Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

September 23, 2017

No, Afrikaners do not have British or English ancestry

Filed under: Afrikaner,Afrikaner genotype,Ancestry,Boer — Razib Khan @ 9:58 pm


In my post below on the non-European ancestry of Afrikaners, several readers mentioned that friends of Afrikaner background were rather chagrined to have reported British ancestry from genetic tests. The cultural reason for this is well known: many Afrikaners exhibit hostility toward British imperialism due to the deprivation and death which was the consequence of their resistance to the expansion of the Empire during the Second Boer War. This is above and beyond the antipathy which was manifestly made obvious by the fact that with the transfer of the Cape Colony to the British in the early 19th century thousands of white farmers migrated into the hinterlands to escape the new power (in part to preserve their customs, such as slavery).

By the 20th century, this anti-British aspect of Boer identity manifested itself in pro-German sentiments, as can be seen in the film The Power of One.

But the reality is that it is strange for Afrikaners to have British ancestry. Yes, they are not exclusively Dutch, with substantial German and French (Huguenot) components in their background. And there has been some recent intermarriage with English speaking whites. But presumably that’s recent enough that people would know.

Rather, I think what is happening is that genetic tests do not have the power to distinguish well between English and Dutch ancestry. In fact, the minority ancestry from Anglo-Saxons in southeast Britain would have stronger affinities with the Dutch than most of the island.

To figure out what was going on I asked people on Twitter for 23andMe profiles. I got a response from someone whose results I posted above. This individual has Boer ancestry, mostly Dutch, going back to the late 17th century on his mother’s side and late 18th century on his father’s side. And you see 17% “British” ancestry. He also provided his wife’s 23andMe output. Her ancestry dates back to the late 17th century on both paternal and maternal sides, so it is not a surprise she has more non-European ancestry:

She is 18% British. In fact, the European ancestry fractions of both these individuals are rather similar when it comes to “French-German”, British, and Scandinavian. I suspect what we’re seeing here is what the algorithm pops out quanta wise for Dutch.

I took the South African individuals who had some non-European ancestry, and ran them on Admixture and projected a PCA with British and Dutch individuals. You can make your own judgment, but I think these are definitely people who are of mostly Dutch ancestry.

Postcolonialism as theory often fails; it would be nice to actually know something

Filed under: Postcolonialism — Razib Khan @ 8:23 pm

The cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer introduced me to the phrase “theory is information for free.” It’s a succinct way of saying that if you have a theoretical framework you can deduce and extrapolate a lot about the world without having to know everything. And, you can take new information and fit it quickly into your model and generate more propositions (you may not need to know everything, but you do need to know something).

But as we all know the utility of theory varies by field. In physics, there is a large and prestigious caste of theoreticians. In contrast, this group is a much smaller fraction of biologists. Biological phenomena are much messier, stochastic, non-linear, and historically contingent. Even highly abstruse fields such as population genetics have relatively limited powers of precise prediction in comparison to Newtonian physics.

When you move to history the problem is much more extreme than in biology. I am a major proponent of Peter Turchin’s work in modeling historical processes, as outlined in his series of books, War and Peace and War, Secular Cycles, and Historical Dynamics. If you read his works you know that Peter exhibits a punctilious attention to detail when it comes to historical phenomena. Not only does this mean that he presumably has good intuition about which formal models are plausible, but it allows him to “test” his predictions more quickly.

But it’s early times yet when it comes to “a theory of history.” There’s a reason that the older systematic method such as Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History and Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West fell out of fashion; they ended up reading like speculative fiction more than scholarship.

And yet when it comes to popular understandings of history and cultural dynamics theory is implicitly extremely dominant. Exemplified by Edward Said’s Orientalism, and now bracketed under the general term postcolonialism, a broad theoretical understanding of historical dynamics is assumed by many. Even if they do not know the term postcolonialism, or have never read Said or Fanon and their modern heirs, the postcolonial paradigm is highly influential and implicitly taken for granted. It’s part of our cognitive furniture.

Here is the definition of postcolonialism from Britannica:

Postcolonialism, the historical period or state of affairs representing the aftermath of Western colonialism; the term can also be used to describe the concurrent project to reclaim and rethink the history and agency of people subordinated under various forms of imperialism. Postcolonialism signals a possible future of overcoming colonialism, yet new forms of domination or subordination can come in the wake of such changes, including new forms of global empire. Postcolonialism should not be confused with the claim that the world we live in now is actually devoid of colonialism.

The key to understanding postcolonialism is that it is not a generic analysis of power relations between rulers and the subjugated. It is almost uniformly concerned with the relationship of European/white people and those whom they subjugated over the last 500 years or so. So powerful is this model that it often pushes white European supremacy back to antiquity. Works such as The invention of racism in classical antiquity only have a wider audience because the audience is primed to explore the original sin of the West, and moderns tend to see the origins of the West with the Classical world. The recent protests around racism and Reed college saw the promotion of a counter-syllabus which presented works which explored the racial attitudes of the Greeks.

To my mind this sort of analysis of the Greeks is nonsense. The Greeks were clearly racist, but to our understanding in the West today all premodern people would seem racist. Not only that, but Greek parochialism was different in kind from modern Western racism, so a genealogical connection seems implausible if you’re being generous, and ludicrous if you are being honest. One could make a similarly crazy case for the Jewish origins of racism in Western culture (any analysis of the Hebrew Bible has to confront strong ethnocentric and exclusivist sentiments, though tempered with works such as the Book of Ruth).

The primary issue is that postcolonialism takes the real and present dynamic of white supremacy, which crested in the 19th and 20th centuries, and extrapolates it back across all of history, and presumes that it will be the determinative factor in relations between peoples going forward. It’s like a theory of social physics; invariant across time. Bizarrely, this is a tendency that postcolonial theorists share with white supremacists.  Years ago when I read Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant, I was struck by the fact that many of the racialist thinkers of the early 20th century would likely easily and comfortably accede to the generalizations made by the postcolonial theorists as to the sui generis disruptive and dominationist tendencies of white Europeans. It is simply that where postcolonial theorists place a negative ethical valence on this essential orientation, men such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard would have seen the generalities in a positive light.

This is all germane in light of a post over at Brown Pundits, which reacts to a piece with the title Confronting White Supremacy in Christianity as a Christian South Asian. As I said at the other blog the piece was interesting because it was the perspective of a progressive South Asian Christian, which is very different from my own stance as a conservative South Asian non-Christian (atheist). But there was an implicit historical model within the piece which struck a false note with me:

Christianity in India highlights a violent history of white supremacy through colonization and mass conversion by Europeans including, the Portuguese, Irish, Dutch, Italian, French, and English many of whom hold cultural influence that has remained to this day in places like Kerala, Pondicherry, and Goa. Similarly, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference in the diaspora. For instance, my family converted to Christianity while living under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, an entire system of white supremacy supported by ‘Christian’ values.

