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

March 23, 2019

Finishing What Darwin Began

Filed under: Books,Culture,Science & Tech — Razib Khan @ 2:30 am
Wilson argues cogently that humanity, both in its biology and its culture, is a product of evolution.

March 18, 2019

The evolution of languages

Filed under: Culture,Evolution,Linguistics — Razib Khan @ 2:59 pm
Map of language families of the world today

The story in the Bible about the “Tower of Babel” was the explanation that the ancient Hebrews gave for why there was so much linguistic diversity in the world around them. Ancient people were curious and observant enough to notice that their neighbors did not speak like them. The word “barbarian” comes from the ancient Greek perception of what non-Greeks sounded like to Greeks.

Sometimes linguistic differences can be more subtle, but still critical to life and death. The meaning of the term shibboleth comes out of the context where different ancient Israelite groups pronounced s differently and used that to identify members of an enemy tribe. The limits of your language are often the limits of your tribe.

But evolutionary genetics tells us humans share a common ancestor. That we are one tribe in our genealogy. In fact, the most recent common ancestors of all human populations lived within the last 200,000 years. Outside of Africa, they lived within the last 50,000 years. And, in North and South America it is within the last 15,000 years. We are a young species.

And yet you have a situation such as in the highlands of New Guinea where people who live in different valleys positioned next to each other speak two totally different languages. In North America, Europeans encountered thousands of languages and many language families. And yet we know that most of the ancestors of the natives of North America arrived within the last 15,000 years!

The situation in the Americas may have been the norm in the recent past. Today 40% of the world’s population speak Indo-European languages, but 6,000 years ago it is likely that very few Europeans or Indians spoke Indo-European languages. The spread of English, Arabic, and Chinese occurred in historical time. Their rise to dominance is due to social and political realities of the last 2,000 years.

The ancient world points to incredible linguistic diversity which faded with rising of the “empires of the word.” Over four thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, what is now modern Iraq, many of the people spoke Semitic dialects. Related Arabic and Hebrew. But Sumerian flourished at the time in the south, a language unrelated to any we know of today. In the far north, the people spoke Hurrian, again, a language unrelated to any which flourish today. In the mountains to the east there lived the Guti and Kassites, who seem to have spoken languages unrelated to any spoken today as well.

Etruscans spoke a non-Indo-European language, but influenced the Romans

The Romans record the presence of Etruscans, who influenced their culture, and spoke a language which was not Indo-European. To the further north, there were Ligurians, hugging the coast around modern Genoa, while in the hills there lived tribal Samnites and Oscans. To the south, there were Greek cities and obscure native peoples such as the Sicils. The island of Sardinia was inhabited by speakers of what we now term “Paleo-Sardinian,” perhaps related to Basque. The ancient world was one great Babel.

What this highlights is that while genetic evolution proceeds slowly, gradually, and continuously, linguistic evolution can be riotous, rapid, and proliferate at light speed toward unintelligibility.

Just by physical inspection, one can tell that Finns and Swedes share common ancestors. That they are genetically related. But linguistically they are as different as can be. Finnish is no closer to Swedish phylogenetically than it is to Bantu or Chinese! Swedish as a language is most definitely closer to Bengali, Spanish, or ancient Hittite, than it is to Finnish.

Evolution simply describes a change in characteristics which be defined on a phylogenetic tree. This can be biological, as with genetic evolution, or, it can be cultural. But clearly, the mechanisms matter here. Mendel’s laws impose constraints and regularity to biological evolution which culture lacks. Half of your genetic material comes from each parent. There is no such constraint with culture. In fact, your cultural inheritance may come from someone who is not your biological parent.

Whereas genetic evolution can be traced through modern scientific methods to billions of years in the past, elements of cultural evolution shift so fast that most researchers are skeptical of the possibility of going more than ten thousand years in the past. We have a Neanderthal genome, but it is unlikely we will ever be able to reconstruct the Neanderthal languages (there were certainly many!).

The diversity of languages of North and South America illustrates how a small number of people, perhaps a few thousand genetically, can give rise to thousands of languages hundreds of generations later. The diversity we see around us today in the modern era is but a shadow of what was likely the human norm for most of our species’ history. It is as if a massive process of selection has winnowed down the languages spoken down to a few huge families.

And yet we can still discern similarities across many languages separated by history and large geographical distances. This is most famously illustrated by the “Indo-European” languages.

The affinities between Indian languages and those of Europe were discerned by Sir William Jones in the 18th century. After the fact, the similarities are clear to native speakers. A focus on core words that were more likely to be preserved gave rise to “Swadesh lists.”

Here is the number “nine” in various languages:

Finnish: yhdeksän, Hungarian: szám, Basque: zenbakia, Swedish: nio, Czech: neun, French: neuf, Armenian: inn, Bengali: naẏa, Arabic: tis3a, Turkish: dokuz

Even if you are not a linguist or philologist peculiar similarities may jump out at you (as well as discordances). This is because a large number of languages in that list are Indo-European, and share a common origin within the last ~5,000 years. Paired with them are nearby languages which are non-Indo-European.

