional ham, for example, won’t get pellagra, but sociopaths who get caught and sent to badly run prisons, however, increase their odds of getting it. In general, smart people who work hard and earn lots of money significantly decrease their chance of getting it, but smart black people enslaved against their will are more likely to get it. So pellagra is heritable–even though it is ultimately a nutritional deficiency.

What’s the point of heritability?

If you’re breeding corn (or cattle,) it helps to know whether, given good conditions, you can hope to change a trait. Traits with low heritability even under good conditions simply can’t be affected very much by breeding, while traits with high heritability can.

In humans, heritability helps us seek out the ultimate causes of diseases. On a social level, it can help measure how fair a society is, or whether the things we are doing to try to make society better are actually working.

For example, people would love to find a way to make children smarter. From Baby Einstein to HeadStart, people have tried all sorts of things to raise IQ. But beyond making sure that everyone has enough to eat, no nutrient deficiencies, and some kind of education, few of these interventions seem to make much difference.

Here people usually throw in a clarification about the difference between “shared” and “non-shared” environment. Shared environment is stuff you share with other members of your population, like the house your family lives in or the school you and your classmates attend. Non-shared is basically “random stuff,” like the time you caught meningitis but your twin didn’t.

Like anything controversial, people of course argue about the methodology and mathematics of these studies. They also argue about proximate and ultimate causes, and get caught up matters of cultural variation. For example, is wearing glasses heritable? Some would say that it can’t be, because how can you inherit a gene that somehow codes for possessing a newly invented (on the scale of human evolutionary history) object?

But this is basically a fallacy that stems from mixing up proximate and ultimate causes. Obviously there is no gene that makes a pair of glasses grow out of your head, nor one that makes you feel compelled to go and buy them. It is also obvious that not all human populations throughout history have had glasses. But within a population that does have glasses, the chances of you wearing glasses is strongly predicted by whether or not you are nearsighted, and nearsightedness is a remarkable 91% heritable. 

Of course, some nearsighted people opt to wear contact lenses, which lowers the heritability estimate for glasses, but the signal is still pretty darn strong, since almost no one who doesn’t have vision difficulties wears glasses.

If we expand our sample population to include people who lived before the invention of eyeglasses, or who live in countries where most people are too poor to afford glasses, then our heritability estimate will drop quite a bit. You can’t buy glasses if they don’t exist, after all, no matter how bad your eyesight it. But the fact that glasses themselves are a recent artifact of particular human cultures does not change the fact that, within those populations, wearing glasses is heritable.

“Heritability” does not depend on whether there is (or we know of ) any direct mechanism for a gene to code for the thing under study. It is only a statistical measure of genetic variation that correlates with the visible variation we’re looking at in a population.

I hope this helps.

Links Post: Evolution and More

road-to-bigger-brains
From State of the Science: Finding Human Ancestors in New Places

The Puerto Rican rainforest is beautiful and temporarily low on bugs. (Bugs, I suspect, evolve quickly and so can bounce back from these sorts of collapses–but they are collapses.)

More evidence for an extra Neanderthal or Denisovan interbreeding event in East Asians and Melanesian genomes:

 In addition to the reported Neanderthal and Denisovan introgressions, our results support a third introgression in all Asian and Oceanian populations from an archaic population. This population is either related to the Neanderthal-Denisova clade or diverged early from the Denisova lineage.

(Congratulations to the authors, Mondal, Bertranpetit, and Lao.)

Really interesting study on gene-culture co-evolution in Northeast Asia:

Here we report an analysis comparing cultural and genetic data from 13 populations from in and around Northeast Asia spanning 10 different language families/isolates. We construct distance matrices for language (grammar, phonology, lexicon), music (song structure, performance style), and genomes (genome-wide SNPs) and test for correlations among them. … robust correlations emerge between genetic and grammatical distances. Our results suggest that grammatical structure might be one of the strongest cultural indicators of human population history, while also demonstrating differences among cultural and genetic relationships that highlight the complex nature of human cultural and genetic evolution.

I feel like there’s a joke about grammar Nazis in here.

Why do we sleep? No one knows.

While humans average seven hours, other primates range from just under nine hours (blue-eyed black lemurs) to 17 (owl monkeys). Chimps, our closest living evolutionary relatives, average about nine and a half hours. And although humans doze for less time, a greater proportion is rapid eye movement sleep (REM), the deepest phase, when vivid dreams unfold.