Though there were Irish soldiers in British armies, I think it is a bit much to blame the Irish for Indian colonialism, seeing as how Roman Catholic Irish themselves were de facto colonial subjects. I also do not know of any Italian presence in India (aside from Sonia Gandhi)…if there was one, presumably there would be a delicious Indo-Italian cuisine? Finally, as a point of fact, the Dutch were famously ineffectual and apathetic toward Christianization in South Asia. Today in Sri Lanka there are many Catholics, but few Protestants, in large part because the Dutch did not exhibit the same zeal to convert the natives that the Portuguese did (British Anglicanism also did not take hold, many elite families converted to Theravada Buddhism at independence).

But this is secondary to the fact that mentioning Kerala misleads the reader as to the nature of Christianity in that region of India. The St. Thomas Christians are an old community, with attested connections to the ancient Church of the East in Mesopotamia. Though European intrusion into South Asia had a major impact on their affiliations and identities (they are splintered into many groups), their Christianity predates European presence in South Asia by many centuries, and perhaps over one thousand years!

The author, being of South African Indian heritage, and raised in Canada, may not know these well known facts. But, they are bathed in the paradigm of postcolonial theory, and in postcolonial theory European agency is paramount. If you did not know much about the history of Kerala, that is, specific details of fact, then your natural prediction based on your theory is that like Goa and Pondicherry Kerala’s Christianity is due to European influence and coercion.

Unfortunately, the sorts of mistakes of inference made by the author of the above piece are not atypical. It seems that she is conflating white evangelical Protestant Christianity (which her family likely converted to) with Christianity writ large. Why would you do that? Books like The Next Christendom report extensive numbers which illustrate that global Christianity is now a post-white religion. The same author also wrote The Lost History of Christianity which credibly makes the case that the majority of the world’s Christians were non-European until sometime after the year 1000 AD.

Not only does postcolonial theory extend the model of white supremacy toward one that is temporally and spatially maximal (that is, white supremacy is relevant at all times and all places), but it also collapses the complex multi-textured power relations between various peoples and groups into a dyad. From a comment over at Brown Pundits:

The tribals of the NE were converted to Christianity by European (and American) missionaries during colonial rule. They obviously weren’t Hindus before they converted, but to imply that colonialism has nothing to do with their conversion would be mistaken – if, indeed, that is what you’re implying.

It is obviously true that conversion to Christianity in India among groups such as Dalits and Northeastern tribal populations has to be understood within the colonial context. Many of these converts are joining denominations of Western provenance. This seems the sort of analysis which postcolonial theory would be useful. The problem here is that since postcolonial theory tends to privilege the dyad between Western and non-Western, it masks the complex relationships between non-Western groups and individuals.

Dalit populations within South Asia were and are subject to marginalization and deprivation by the majority groups. Though one may question the usefulness of converting to Christianity, it is clear that this is an act driven not by Western oppression, but by deep structural inequities of the native non-Western culture.

Similarly, the tribal populations of the Northeast convert to Christianity in part to block assimilation and subordination into a South Asian culture from which they are distinct. Christianity in this framing is not an expression of Western domination and oppression, but an alternative identity to those preferred by the assimilative majority. It is an escape hatch from the inevitable forces of assimilation.

This is not an exclusively South Asian phenomenon. Dayaks in Borneo, Karen in Burma, Montagnards in Vietnam, and Koreans during the Japanese colonial period, all looked to Christianity to buttress and solidify their ethnic identity against dominant populations who were of a different religion. Reducing power relations to purely Western vs. non-Western collapses many degrees of affinity within and between non-Western cultures, which are obviously not a formless whole.

Much of the problem that I’m concerned about would be obviated if people actually read world history. Having a multitudinous array of facts at your fingertips automatically allows you to vet propositions you derive from some grand theory of history. But assembling facts together takes time, and it is relatively arduous. This is why I ended up studying evolutionary genetics instead of neuroscience; I prefer theories to facts. But sometimes there is no choice in the matter if you truly want to understand something, as opposed to simply striking a virtuous pose.


Africa, the churning continent

Martin Meredith’s The Fortunes of Africa glosses very quickly over one of the major reasons that the “great scramble” for the continent occurred in the late 19th century, the discovery of the usefulness of quinine as an anti-malarial agent. Perhaps because I’ve read Plagues and Peoples and The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, I have always been conscious of the role of disease in discouraging conquest and migration (malaria in Italy was also a way to limit the extent of long-term occupation).

The coastal regions of Africa had been subject to the trade and depredations of European actors for nearly 400 years when the Berlin Conference partitioned the continent amongst European powers. Despite the fact that much of the interior was not charted, there had long been a colonial presence. Accra, the modern capital of Ghana, was originally a 16th-century Portuguese fort, but for several centuries between the 17th and 19th centuries, it was actually a possession of Scandinavian powers, Sweden and Denmark! (before passing on to the British)

For all these centuries the heart of Africa was unknown to Europeans, in part because there were native powers blocking their way, but also because the mortality rates were so high for outsiders, as indicated above. It is no surprise that the main European settlement in Africa which was more than a simple trading fort was at the southern tip of the continent, where the climate was Mediterranean and so the disease burden low.

But once quinine, and machine guns, came into the equation the interior was accessible. It all happened rather quickly in a few decades, though in some cases European ‘colonialism’ involved little more than nominal allegiance of tribal chieftains.

Now A new paper in Cell may herald the beginning of a great genomic scramble to understand the history of Africa. Carl Zimmer in The New York Times has a piece up, Clues to Africa’s Mysterious Past Found in Ancient Skeletons. It begins:

It was only two years ago that researchers found the first ancient human genome in Africa: a skeleton in a cave in Ethiopia yielded DNA that turned out to be 4,500 years old.

On Thursday, an international team of scientists reported that they had recovered far older genes from bone fragments in Malawi dating back 8,100 years. The researchers also retrieved DNA from 15 other ancient people in eastern and southern Africa, and compared the genes to those of living Africans.

The general results of the paper, Skoglund et.al’s Reconstructing Prehistoric African Population Structure, was presented at the SMBE meeting this summer. So in broad sketches I was not surprised at the results, though the details require some digging into.

The Bantu Expansion repatterned the population structure of Africa

Between 1000 BC and 500 AD the expansion of iron wielding agriculturalists from the environs of modern day southern Cameroon reshaped the cultural and genetic landscape of Sub-Saharan Africa. The relatively late date of this expansion should give us a general sense of how careful we need to be about making assertions about “prehistoric Africa.” When Egypt’s New Kingdom was expanding southward along the Nile and into the Levant Sub-Saharan Africa was qualitatively very different from what we see today in both culture and genetic structure. The continent’s contemporary human geography does not have a deep time depth.

In any case, anyone who has worked with genetic data from Africa is struck by how similar Bantu-speaking populations are genetically. So these results are not surprising. South African Zulus occupy positions far closer to Kenyans and Congolese than they do to Khoisan peoples to the west of them facing the Kalahari. The Xhosa people on the cultural frontier of the Bantus in South Africa exhibit substantial admixture from Khoisan (to the point where they have even integrated clicks into their language!), but even they are preponderantly non-Khoisan.

