Anthropology

Beckerman, Marty. Generation S.L.U.T.. New York: MTV Books, 2004. ISBN 0-7434-7109-1.
I bought this book based on a recommendation by Hunter S. Thompson. I don't know what the good doctor was smoking—he rarely knows what he's smoking—but this is one messed up, incoherent, choppy, gratuitously obscene, utterly amoral mix of fiction, autobiography, cartoons, newspaper clippings, and statistical factoids seemingly aimed at an audience with an attention span measured in seconds. All together now, “Well, what did you expect from something published by MTV Books?” The “S.L.U.T.” in the title stands for “Sexually Liberated Urban Teens”, and the book purports to be a view from the inside (the author turned 20 while writing the book) of contemporary teenage culture in the United States. One can only consider the word “Liberated” here in a Newspeak sense—the picture painted is of a generation enslaved to hormones and hedonism so banal it brings no pleasure to those who so mindlessly pursue it. The cartoons which break up the fictional thread into blocks of text short enough for MTV zombies are cheaply produced—they re-use a few line drawings of the characters, scaled, mirrored, and with different backgrounds, changing only the text in the balloon. The Addendum by the author is a straight rip-off of Hunter Thompson's style, right down the signature capitalisation of nouns for emphasis. The reader is bludgeoned with a relentless vulgarity which ultimately leaves one numb (and I say this as a fan of both Thompson and South Park). I found myself saying, again and again, “Teenagers in the U.S. can't possibly be this vapid, dissolute, and depraved, can they? Can they?” Er, maybe so, if this Teenwire site, sponsored by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is any indication. (You may be shocked, dismayed, and disgusted by the content of this site. I would not normally link to such material, but seeing as how it's deliberately directed at teenagers, I do so in the interest of showing parents how their kids are are being indoctrinated. Note how the welcome page takes you into the main site even if you don't click “Enter”, and that there is no disclaimer whatsoever regarding the site's suitability for children of any age.)

August 2004 Permalink

Bin Ladin, Carmen. The Veiled Kingdom. London: Virago Press, 2004. ISBN 1-84408-102-8.
Carmen Bin Ladin, a Swiss national with a Swiss father and Iranian mother, married Yeslam Bin Ladin in 1974 and lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia from 1976 to 1985. Yeslam Bin Ladin is one of the 54 sons and daughters sired by that randy old goat Sheikh Mohamed Bin Laden on his twenty-two wives including, of course, murderous nutball Osama. (There is no unique transliteration of Arabic into English. Yeslam spells his name “Bin Ladin”, while other members of the clan use “Bin Laden”, the most common spelling in the media. This book uses “Bin Ladin” when referring to Yeslam, Carmen, and their children, and “Bin Laden” when referring to the clan or other members of it.) This autobiography provides a peek, through the eyes of a totally Westernised woman, into the bizarre medieval life of Saudi women and the arcane customs of that regrettable kingdom. The author separated from her husband in 1988 and presently lives in Geneva. The link above is to a U.K. paperback edition. I believe the same book is available in the U.S. under the title Inside the Kingdom : My Life in Saudi Arabia, but at the present time only in hardcover.

September 2004 Permalink

Buchanan, Patrick J. The Death of the West. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2002. ISBN 0-312-28548-5.

January 2002 Permalink

Cochran, Gregory and Henry Harpending. The 10,000 Year Explosion. New York: Basic Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-00221-4.
“Only an intellectual could believe something so stupid” most definitely applies to the conventional wisdom among anthropologists and social scientists that human evolution somehow came to an end around 40,000 years ago with the emergence of modern humans and that differences among human population groups today are only “skin deep”: the basic physical, genetic, and cognitive toolkit of humans around the globe is essentially identical, with only historical contingency and cultural inheritance responsible for different outcomes.

To anybody acquainted with evolutionary theory, this should have been dismissed as ideologically motivated nonsensical propaganda on the face of it. Evolution is driven by changes and new challenges faced by a species as it moves into new niches and environments, adapts to environmental change, migrates and encounters new competition, and is afflicted by new diseases which select for those with immunity. Modern humans, in their expansion from Africa to almost every habitable part of the globe, have endured changes and challenges which dwarf those of almost any other metazoan species. It stands to reason, then, that the pace of human evolution, far from coming to a halt, would in fact accelerate dramatically, as natural selection was driven by the coming and going of ice ages, the development of agriculture and domestication of animals, spread of humans into environments inhospitable to their ancestors, trade and conquest resulting in the mixing of genes among populations, and numerous other factors.

Fortunately, we're lucky to live in an age in which we need no longer speculate upon such matters. The ability to sequence the human genome and compare the lineage of genes in various populations has created the field of genetic anthropology, which is in the process of transforming what was once a “soft science” into a thoroughly quantitative discipline where theories can be readily falsified by evidence in the genome. This book has the potential of creating a phase transition in anthropology: it is a manifesto for the genomic revolution, and a few years from now anthropologists who ignore the kind of evidence presented here will be increasingly forgotten, publishing papers nobody reads because they neglect the irrefutable evidence of human history we carry in our genes.

The authors are very ambitious in their claims, and I'm sure that some years from now they will be seen to have overreached in some of them. But the central message will, I am confident, stand: human evolution has dramatically accelerated since the emergence of modern humans, and is being driven at an ever faster pace by the cultural and environmental changes humans are incessantly confronting. Further, human history cannot be understood without first acknowledging that the human populations which were the actors in it were fundamentally different. The conquest of the Americas by Europeans may well not have happened had not Europeans carried genes which protected them against the infectuous diseases they also carried on their voyages of exploration and conquest. (By some estimates, indigenous populations in the Americas fell to 10% of their pre-contact levels, precipitating societal collapse.) Why do about half of all humans on Earth speak languages of the Indo-European group? Well, it may be because the obscure cattle herders from the steppes who spoke the ur-language happened to evolve a gene which made them lactose tolerant throughout adulthood, and hence were able to raise cattle for dairy products, which is five times as productive (measured by calories per unit area) as raising cattle for meat. While Europeans' immunity to disease served them well in their conquest of the Americas, their lack of immunity to diseases endemic in sub-Saharan Africa (in particular, falciparum malaria) rendered initial attempts colonise that region disastrous.

The authors do not hesitate to speculate on possible genetic influences on events in human history, but their conjectures are based upon published genetic evidence, cited from primary sources in the extensive end notes. A number of these discussions may lead to the sound of skulls exploding among those wedded to the dominant academic dogma. The authors suggest that some of the genes which allowed modern humans emerging from Africa to prosper in northern climes were the result of cross-breeding with Neanderthals; that just as domestication of animals results in neoteny, domestication of humans in agricultural and the consequent state societies has induced neotenous changes in “domesticated humans” which result in populations with a long history of living in agricultural societies adapting better to modern civilisation than those without that selection in their genetic heritage, and that the unique experience of selection for success in intellectually demanding professions and lack of interbreeding resulted in the emergence of the Ashkenazi Jews as a population whose mean intelligence exceeds that of all other human populations (as well as a prevalence of genetic diseases which appear linked to biochemical factors related to brain function).

