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March 23, 2017

Your ancestry inference is precise and accurate(ish)

Filed under: 23andMe,Ancestry,Culture,Family Tree DNA,Genetics,Genomics — Razib Khan @ 6:29 am

For about three years I consulted for Family Tree DNA. It was a great experience, and I met a lot of cool people through that connection. But perhaps the most interesting aspect was the fact that I can understand the various pressures that direct-to-consumer genomics firms face from the demand side. The science is one thing, but when you are working on a consumer facing product, other variables come into play which are you not cognizant of when you are thinking of it from a point of pure analysis. I’m pretty sure that my insights working with Family Tree DNA can generalize to the other firms as well (23andMe, Ancestry, and Genographic*).

The science behind the ancestry inference elements of the product on offer is not particularly controversial or complex, but the customer aspect of how these results are received can become an intractable nightmare. The basic theory was outlined in the year 2000 in Pritchard et al.’s Inference of Population Structure Using Multilocus Genotype Data. You have lots of data thanks to better genomic technology (e.g., 300,000 SNPs). You have computers to analyze that data. And, you have scientific models of population history and dynamics which you can test that data against. The shape of the data will determine the parameters of the model, and it this those parameters that yield “your ancestry.”

In broad sketches the results make sense for most people. It’s in the finer details that the confusions emerge. To the left you see my son’s 23andMe ancestry deconvolution. The color coding is such you can tell that his maternal and paternal chromosomes have very different ancestry profiles (mostly Northern European and South Asian, respectively).

But his “Northern European” chromosomes also are more richly colored, with alternative segments denoting ancestry from different parts of Northern Europe. So in terms of proportions I am told my son is about 15 percent French and German, and 10 percent Scandinavian and 10 percent British and Irish. This is reasonable. On the other side he’s nearly 50 percent “broadly South Asian.” The balance is accounted for by my East Asian ancestry, which is correct, as my South Asian ethnicity is from Bengal, where there is a fair amount of East Asian ancestry (my family’s origin is on the eastern edge of Bengal itself).

And it is here that the non-scientific concerns of consumer genomics comes into focus. The genetic differences and distance between various South Asian groups are far higher than those between various Northern European groups. Depending on the statistic measure you use intra-South Asian variation is about one order of magnitude greater than intra-Northern European differences. This is due to geographic partitioning, the caste system, and differential admixture in South Asians between extreme diverged ancestral elements (about half of South Asian ancestry is very similar to Europeans and Middle Easterners, and half of it is extremely different, so how far you are from the 50 percent mark determines a lot).

Broadly South Asian

In Northern Europe there is very little genetic variation from the British Isles all the way the Baltic. The reason for this is historical: massive population turnover in the region 4,500 years ago means that much of the genetic divergence between the groups dates to the Bronze Age. It is this the genetic divergence, the variation, that is the raw material for the inferences and proportions you see in ancestry calculators. There’s just not that much raw material for Northern Europeans.

Broadly South Asian

Remember, the methods require lots of variation in the data as a raw input. You’re making the inference machine work real hard to produce a reasonable robust result if you don’t have that much variation. In contrast to the situation with Northern Europeans, with South Asians the companies are leaving raw material on the table, and just combining diverse groups together.

What’s going on here? As you might have guessed this is an economically motivated decision. Most South Asians know their general heritage due to caste and regional origins (though many Bengalis exhibit some lacunae about their East Asian ancestry). In contrast, many Americans of Northern European ancestry with an interest in genealogy are extremely curious about explicit proportional breakdowns between Northern European nationalities. The direct-to-consumer genomic firms attempt to cater to this demand as best as they can.

As I have stated many times, racial background is to various extents both biological and social. When it comes to the difference between Lithuanians and Nigerians the biological differences due to evolutionary history are straightforward, and clear and distinct. You can generate a phylogenetic history and perform a functional analysis of the differences. Additionally, you also have to note that the social differences exist, but are not straightforward. Like Lithuanians Nigerians of Igbo background are generally Roman Catholic, while most other Nigerians are not. The linguistic differences between Nigerian languages are great enough that it is defensible to suggest that Hausa speakers of Afro-Asiatic dialects are closer to Lithuanians in their phylogenetic history than to the dialects of the Yoruba.