It is almost certainly the case that most of those languages above are spoken by people who share ancestors within the last ~50,000 years…but evolution on vocabulary is fast enough that the signal of shared ancestry is lost much faster than in genetic evolution.

This is why many historical linguists focus on grammar, rather than vocabulary. Just going by a list of the number of words within the lexicon you might conclude that English is a Latinate language, like French, Spanish or Italian. But if you look at grammar, it is clear that English is a Germanic language. Vocabulary is something that is easily shared, and quite protean. Consider how quickly different generations develop their own slang and preferred terms.

Grammar is much more conservative, and non-standard speech is often indicative that someone learned English as an adult, and retained the grammar of the language in which they were raised.

Vocabulary evolves fast and responds to selection. People who live in a forested environment may have many ways to describe types of trees. Those who live on a grassland may not. But grammar is part of the deep structure of any language and is evolutionarily conserved. If Noam Chomsky is correct, all grammar is a local expression of “universal grammar,” which is hardwired into our species on the deepest levels.

And yet all of this fascinating research and knowledge is constrained by the fact that most of the world’s languages are disappearing. This mass extinction is happening due to globalization, trade, and the advantages of speaking an ‘international’ language. Of the world’s 7,000 living languages, nearly half are in danger of going extinct.

With the extinction of a language, a peoples’ whole memory fades into oblivion, as well as the record of human diversity from which we can make inferences about the power and range of evolutionary processes in culture.


The evolution of languages was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

March 11, 2019

How Indian are Pakistanis (vs. non-Indian)

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 4:42 pm

I was sent this link via Twitter, Pakistanis are Arabs:

OK – so clearly that’s nonsense … but while I have your attention ..

Back in 2012, the Aspen Institute held a discussion called “My Middle East” featuring authors from around the “modern Middle East”. This included participants from various Arab countries, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Each author was given an opportunity to provide insight into their unique Middle Eastern experience. The brilliant Daniyal Mueendin was representing Pakistan. When it was his turn to speak, he started rambling about how the question was confusing to him as he was not a Middle-Easterner and so didn’t really know what to say – in other words, he missed the point completely i.e for all practical purposes (and particularly from the perspective of the audience) his cultural experience was Middle Eastern enough. I should add that the participants from Turkey and Afghanistan had no such problems. To me this brought to the fore an issue that’s been bothering me for a while namely a tendency among affluent, liberal Pakistanis to underplay Pakistan’s cultural affiliation with the Greater Middle East and instead fixate eastward, towards India, for such cultural linkages.

To be frank there is no substance I can see to the blog post, just some assertion. After reading this I am more convinced that Pakistanis are South Asian and shouldn’t be included as part of the “Greater Middle East,” because the argument presented is so weak, vacuous and contentless.

Pakistanis, especially the ones who are from Pashtun backgrounds, are more Middle Eastern than other South Asian peoples, even Muslims from Uttar Pradesh. I don’t deny that. But the dominant Punjabi culture of Pakistan is South Asian. Indian if you want to remove the term “Indian” from its current political valence.

Note: It is not surprising that this is the question where some of our local Hindu nationalists agree with Pakistani nationalists. Reality damns them both.

February 27, 2019

A toxic cocktail of American narcissism and Indian American self-righteousness

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 10:44 am

Like many of you, I’m monitoring what’s going on in the Indian subcontinent. I’m not saying much because I don’t know much. No value to add.

But then this showed up in my timeline, and I honestly could not believe that even the confluence of characteristics we’ve been talking about recently might lead to such bizarre self-obsessed comments:

I see this person’s comments in my timeline way too often. Best case scenario is that she’s some sort of ideological grifter who knows how to push buttons. But this indecent.

February 26, 2019

I now support quotas on (South) Asian Americans at elite universities

Filed under: America,Culture — Razib Khan @ 4:36 pm

A Harvard Law Professor Is Representing Harvey Weinstein. Students Say This Makes Them Unsafe, Demand His Resignation:

Harvard’s administration is taking students’ concerns seriously, and has agreed to conduct a review of Sullivan.

“In this situation, we would like to have a more complete understanding of the current environment at Winthrop House,” wrote Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana in an email, according to The Harvard Crimson.

One of The Crimson’s own staff members*, Danukshi Mudannayake, is spearheading the effort to remove Sullivan. She started a change.org petition that claims his representation of Weinstein as “not only upsetting, but deeply trauma-inducing.” According to Mudannayake, Sullivan has made clear that he does not “value the safety of students he lives with in Winthrop House.”

The American system is upsetting. To be frank, it’s a feature, not a bug. Presumption of innocence exists not in cases where it is easy to support the innocent, but in cases where it is hard. In the United States of America there are people who commit horrible crimes, and lawyers who defend them and lawyers who prosecute them. This is all part of the system.