There's an odd kind of doublethink present among many champions of evolutionary theory. While invoking evolution to explain even those aspects of the history of life on Earth where doing so involves what can only be called a “leap of faith”, they dismiss the self-evident consequences of natural selection on populations of their own species. Certainly, all humans constitute a single species: we can interbreed, and that's the definition. But all dogs and wolves can interbreed, yet nobody would say that there is no difference between a Great Dane and a Dachshund. Largely isolated human populations have been subjected to unique selective pressures from their environment, diet, diseases, conflict, culture, and competition, and it's nonsense to argue that these challenges did not drive selection of adaptive alleles among the population.

This book is a welcome shot across the bow of the “we're all the same” anthropological dogma, and provides a guide to the discoveries to be made as comparative genetics lays a firm scientific foundation for anthropology.

May 2009 Permalink

Cordain, Loren. The Paleo Diet. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. ISBN 978-0-470-91302-4.
As the author of a diet book, I don't read many self-described “diet books”. First of all, I'm satisfied with the approach to weight management described in my own book; second, I don't need to lose weight; and third, I find most “diet books” built around gimmicks with little justification in biology and prone to prescribe regimes that few people are likely to stick with long enough to achieve their goal. What motivated me to read this book was a talk by Michael Rose at the First Personalized Life Extension Conference in which he mentioned the concept and this book not in conjunction with weight reduction but rather the extension of healthy lifespan in humans. Rose's argument, which is grounded in evolutionary biology and paleoanthropology, is somewhat subtle and well summarised in this article.

At the core of Rose's argument and that of the present book is the observation that while the human genome is barely different from that of human hunter-gatherers a million years ago, our present-day population has had at most 200 to 500 generations to adapt to the very different diet which emerged with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is a relatively short time for adaptation and, here is the key thing (argued by Rose, but not in this book), even if modern humans had evolved adaptations to the agricultural diet (as in some cases they clearly have, lactose tolerance persisting into adulthood being one obvious example), those adaptations will not, from the simple mechanism of evolution, select out diseases caused by the new diet which only manifest themselves after the age of last reproduction in the population. So, if eating the agricultural diet (not to mention the horrors we've invented in the last century) were the cause of late-onset diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular problems, and type 2 diabetes, then evolution would have done nothing to select out the genes responsible for them, since these diseases strike most people after the age at which they've already passed on their genes to their children. Consequently, while it may be fine for young people to eat grain, dairy products, and other agricultural era innovations, folks over the age of forty may be asking for trouble by consuming foods which evolution hasn't had the chance to mold their genomes to tolerate. People whose ancestors shifted to the agricultural lifestyle much more recently, including many of African and aboriginal descent, have little or no adaptation to the agricultural diet, and may experience problems even earlier in life.

In this book, the author doesn't make these fine distinctions but rather argues that everybody can benefit from a diet resembling that which the vast majority of our ancestors—hunter-gatherers predating the advent of sedentary agriculture—ate, and to which evolution has molded our genome over that long expanse of time. This is not a “diet book” in the sense of a rigid plan for losing weight. Instead, it is a manual for adopting a lifestyle, based entirely upon non-exotic foods readily available at the supermarket, which approximates the mix of nutrients consumed by our distant ancestors. There are the usual meal plans and recipes, but the bulk of the book is a thorough survey, with extensive citations to the scientific literature, of what hunter-gatherers actually ate, the links scientists have found between the composition of the modern diet and the emergence of “diseases of civilisation” among populations that have transitioned to it in historical times, and the evidence for specific deleterious effects of major components of the modern diet such as grains and dairy products.

Not to over-simplify, but you can go a long way toward the ancestral diet simply by going to the store with an “anti-shopping list” of things not to buy, principally:

  • Grain, or anything derived from grains (bread, pasta, rice, corn)
  • Dairy products (milk, cheese, butter)
  • Fatty meats (bacon, marbled beef)
  • Starchy tuber crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes)
  • Salt or processed foods with added salt
  • Refined sugar or processed foods with added sugar
  • Oils with a high omega 6 to omega 3 ratio (safflower, peanut)

And basically, that's it! Apart from the list above you can buy whatever you want, eat it whenever you like in whatever quantity you wish, and the author asserts that if you're overweight you'll soon see your weight dropping toward your optimal weight, a variety of digestive and other problems will begin to clear up, you'll have more energy and a more consistent energy level throughout the day, and that you'll sleep better. Oh, and your chances of contracting cancer, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease will be dramatically reduced.

In practise, this means eating a lot of lean meat, seafood, fresh fruit and fresh vegetables, and nuts. As the author points out, even if you have a mound of cooked boneless chicken breasts, broccoli, and apples on the table before you, you're far less likely to pig out on them compared to, say, a pile of doughnuts, because the natural foods don't give you the immediate blood sugar hit the highly glycemic processed food does. And even if you do overindulge, the caloric density in the natural foods is so much lower your jaw will get tired chewing or your gut will bust before you can go way over your calorie requirements.

Now, if even if the science is sound (there are hundreds of citations of peer reviewed publications in the bibliography, but then nutritionists are forever publishing contradictory “studies” on any topic you can imagine, and in any case epidemiology cannot establish causation) and the benefits from adopting this diet are as immediate, dramatic, and important for long-term health, a lot of people are going to have trouble with what is recommended here. Food is a lot more to humans and other species (as anybody who's had a “picky eater” cat can testify) than just molecular fuel and construction material for our bodies. Our meals nourish the soul as well as the body, and among humans shared meals are a fundamental part of our social interaction which evolution has doubtless had time to write into our genes. If you go back and look at that list of things not to eat, you'll probably discover that just about any “comfort food” you cherish probably runs afoul of one or more of the forbidden ingredients. This means that contemplating the adoption of this diet as a permanent lifestyle change can look pretty grim, unless or until you find suitable replacements that thread among the constraints. The recipes presented here are interesting, but still come across to me (not having tried them) as pretty Spartan. And recall that even Spartans lived a pretty sybaritic lifestyle compared to your average hunter-gatherer band. But, hey, peach fuzz is entirely cool!

The view of the mechanics of weight loss and gain and the interaction between exercise and weight reduction presented here is essentially 100% compatible with my own in The Hacker's Diet.

This was intriguing enough that I decided to give it a try starting a couple of weeks ago. (I have been adhering, more or less, to the food selection guidelines, but not the detailed meal plans.) The results so far are intriguing but, at this early date, inconclusive. The most dramatic effect was an almost immediate (within the first three days) crash in my always-pesky high blood pressure. This may be due entirely to putting away the salt shaker (an implement of which I have been inordinately fond since childhood), but whatever the cause, it's taken about 20 points off the systolic and 10 off the diastolic, throughout the day. Second, I've seen a consistent downward bias in my weight. Now, as I said, I didn't try this diet to lose weight (although I could drop a few kilos and still be within the target band for my height and build, and wouldn't mind doing so). In any case, these are short-term results and may include transient adaptation effects. I haven't been hungry for a moment nor have I experienced any specific cravings (except the second-order kind for popcorn with a movie). It remains to be seen what will happen when I next attend a Swiss party and have to explain that I don't eat cheese.

This is a very interesting nutritional thesis, backed by a wealth of impressive research of which I was previously unaware. It flies in the face of much of the conventional wisdom on diet and nutrition, and yet viewed from the standpoint of evolution, it makes a lot of sense. You will find the case persuasively put here and perhaps be tempted to give it a try.

December 2010 Permalink

Dalrymple, Theodore. Life at the Bottom. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. ISBN 1-56663-382-6.