By sampling ancient genomes from South Africa across a geographical transect which runs up the Rift Valley to Ethiopia Skoglund et al. show that before the Bantu Expansion there was a north-south genetic relatedness cline. When this result was presented at SMBE a few friends were quite excited that they were being presented a cline, as some researchers have felt that this particular lab group has a tendency to model everything as pulse admixtures between distinct groups. But the reasonably deep time transect in Malawi exhibited no variance in admixture fractions, which is indicative of the likelihood that its “mixed” status at a particular K cluster is simply an artifact (see this post for what’s going on).

One particular aspect of the results from Malawi is that they found no continuity between contemporary populations, Bantu agriculturalists, and these ancient hunter-gatherers. That is, hunter-gatherers were replaced in toto. This is not entirely surprising, as many researchers who have worked with European ancient DNA believe that hunter-gatherers in many areas left no descendants at all (the “hunter-gatherer” fractions in modern groups in a particular region are believed to be due to migration of mixed populations who obtained “hunter-gatherer” ancestry at another locale).

But the Bantus were not the first “intrusive” population

These results also have some moderate surprises. A Tanzanian sample from 1100 BC from a pastoralist context exhibits an ancestral mix which is Sub-Saharan African and West Eurasian/North African. More precisely, about 38 percent of this individual’s ancestry resembles that of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic culture of the Levant, and the rest of the genome most resembles a 4500 year old sample from Ethiopia.

This date is before the initiation of the Bantu Expansion. The genetic results in this work, and earlier publications, strongly points to the likelihood that this population(s) mediated the spread of pastoralism to the south and west. In particular, all Khoisan groups of southern Africa seem to have admixture from this group, more (Khoi) or less (San).

But a curious aspect of this result is that these early pastoralists do not carry any evidence of admixture from ancient eastern farmers from the Zagros region. That is, the West Eurasian gene flow into the Tanzanian pastoralists predates the great exchange/admixture in the Middle East between western and eastern lineages. Since that reciprocal gene flow seems to have occurred at least 2,000 years before the Tanzanian pastoralist’s time, it suggests that this West Eurasian element was in Africa for thousands of years.

The second important point to emphasize is that the Iranian-like component is found among Cushitic speaking Somali and Afar samples, at 15-20% clips. Looking at the supporting tables a wide range of East African populations have the Tanzanian pastoralist ancestry but do not show evidence of the Iranian-like ancestry, which is now ubiquitous in the Middle East, and presumably in the highlands of Ethiopia as well (which usually show somewhat higher levels of Eurasian ancestry than is the case on the coast, especially among Semitic language speakers).

This fact is important because many of the Nilotic peoples are reputed to have absorbed Cushitic groups relatively recently in the past. This is also true for Bantu speaking groups according to these and other data. Finally, the Sandawe, who speak a language with clicks, and so may have some affinity to Khoisan, are often stated to have Cushitic affinities (looking at the data they clearly have West Eurasian ancestry). But their Eurasian ancestry seems to lack the Iranian-like component as well.

None of the populations with putative Cushitic ancestry, but who lack Iranian-like ancestry, speak a Cushitic language (most speak Nilotic languages, but East African Bantus have mixed with these Nilotic groups, so they have the same ancestry). Therefore I wonder if these pastoralists spoke an Afro-Asiatic language in the first place.

A patchy landscape

The phylogenetic tree illustrates the relationships of various African populations without much recent Eurasian ancestry. In The New York Times article David Reich indicates that the Hadza people of Tanzania are the closest Sub-Saharan Africans to the lineage ancestral to non-Africans. This is actually a simplification of what you see in the paper, and is illustrated in the tree to the left. The 4500 year old Ethiopian sample, which does not have Eurasian ancestry, nevertheless is the closest of all Sub-Saharan groups to Eurasians. The Hadza have the highest fraction of this ancestral component of all Sub-Saharan Africans in their data set, but many other populations also carry this ancestry (the Tanzanian pastoralist combined the PPN ancestry with this element).

This was patchy landscape of inhabitation, because though the Tanzanian pastoralist ancestry, a combination of PPN and proto-Ethiopian, spread all the way to the Cape, there were populations, such as the Hadza and a 400 year old individual sampled from the Kenya island of Pemba, which lacked this genetic variation. Indeed, they are also not on the north-south (proto-Ethiopian to Khoisan) cline that featured so prominently above.

The sampling of ancient individuals is not very dense yet, so we can’t say much. But I think it does indicate we need to be cautious about assumpting gene flow dynamics as-the-crow-flies, simply a function of distance. Ecological suitability no doubt plays a strong role in how populations expand. The Bantus, for example, were stopped in South Africa by the fact that their agricultural toolkit was not suitable for the western half of the country. So when Europeans arrived in the 16th century the residents of the Cape where Khoi pastoralists.

The presence of the Hadza in Tanzania, or an individual of unmixed proto-Ethiopian ancestry on Pemba 400 years ago, indicates that the ethnic geography of East Africa has long been fluid and dynamic. There is no reason to suppose that the Hadza are not themselves migrants from further north, perhaps easily explaining why they are not on the north-south cline so evident from the ancient DNA.

The rise of Basal Humans

Several years ago researchers discovered that the first farmers of Europe, who descended from an Anatolian population, were in part derived from a group which split off very early from other Eurasian populations. This group was termed “Basal Eurasian” (BEu) because it was an outgroup to all other Eurasians, including European hunter-gatherers, East Asians, Oceanians, and the natives of the New World. Subsequent work has shown that the early Neolithic farmers of the Near East, whether they’re from the Levant or the Zagros, had about half their ancestry from this population.

No ancient genomes which are predominantly BEu have been discovered yet. The fact that populations on the cusp of the Holocene seem to have Basal Eurasian ancestry across the Middle East suggests that the admixture with hunter-gatherers related to those of Europe must have occurred during the Pleistocene. But Basal Eurasian is arguably the most parsimonious explanation of the shared drift patterns that we see.

Skoglund et al. suggest that there may be the necessity of a similar construct in Africa. They are not the first, Schlebusch et al. also suggested the necessity of this lineage in the supplements of their preprint on ancient South Africans. Within Skoglund et al. the authors see variation between the far West African Mende and the eastern West African Yoruba, where the latter exhibits closer affinity to East African populations than the former (this includes those such as the proto-Ethiopian with no Eurasian admixture). Additionally, the authors found that Khoisan groups share more alleles with populations in East Africa than they do with those in West Africa even when you account for admixture.

One model that can explain this variation is long range gene flow, so that there would be connections between various regions as a function of their distance. Another explanation is that West African populations are the product of a Basal Human (BHu) population which separated first, before the bifurcation of Khoisan from other human populations. This would reorder our understanding of who the most basal humans are. Additionally, it would align with long-standing work of deep lineages within Africa contributing a minor component of the continent’s ancestry.

As should be clear due to the tree above, BHu postdates the separation of African humans from Neanderthals. One does wonder about the relevance of the Moroccan “modern” human to these models.