Sleep is pretty much universal in the animal kingdom, but different species vary greatly in their habits. Elephants sleep about two hours out of 24; sloths more than 15. Individual humans vary in their sleep needs, but interestingly, different cultures vary greatly in the timing of their sleep, eg, the Spanish siesta. Our modern notion that people “should” sleep in a solid, 7-9 hour chunk (going so far as to “train” children to do it,) is more a result of electricity and industrial work schedules than anything inherent or healthy about human sleep. So if you find yourself stressed out because you keep taking a nap in the afternoon instead of sleeping through the night, take heart: you may be completely normal. (Unless you’re tired because of some illness, of course.)

Interestingly:

Within any culture, people also prefer to rest and rise at different times: In most populations, individuals range from night owls to morning larks in a near bell curve distribution. Where someone falls along this continuum often depends on sex (women tend to rise earlier) and age (young adults tend to be night owls, while children and older adults typically go to bed before the wee hours).

Genes matter, too. Recent studies have identified about a dozen genetic variations that predict sleep habits, some of which are located in genes known to influence circadian rhythms.

While this variation can cause conflict today … it may be the vestige of a crucial adaptation. According to the sentinel hypothesis, staggered sleep evolved to ensure that there was always some portion of a group awake and able to detect threats.

So they gave sleep trackers to some Hadza, who must by now think Westerners are very strange, and found that at any particular period of the night, about 40% of people were awake; over 20 nights, there were “only 18 one-minute periods” when everyone was asleep. That doesn’t prove anything, but it does suggest that it’s perfectly normal for some people to be up in the middle of the night–and maybe even useful.

Important dates in the evolution of human brain genes found:

In May, a pair of papers published by separate teams in the journal Cell focused on the NOTCH family of genes, found in all animals and critical to an embryo’s development: They produce the proteins that tell stem cells what to turn into, such as neurons in the brain. The researchers looked at relatives of the NOTCH2 gene that are present today only in humans.

In a distant ancestor 8 million to 14 million years ago, they found, a copying error resulted in an “extra hunk of DNA,” says David Haussler of the University of California, Santa Cruz, a senior author of one of the new studies.

This non-functioning extra piece of NOTCH2 code is still present in chimps and gorillas, but not in orangutans, which went off on their own evolutionary path 14 million years ago.

About 3 million to 4 million years ago, a few million years after our own lineage split from other apes, a second mutation activated the once non-functional code. This human-specific gene, called NOTCH2NL, began producing proteins involved in turning neural stem cells into cortical neurons. NOTCH2NL pumped up the number of neurons in the neocortex, the seat of advanced cognitive function. Over time, this led to bigger, more powerful brains. …

The researchers also found NOTCH2NL in the ancient genomes of our closest evolutionary kin: the Denisovans and the Neanderthals, who had brain volumes similar to our own.

And finally, Differences in Genes’ Geographic Origins Influence Mitochondrial Function:

“Genomes that evolve in different geographic locations without intermixing can end up being different from each other,” said Kateryna Makova, Pentz Professor of Biology at Penn State and an author of the paper. “… This variation has a lot of advantages; for example, increased variation in immune genes can provide enhanced protection from diseases. However, variation in geographic origin within the genome could also potentially lead to communication issues between genes, for example between mitochondrial and nuclear genes that work together to regulate mitochondrial function.”

Researchers looked at recently (by evolutionary standards) mixed populations like Puerto Ricans and African Americans, comparing the parts of their DNA that interact with mitochondria to the parts that don’t. Since mitochondria hail from your mother, and these populations have different ethnic DNA contributions along maternal and paternal lines. If all of the DNA were equally compatible with their mitochondria, then we’d expect to see equal contributions to the specifically mitochondria-interacting genes. If some ethnic origins interact better with the mitochondria, then we expect to see more of this DNA in these specific places.

The latter is, in fact, what we find. Puerto Ricans hail more from the Taino Indians along their mtDNA, and have relatively more Taino DNA in the genes that affect their mitochondria–indicating that over the years, individuals with more balanced contributions were selected against in Puerto Rico. (“Selection” is such a sanitized way of saying they died/had fewer children.)

This indicates that a recently admixed population may have more health issues than its parents, but the issues will work themselves out over time.

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.