September 2002 Permalink

De Vany, Arthur. The New Evolution Diet. New York: Rodale Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-60529-183-3.
The author is an economist best known for his research into the economics of Hollywood films, and his demonstration that the Pareto distribution applies to the profitability of Hollywood productions, empirically falsifying many entertainment business nostrums about a correlation between production cost and “star power” of the cast and actual performance at the box office. When his son, and later his wife, developed diabetes and the medical consensus treatment seemed to send both into a downward spiral, his economist's sense for the behaviour of complex nonlinear systems with feedback and delays caused him to suspect that the regimen prescribed for diabetics was based on a simplistic view of the system aimed at treating the symptoms rather than the cause. This led him to an in depth investigation of human metabolism and nutrition, grounded in the evolutionary heritage of our species (this is fully documented here—indeed, almost half of the book is end notes and source references, which should not be neglected: there is much of interest there).

His conclusion was that our genes, which have scarcely changed in the last 40,000 years, were adapted to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that our hominid ancestors lived for millions of years before the advent of agriculture. Our present day diet and way of life could not be more at variance with our genetic programming, so it shouldn't be a surprise that we see a variety of syndromes, including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and late-onset diseases such as many forms of cancer which are extremely rare among populations whose diet and lifestyle remain closer to those of ancestral humans. Strong evidence for this hypothesis comes from nomadic aboriginal populations which, settled into villages and transitioned to the agricultural diet, promptly manifested diseases, categorised as “metabolic syndrome”, which were previously unknown among them.

This is very much the same conclusion as that of The Paleo Diet (December 2010), and I recommend you read both of these books as they complement one another. The present volume goes deeper into the biochemistry underlying its dietary recommendations, and explores what the hunter-gatherer lifestyle has to say about the exercise to which we are adapted. Our ancestors' lives were highly chaotic: they ate when they made a kill or found food to gather and fasted until the next bounty. They engaged in intense physical exertion during a hunt or battle, and then passively rested until the next time. Modern times have made us slaves to the clock: we do the same things at the same times on a regular schedule. Even those who incorporate strenuous exercise into their routine tend to do the same things at the same time on the same days. The author argues that this is not remotely what our heritage has evolved us for.

Once Pareto gets into your head, it's hard to get him out. Most approaches to diet, nutrition, and exercise (including my own) view the human body as a system near equilibrium. The author argues that one shouldn't look at the mean but rather the kurtosis of the distribution, as it's the extremes that matter—don't tediously “do cardio” like all of the treadmill trudgers at the gym, but rather push your car up a hill every now and then, or randomly raise your heart rate into the red zone.

This all makes perfect sense to me. I happened to finish this book almost precisely six months after adopting my own version of the paleo diet, not from a desire to lose weight (I'm entirely happy with my weight, which hasn't varied much in the last twenty years, thanks to the feedback mechanism of The Hacker's Diet) but due to the argument that it averts late-onset diseases and extends healthy lifespan. Well, it's too early to form any conclusions on either of these, and in any case you can draw any curve you like through a sample size of one, but after half a year on paleo I can report that my weight is stable, my blood pressure is right in the middle of the green zone (as opposed to low-yellow before), I have more energy, sleep better, and have seen essentially all of the aches and pains and other symptoms of low-level inflammation disappear. Will you have cravings for things you've forgone when you transition to paleo? Absolutely—in my experience it takes about three months for them to go away. When I stopped salting my food, everything tasted like reprocessed blaah for the first couple of weeks, but now I appreciate the flavours below the salt.

For the time being, I'm going to continue this paleo thing, not primarily due to the biochemical and epidemiological arguments here, but because I've been doing it for six months and I feel better than I have for years. I am a creature of habit, and I find it very difficult to introduce kurtosis into my lifestyle: when exogenous events do so, I deem it an “entropic storm”. When it's 15:00, I go for my one hour walk. When it's 18:00, I eat, etc. Maybe I should find some way to introduce randomness into my life….

An excellent Kindle edition is available, with the table of contents, notes, and index all properly linked to the text.

June 2011 Permalink

Deary, Terry. The Cut-Throat Celts. London: Hippo, 1997. ISBN 0-590-13972-X.

July 2002 Permalink

Entine, Jon. Taboo. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000. ISBN 1-58648-026-X.

A certain segment of the dogma-based community of postmodern academics and their hangers-on seems to have no difficulty whatsoever believing that Darwinian evolution explains every aspect of the origin and diversification of life on Earth while, at the same time, denying that genetics—the mechanism which underlies evolution—plays any part in differentiating groups of humans. Doublethink is easy if you never think at all. Among those to whom evidence matters, here's a pretty astonishing fact to ponder. In the last four Olympic games prior to the publication of this book in the year 2000, there were thirty-two finalists in the men's 100-metre sprint. All thirty-two were of West African descent—a region which accounts for just 8% of the world's population. If finalists in this event were randomly chosen from the entire global population, the probability of this concentration occurring by chance is 0.0832 or about 8×10−36, which is significant at the level of more than twelve standard deviations. The hardest of results in the flintiest of sciences—null tests of conservation laws and the like—are rarely significant above 7 to 8 standard deviations.

Now one can certainly imagine any number of cultural and other non-genetic factors which predispose those with West African ancestry toward world-class performance in sprinting, but twelve standard deviations? The fact that running is something all humans do without being taught, and that training for running doesn't require any complicated or expensive equipment (as opposed to sports such as swimming, high-diving, rowing, or equestrian events), and that champions of West African ancestry hail from countries around the world, should suggest a genetic component to all but the most blinkered of blank slaters.

Taboo explores the reality of racial differences in performance in various sports, and the long and often sordid entangled histories of race and sports, including the tawdry story of race science and eugenics, over-reaction to which has made most discussion of human biodiversity, as the title of book says, taboo. The equally forbidden subject of inherent differences in male and female athletic performance is delved into as well, with a look at the hormone dripping “babes from Berlin” manufactured by the cruel and exploitive East German sports machine before the collapse of that dismal and unlamented tyranny.

Those who know some statistics will have no difficulty understanding what's going on here—the graph on page 255 tells the whole story. I wish the book had gone into a little more depth about the phenomenon of a slight shift in the mean performance of a group—much smaller than individual variation—causing a huge difference in the number of group members found in the extreme tail of a normal distribution. Another valuable, albeit speculative, insight is that if one supposes that there are genes which confer advantage to competitors in certain athletic events, then given the intense winnowing process world-class athletes pass through before they reach the starting line at the Olympics, it is plausible all of them at that level possess every favourable gene, and that the winner is determined by training, will to win, strategy, individual differences, and luck, just as one assumed before genetics got mixed up in the matter. It's just that if you don't have the genes (just as if your legs aren't long enough to be a runner), you don't get anywhere near that level of competition.

Unless research in these areas is suppressed due to an ill-considered political agenda, it is likely that the key genetic components of athletic performance will be identified in the next couple of decades. Will this mean that world-class athletic competition can be replaced by DNA tests? Of course not—it's just that one factor in the feedback loop of genetic endowment, cultural reinforcement of activities in which group members excel, and the individual striving for excellence which makes competitors into champions will be better understood.