Understanding culture from genetics and genetics from culture

The spread of the Bantus over 1500 years from one end of the continent to the other is perhaps one of the most important dynamics we can use to understanding the spread of farming more generally. The linguistic unity of the Bantus, or at least their affinity, suggests to us that the first farmers of Europe, who spread across much of the continent in 2500 years, probably exhibited the same pattern. The low levels of gene flow between hunter-gatherers and farmers, despite living in the same regions for thousands of years, can be illustrated with African examples (e.g., the Hadza vs. their Bantu neighbors).

We are rather in the early phase of understanding these dynamics. There are more remains to be found, perhaps in the dry fastness of the Sahara or Sahel? (though unfortunately political considerations may prevent excavation due to danger to archaeologists) The genetics will give us a general idea about the nature of genetic variation and how it arose, but robust cultural models also need to be developed which illustrate how these genetic patterns arose.

Citation: Reconstructing Prehistoric African Population Structure, Skoglund, Pontus et al. Cell , Volume 171 , Issue 1 , 59 – 71.e21

September 22, 2017

When all you have is postcolonial theory everything is about the white man

Filed under: Christianity,Religion — Razib Khan @ 10:18 pm

Recently I read a piece, Confronting White Supremacy in Christianity as a Christian South Asian, which is interesting from an anthropological perspective. After all, I don’t know what it’s like to be a progressive South Asian Christian, which is the perspective of this author. But as I read the piece I felt that it elided and conflated so much that a much deeper and richer story was being erased so as to serve up another illustrative of the primacy of white supremacy.

If you read books such as From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East you know that how white American Christians treat non-white Christians can be rather ridiculous. One of the stories I recall reading is of an Arab Christian waiter in Jerusalem who wore a Christian cross, and was very irritated with white Americans with strong Southern accents would inquire when he had converted to Christ. This person of course privately scoffed and reflected that when his ancestors had been Christians for centuries his customer’s ancestors were still worshipping pagan gods.

Here is a passage from the above piece which I think really confuses:

Christianity in India highlights a violent history of white supremacy through colonization and mass conversion by Europeans including, the Portuguese, Irish, Dutch, Italian, French, and English many of whom hold cultural influence that has remained to this day in places like Kerala, Pondicherry, and Goa. Similarly, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference in the diaspora. For instance, my family converted to Christianity while living under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, an entire system of white supremacy supported by ‘Christian’ values.

The writer is a young Canadian woman whose family is from South Africa of Indian heritage. Additionally, though she never is explicit about it, her family seems to be evangelical Protestant. This is an interesting perspective, but it is a totally different one from that of South Asian Christianity.

Bracketing Kerala with Pondicherry and Goa is simply misleading. Christians are nearly 20% of the population of Kerala,and most are St. Thomas Christians, whose origins predate European contact with India by many centuries. Originally part of the territory of the Persian Church of the East, modern St. Thomas Christians have splintered into numerous groups with varied affiliations, in part due to the trauma of contact with Portuguese Catholicism. But through it all they maintain an indigenous Christian identity which is distinct from any colonial imprint.

Second, large numbers of India’s Christians are converts from Dalit populations, or, tribal peoples in the Northeast who are racially and culturally distinct from other South Asians. The framing in the piece is that South Asian Christianity has to bear the cross of colonialism, but a good argument can be made that for Dalit converts and tribal groups in the Northeast Christianity is the vehicle for resistance to oppression, assimilation, and colonialism on the part of the dominant South Asian cultural matrix.

This is not to say that the piece does not speak to a real dynamic. North American white evangelical Protestantism does is inordinately freighted with racialized baggage. And it is easy to reduce into the Manichaean framework of postcolonial theory, where whites are the sole agents of action in the world. But to the generality Indian Christianity has many disparate threads, and this sort of reduction is misleading.

The non-European ancestry of Afrikaners

Filed under: Afrikaner,Genetics — Razib Khan @ 12:37 am

A few years ago I got some South African genotypes. Some of the individuals were clearly African. A few mapped perfectly upon Northern Europeans. But many of the samples consistently were European but shifted toward non-European populations.

Based on history of the assimilation of slaves into the European population of Cape Colony in the 18th century, my assumption is that these individuals are Afrikaners.

Recently I realized that Brenna Henn had released some more Khoisan samples, so I decided to look at this question of admixture again. The two Khoisan populations are the Nama and the Khomani. I removed those with lots of Bantu and European admixture and combined them together into one population.

Running unsupervised Admixture shows how distinct the South African whites are.

The average Utah white in this sample (this population is a mix of British, German, and Scandinavian in ancestry) is 99% European modal cluster, and 1% South Asian. The average for the white South Africans in this data set is 94% European modal cluster. The residual is 1% East Asian (Dai modal), 1% Khosian, 1% non-Khoisan African, and 2% South Asian.

I ran Treemix a bunch of times, and every single plot came out like this when I ran it for three migrations:


The gene flow from the Utah whites to the Gujuratis is simply an artifact of the fact that the Gujurati sample is mixed caste, and some of the Brahmin or Lohannas have more “Ancestral North Indian.” The gene flow from the Europeans to the Khoisan is probably real, or, might be due to pastoralist admixture via East Africans. The last migration arrow goes from the African populations to the South African whites, with a shift toward the Khoisan.

I also ran a three population test where A is the outgroup, and B and C are a clade. A significantly negative f3-statistic indicates admixture in population A. The negative values are listed below:

A B C f3 f3-error Z-score
Gujrati Dai UtahWhite -0.00121718 0.000140141 -8.68539
South_Africa EsanNigeria UtahWhite -0.00127718 0.000147982 -8.63059
South_Africa Khoisan_SA UtahWhite -0.0012928 0.000151416 -8.53802
Gujrati South_Africa Dai -0.000778791 0.000155656 -5.00329
South_Africa Dai UtahWhite -0.000541974 0.000133262 -4.06699
South_Africa UtahWhite Gujrati -0.000103581 8.46193e-05 -1.22408

This aligns well with the Admixture results. Afrikaners have both African ancestries, and, Asian ancestry.

In James Michener’s The Covenant one of the plot lines alludes to mixed ancestry in one of the Afrikaner families. The results above suggest that mixed ancestry is very common, and perhaps ubiquitous, in this population. True, there are some Afrikaners such as Hendrik Verwoerd who migrated to South Africa from the Netherlands in the past century or so, but these are uncommon to my knowledge.

September 20, 2017

Books you look at but don’t buy

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 11:14 pm

A little while ago I was curious about the books people looked at through my links which they nevertheless did not buy. More precisely I was looking at a 90 day interval. The top book people clicked but did not buy was Introduction to Quantitative Genetics. I know this is an expensive book, but if you can afford it you should buy and it read it. The reasoning is that quantitative genetics is no longer an abstruse topic, as I’m seeing economists conflate correlation of traits between relatives and narrow sense heritability. People have opinions on this topic. Loads.