It is tough on the heart. But it works. Unlike some societies, the will of the majority does not dictate the outcome (in theory).

Seeing those names was like a punch in the stomach. This is not the sort of “model minority” that I’d like to encourage.

February 25, 2019

Do people in India care about ‘racist’ knitters?

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 6:30 pm


There is a weird controversy about a white knitter who was perceived to be racist against Indians because they were worried about going to India because it was so alien from her experience? At least that’s what I get from the conversation. See the above exchange for some more context.

The mainstream website Vox, published something relating to this, The knitting community is reckoning with racism. The post shows that this is really about Americans more than about Indians. For example:

As someone who is mixed-race Indian, to me, her post (though seemingly well-meaning) was like bingo for every conversation a white person has ever had with me about their “fascination” with my dad’s home country; it was just so colorful and complex and inspiring. It’s not that they were wrong, per se, just that the tone felt like they thought India only existed to be all those things for them.

The author of the piece is a mixed-race American. Her mother is Irish American, and her father an immigrant from India.

My question is simple: what do people in India think about this?

February 20, 2019

Brown is all, all is brown

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 12:57 am

There emerged a question in the comments below as to what was “brown” or “desi”?

Ah, the old demarcation problem! Since there is no “Pope of Brownness” we can all offer our opinions. I take a “liberal” and “broad” view.

There are children adopted from India in the United States who are as physically South Asian as anyone. But often they were raised as English-speaking American Christians. Though many attempt to reconnect with “their culture”, the reality is that their family is the family who adopted them. Their culture is the culture in which they grew into adulthood. But, because of the way they look people make assumptions about them. Perhaps people are racist against them as South Asians.

Despite their involuntary cultural alienation from all things South Asian, I have a difficult time thinking that these kids are not brown. Especially if they so want to identify as such.

In contrast, you have the case of people of various races who convert to religions with a South Asian provenance or were raised in those religions. Imagine someone whose parents convert to Hinduism, and raise them in India, but they are half Japanese and English American. They don’t “look” Indian. Brown. Or desi. But if they are raised in India, and practice a form of Hinduism, and speak Indian languages, I have a hard time saying that they don’t have a right to “claim” being desi or brown.

There are obviously many other cases. But I wanted to present these two as opposing and inverted instances, as I think they are the boundary conditions of what desi or brown identity is. People can say what they want about themselves. They could be an Iyer raised in Chennai who claims that they’re really not Indian or desi. Or, someone could be a Russian Karelian who is devoutly Orthodox who claims they Indian. I suspect most of us would think that this is nonsense. To be brown or desi does have boundaries.

But we can make the boundaries crisp and tight. Or broad and loose. For example, to assert that to be desi one has to be a believing and practicing Hindu who is racially South Asian would be a narrow definition.

Or, we can make them broad.

As an American, a broad definition works best for me. My children may not speak a South Asian language, worship Hindu gods, or look particularly “Indian.” But of their eight great-grandparents, four of them were born in British India. They have some claim I think to that heritage and identity, if not as strongly as those genuinely encultured.

February 7, 2019

The ghost of empire and the origin of all repression

Filed under: Culture,Noble Savage,Sexuality — Razib Khan @ 9:39 am

The New York Times published an op-ed, How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans, where India implicitly makes a showing:

It’s also worth noting that the obsession with supposed “biological realities” of people like Ms. Parker are part of a long tradition of British feminism interacting with colonialism and empire. Imperial Britain imposed policies to enforce heterosexuality and the gender binary, while simultaneously constructing the racial “other” as not only fundamentally different, but freighted with sexual menace; from there, it’s not a big leap to see sexual menace in any sort of “other,” and “biological realities” as essential and immutable….

These views are very common on the cultural Left. When progressive social activists make these assertions, and I argue that they are factually wrong, I’ve often encounter surprise and annoyance. There are two things I suspect going on here:

– These people are not genuine propagandists, they actually believe their own fictions. Faced with facts that are novel to them don’t know how to react. They live in a factual bubble where it is taken for granted that the idea of binary gender as a dominant paradigm was introduced by Westerners to South Asians, whose own conceptions were fluid, open, and tolerant.

– The facts of the history of non-Western cultures are fundamentally irrelevant because they exist only to support narratives relevant within Western cultures. Those narratives and the trajectory of Western culture is their true passion. Their fundamental Eurocentrism means that falsehood about non-Western cultures is not particular of great concern. That is not “their history.” Minor details to be ignored and brushed aside.

Gibbon famously asserted that the Pope, and implicitly the Roman Catholic Church, was the “ghost of the Roman Empire.” A living, breathing, vestige of an institution and society long gone. Much of modern Western Left social progressivism, informed by critical theory and post-colonialism, is a ghost of 19th and 20th-century empire. It is the warped inversion and reflection of Western chauvinism and populism.