May 2005 Permalink

Epstein, Robert. The Case Against Adolescence. Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books, 2007. ISBN 1-884956-70-X.
What's the matter with kids today? In this exhaustively documented breakthrough book, the author argues that adolescence, as it is presently understood in developed Western countries, is a social construct which was created between 1880 and 1920 by well-intentioned social reformers responding to excesses of the industrial revolution and mass immigration to the United States. Their remedies—compulsory education, child labour laws, the juvenile justice system, and the proliferation of age-specific restrictions on “adult” activities such as driving, drinking alcohol, and smoking—had the unintended consequence of almost completely segregating teenagers from adults, trapping them in a vacuous peer culture and prolonging childhood up to a decade beyond the age at which young people begin to assume the responsibilities of adulthood in traditional societies.

Examining anthropological research on other cultures and historical evidence from past centuries, the author concludes that the “storm and stress” which characterises modern adolescence is the consequence of the infantilisation of teens, and their confinement in a peer culture with little contact with adults. In societies and historical periods where the young became integrated into adult society shortly after puberty and began to shoulder adult responsibilities, there is no evidence whatsoever for anything like the dysfunctional adolescence so often observed in the modern West—in fact, a majority of preindustrial cultures have no word in their language for the concept of adolescence.

Epstein, a psychologist who did his Ph.D. under B. F. Skinner at Harvard, and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine, presents results of a comprehensive test of adultness he developed along with Diane Dumas which demonstrate that in most cases the competencies of people in the 13 to 17 year range do not differ from those of adults between twenty and seventy-one by a statistically significant margin. (I should note that the groups surveyed, as described on pp. 154–155, differed wildly in ethnic and geographic composition from the U.S. population as a whole; I'd love to see the cross-tabulations.) An abridged version of the test is included in the book; you can take the complete test online. (My score was 98%, with most of the demerits due to placing less trust in figures of authority than the author deems wise.)

So, if there is little difference in the basic competences of teens and adults, why are so many adolescents such vapid, messed-up, apathetic losers? Well, consider this: primates learn by observing (monkey see) and by emulating (monkey do). For millions of years our ancestors have lived in bands in which the young had most of their contact with adults, and began to do the work of adults as soon as they were physically and mentally capable of doing so. This was the near-universal model of human societies until the late 19th century and remains so in many non-Western cultures. But in the West, this pattern has been replaced by warehousing teenagers in government schools which effectively confine them with others of their age. Their only adult contacts apart from (increasingly absent) parents are teachers, who are inevitably seen as jailors. How are young people to be expected to turn their inherent competencies into adult behaviour if they spend almost all of their time only with their peers?

Now, the author doesn't claim that everybody between the ages of 13 and 17 has the ability to function as an adult. Just as with physical development, different individuals mature at different rates, and one may have superb competence in one area and remain childish in another. But, on the other hand, simply turning 18 or 21 or whatever doesn't magically endow someone with those competencies either—many adults (defined by age) perform poorly as well.

In two breathtaking final chapters, the author argues for the replacement of virtually all age-based discrimination in the law with competence testing in the specific area involved. For example, a 13 year old could entirely skip high school by passing the equivalency examination available to those 18 or older. There's already a precedent for this—we don't automatically allow somebody to drive, fly an airplane, or operate an amateur radio station when they reach a certain age: they have to pass a comprehensive examination on theory, practice, and law. Why couldn't this basic concept be extended to most of the rights and responsibilities we currently grant based purely upon age? Think of the incentive such a system would create for teens to acquire adult knowledge and behaviour as early as possible, knowing that it would be rewarded with adult rights and respect, instead of being treated like children for what could be some of the most productive years of their lives.

Boxes throughout the text highlight the real-world achievements of young people in history and the present day. (Did you know that Sergey Karjakin became a chess grandmaster at the age of 12 years and 7 months? He is among seven who achieved grandmaster ranking at an age younger than Bobby Fischer's 15 years and 6 months.) There are more than 75 pages of end notes and bibliography. (I wonder if the author is aware that note 68 to chapter 5 [p. 424] cites a publication of the Lyndon LaRouche organisation.)

It isn't often you pick up a book with laudatory blurbs by a collection of people including Albert Ellis, Deepak Chopra, Joyce Brothers, Alvin Toffler, George Will, John Taylor Gatto, Suzanne Somers, and Buzz Aldrin. I concur with them that the author has put his finger precisely on the cause of a major problem in modern society, and laid out a challenging yet plausible course for remedying it. I discovered this book via an excellent podcast interview with the author on “The Glenn and Helen Show”.

About halfway through this book, I had one of the most chilling visions of the future I've experienced in many years. One of the things I've puzzled over for ages is what, precisely, is the end state of the vision of those who call themselves “progressives”—progress toward what, anyway? What would society look like if they had their way across the board? And then suddenly it hit me like a brick. If you want to see what the “progressive” utopia looks like, just take a glance at the lives of teenagers today, who are deprived of a broad spectrum of rights and denied responsibilities “for their own good”. Do-gooders always justify their do-badding “for the children”, and their paternalistic policies, by eviscerating individualism and autonomous judgement, continually create ever more “children”. The nineteenth century reformers, responding to genuine excesses of the industrial revolution, extended childhood from puberty to years later, inventing what we call adolescence. The agenda of today's “progressives” is inexorably extending adolescence to create a society of eternal adolescents, unworthy of the responsibilities of adults, and hence forever the childlike wards of an all-intrusive state and the elites which govern it. If you want a vision of the “progressive” future, imagine being back in high school—forever.

July 2007 Permalink

Gémignani, Anne-Marie. Une femme au royaume des interdits. Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 2003. ISBN 2-85616-888-4.

March 2003 Permalink

How, Edith A. People of Africa. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1921.
This book was found in a Cairo bookbinder's shop; I know of no source for printed copies, but an electronic edition is now available online at this site.

January 2003 Permalink

Kelleher, Colm A. and George Knapp. Hunt for the Skinwalker. New York: Paraview Pocket Books, 2005. ISBN 1-4165-0521-0.
Memo to file: if you're one of those high-strung people prone to be rattled by the occasional bulletproof wolf, flying refrigerator, disappearing/reappearing interdimensional gateway, lumbering giant humanoid, dog-incinerating luminous orb, teleporting bull, and bloodlessly eviscerated cow, don't buy a ranch, even if it's a terrific bargain, whose very mention makes American Indians in the neighbourhood go “woo-woo” and slowly back away from you. That's what Terry Sherman (“Tom Gorman” in this book) and family did in 1994, walking into, if you believe their story, a seething nexus of the paranormal so weird and intense that Chris Carter could have saved a fortune by turning the “X-Files” into a reality show about their life. The Shermans found that living with things which don't just go bump in the night but also slaughter their prize livestock and working dogs so disturbing they jumped at the opportunity to unload the place in 1996, when the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS), a private foundation investigating the paranormal funded by real estate tycoon and inflatable space station entrepreneur Robert Bigelow offered to buy them out in order to establish a systematic on-site investigation of the phenomena. (The NIDS Web site does not appear to have been updated since late 2004; I don't know if the organisation is still in existence or active.)