If you talk about regression to the mean, but barely understand how it works, perhaps you should read Introduction to Quantitative Genetics.

Here the remaining of the top 15 (in order from most clicked to least):

The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey
The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible
Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate. This is a good book. I’ve read it three times.
The History and Geography of Human Genes
George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones 5-Book Boxed Set
Principles of Population Genetics. Really readers? This is why more of you are not HWE aware….
Adaptation and Natural Selection
The Nurture Assumption
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
In Gods We Trust
Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology

Also, I can go back to 2014. Looking over 90 days from 2014, 2015 and 2016, here are the top 15:

2014 2015 2016
Principles of Population Genetics Freedom at Midnight The Great Ordeal
In Gods We Trust Power and Plenty Sex Segregation in Sports
The Bible with Sources Revealed Why Sex Matters The Dialectical Imagination
Why Sex Matters The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics The History and Geography of Human Genes
The Transparent Society The Mating Mind Python for Data Analysis
The First Man in Rome Mutants Plagues and Peoples
The Barbarian Conversion In Gods We Trust Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language
Nature’s God 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Introduction to Quantitative Genetics A History of the Byzantine State and Society Why Sex Matters
The Rise of Western Christendom Principles of Population Genetics Taboo
The Great Arab Conquests The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey Design Patterns
Religion Explained A Concise Economic History of the World A Beautiful Math 
The Nurture Assumption The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories The Great Human Diasporas
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus The Genetics of Human Populations The Seven Daughters of Eve
The Invisible Gorilla A Beautiful Math   Calculus Made Easy

Why Sex Matters has always been a book that gets a lot of clicks. I think it is the title. But it’s rather old now, and on an old fashioned topic: sex differences. Totally milquetoast in the 2000s, but probably very problematic today….

Google still wants to be Apple (sort of)

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 9:47 pm

Google Is Buying HTC’s Smartphone Expertise for $1.1 Billion. This, after Google has already bought and sold Motorola. Remember when Microsoft bought part of Nokia?

The problem is that Apple and Samsung are starting to create a duopoly. And though most phones run Android, iPhones are much more profitable. There’s a reason many companies develop for iOS but not Android. A friend at Google years ago bemoaned how much more profitable iPhone owners were compared to those bought Android phones.

With all that being said the Apple launch and comments on this blog have convinced me I’m not going iPhone. I don’t know if I’ll go for an HTC, Motorola or Samsung. But for me a phone is functional, not an accessory. Perhaps that explains some of the psychological reasons that iPhone owners spend so much more money on apps….

Tales of the Arabian week

Filed under: Arab,Arabs,Persian Gulf trip — Razib Khan @ 9:15 pm

This summer I had the pleasure of spending a week in July visiting a Gulf nation which was not Saudi Arabia. It was so hot and humid that my glasses would fog over in the 110-degree weather (Fahrenheit). The reason I went was for a possible business opportunity. As someone who is an atheist from a Muslim background, I am not keen on visiting a Muslim majority country (sorry to be Islamophobic, but Muslim majority countries scare me, so I’m literally phobic). But an opportunity is an opportunity, and off I went.

In hindsight, I should have been less fearful. Though there are cases of Western passport holders from Muslim backgrounds getting in trouble, in general, they seem to have given me the same latitude as other non-natives. Getting drunk at Nobu and eating too much delicious food is nothing I can complain about. Staying at the Four Seasons meant that every morning I could order and compose a breakfast which was a nice international melange of flavors.

The only amusing mishap I can report is that one evening I went to get dinner at the hotel restaurant with the friend who I was on the trip with. He’s a white American. He also is a teetotaler. I ordered a glass of red wine and when the server came back (the same who I had ordered from) he placed the alcohol next to my friend. He was quite embarrassed when he realized what he’d done.

In terms of religion, the region is very conservative. But that conservatism primarily applies to natives. Since the natives mixed so little with the majority expat population diversity and pluralism did not seem to be very difficult to maintain. Diversity and pluralism did not impact the natives, and expats tended to live in their own communities. On the flight back an American kid who had spent two years in the Gulf did complain that outside of their compound there was a problem with local officials capriciously enforcing rules such as that which banned sleeveless shirts. Apparently, local kids of good background got more slack on these norms, probably because they were well connected.

It was definitely a caste society. The native population is by and large leisured. Asians did most of the productive work. Every driver we had was a Filipino. The wait staff was a mix; South Asian, Eastern European, East Asian, Southeast Asian, African. We visited several facilities where all the security seemed to East African. Many higher level service professionals were from other parts of the Middle East. There were a fair number of Muslim Southeast Asians in professional roles. Everyone knew their place. The staff at the hotel were exceedingly obsequious.

There was no pretense at democracy or liberty. Rule of law was on the whims of the local aristocracy. Expats were basically a servile caste. I only interacted with professionals or the hotel staff, not the working class. But even they were aware that their residence permits could be revoked at any time. There were stories of people who were jailed for getting on the wrong side of an aristocrat. If they neared power, they had to know who to cultivate.

I always say that Robert Kaplan’s 2000 book The Coming Anarchy should have been titled “The Coming Oligarchy.” My experience in the Gulf definitely showed me an illustration of that sort of society. There was some degree of comfort and affluence, but it was juxtaposed against a regression away from modernity as we’d understand it, with its legal egalitarianism.

It left me with the only solution to inequality that I can see in the near future: make sure you are nearer to the top.

A plethora of secondary worlds

Filed under: Fantasy — Razib Khan @ 8:41 pm

A short write-up, Why build new worlds, which surveys the origins and of secondary creations such as Middle Earth.

One aspect of these attempts at world-building is the most detailed ones invariably borrow and reconfigure aspects of our own universe. This is obvious in The Song of Ice and Fire, and explicit in The Lord of the Rings, in which Tolkien was striving to create a mythology for the Anglo-Saxon peoples. Guy Gavriel Kay takes this tendency of drawing from our world to an extreme in works such as Sailing to Sarantium, which has numerous characters who are clearly modeled upon figures from our world’s history. Similarly, Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series is pretty obviously set in 10th century Germany. And she says so in the afterword of the first book if I recall correctly.

But one aspect of this borrowing from our own world is that like Tolkien there is a focus on Northern European source material. Since most of the buying public are probably white for English speaking fantasy that’s a reasonable choice. But sometimes you get an author who mines a whole different part of the world, and the result can be very fascinating. Martha Wells’ Wheels of the Infinite has issues with plotting and character development, but it’s imagining of a fantastical Angkor-like civilization is beautifully rendered.

If there is one area which I thought would be excellent source material for a secondary world, it’s the highlands of Ethiopia. I’d love to read fantasy which draws upon this land’s history, in a part because most people (including me) would not have as clear of a sense of who was based on someone real and the correspondence of events to those in our world’s history.


September 19, 2017

Stanislav Petrov and our common humanity

Filed under: international relations,Soviet Union,Stanislav Petrov — Razib Khan @ 8:01 pm

The first time I watched Gorky Park in the 1980s I remember how strange it was to see citizens of the Soviet Union, or as we called them all then irrespective of ethnicity, “Russians,” with normal human motivations and concerns. In other words, depicted in the fullness of their humanity.