It is highly peculiar to me that on the precipice of the 21st Asian age Western intellectuals bask and wallow in the reflected glory of Victorian-era empires as if they are determinative of all the goings on today. Part of this is surely due to the reality that intellectual currents are lagging indicators, and empires always persist longer in memory and self-regard than in reality. And part of it is the human needs for “noble savages” and “pure” Others against which their own sins may be measured and contrasted.

January 28, 2019

Various Asiatic raps

Filed under: Culture,Rap — Razib Khan @ 8:27 pm

I was watching some Mongol rap:

Then I wondered…found some stuff. Thoughts?



January 23, 2019

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 11: Cultural Evolution

Filed under: anthropology,Cultural Evolution,Culture,Evolution — Razib Khan @ 4:45 pm

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 11: Cultural Evolution

This week on The Insight (Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Google Podcasts)we discussed the field of cultural evolution with Richard McElreath of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The past, present, and future possibilities within this discipline.

Genealogically the modern study of culture in an evolutionary context goes back to L. L. Cavalli-Sforza and M. W. Feldman’s Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach. This approach was extended by Peter Richerson and Robert, such as in their book Not By Genes Alone. McElreath himself has written Mathematical Models of Social Evolution, illustrating the formal bent of this field.

We discussed the difference between the methods within cultural evolution, which borrow heavily from population and quantitative genetics, and cultural anthropology. While cultural anthropology is descriptive and avoids generalities, cultural evolution leans heavily on mathematical modeling. McElreath points out that today there is a society for his field, the Cultural Evolution Society.

Differences between cultural evolution and evolutionary psychology were discussed. While the former is mathematical as well as depending on fieldwork, the latter is a branch of social psychology informed by evolution that is more verbal and experimental.

The relevance of group selection to cultural evolution and its irrelevance to evolutionary genetics was also explored.

Two papers that McElreath was involved with, Greater wealth inequality, less polygyny: rethinking the polygyny threshold model and Sustainability of minority culture when inter-ethnic interaction is profitable, were discussed.

Finally, we also alluded to a non-obvious finding from cultural evolution: that social cognition explains cultural complexity we see around us, rather than individual intelligence. This is a central theme of Joe Henrich’s book The Secret of Our Success.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 11: Cultural Evolution was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

January 22, 2019

Humanity is smarter than the sum of its individuals

Filed under: Culture,science — Razib Khan @ 10:46 pm

We live in a world of wonders. Airplanes take us across the world, computers connect us digitally, and antibiotics cure us of infections. But how does any of this work? Do you know? Does your neighbor know? Billions of humans beings use mobile telephones. But could any single human build a mobile telephone from scratch? Could they even repair their phone if there was a defect?

The answer is obvious. A single human being, no matter how smart, is likely to be able to create a smartphone. A single human being is not able to master all the disciplines, from software engineering to solid state physics, that would allow them to design such a device in the first place. And a single human being does not have access to the specialized and efficient economic system that allows for the production of modern technology. The mobile telephone is the product of a system.

In our current age, we are wont to chalk this up to the interdependent economics of an advanced society. Everyone specializes, and complex supply chains interact dynamically through the “invisible hand,” to provide for us incredible productivity gains. But the truth is that this is how it has always been for our species.

Imagine being asked to create a bow and arrow. A functional clay pot. Or raise a crop of wheat. Though none of these things are highly “advanced” technologies, individual humans without specific skill would be at as much a loss as if they were asked to build a car from “scratch.” Specialization, compartmentalization, and almost miraculous social coordination has been part of our species’ toolkit since the beginning. It was true during the Middle Ages. During the time of the Roman Empire. And during the Stone Age.

Humans may have very large brains for our body sizes, but the truth is that our brains have been about the same size for the past 200,000 years. And yet our innovativeness did not stop 200,000 years ago. Rather, the rate of cultural innovation has increased over time, despite the fact that individual humans have had the same hardware. If human cultural complexity is due to the size of our brains, it is curious that our brains have not changed while our culture has. Something else is going on.

Human cultural evolution operates not simply through shaping our biology in the form of our brains but embedding in social memory a distributed set of skills and abilities which develop cumulatively over tim

Human societies are “hive minds,” and even if individual constituents of that hive mind have not changed for many millennia, the mind itself has been evolving over time. Adapting and reshaping itself. The distributed network has allowed for the development of specialized individuals with particular skills.

A few hundred years ago the vast majority of humans were farmers. Today, one occupation is not dominant, and most people fill specialized niches. As individuals, we lack the general flexibility of our Paleolithic ancestors. Take us into the wilds and many of us perish. But as a social unit, we are far more advanced because the “memes” that have come to define us at the level of societies are far beyond anything our ancestors had access to.

No single human being was responsible for getting our species to the moon. Rather, the collective wisdom of our species was responsible, across the world, and going back in deep in time.