This book, co-authored by the biochemist who headed the field team investigating the phenomena and the television news reporter who covered the story, describes events on the ranch both before and during the scientific investigation. As is usual in such accounts, all the really weird stuff happened before the scientists arrived on the scene with their cameras, night vision scopes, radiation meters, spectrometers, magnetometers (why is always magnetometers, anyway?) and set up shop in their “command and control centre” (a.k.a. trailer—summoning to mind the VW bus “mobile command post” in The Lone Gunmen). Afterward, there was only the rare nocturnal light, mind-controlling black-on-black flying object, and transdimensional tunnel sighting (is an orange pulsating luminous orb which disgorges fierce four hundred pound monsters a “jackal lantern”?), none, of course, captured on film or video, nor registered on any other instrument.

This observation and investigation serves as the launch pad for eighty pages of speculation about causes, natural and supernatural, including the military, shape-shifting Navajo witches, extraterrestrials, invaders from other dimensions, hallucination-inducing shamanism, bigfoot, and a muddled epilogue which illustrates why biochemists and television newsmen should seek the advice of a physicist before writing about speculative concepts in modern physics. The conclusion is, unsurprisingly: “inconclusive.”

Suppose, for a moment, that all of this stuff really did happen, more or less as described. (Granted, that is a pretty big hypothetical, but then the family who first experienced the weirdness never seems to have sought publicity or profit from their experiences, and this book is the first commercial exploitation of the events, coming more than ten years after they began.) What could possibly be going on? Allow me to humbly suggest that the tongue-in-cheek hypothesis advanced in my 1997 paper Flying Saucers Explained, combined with some kind of recurring “branestorm” opening and closing interdimensional gates in the vicinity, might explain many of the otherwise enigmatic, seemingly unrelated, and nonsensical phenomena reported in this and other paranormal “hot spots”.

February 2006 Permalink

Lamb, David. The Africans. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. ISBN 0-394-75308-9.

April 2002 Permalink

Lamb, David. The Arabs. 2nd. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. ISBN 1-4000-3041-2.

June 2002 Permalink

Lamont, Peter. The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004. ISBN 1-56025-661-3.
Charmed by a mysterious swami, the end of a rope rises up of its own accord high into the air. A small boy climbs the rope and, upon reaching the top, vanishes. The Indian rope trick: ancient enigma of the subcontinent or 1890 invention by a Chicago newspaper embroiled in a circulation war? Peter Lamont, magician and researcher at the University of Edinburgh, traces the origin and growth of this pervasive legend. Along the way we encounter a cast of characters including Marco Polo; a Chief of the U.S. Secret Service; Madame Blavatsky; Charles Dickens; Colonel Stodare, an Englishman who impersonated a Frenchman performing Indian magic; William H. Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State; Professor Belzibub; General Earl Haig and his aptly named aide-de-camp, Sergeant Secrett; John Nevil Maskelyne, conjurer, debunker of spiritualism, and inventor of the pay toilet; and a host of others. The author's style is occasionally too clever for its own good, but this is a popular book about the Indian rope trick, not a quantum field theory text after all, so what the heck. I read the U.K. edition.

January 2005 Permalink

Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-691-02832-X.

September 2001 Permalink

LeBlanc, Steven A. with Katherine E. Register. Constant Battles. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003. ISBN 0-312-31090-0.
Steven LeBlanc is the Director of Collections at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. When he began his fieldwork career in the early 1970s, he shared the opinion of most of the archaeologists and anthropologists of his generation and present-day laymen that most traditional societies in the hunter-gatherer and tribal farming eras were mostly peaceful and lived in balance with their environments. It was, according to this view, only with the emergence of large chiefdoms and state-level societies that environmental degradation began to appear and mass conflict emerge, culminating in the industrialised slaughter of the 20th century.

But, to the author, as a dispassionate scientist, looking at the evidence on the ground or dug up from beneath it in expeditions in the American Southwest, Turkey, and Peru, and in the published literature, there were many discrepancies from this consensus narrative. In particular, why would “peaceful” farming people build hilltop walled citadels far from their fields and sources of water if not for defensibility? And why would hard-working farmers obsess upon defence were there not an active threat from their neighbours?

Further investigations argue convincingly that the human experience, inherited directly from our simian ancestors, has been one of relentless population growth beyond the carrying capacity of our local environment, degradation of the ecosystem, and the inevitable conflict with neighbouring bands over scarce resources. Ironically, many of the reports of early ethnographers which appeared to confirm perennially-wrong philosopher Rousseau's vision of the “noble savage” were based upon observations of traditional societies which had recently been impacted by contact with European civilisation: population collapse due to exposure to European diseases to which they had no immunity, and increases in carrying capacity of the land thanks to introduction of European technologies such as horses, steel tools, and domestic animals, which had temporarily eased the Malthusian pressure upon these populations and suspended resource wars. But the archaeological evidence is that such wars are the norm, not an aberration.

In fact, notwithstanding the horrific death toll of twentieth century warfare, the rate of violent death among the human population has fallen to an all-time low in the nation-state era. Hunter-gatherer (or, as the authors prefer to call them, “forager”) and tribal farming societies typically lose about 25% of their male population and 5% of the females to warfare with neighbouring bands. Even the worst violence of the nation-state era, averaged over a generation, has a death toll only one eighth this level.

Are present-day humans (or, more specifically, industrialised Western humans) unprecedented despoilers of our environment and aggressors against inherently peaceful native people? Nonsense argues this extensively documented book. Unsustainable population growth, resource exhaustion, environmental degradation, and lethal conflict with neighbours are as human as bipedalism and speech. Conflict is not inevitable, and civilisation, sustainable environmental policy, and yield-improving and resource-conserving technology are the best course to reducing the causes of conflict. Dreaming of a nonexistent past of peaceful people living in harmony with their environment isn't.

You can read any number of books about military history, from antiquity to the present, without ever encountering a discussion of “Why we fight”—that's the subtitle of this book, and I've never encountered a better source to begin to understand the answer to this question than you'll find here.

August 2007 Permalink

McGovern, Patrick E. Uncorking the Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-520-25379-7.
While a variety of animals are attracted to and consume the alcohol in naturally fermented fruit, only humans have figured out how to promote the process, producing wine from fruit and beer from cereal crops. And they've been doing it since at least the Neolithic period: the author discovered convincing evidence of a fermented beverage in residues on pottery found at the Jiahu site in China, inhabited between 7000 and 5800 B.C.

Indeed, almost every human culture which had access to fruits or grains which could be turned into an alcoholic beverage did so, and made the production and consumption of spirits an important part of their economic and spiritual life. (One puzzle is why the North American Indians, who lived among an abundance of fermentable crops never did—there are theories that tobacco and hallucinogenic mushrooms supplanted alcohol for shamanistic purposes, but basically nobody really knows.)

The author is a pioneer in the field of biomolecular archæology and head of the eponymous laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archæology and Anthropology; in this book takes us on a tour around the world and across the centuries exploring, largely through his own research and that of associates, the history of fermented beverages in a variety of cultures and what we can learn from this evidence about how they lived, were organised, and interacted with other societies. Only in recent decades has biochemical and genetic analysis progressed to the point that it is possible not only to determine from some gunk found at the bottom of an ancient pot not only that it was some kind of beer or wine, but from what species of fruit and grain it was produced, how it was prepared and fermented, and what additives it may have contained and whence they originated. Calling on experts in related disciplines such as palynology (the study of pollen and spores, not of the Alaskan politician), the author is able to reconstruct the economics of the bustling wine trade across the Mediterranean (already inferred from shipwrecks carrying large numbers of casks of wine) and the diffusion of the ancestral cultivated grape around the world, displacing indigenous grapes which were less productive for winemaking.