As a child in Reagan’s America what we knew about Russians was that they were citizens of the Soviet Union, and what we knew about the Soviet Union were military parades and the dour mien of their leaders. When Mikhail Gorbachev emerged on the scene it didn’t really humanize the citizens of the Soviet Union. Rather, he was a totem or exemplar of a new spirit in the world, and that perhaps we weren’t all doomed to nuclear annihilation.

As for Russians. Who were they? In the 1990s they were our allies somehow, at least on paper. I think the truth of the matter is that we did take advantage of them as a nation and a people who were experiencing difficulties, insofar as America maneuvered itself into even more advantageous positions while they were down on their luck. Eventually, the images of godless Communists faded in the 1990s…to be replaced by kleptocrats and Russian mafia.

This is not to say I do not believe Communism was evil. I do believe it was evil. But, normal human beings with the same concerns and aspirations as those in the West were part of a system, which on occasion made them the tools of evil in this world. For that, perhaps they must be judged. Some say the same of American citizens. I may disagree in the particulars…but the principle is the same.

I bring this up because recently we found out that Stanislav Petrov died last spring. His story is well known at this point; he made a judgment call and ignored a false alarm that five American ICBMs were headed toward the Soviet Union. He acted humanely in a moment of high drama. As an American we are so often drilled into repeating the mantra we are the “good guys.” Petrov shows us that decency persisted even in the “evil empire.”

Amazon pepper sauce

Filed under: Green Amazon,Hot Sauce — Razib Khan @ 5:13 pm

Something different today when it comes to the condiment of choice. So I’m privileged to work at a company where the boss adds different hot sauces to our Instacart orders for the office. So we get to sample the good with the bad (usually not bad, just not exceptional).

You stumble upon some real gems in that way. The Green Amazon pepper sauce isn’t the hottest that’s graced my palette by a long-shot, though it packs more of a punch than tabasco. But its tart pungency gives you a huge wallop. Think the pepperoncinis you used to get with pizza or in antipasto. But livelier and spicier.

Overall a definite keeper, Green Amazon is literally flavorful, with tang and spiciness, and a bit of savor as well.

September 18, 2017

Population structure in Neanderthals leads to genetic homogeneity

Filed under: Human Genetics,Paleoanthropology — Razib Khan @ 11:26 pm

The above tweet is in response to a article which reports on the finding past month in PNAS, Early history of Neanderthals and Denisovans. It’s open access, you should read it. I don’t think I’ve reviewed it because I haven’t dug through the supplements. To be frank this is a paper where you pretty much have to read the supplements because they’re introducing a somewhat different model here than is the norm.

I talked to Alan Rogers at SMBE about this paper. Broadly, I think there might be something to it, and it’s because of what David says above. It is simply hard to imagine that Neanderthals could be extremely successful with such low genetic diversity as we see, and spread so thin. Now, the Quanta Magazine tries to emphasize that the effective population is not the true census population, but I wish it would have explained it more clearly. Basically, the size that is relevant for breeding is obviously not going to the same as a head count. And, because effective populations are highly sensitive to bottlenecks you can get really small numbers even when the extant population at any given time may be large.

The PNAS paper makes some novel inferences, and I’ll set that to the side until I read the supplements. But I don’t think it’s crazy that population structure within Neanderthals could be leading to lower total genetic diversity.

Childhood goes into bankruptcy

Filed under: Economics — Razib Khan @ 11:05 pm

Toys ‘R’ Us, Crippled by Competition and Debt, Files for Bankruptcy. This is supposedly restructuring. But do classic toy stores have a future? I know FAO Schwarz closed a few years ago.

Remember video stores? Probably not.

Release the UK Biobank! (the prediction of height edition)

Filed under: Genomic prediction,Human Genetics,Human Genomics,UK Biobank — Razib Khan @ 9:25 pm

There’s so much science coming out of the UK Biobank it’s not even funny. It’s like getting the palantír or something.

Anyway, a preprint, submitted for your approval. A vision of things to come? Accurate Genomic Prediction Of Human Height:

We construct genomic predictors for heritable and extremely complex human quantitative traits (height, heel bone density, and educational attainment) using modern methods in high dimensional statistics (i.e., machine learning). Replication tests show that these predictors capture, respectively, ~40, 20, and 9 percent of total variance for the three traits. For example, predicted heights correlate ~0.65 with actual height; actual heights of most individuals in validation samples are within a few cm of the prediction. The variance captured for height is comparable to the estimated SNP heritability from GCTA (GREML) analysis, and seems to be close to its asymptotic value (i.e., as sample size goes to infinity), suggesting that we have captured most of the heritability for the SNPs used. Thus, our results resolve the common SNP portion of the “missing heritability” problem – i.e., the gap between prediction R-squared and SNP heritability. The ~20k activated SNPs in our height predictor reveal the genetic architecture of human height, at least for common SNPs. Our primary dataset is the UK Biobank cohort, comprised of almost 500k individual genotypes with multiple phenotypes. We also use other datasets and SNPs found in earlier GWAS for out-of-sample validation of our results.

A scatter-plot is worth a thousand derivations.

You know what better than 500,000 samples? One billion samples! A nerd can dream….

Black ancestry in white Americans of colonial background

Filed under: Admixture,American History,History,passing,slavery — Razib Khan @ 9:00 pm

I stumbled upon striking photographs of “white slaves” while reading The United States of the United Races: A Utopian History of Racial Mixing. The backstory here is that in the 19th century abolitionists realized that Northerners might be more horrified as to the nature of slavery if they could find children of mostly white ancestry, who nevertheless were born to slave mothers (and therefore were slaves themselves). So they found some children who had either been freed, or been emancipated, and dressed them up in more formal attire (a few more visibly black children were presented for contrast).

This illustrates that the media and elites have been using this ploy for a long time. I am talking about the Afghan girl photograph, or the foregrounding of blonde and blue-eyed Yezidi children. Recently I expressed some irritation on Twitter when there was a prominent photograph of a hazel-eyed Rohingya child refugee being passed around. Something like 1 in 500 people in that region of the world has hazel eyes! That couldn’t be a coincidence. Race matters when it comes to compassion.

But this post isn’t about that particular issue…rather, the images of enslaved white children brought me back to a tendency I’ve seen and wondered about: the old stock white Americans whose DNA results suggest ~1% or less Sub-Saharan ancestry. These are not uncommon, and I’ve looked at several of them (raw data). I’m pretty sure the vast majority at the 0.5% or more threshold are true positives, and probably many a bit below this (to my experience people from England and Ireland don’t get 0.3% African “noise” estimates with the modern high-density marker sets).