Though evolution in a genetic since has continued since the Paleolithic and continues today, perhaps the most riotous explosion of evolution in the past 10,000 years has been culture, not biological!

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


Humanity is smarter than the sum of its individuals was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

December 13, 2018

Dance like a monkey American politicians!

Filed under: Clinton,Culture,Kerry — Razib Khan @ 4:20 pm


I have no real comment, aside from the fact that when I this video I started and I realized what it was about, I began to laugh really loudly and without any self-control. Am I the only one?

By coincidence I saw this video right after noting that Parag Khannna has a new book out, The Future Is Asian. Here is the summary from Amazon: “In the 19th century, the world was Europeanized. In the 20th century, it was Americanized. Now, in the 21st century, the world is being Asianized.” It should be re-Asianized. (we’re friends on LinkedIn)

November 23, 2018

A film of the Jarawa people

Filed under: Culture,Jarawa — Razib Khan @ 9:23 pm

November 13, 2018

Indian culture started when the British arrived: tales of shadology

Filed under: Culture,Shadology — Razib Khan @ 11:27 pm

When looking at Google Scholar after reading the paper on South Asian pigmentation, I came across this work, The Unfair Selection: A Study on Skin Color Bias in Arranged Indian Marriages:

Underlying the growing popularity of skin-lightening or fairness cosmetics in India is one of the most baseless biases experienced and practiced. Yet, the overriding importance of skin-color especially in context of marriage has been largely unaddressed. This exploratory study examined the influence of skin-color on preference for potential marriage partner. A 2 × 2 (gender × skin-color) between-group experimental design was used. Mothers (N = 108) of individuals of marriageable age group were presented with an option of five marital profiles containing education and work information only. The participants were shown profiles of either males or females depending on whether they had a son or a daughter. Once a profile was chosen, the participant was either shown a photograph of highly attractive fair girl/boy or a highly attractive dark girl/boy. The light-skinned and dark-skinned photograph was of the same person, except their skin tones were manipulated with the use of computer software. Participants were asked to rate how strongly would they recommend the girl/boy as potential bride/groom for their children. As expected, fair-skinned highly attractive people received higher ratings than dark-skinned highly attractive people. However, contrary to our expectations, ratings received for dark-skinned woman were not significantly lower than the ratings received for dark-skinned man. This study shows that the color of skin has the potential to even overpower traits such as general competency and physical attractiveness in both men and women.

The subjects are from the Indian capital. The surprising result is no sex difference. I’m not too interested in the paper’s primary result, but the introduction and discussion, which frames the preference for light skin historically, is of interest.

From the introduction:

While Black scholars in the Unites States have thoroughly examined the link between racism and colorism, there is paucity of information tracing the historical roots of skin-color discrimination in India (Parameswaran & Cardoza, 2009a). Internalization of superiority of fair/white skin has been related to the combined influences of colonialism, caste system,
and globalization. Many South-Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and so on were ruled by the British for around 200 years; “white” race was the ruler and the “dark” native were the ruled. This led to internalization of superiority and power of the “white” skin and inferiority and powerlessness of the “dark skin” (Speight, 2007). Internalized racism reveals itself in a variety of situations from work environment to social situations where people of color reject or denigrate those with dark-skin. The caste system in India is likely to have given impetus to the notion of superiority of fair skin-color brought by colonial rule (Parameswaran & Cardoza, 2009b; Shankar & Subish, 2016). Higher castes have been perceived to be “fairer” and superior while lower castes have been perceived to be “darker” and inferior. Today, in postcolonial world, globalization has led to increased spread and acceptance of Western beauty ideals in Asian and African cultures (Hunter, 2011; Peltzer, Pengpid, & James, 2016).

First, the Muslim West and Central Asians who arrived in South Asia, described it as a pattern where white people conquered black people. These people were quite aware that South Asians were not black in the way Sub-Saharan Africans were. There were black Africans in the armies of the Muslims, as the Siddi community demonstrates. Nor did the Iranians, let alone the Turks, consider themselves to be of the same people as the Europeans.

But when it came to the metric of skin color, the Muslim ruling class of South Asia was disproportionately very light in complexion and described themselves often as white. The natives were described often, though not always, as black (though more often obviously as “Hindus” or whatnot). When Europeans arrived they did not come as conquerors, but as supplicants to the great Mughal and the other powers. They perceived themselves to be white, just like the elite Muslims, as opposed to the dark-skinned native Indian population, which was mostly, though not exclusively, non-Muslim.

As the 19th century proceeded Europeans, and in particular the British, developed a refined, narrow, and simultaneously biological and cultural conception of whiteness which excluded West and Central Asian Muslims. But this was a process and does not negate the fact that the ruling elite of South Asia was disproportionate of the Muslim religion and very light-skinned in comparison to the populace as a whole for many more centuries than British rule occurred.

Second, “higher castes” are not perceived to be lighter in complexion. The data is clear: higher castes are on the whole on average lighter in complexion. Just as people from the north, and west, of the subcontinent, are lighter in complexion than people from the south and east. This is not a perception dictated by ideology, but biology.