While the classical period around the Mediterranean is pretty much soaked in wine, and it'd be difficult to imagine the Vikings and other North Europeans without their beer and grogs, much less was known about alcoholic beverages in China, South America, and Africa. Once again, the author is on their trail, and not only reports upon his original research, but also attempts, in conjunction with micro-brewers and winemakers, to reconstruct the ancestral beverages of yore.

The biochemical anthropology of booze is not exactly a crowded field, and in this account written by one of its leaders, you get the sense of having met just about all of the people pursuing it. A great deal remains to be learnt—parts of the book read almost like a list of potential Ph.D. projects for those wishing to follow in the author's footsteps. But that's the charm of opening a new window into the past: just as DNA and other biochemical analyses revolutionised the understanding of human remains in archæology, the arsenal of modern analytical tools allows reconstructing humanity's almost universal companion through the ages, fermented beverages, and through them, uncork the way in which those cultures developed and interacted.

A paperback edition will be published in December 2010.

October 2010 Permalink

Nettle, Daniel and Suzanne Romaine. Vanishing Voices. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-513624-1.
Of the approximately 6000 languages in use in the world today, nearly 85 percent have fewer than 100,000 speakers—half fewer than 6000 speakers. Development and globalisation imperil the survival of up to 90% of these minority languages—many are already no longer spoken by children, which virtually guarantees their extinction. Few details are known of many of these vanishing languages; their disappearance will forever foreclose whatever insights they hold to the evolution and structure of human languages, the cultures of those who speak them, and the environments which shaped them. Somebody ought to write a book about this. Regrettably, these authors didn't. Instead, they sprinkle interesting factoids about endangered languages here and there amid a Chomsky-style post-colonial rant which attempts to conflate language diversity with biodiversity through an argument which, in the absence of evidence, relies on “proof through repeated assertion,” while simultaneously denying that proliferation and extinction of languages might be a process akin to Darwinian evolution rather than the more fashionable doctrines of oppression and exploitation. One can only shake one's head upon reading, “The same is true for Spanish, which is secure in Spain, but threatened in the United States.” (p. 48) or “Any language can, in fact, be turned to any purpose, perhaps by the simple incorporation of a few new words.” (p. 129). A paperback edition is now available.

October 2003 Permalink

Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought. New York: Free Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-5535-6.
It's a safe bet that the vast majority of Westerners who have done business in East Asia (China, Japan, and Korea), and Asians who've done business in the West have come to the same conclusion: “Asians and Westerners think differently.” They may not say as much, at least not to the general public, for fear of being thought intolerant, but they believe it on the evidence of their own experience nonetheless.

Psychologist Richard E. Nisbett and his colleagues in China and Korea have been experimentally investigating the differences in Asian and Western thought processes, and their results are summarised in this enlightening book (with citations of the original research). Their work confirms the conventional wisdom—Westerners view the world through a telephoto lens, applying logic and reductionism to find the “one best way”, while Asians see a wide-angle view, taking into account the context of events and seeking a middle way between extremes and apparent contradictions—with experimental effect sizes which are large, robust, and reliable.

Present-day differences in Asian and Western thought are shown to be entirely consistent with those of ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy, implying that whatever the cause, it is stable over long spans of history. Although experiments with infants provide some evidence for genetic predisposition, Nisbett suspects that a self-reinforcing homeostatic feedback loop between culture, language, and society is responsible for most of the difference in thought processes. The fact that Asian-Americans and Westernised Asians in Hong Kong and Singapore test between Asian and Western extremes provides evidence for this. (The fact that Asians excel at quintessentially Western intellectual endeavours such as abstract mathematics and theoretical science would, it seems to me, exclude most simple-minded explanations based on inherited differences in brain wiring.)

This work casts doubt upon Utopian notions of an End of History in which Western-style free markets and democracy are adopted by all nations and cultures around the globe. To a large extent, such a scenario assumes all people think like Westerners and share the same values, an assumption to which Nisbett's research offers persuasive counter examples. This may be for the best; both Western and Asian styles of thought are shown as predisposing those applying them to distinct, yet equally dangerous, fallacies. Perhaps a synthesis of these (and other) ways of thinking is a sounder foundation for a global society than the Western model alone.

December 2004 Permalink

Sacks, David. Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. ISBN 0-7679-1172-5.
Whaddya gonna do? The hardcover is out of print and the paperback isn't scheduled for publication until August 2004. The U.K. hardback edition, simply titled The Alphabet, is currently available.

March 2004 Permalink

Sarich, Vincent and Frank Miele. Race: The Reality of Human Differences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8133-4086-1.
This book tackles the puzzle posed by the apparent contradiction between the remarkable genetic homogeneity of humans compared to other species, while physical differences between human races (non-controversial measures such as cranial morphology, height, and body build) actually exceed those between other primate species and subspecies. Vincent Sarich, emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, pioneer in the development of the “molecular clock”, recounts this scientific adventure and the resulting revolution in the human evolutionary tree and timescale. Miele (editor of Skeptic magazine) and Sarich then argue that the present-day dogma among physical anthropologists and social scientists that “race does not exist”, if taken to its logical conclusion, amounts to rejecting Darwinian evolution, which occurs through variation and selection. Consequently variation among groups is an inevitable consequence, recognised as a matter of course in other species. Throughout, the authors stress that variation of characteristics among individual humans greatly exceeds mean racial variation, which makes racial prejudice and discrimination not only morally abhorrent but stupid from the scientific standpoint. At the same time, small differences in the mean of a set of standard distributions causes large changes in their representation in the aggregate tail representing extremes of performance. This is why one should be neither surprised nor dismayed to find a “disproportionate” number of Kenyans among cross-country running champions, Polynesians in American professional football, or east Asians in mathematical research. A person who comprehends this basic statistical fact should be able to treat individuals on their own merit without denying the reality of differences among sub-populations of the human species. Due to the broad overlap among groups, members of every group, if given the opportunity, will be represented at the highest levels of performance in each field, and no individual should feel deterred nor be excluded from aspiring to such achievement due to group membership. For the argument against the biological reality of race, see the Web site for the United States Public Broadcasting Service documentary, Race: The Power of an Illusion. This book attempts to rebut each of the assertions in that documentary.

June 2004 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-59403-086-3.
One of the most pernicious calumnies directed at black intellectuals in the United States is that they are “not authentic”—that by speaking standard English, assimilating into the predominant culture, and seeing learning and hard work as the way to get ahead, they have somehow abandoned their roots in the ghetto culture. In the title essay in this collection, Thomas Sowell demonstrates persuasively that this so-called “black culture” owes its origins, in fact, not to anything blacks brought with them from Africa or developed in times of slavery, but rather to a white culture which immigrants to the American South from marginal rural regions of Britain imported and perpetuated long after it had died out in the mother country. Members of this culture were called “rednecks” and “crackers” in Britain long before they arrived in America, and they proceeded to install this dysfunctional culture in much of the rural South. Blacks arriving from Africa, stripped of their own culture, were immersed into this milieu, and predictably absorbed the central values and characteristics of the white redneck culture, right down to patterns of speech which can be traced back to the Scotland, Wales, and Ulster of the 17th century. Interestingly, free blacks in the North never adopted this culture, and were often well integrated into the community until the massive northward migration of redneck blacks (and whites) from the South spawned racial prejudice against all blacks. While only 1/3 of U.S. whites lived in the South, 90% of blacks did, and hence the redneck culture which was strongly diluted as southern whites came to the northern cities, was transplanted whole as blacks arrived in the north and were concentrated in ghetto communities.

