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

May 21, 2019


Filed under: Culture,Naomi Scott — Razib Khan @ 11:23 pm

Disney’s Aladdin is likely to be a hit. And Naomi Scott is likely to be the break-out star. The half-English and half-Guju British chatterbox is also going to play Elena Houghlin in this fall’s reboot of Charlie’s Angels.

The casting of the mixed Scott, of white and Indian ancestry, as Jasmine created some silly backlash online. But one thing that strikes me about the Jasmine she depicts is that her sartorial style has a definite South Asian rather than Near Eastern tincture.

April 25, 2019

Having a common name in a post-Dunbar’s number world

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 3:04 pm

I’m not sure I believe the model outlined in Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. I’m not even sure about the specific details of Dunbar’s number. But, the overall insight, that the vast majority of human history has been defined by small groups with people you see again and again had an impact on our psychology seems robust.

The connotations of the very word “stranger” are complex but generally lean to the negative. And I think that makes sense. One of the tasks of cultural norms and values is to figure out a way that strangers can be interacted with in non-zero sum relationships.

All of this is to preface a banal assertion about interaction in day-to-day life if you are a middle-class professional. I get a lot of emails from people with common names, and it’s a non-trivial cognitive load to figure out if I should pay attention or not. Names like “David”, “John”, and “Omar” are so common that I’ve actually ignored people I shouldn’t because I didn’t realize it was that David or Omar. I’ve almost even responded to the wrong person when two people with the same first name are emailing me at the same time.

In a premodern village or a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer tribe, having a common name on a population-wide scale wasn’t a big deal. The people you would address by name regularly was far less than 100 over a year. But in today’s world, some people have to interface with ten different strangers per day, along with all the “regulars.”

If I was a parent considering names, this would be something that I would take into account. It’s probably not optimal to have a very rare name, because people might misspell it or misremember it, though it will be salient. But having a very common name can also be annoying, to the point where many people with common names now go by their middle name or a nickname. Rather, a familiar but not-so-common name is probably optimal.

To give an example, the name “Dennis” is not too common for people my age (as opposed to “David”). If I get an email from a “Dennis” there is only one or two people it could be.

The many ways of being Brown Diasporic

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 12:43 pm

An admission: I have no idea what half of Zach’s posts are about. More clearly, they’re written in English, but there are so many references to Indian/South Asian pop-culture and drop-ins of Hindi-Urdu words that I have no idea what he’s talking about. It might as well be Greek. Often after 30 minutes of Google, I get it, but it’s pretty funny because technically we’re both English-speaking brown people living in Anglo countries.

There are different kinds of brown people. Some of them are well talked about. For example, ABCD vs. “FOB” culture. But it’s way more subtle and diverse than that.

For example, I have a friend who grew up in Canada, who is from a South Indian Brahmin background. But, it turns out that the only Indian language she knows is Hindi, because of the people she grew up with. I am not good with languages. I have primitive fluency with Bengali, though I can’t read it, and absolutely no firsthand knowledge of Hindi or Urdu. A lot of Diasporic South Asians through in Hindi-Urdu words into their speech and a lot of us have no idea what you are talking about (I share this reaction with a lot of people of South Indian background raised in the USA, who don’t know Hindi).

Zach is a “Third Culture” person in a traditional sense. I really am not…my parents left Bangladesh in 1980, and did not raise me among many Bengalis or even South Asian people. Better to describe me as American culture + an accent/perspective of something very different.

April 16, 2019

Bring the Kalash to Ladakh!

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 9:16 am

This was something that was suggested on Twitter (or emerged out of a discussion on Twitter): why can’t the Kalash have the option of relocating to Ladakh? It’s not that different of an ecosystem, and there would be less cultural pressure to change and/or threat of assimilation.

The Indian government imposes a no-contact policy for the Sentinelese for the sake of their cultural and biological integrity (they would probably die of disease). I’m not proposing this for the Kalash, but at least bringing them to Ladakh would prevent the imminent threat of assimilation, though the individual appeal of Delhi would still be there.

There’s a lot of anger from Hindu nationalists online. Often toward Muslims. I get the reasons. But this is something that is constructive and positive. The Kalash are not a fossil race. But they preserve something that is unique and soon to be lost to the world.

April 10, 2019

What is in a name?