As for whether Brahmins have become “higher” castes recently, my understanding is that they have always been a high caste, and that the British did not give them their high casteness. To be frank, Indian social heirarchies do not need the imprimateur of white Europeans to come into existence, ex nihlo.

And genetics makes it clear that castes seem to have been separated and distinct for around ~2,000 years or so in South Asia. Even before the Muslims!

Now, I don’t know enough about South Asian history and culture to comment on this part:

Thus, skin-color is related to social hierarchy in India; fair skin is often considered to be a mark of higher social standing. However, it is important to note that historically and culturally, dark not white skin was considered to be ideal and desirable in India. Some notable examples are the popularity of God Krishna (literally black) and Draupadi (also called Krishnaa), a character from the epic Mahabharata. Krishna is worshipped in many parts of India whereas Draupadi was considered to be one of the most desirable women in the world. The transformation of ideal skin-color from dark to fair can be traced to the influence of caste system, British imperialism, and global hegemony of whiteness. The caste system also called varna (literally color) accounts for the perceived superiority of fair skin over dark. Owing to the association of fairer skin with upper caste and darker skin with lower castes, skin-color came to signify the social position of an individual in our society. In addition, the racist construction of “dark native” by the British seems to have become a part of our unconscious and is often projected as strong dislike for the “dark other” (Parameswaran & Cardoza, 2009b).

I would be curious about the idea that dark skin was preferred to light skin. The historical genetics makes it clear that lighter invasive populations seem to have arrived and placed themselves on top of darker populations, with some mixing before caste crystallization.

Finally:

The popularity of some dark-skin colored Bollywood actresses like Bipasha Basu, Kajol, Deepika Padukone, and so on suggests that masses are likely to accept a dark-skinned woman if she is perceived as highly attractive.

I do understand that Indian actresses use make-up (or lightening cream) to make their complexion seem fairer than it would otherwise be…but it is clear none of these actresses are actually dark-skinned in the broader South Asian context. They are at best of average complexion.

Now, perhaps you will tell me that I spend time only with kala-batchas or something, I really don’t know. But this whole paper is soaked in postcolonial anti-Western delusional discourse…and then it ends in the shadological delusion that these average complexioned actresses are actually dark skinned! Average South Asians are not light brown, they are medium brown. Medium brown actresses are not dark-skinned, they are dark-skinned for actresses (which is fine, but a different thing than being representative of the population).

Go to Google Images and type “dark-skinned Indian actress” and then “dark-skinned black actress.” In the latter case, the actresses are genuinely dark-skinned. In the former case, only a minority are actresses with the complexion of Sharon Muthu.

October 4, 2018

Obscurantism in the service of transformation

Filed under: Cultural History,Culture,philosophy — Razib Khan @ 11:27 pm


The paper, Ancient Admixture in Human History, was peculiar as far as genetics publications go in that it foregrounds particular abstruse statistical methods developed due to the stimulus of genome-wide variation data. The surfeit of genomic data has resulted in the emergence of many subtle and almost impenetrable works laced with formalisms which daunt most biologists. But given time and effort, these newer methods relying upon greater analytic sophistication are decipherable.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, consider Mathematical Models of Social Evolution. This is a book with a fair amount of formality, but the topic, culture, social change, are often considerations which we ruminate upon verbally.

I open up to page 238 (I literally opened a random page).

…According to this approximation, the altruistic gene will increase whenever

    \[ \frac{g}{c} > \frac{2n}{\Omega} \]

In intrademic models in which groups are formed at random, \Omega = 1. In contrast, if groups were made up of full-sibs, \Omega = 2n. This provides a natural scale on which to judge the effectiveness of interdemic selection. If \Omega is near one, interdemic group selection is no more effective than intrademic group selection with random group formation, which is to say, it cannot lead to the evolution of strong altruism. If \Omega is large, then itnerdemic group selection is effective.

On first blush, the passage can seem impenetrable. But most of the people reading this are probably not intimidated by mathematical formalism. Many of you will know what intrademic and interdemic selection are. Some of you who are more numerically oriented may test some values to develop an intuition. The point is that the formalism is not there to intimidate. It is meant to illuminate. It is there so individuals thinking on the same problem can have a crisp currency with which they can exchange ideas.

Another major reason that this sort of formalism exists is that it’s clear when you think someone is wrong. A problem with many verbal arguments is that they are unspecified or vague in such a way that you’re not even sure if you disagree or agree with your interlocutor. The point is to get somewhere. Coherency. Contingency. And cumulativeness.

Applying a mathematical theory derived from evolutionary biology to cultural and social change strikes many people as strange. But there’s a method to this madness. Theory with data can give birth to a better understanding of the processes which define our world. A description of reality.

In contrast, let me quote Noam Chomsky:

“What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.”