What makes this more than an anthropological and historical footnote is, that as Sowell describes, the redneck culture does not work very well—travellers in the areas of Britain it once dominated and in the early American South described the gratuitous violence, indolence, disdain for learning, and a host of other characteristics still manifest in the ghetto culture today. This culture is alien to the blacks who it mostly now afflicts, and is nothing to be proud of. Scotland, for example, largely eradicated the redneck culture, and became known for learning and enterprise; it is this example, Sowell suggests, that blacks could profitably follow, rather than clinging to a bogus culture which was in fact brought to the U.S. by those who enslaved their ancestors.

Although the title essay is the most controversial and will doubtless generate the bulk of commentary, it is in fact only 62 pages in this book of 372 pages. The other essays discuss the experience of “middleman minorities” such as the Jews, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Lebanese in Africa, overseas Chinese, etc.; the actual global history of slavery, as a phenomenon in which people of all races, continents, and cultures have been both slaves and slaveowners; the history of ethnic German communities around the globe and whether the Nazi era was rooted in the German culture or an aberration; and forgotten success stories in black education in the century prior to the civil rights struggles of the mid 20th century. The book concludes with a chapter on how contemporary “visions” and agendas can warp the perception of history, discarding facts which don't fit and obscuring lessons from the past which can be vital in deciding what works and what doesn't in the real world. As with much of Sowell's work, there are extensive end notes (more than 60 pages, with 289 notes on the title essay alone) which contain substantial “meat” along with source citations; they're well worth reading over after the essays.

July 2005 Permalink

Todd, Emmanuel. Après l'empire. Paris: Gallimard, 2002. ISBN 2-07-076710-8.
An English translation is scheduled to be published in January 2004.

November 2002 Permalink

Wade, Nicholas. Before The Dawn. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. ISBN 1-59420-079-3.
Modern human beings, physically very similar to people alive today, with spoken language and social institutions including religion, trade, and warfare, had evolved by 50,000 years ago, yet written historical records go back only about 5,000 years. Ninety percent of human history, then, is “prehistory” which paleoanthropologists have attempted to decipher from meagre artefacts and rare discoveries of human remains. The degree of inference and the latitude for interpretation of this material has rendered conclusions drawn from it highly speculative and tentative. But in the last decade this has begun to change.

While humans only began to write the history of their species in the last 10% of their presence on the planet, the DNA that makes them human has been patiently recording their history in a robust molecular medium which only recently, with the ability to determine the sequence of the genome, humans have learnt to read. This has provided a new, largely objective, window on human history and origins, and has both confirmed results teased out of the archæological record over the centuries, and yielded a series of stunning surprises which are probably only the first of many to come.

Each individual's genome is a mix of genes inherited from their father and mother, plus a few random changes (mutations) due to errors in the process of transcription. The separate genome of the mitochondria (energy producing organelles) in their cells is inherited exclusively from the mother, and in males, the Y chromosome (except for the very tips) is inherited directly from the father, unmodified except for mutations. In an isolated population whose members breed mostly with one another, members of the group will come to share a genetic signature which reflects natural selection for reproductive success in the environment they inhabit (climate, sources of food, endemic diseases, competition with other populations, etc.) and the effects of random “genetic drift” which acts to reduce genetic diversity, particularly in small, isolated populations. Random mutations appear in certain parts of the genome at a reasonably constant rate, which allows them to be used as a “molecular clock” to estimate the time elapsed since two related populations diverged from their last common ancestor. (This is biology, so naturally the details are fantastically complicated, messy, subtle, and difficult to apply in practice, but the general outline is as described above.)

Even without access to the genomes of long-dead ancestors (which are difficult in the extreme to obtain and fraught with potential sources of error), the genomes of current populations provide a record of their ancestry, geographical origin, migrations, conquests and subjugations, isolation or intermarriage, diseases and disasters, population booms and busts, sources of food, and, by inference, language, social structure, and technologies. This book provides a look at the current state of research in the rapidly expanding field of genetic anthropology, and it makes for an absolutely compelling narrative of the human adventure. Obviously, in a work where the overwhelming majority of source citations are to work published in the last decade, this is a description of work in progress and most of the deductions made should be considered tentative pending further results.

Genomic investigation has shed light on puzzles as varied as the size of the initial population of modern humans who left Africa (almost certainly less than 1000, and possibly a single hunter-gatherer band of about 150), the date when wolves were domesticated into dogs and where it happened, the origin of wheat and rice farming, the domestication of cattle, the origin of surnames in England, and the genetic heritage of the randiest conqueror in human history, Genghis Khan, who, based on Y chromosome analysis, appears to have about 16 million living male descendants today.

Some of the results from molecular anthropology run the risk of being so at variance with the politically correct ideology of academic soft science that the author, a New York Times reporter, tiptoes around them with the mastery of prose which on other topics he deploys toward their elucidation. Chief among these is the discussion of the microcephalin and ASPM genes on pp. 97–99. (Note that genes are often named based on syndromes which result from deleterious mutations within them, and hence bear names opposite to their function in the normal organism. For example, the gene which triggers the cascade of eye formation in Drosophila is named eyeless.) Both of these genes appear to regulate brain size and, in particular, the development of the cerebral cortex, which is the site of higher intelligence in mammals. Specific alleles of these genes are of recent origin, and are unequally distributed geographically among the human population. Haplogroup D of Microcephalin appeared in the human population around 37,000 years ago (all of these estimates have a large margin of error); which is just about the time when quintessentially modern human behaviour such as cave painting appeared in Europe. Today, about 70% of the population of Europe and East Asia carry this allele, but its incidence in populations in sub-Saharan Africa ranges from 0 to 25%. The ASPM gene exists in two forms: a “new” allele which arose only about 5800 years ago (coincidentally[?] just about the time when cities, agriculture, and written language appeared), and an “old” form which predates this period. Today, the new allele occurs in about 50% of the population of the Middle East and Europe, but hardly at all in sub-Saharan Africa. Draw your own conclusions from this about the potential impact on human history when germline gene therapy becomes possible, and why opposition to it may not be the obvious ethical choice.

January 2007 Permalink

Wade, Nicholas. A Troublesome Inheritance. New York: Penguin Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-59420-446-3.
Geographically isolated populations of a species (unable to interbreed with others of their kind) will be subject to natural selection based upon their environment. If that environment differs from that of other members of the species, the isolated population will begin to diverge genetically, as genetic endowments which favour survival and more offspring are selected for. If the isolated population is sufficiently small, the mechanism of genetic drift may cause a specific genetic variant to become almost universal or absent in that population. If this process is repeated for a sufficiently long time, isolated populations may diverge to such a degree they can no longer interbreed, and therefore become distinct species.

None of this is controversial when discussing other species, but in some circles to suggest that these mechanisms apply to humans is the deepest heresy. This well-researched book examines the evidence, much from molecular biology which has become available only in recent years, for the diversification of the human species into distinct populations, or “races” if you like, after its emergence from its birthplace in Africa. In this book the author argues that human evolution has been “recent, copious, and regional” and presents the genetic evidence to support this view.