According to 23andMe’s database about 1 out of 10 white Southerners has African ancestry at the 1% threshold. It would be even more if you dropped to closer to 0.5%. And the DNA ancestry here understates the extent of what was going on: at about 10 generations back you are about 50% likely to inherit zero blocks of genomic ancestry from a given ancestor (assuming no inbreeding in the pedigree obviously). And this is exactly when a lot of the ancestry that is being detected seems to have “entered” the white population. In other words, for every person who is 1% African and 99% white American, they have a sibling who is 0% African and 100% white American, even though genealogically they share the same ancestors. Dropping the threshold to closer to 0.3%, and considering that even in the South there was migration from the North, and to a lesser extent Europe, after the Civil War, I wouldn’t be surprised models if admixture inferred from the distributions we see indicate that over half the lowland Southern white population likely had genealogical descent from a black slave.

This all comes to mind because there aren’t too many records of people “passing” during this period. Those who deal in genealogy and encounter these cases of low fractions, which are nevertheless likely not false positives, almost never find a “paper trail” when they go look. And they look really hard.

The reason is obvious in the context of American history. Thomas Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings had three one white grandparents and one African slave grandparent. Several of her children are recorded to have been totally European in an appearance, and all except one passed into the white population (the two eldest married well into affluent white families in Washington D.C.). Passing as white was a way to escape the debilities of black status in the United States.

That being said, I think our Whig conception of the progressive nature of history sometimes misleads us in forgetting that the dynamics of race relations has had its ups and downs several times in the last few centuries in North America. If you read Daniel Walker Howe’s excellent What Hath God Wrought you observe that racial beliefs about the necessity and institutionalization of white supremacy in the early American republic evolved over time. Though the early republic would never be judged racially enlightened by modern lights, it was certainly far less explicitly racially conscious than what was the norm in the decades before the Civil War.

In particular, the rise of democratic populism during the tenure of Andrew Jackson was connected with much more muscular racial nationalism. To utilize a framework emphasized by David Cannadine in Ornamentalism, colonialism and Western civilization during the 19th and early 20th centuries can be viewed through the lens of race and class. Though the economic inequalities of American society persisted through the 19th century, men such as Andrew Jackson affected a more populist and rough-hewn persona than the aristocratic presidents of the early 19th century.* The white man’s republic had a leveling effect on the nature of elite culture.

But the attitudes toward racial segregation and mixing took decades to harden. Martin van Buren’s vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, was well known to have had a common-law wife, Julia Chinn, who was a slave. He recognized his two daughters by her. He was vice president from 1837-1841 in the more racist of the two American political parties of the time. It is hard to imagine this being a viable “lifestyle” choice for someone of this prominence in later decades (after Julia Chinn’s death Johnson continued to enter into relationships with slaves).

Walter F. White, a black leader of the NAACP

Which brings us back to what was happening in the decades around 1800. Racism was a fact of life, necessitating the need for passing. But, beliefs about racial purity and the one drop rule had not hardened, so it would not be surprising to me that it was much easier for slave or ex-slave with mostly European ancestry to change their identity. Perhaps white Americans of that period were simply less vigilant about someone’s background because they were genuinely less concerned about the possibility that their partner may have had some black ancestry, so long as they looked white.

As the databases grow larger we’ll get a better sense of the demographic and genealogical dynamics. My suspicion is that we’ll see that there wasn’t much diminishment of gene flow into the black-identified community over the past 200 years, as much as the fact that hypo-descent, the one-drop rule, became so powerful in the between 1850 and 1950 that we can confirm that passing decline during this period, before rising again in the 1960s as whites became less vigilant due to decreased racism.

* As a middle class New Englander John Adams obviously was no aristocrat, but he was no populist either.

September 17, 2017

Open Thread, 9/17/2017

Filed under: Open Thread — Razib Khan @ 8:12 pm

Reading Vietnam: A New History. The author has an apologia/explanation for why he is focusing not just on European colonialism, but the history of what became Vietnam back to the first contacts with Han China (with some perfunctory archaeological passages). This is great in theory, but from what I have read so far we’re going to have a tryst with the French sooner than later. So I don’t think he really delivered here (though perhaps “normal” people want to read about evil European colonialism immediately?).

By coincidence, there is a Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War now. One of my friends from when I was a kid had (has) a dad who was a Vietnam vet. He’d have night terrors. Only now do I realize how recently in the past it was for him back in the 1980s.

I did enjoy The Best and the Brightest.

Sent out my second newsletter. Here’s a stat that I divulged: more than 50% of traffic to this site is directly due to Google+Twitter+Facebook. In 2011 it was 35%. Much of the difference is due to the decline in RSS feeds, and the rise of mobile.

Why is Twitter not what it was in the early 2010s? I think part of it is that there are too many people on Twitter, and the average user is less intelligent overall. Unlike Facebook on Twitter the “genius” is anyone can talk to you. This is a problem.

The grandmaster of Mormon dweeb fantasy (I say this affectionately) Brandon Sanderson is coming out with the third book in his projected ten book Stormlight Archive series.

I’m at peace with the likelihood that I won’t finish this series. Sanderson is a great world-builder, so I’m looking at these books more as fictional ethnographies. Just along for a short ride.

Finally in the homestretch of A New History of Western Philosophy. After the classical period I haven’t really enjoyed this book, it was a slog. I began to read it at the same time as I read Consciousness and the Brain, which I finished in a week. Two years on I’m finally finishing the other book I started then.

Finally, again I highly recommend The Fortunes of Africa. Great read. I do have to say that it was hard not to be particularly appalled by Arab slave traders. It’s not like the European trade isn’t appalling, but that’s widely known. In contrast the driving of black Africans across the Sahara is less in the Western consciousness.

Massive genomic sample sizes = detecting evolution in real time

Filed under: Human Genetics — Razib Khan @ 7:22 pm

The recent PLOS BIOLOGY paper, Identifying genetic variants that affect viability in large cohorts, seems to have triggered a feeding frenzy in the media. For example, Big Think has put up Researchers Find Evidence That Human Evolution Is Still Actively Happening.

I wasn’t paying close attention because of course human evolution is still happening actively. From a genetic perspective, evolution is just change in allele frequencies. Populations aren’t infinite, so even if there wasn’t any selection stochastic forces would shift allele frequencies. But of course selection is probably happening. For adaptation by natural selection to occur you need heritable variation on a trait where there are fitness differences as a function of variation within the population. It seems implausible that these conditions don’t still apply. There’s plenty of fitness variation in the population, and it’s unlikely to be random as a function of heritable variation.

But the devil is in the details. And last year Field et al. used the modern genomic tools available to detect selection occurring over the past 2,000 years. It is not credible that it would have magically stopped a few centuries ago.

So why is this new paper such a big deal? (note that it’s in PLOS BIOLOGY, not PLOS GENETICS) Because the method they use is ingenious and simple. Basically, they’re looking at changes in allele frequencies as a function of age in huge populations. It’s a little more complicated than that, they used a logistic regression to control for some of the other variables. But they found some biologically plausible hits with their data set of 50,000-150,000. And, they replicated their hits from a European sample to a non-European one.