Now let me open up the Alan Bass translation of Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference. From the bottom of page 91:

Therefore, there is a soliloquy of reason and a solitude of light. Incapable of respecting the Being and meaning of the other, phenomenology and ontology would be philosophies of violence. Through them, the entire philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same. The ancient clandestine friendship between light and power, the ancient complicity between theoretically objective and technico-political possession….

Obviously, I can’t read French. But if I was reading a scientific textbook a translation wouldn’t matter. To be entirely frank when I read these sorts of works in the deconstructionist tradition I feel like I’m reading mantras, not analyses. Declarations of gurus and rabbis. Great ones to emulate.

These authors often like to “play” with language, and engage in a semantic game and lead you on a verbal wild goose chase. Some of them are also better with a turn of phrase and able to generate luxurious prose which pulls you along in an almost novelistic fashion. But reading a second time, often I have no more idea what’s really being said than on the first inspection.

Twenty years ago this was an academic discussion. I had long believed that some of my friends’ fixations with linguistic analysis and redefinition as the summum bonum of any intellectual were silly and useless, but I didn’t think they’d have a direct impact. No longer. This stuff matters. My friends are now tenured professors.

From Judith Butler’s 1988’s Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory, in Theater Journal:

When Beauvoir claims that ‘woman’ is a historical idea and not a natural fact, she clearly underscores the distinction between sex, as biological facticity, and gender, as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity. To be female is, according to that distinction, a facticity which has no meaning, but to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman,’ to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project….

Strip away the lexical obfuscation, but much of this is now taught in biology courses. Whether you agree with it or not is besides the point. This stuff is not just academic.

September 4, 2018

Culture can be more powerful than biology

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 7:36 pm

An interview with the author of I Should Have Honor: A Memoir of Hope and Pride in Pakistan. It’s a difficult listen. Basically illustrates how in some “traditional” cultures women are treated like disposable and fungible property.

As a geneticist and a father, one thing about “honor killing” that always strikes me is that it illustrates the power of environmental and cultural pressures in comparison to biology and genetics. When a father, or a brother, kills a daughter or a sister, they kill a part of themselves. Additionally, I don’t think the love and affection that fathers have toward their children is a culturally learned artifact, though some fathers are quite busy, with large broods, and distant.

And yet despite the reality of fatherly or brotherly affection, because of the cultural conditioning and incentive structures in extended family kinship networks, they still murder their daughters and sisters.

August 26, 2018

Western Asians are Western

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 10:01 pm

The above diagram really hits at something important. Back when I was commenting on Sepia Munity, or as I read The Aerogram, I always come back to the reality that many people of Asian heritage who grew up in the United States or Europe are culturally Western.

Therefore, fundamental aspects of Asian culture were always refracted through a Western lens. When I read The Aerogram I know what I’m getting: the story will end with a progressive (Western) “final thought.” The types of Asian Americans who write this type of journalism are politically progressive. Those of us who are Asian American, and not progressive, do other types of work.

Not that there is anything wrong with this…but there is often a tendency to not take non-Western culture on its own terms. People of Asian origin in the United States are identified as fundamentally and deeply Asian because of their faces in their native environment, the West. They are ambassadors and exemplars of Asiatic ways. But over the years these people forget that for Asians living in Asian see them, rightly, as Western. They have no authority from authenticity, the authority is given to them by non-Asian Westerners who don’t know sari from salwar.

“Woke Asians” are actually simply “woke,” and so they have internalized a world-system where it is bad whites/colonialists against good PoC. When Asian values, Asian practices, don’t fit into the narrative, the prosecution brings the case against Asians for being insufficiently authentic, of being distorted by hegemonic “colonialist” paradigms.

July 30, 2018

Bubba has the babies

Filed under: Culture,Fertility,GSS — Razib Khan @ 10:32 pm

Today Colin Woodward, author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, has an op-ed up, The Maps That Show That City vs. Country Is Not Our Political Fault Line: The key difference is among regional cultures tracing back to the nation’s colonization. Woodward’s thesis is basically that the modern shape of American cultural and political conflict has deep structural roots in American history. This is the same argument that David Hackett Fischer makes in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, and Kevin Phillips more broadly about the Anglo-world in The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America. These perspectives are useful because there is a tendency in modern American discussion to reduce the sum totality of the dynamic to the white supremacist order, as opposed to the “rising tides of color.” There is an area where the cult-of-Pepe and the identity Left agree descriptively (they just flip the good guys and the bad guys).

There is some of this in the Ezra Klein Vox piece, White threat in a browning America. There are the whites. And there are the non-whites. And never the twain shall meet.

On a side note, Klein’s reliance on social psychological research about white racial anxiety being elicited by priming or information which makes non-whites salient should be critiqued more thoroughly. I suspect most of us find the argument intuitively believable, but the past five years of the replication crisis in psychology, where social psychology was ground-zero, should really make us put our guards up about evidentiary claims which support views we already have a bias toward accepting.