A few basic facts should be noted at the outset. All humans are members of a single species, and all can interbreed. Humans, as a species, have an extremely low genetic diversity compared to most other animal species: this suggests that our ancestors went through a genetic “bottleneck” where the population was reduced to a very small number, causing the variation observed in other species to be lost through genetic drift. You might expect different human populations to carry different genes, but this is not the case—all humans have essentially the same set of genes. Variation among humans is mostly a result of individuals carrying different alleles (variants) of a gene. For example, eye colour in humans is entirely inherited: a baby's eye colour is determined completely by the alleles of various genes inherited from the mother and father. You might think that variation among human populations is then a question of their carrying different alleles of genes, but that too is an oversimplification. Human genetic variation is, in most cases, a matter of the frequency of alleles among the population.

This means that almost any generalisation about the characteristics of individual members of human populations with different evolutionary histories is ungrounded in fact. The variation among individuals within populations is generally much greater than that of populations as a whole. Discrimination based upon an individual's genetic heritage is not just abhorrent morally but scientifically unjustified.

Based upon these now well-established facts, some have argued that “race does not exist” or is a “social construct”. While this view may be motivated by a well-intentioned desire to eliminate discrimination, it is increasingly at variance with genetic evidence documenting the history of human populations.

Around 200,000 years ago, modern humans emerged in Africa. They spent more than three quarters of their history in that continent, spreading to different niches within it and developing a genetic diversity which today is greater than that of all humans in the rest of the world. Around 50,000 years before the present, by the genetic evidence, a small band of hunter-gatherers left Africa for the lands to the north. Then, some 30,000 years ago the descendants of these bands who migrated to the east and west largely ceased to interbreed and separated into what we now call the Caucasian and East Asian populations. These have remained the main three groups within the human species. Subsequent migrations and isolations have created other populations such as Australian and American aborigines, but their differentiation from the three main races is less distinct. Subsequent migrations, conquest, and intermarriage have blurred the distinctions between these groups, but the fact is that almost any child, shown a picture of a person of European, African, or East Asian ancestry can almost always effortlessly and correctly identify their area of origin. University professors, not so much: it takes an intellectual to deny the evidence of one's own eyes.

As these largely separated populations adapted to their new homes, selection operated upon their genomes. In the ancestral human population children lost the ability to digest lactose, the sugar in milk, after being weaned from their mothers' milk. But in populations which domesticated cattle and developed dairy farming, parents who passed on an allele which would allow their children to drink cow's milk their entire life would have more surviving offspring and, in a remarkably short time on the evolutionary scale, lifetime lactose tolerance became the norm in these areas. Among populations which never raised cattle or used them only for meat, lifetime lactose tolerance remains rare today.

Humans in Africa originally lived close to the equator and had dark skin to protect them from the ultraviolet radiation of the Sun. As human bands occupied northern latitudes in Europe and Asia, dark skin would prevent them from being able to synthesise sufficient Vitamin D from the wan, oblique sunlight of northern winters. These populations were under selection pressure for alleles of genes which gave them lighter skin, but interestingly Europeans and East Asians developed completely different genetic means to lighten their skin. The selection pressure was the same, but evolution blundered into two distinct pathways to meet the need.

Can genetic heritage affect behaviour? There's evidence it can. Humans carry a gene called MAO-A, which breaks down neurotransmitters that affect the transmission of signals within the brain. Experiments in animals have provided evidence that under-production of MAO-A increases aggression and humans with lower levels of MAO-A are found to be more likely to commit violent crime. MAO-A production is regulated by a short sequence of DNA adjacent to the gene: humans may have anywhere from two to five copies of the promoter; the more you have, the more the MAO-A, and hence the mellower you're likely to be. Well, actually, people with three to five copies are indistinguishable, but those with only two (2R) show higher rates of delinquency. Among men of African ancestry, 5.5% carry the 2R variant, while 0.1% of Caucasian males and 0.00067% of East Asian men do. Make of this what you will.

The author argues that just as the introduction of dairy farming tilted the evolutionary landscape in favour of those bearing the allele which allowed them to digest milk into adulthood, the transition of tribal societies to cities, states, and empires in Asia and Europe exerted a selection pressure upon the population which favoured behavioural traits suited to living in such societies. While a tribal society might benefit from producing a substantial population of aggressive warriors, an empire has little need of them: its armies are composed of soldiers, courageous to be sure, who follow orders rather than charging independently into battle. In such a society, the genetic traits which are advantageous in a hunter-gatherer or tribal society will be selected out, as those carrying them will, if not expelled or put to death for misbehaviour, be unable to raise as large a family in these settled societies.

Perhaps, what has been happening over the last five millennia or so is a domestication of the human species. Precisely as humans have bred animals to live with them in close proximity, human societies have selected for humans who are adapted to prosper within them. Those who conform to the social hierarchy, work hard, come up with new ideas but don't disrupt the social structure will have more children and, over time, whatever genetic predispositions there may be for these characteristics (which we don't know today) will become increasingly common in the population. It is intriguing that as humans settled into fixed communities, their skeletons became less robust. This same process of gracilisation is seen in domesticated animals compared to their wild congeners. Certainly there have been as many human generations since the emergence of these complex societies as have sufficed to produce major adaptation in animal species under selective breeding.

Far more speculative and controversial is whether this selection process has been influenced by the nature of the cultures and societies which create the selection pressure. East Asian societies tend to be hierarchical, obedient to authority, and organised on a large scale. European societies, by contrast, are fractious, fissiparous, and prone to bottom-up insurgencies. Is this in part the result of genetic predispositions which have been selected for over millennnia in societies which work that way?

It is assumed by many right-thinking people that all that is needed to bring liberty and prosperity to those regions of the world which haven't yet benefited from them is to create the proper institutions, educate the people, and bootstrap the infrastructure, then stand back and watch them take off. Well, maybe—but the history of colonialism, the mission civilisatrice, and various democracy projects and attempts at nation building over the last two centuries may suggest it isn't that simple. The population of the colonial, conquering, or development-aid-giving power has the benefit of millennia of domestication and adaptation to living in a settled society with division of labour. Its adaptations for tribalism have been largely bred out. Not so in many cases for the people they're there to “help”. Withdraw the colonial administration or occupation troops and before long tribalism will re-assert itself because that's the society for which the people are adapted.

Suggesting things like this is anathema in academia or political discourse. But look at the plain evidence of post-colonial Africa and more recent attempts of nation-building, and couple that with the emerging genetic evidence of variation in human populations and connections to behaviour and you may find yourself thinking forbidden thoughts. This book is an excellent starting point to explore these difficult issues, with numerous citations of recent scientific publications.

December 2014 Permalink

Wright, Robert. Nonzero. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. ISBN 0-679-44252-9.
Yuck. Four hundred plus pages of fuzzy thinking, tangled logic, and prose which manages to be simultaneously tortured and jarringly colloquial ends up concluding that globalisation and the attendant extinction of liberty and privacy are not only good things, but possibly Divine (chapter 22). Appendix 1 contains the lamest description of the iterated prisoner's dilemma I have ever read, and the key results table on 341 is wrong (top right entry, at least in the hardback). Bill Clinton loved this book. A paperback edition is now available.

June 2003 Permalink