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 11:53 am
Image processed by CodeCarvings Piczard ### FREE Community Edition ### on 2016-02-09 15:57:42Z | http://piczard.com | http://codecarvings.com

Martin Luther was the key figure in the precipitation of the Reformation.

The name Martin:

Martin may either be a surname or given name. Martin is a common given and family name in many languages and cultures. It comes from the Latin name Martinus, which is a late derived form of the name of the Roman god Mars, the protective godhead of the Latins, and therefore the god of war….

And Luther:

As a German surname, Luther is derived from a Germanic personal name compounded from the words liut, “people”, and heri, “army”. As a rare English surname, it means “lute player” (Hanks and Hodges 1988). Luther is also derived from the Greek name Eleutherius. Eleutherius is a cognate of the Greek word eleutheros (έλεύθερος) which means “free.”

I bring this up because it is curious and notable to me that apparently is common for converts to Christianity in India (I’m setting aside traditionally Christian groups such as Nasranis) to take a “Christian name”. One of the arguments is that you shouldn’t have names which refer to a pagan god. Someone should have told Martin Luther. The Anglo-Saxon kings retained the myth of descending from pagan German gods long after their Christianization (they obviously didn’t believe it literally, though they still refused to let go for the prestige).

About ten years ago I read a book about the Islamicization of the core Muslim world. In particular, there was a curious feature of the process that occurred over three centuries in Iran. There was a chart of the form:

The records were clearly from sub-elite individuals. People from whom records remained due to their service or taxes paid. What one sees is that for several centuries the proportion of classical Iranian names drops as the number of local landlords who are non-Muslim drop….and then as the Muslims become overwhelming, there are individuals who are known to be Muslim who are being given classical Iranian names all of a sudden.

The link between being non-Muslim (generally Zoroastrian) in rural Iran among sub-elites and having an Iranian name disappeared when the number of non-Muslims declined to the point where they were not a major community (outside of isolated areas such as Yazd).

In a similar manner, Bangladeshi Muslims often have more ostentatiously Arabic names than Pakistani Muslims, who reflect more Iranian and Central Asian influence. The Bengali  Muslim intelligentsia is a recent creation of late modernity, balancing its sincere religious beliefs with an ethnic identity distinct from the post-Mughal Islamicate culture further up the Gangetic plain and into Punjab (the Muslim elites of Mughal era Bengal did not speak Bengali as their high language, and the early Bengal Rennaissance was due to Hindu gentry). The extremely Arabic names are probably one way to emphasize one’s Muslim bonafide in a cheap manner.

My own children have conventionally Western forenames (though not generic ones). The reasoning is straightforward: they are being raised in a conventional white American milieu. I have no religious attachments obviously, nor am I passionately ethnic, outside of some food preferences. Their South Asian heritage is part of their past through me, but the future is different, and the names reflect that.

Going back to names…it’s ridiculous to say that they don’t indicate deep culture dynamics. The hyper-Muslim people in my family don’t make recourse to Bengali pet names. My father, whose father was an ulem, did not have such a pet name.  As the lineage secularized, with my father, pet names in Bengali reappeared.

Since I am not a believer and am unlikely to passionately convert to some religion, I don’t know the motivations and psychology. And people are free to do what they want. But the idea that conversion to Christianity necessitates a name change seems ridiculous to me. The first Christian king of Sweden was Olof Skötkonung. The first Christian Roman Emperor was named Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus from birth to death. Could think of a name more Scandinavian or Latin Classical?

Though it is common in the Islamic world to have distinct names rooted back to the Middle East (Indonesian Muslims being an exception), there is far less uniformity in Christianity. And yet many Christians adopt this pattern. Why? Similarly, white converts to Hinduism sometimes adopt Indian names. Why?

The post is not so much an argument for anything. But an observation that opens up a discussion….

April 8, 2019

BrownCast Podcast episode 27: Zach on why he’s an Islamophobe and why he hates PewDiePie

Filed under: Culture,Podcast — Razib Khan @ 3:54 am

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsyniTunes, Spotify,  and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

You can also support the podcast as a patron (the primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else…). Would appreciate more positive reviews.

Today Zach and I talk about his evolution in relation to Islam. In particular, why Zach has become vocally and unapologetically Islamophobic recently, and what the difference between Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice is. I also ask Zach what his problem white people, and in particular PewDiePie, is.

And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.

– Genesis 16:12

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.


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.

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