In any case, Klein cites research which shows that non-Hispanic whites are now less than 50% of the births in this country. Rather than arguing about the future of racial identification, I was curious about which whites were giving birth. The problem with raw average total fertility rates is that they mask underlying variance. For example, in Britain the majority of Jews are non-observant, but the majority of Jews under the age of five are from observant families. This is a function of the extremely low fertility of the non-observant majority, and the very high fertility of observant Jews in Britain.

The reason I bring this up is that the different subcultures of the United States have different fertility rates. David Hacket Fischer posits four major Anglo-American streams which date to before the Revolutionary War: New England Yankees, Tidewater and lowland Southerners, Scots-Irish highlanders, and the diverse polyglot Mid-Atlantic region, from Quakers to Dutch. Woodward and others have a somewhat different taxonomy, but the broad sketch aligns.

The curious fact is that up between the 1640s and 1840s New England Yankees were the most fecund of the American Anglo-cultures. The fertility of New England was such that the region began to colonize parts of the United States which had heretofore been dominated by other groups. The eastern half of Long Island was taken over by New Englanders, and they became prominent in New York’s merchant class (there was also a Yankee migration into the Canadian Atlantic provinces). New England farmers swept past the Dutch dominated lower Hudson Valley and overwhelmed the rest of upstate New York, creating a cultural fission that persisted up to the Civil War between the pro-Southern city of New York and the fiercely Republican upstate areas.

In contrast, the population growth rate in the South was depressed compared to the North. Much of this probably can be accounted for by endemic disease.

Things are different now.

The CDC has data on total births by race and ethnic identity by state. I pulled the data and plotted them. The correlation between the number of births and the number of people in the states by race and ethnicity were very high (0.98 and such). Also, I removed about the bottom five states in total population. The data are from ACS sample surveys, and it is pretty clear that small sample sizes are a problem in some of the cross-tabs/states.

In any case,

1) everyone seems to have lower fertility in California
2) Texas is good for whites and Hispanics in terms of having children
3) blacks have very high relative fertility in Florida

Yes, you can see Utah has elevated fertility. No surprise there. Here are the ten states in my data with the highest number of white births to their white population from top to bottom:

Utah
Hawaii
Nebraska
Kansas
Idaho
Louisiana
Kentucky
Oklahoma
Missouri
Iowa
Indiana

Here are the states with a relatively low number of white births to total white population (Connecticut has the lowest number of white births to white population):

Connecticut
Rhode Island
Massachusetts
New Hampshire
Florida
California
New Jersey
Nevada
New Mexico
Arizona
Maine

California is expensive. Florida and Arizona are filled with old white people. Many of the rest are Yankee.

The General Social Survey allows me to look at white ethnicities. I wanted to look at the number of children of various white ethnicities. I limited the sample to Protestants and Catholics.

Here are the results:

In the early 20th century Nordicists like Madison Grant were worried about the fact that Southern and Eastern European ethnics were going to overwhelm the Nordic stock of this country. But take a look at Italian and Polish fertility. People in urban areas have fewer children, and presumably white ethnics who remained identified by their ancestral heritage are disproportionately urban. When the Irish are split up by religion, Catholics tend to be more childless, and also have a minority with large families. This is probably tracking the intense secularization of white Catholics over the last generation, but the persistence of a traditionalist minority. Protestant Irish, who are probably often Scots-Irish, are similar to the other British Americans.

Finally, the ideological differences are really striking but unsurprising:

Left-liberal dominance of cultural institutions such as the media and academia are essential in part because it allows them to generate defections from people raised conservative. They can’t maintain their numbers through “natural increase” alone.

We’ll see what 2050 is life. I hope to be alive. But I think we’ll all be surprised in some ways by some of the defections and realignments. Michael Dukakis won West Virginia in 1988.

June 7, 2018

Are pants really more comfortable than skirts?

Filed under: Culture,pants,trousers — Razib Khan @ 11:50 pm

Recently I stumbled upon this paper from a few years back, The invention of trousers and its likely affiliation with horseback riding and mobility: A case study of late 2nd millennium BC finds from Turfan in eastern Central Asia. Basically, it seems that trousers emerge with mounted cavalry. The dominance of mounted cavalry in the years after the fall of Rome resulted in the emergence of a trousered elite, and the shift away from the tunics of antiquity.

Today we don’t ride horses, so the utility of trousers in that context is gone. It seems that if you work in blue-collar professions and it cold climates trousers are still useful. But is there a reason for men in warm climates in white-collar professions to continue going with trousers as opposed to a simple tunic? Are we just stuck with tradition?

May 31, 2018

Dallas area teen wins National Spelling Bee

Filed under: Culture,Spelling Bee — Razib Khan @ 6:55 pm
Congratulations Karthik!

Though Texas doesn’t get all the glory! The National Geo Bee was won by a kid from Northern California.

Congratulations Venkat!

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