This does bring me back to a discussion I observed a while back. An evolutionary geneticist who works with Drosophila mentioned offhand that in his field there really wasn’t that much of a need for more data. They could spend all their time to doing analysis. A prominent human geneticist whose work focused on biomedicine piped up that that wasn’t true at all for their field. There are some differences in the scientific questions, but there are also differences in terms of what you can do with humans as a model organism.

In the paper they look forward to the day of increasing sample sizes an order of magnitude beyond where it is now. At some point in the near future, large fractions of entire nations will be sequenced at medical grade level (30x coverage).

Anyway, you should read Identifying genetic variants that affect viability in large cohorts. It’s pretty straightforward.

George R. R. Martin’s typical fantasy trope

Filed under: A Song of Ice and Fire,Game of Thrones — Razib Khan @ 11:05 am

George R. R. Martin has done something new in fantasy. He has created a world in shades of gray. This is in contrast to the modern template of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, where what is good and what is evil were as clear and distinct as black and white. In addition, A Song of Ice and Fire transcended fantasy’s traditional appeal to adolescent males. This latter tendency is pretty evident in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, which was simply not transcending its juvenile origins by book seven or eight, when I gave up. It isn’t as if the Jordan-style, geared toward adolescent male virgins, can’t be done well. I’d argue that Brandon Sanderson pulls this off very competently.

One of the aspects of A Song of Ice and Fire in the books is there isn’t a Dark Lord who is the literal personification of evil. No Sauron. Even the primary antagonists become less dark with deeper exploration, and their motivations are often complex, and comprehensible in their own way.

But there is a major exception to this: Ramsay Snow and House Bolton. The Boltons are the great rivals of the Starks in the North, and before they were vassals they were kings. And they are evil in a straightforward sense without nuance. One stupid “fan theory” (these are the television show watchers) even posited that Roose Bolton was an immortal vampire.

Though Martin is careful to suggest that people should not take the antiquity of the dynasties in A Song of Ice and Fire literally, it is clear that the Bolton’s are not parvenus. Their lineage is old, and it has persisted. And yet the Boltons which are highlighted are basically without any redeeming qualities over their history. Ramsay Snow is basically the protagonist of a snuff film come alive.

When it comes to mining history perhaps the best analog to the Boltons were the Assyrians. Like the Boltons they flayed their enemies alive. The Assyrians also famously were totally destroyed by their enemies because of the ill-will their cruelty in conquest generated. Martin is a student of history, and there is no way that a lineage of such unmitigated evil could persist down the centuries. The Boltons exist as witness to the long tradition of fantasy antagonists which readers love to hate.

Reader survey, 2017 results

Filed under: 2017 Reader Survey,Survey — Razib Khan @ 9:54 am

Every few years I do a reader survey. Below are results without cross-tabs (well, with a couple of exceptions) or any deeper analysis. I’ll probably do some follow-ups in the next month or so.

This gender proportion has been pretty constant. When I was at Discover I think the female percentage went up to 15%.

Many people read this blog in their grad school/postdoc years. Then they get busy with life. Also, there are a fair number of retirees who read this weblog (they are much more likely to email me for what it’s worth).

People pick “5” and “10” years because they are round numbers. A small number of readers actually know of me from Usenet groups and mention it (so they are “pre-blog”).

One thing that has changed over the years is that I have gone from the modal number of children, 0 (partly due to age and educational levels of readers), to considerably above my readership at 3.

The above demographics are reflected in “relationship status.” Lots of younger people who say “single” (though presumably they are dating).


The distribution of incomes is no surprise in light of educational attainment:

In terms where readers live, not much has changed over the years. I had expected more and more Chinese…but they basically have their own world-wide web (no, not banned in China):

In terms of academic background:

Fewer people from life sciences than I’d have thought. I think the proportion of people from math, engineering, and physical sciences has been increasing over the years.


60 geneticists responded. Pretty even distribution.

Surprised how few readers knew what the HWE was. Limiting the sample to geneticists improves the result somewhat:

Still surprised though at the low numbers for Breeder’s equation, Hamilton’s rule, Fst, and the neutral rate of substitution.

Surprised at the high number who have read Farewell to Alms. I think I can take some credit for the number of readers who have read In Gods We Trust and The Fall of Rome.

The fractions are the same for the geneticist sample in both of the above questions, as people will probably be curious.

Not surprised at fractions for deontology (low), consequentialism and virtue ethics (higher). But surprised by the proportion aligned with natural law.

The fractions on this question are the same year after year.

I did ask a question about religious identification. It did establish that at least 10% of readers identify as Jewish. This is no surprise.

No priors on this.

Seems right. As in, aligns with previous surveys.

Lots of political diversity. People who describe themselves as “libertarian” have always been modal since the beginning of the blog, but never have they been predominant.

When I force people to choose between fewer options a mild Right tilt in the readership is apparent:

On social issues there is a Left lean:

On economic issues, a Right lean:

When it came to president it was all over the place:

For the last result I’m going to switch to absolute numbers because nearly half of respondents didn’t give an answer (presumably because they did not identify as any of the communities):

Reason with Prose, Not Poetry

Filed under: Cognitive Science,reason — Razib Khan @ 7:15 am

One of the insights of the excellent book The Enigma of Reason is that “reason” isn’t some disembodied analytic faculty, but part of a broader cognitive toolkit. And, it doesn’t really have the catbird seat we like to think. This is pretty obvious to many people; at least when it comes to the “reasons” of those with whom they disagree. And some of the basic propositions were explicated rather well by David Hume over 200 years ago.

But if you conceive of reason as a form of argumentation aimed at those who don’t agree with you, then in many cases dense and stolid may be superior to poetic and stirring. If you are looking for reasons to entertain or consider views with which you disagree you need a good argument to chew on. Reasons to align with countervailing intuitions.

To give a concrete example, most people seem to admit that Adolf Hitler was a stirring orator. But I’m pretty sure that few modern Neo-Nazis were immediately converted by watching his speeches. If you don’t already believe in his propositions Hitler’s speeches just seem sinister.

That’s an extreme example of course. But it gets at the point. The conservative thinker William F. Buckley was often praised for his command of the English language, but I know that many liberals find his prose pretentious and tedious. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ pieces elicit almost orgasmic praise from liberal public intellectuals, but non-liberals often judge that he’s simply indulged.

My point here is that reasoned and dense discourse, which nonetheless maintains clarity, may not persuade in one sitting through force of argumentation. But it is far more likely to push the needle with someone who begins at sharp contradiction with the core propositions. In contrast, sermons convince those who are already primed to be carried up the heights. Sermons don’t really make cogent points, because they already take for granted you agree on the points.

Addendum: Please note that the above applies to the small proportion of the population fixated on the necessity of reasoned arguments. Most people are convinced by social cues of what is, and isn’t, acceptable for their ingroup. Basically, the audience that I’m talking about here are the sorts which read political magazines rather than listen to talk radio or watch Samatha Bee. If they are religious they are the sorts who actually read the Nicene creed and attempt to understand the Athanasian formula.

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