A Lithuanian American

Contrast this to the situation where you differentiate Lithuanians from French. To any European the differences here are incredibly huge. The history of France, what was Roman Gaul, goes back 2,000 years. After the collapse of the West Roman Empire by any measure the people who became French were at the center of European history. In contrast, Lithuanians were a marginal tribe, who did not enter Christian civilization until the late 14th century. In social-cultural terms, due to history, the differences between French and Lithuanians are extremely salient to people of French and Lithuanian ancestry. But genetically the differences are modest at best.

If a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company tells you that you are 90 percent Northern European and 10 percent West African, that is a robust result that has a clear historical genetic interpretation. The two element’s of one’s ancestry have been relatively distinct for on the order of 100,000 years, with the Northern European element really just a proxy for non-Africans (though it is easy to drill-down within Eurasia). In contrast, notice how 23andMe, with some of the best scientists in the business, tells people they are “French-German,” and not French or German. What the hell is a “French-German”? Someone from Alsace-Lorraine? A German descendent of Huguenots? Obviously not.

“French-German” is a cluster almost certainly because there are no clear and distinct genetic differences between French and Germans. Yes, there is a continuum of allele frequencies between these two groups, but having looked at a fair number of people of French and German background in Family Tree DNA’s database I can tell you that France and Germany have a lot of local structure even among people of indigenous ancestry. Germans from the Rhineland are quite often genetically closer to French from Normandy than they are to Germans from eastern Saxony. Some of this is due to gene flow between neighboring regions, but some of this is due to cultural fluidity as to who exactly is German. It is clear that some Germans from the eastern regions are Germanized Slavs. Some Germans from the north exhibit strong affinities to Scandinavians, while Germans from Bavaria and Austria are classically Central European (whatever that means). The average German is distinct from the average French person, but the genetic clustering of the two groups is not clear and distinct.

Remember earlier I explained that the science is predicated on aligning data and models. The cultural model of Northern Europeans is conditioned on diversity and difference which has been very salient for the past few thousand years since the rise and fall of Rome. But the evolutionary genetic history is one where there are far fewer differences. The data do not fit a model that makes much sense to the average consumer (e.g., “you descend from a mix of Bronze Age migrants from the west-central steppe of Eurasia and Mesolithic indigenous hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers”). What makes sense to the average American consumer are histories of nationalities, so direct-to-consumer genetic companies try to satisfy this need. Because the needs of the consumer and their cultural expectations are poorly served by the data (genetic variation) and models of population history, you have a lot of awkward kludges and strange results.

Imagine, for example, you want to estimate how “German” someone is.  What do you use for your reference population of Germans?  Looking at the data there are clearly three major clusters within Germany when you weight the numbers appropriate, with affinities to the northern French, Slavs, and Scandinavians, and various proportions in between. Your selection of your sample is going to mean that some Germans are going to be more Germans than other Germans. If you select an eastern German sample then western Germans whose ancestors have been speaking a Germanic language far longer than eastern Germans are going to come out as less German. Or, you could just pick all of these disparate groups…in which case, lots of Northern Europeans become “German.”

Consumers want genetic tests to reflect strong cultural memories which were forged in the fires of rapidly protean and distinction-making process of cultural evolution. But biological and cultural evolution exhibit different modes (the latter generates huge between group differences) and tempos (those differences emerge fast). The ancestry results many people get are the outcomes of compromises to thread the needle and square the circle.

All the above is half the story. Next I’ll explain why “deep history” has to be massaged to make recent history informative and comprehensible….

* Also, I have a little historical perspective because of my friendship with the person who arguably created this sector, Spencer Wells.

March 21, 2017

The Return

Filed under: Culture,Video — Razib Khan @ 9:45 pm

Plato, St. Ambrose, Marcuse: heralds for our age

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

It galls me to agree with the proposition that Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato, but it is at least fair to admit that Western intellectual thought exists in dialogue with him and his thinking. But the spare and arrogant idealism which Plato and his followers promoted is not entirely alien to the landscape of human cognition. It is not purely invention, but has a basis in intuition. A tendency to abstract, and confuse the abstract with reality, seems hard-wired into our mental architecture. As Paul Bloom would say, we are natural born essentialists (and dualists).

One implication of Platonic idealism seems to be that striving for the perfect form of truth bleeds over into a conceited belief that one’s understanding of the truth is Truth itself. I do not believe that Christianity is necessarily understood only in the light of the mental universe which Plato and his detractors created, but it is hard to deny the Platonic tincture of much of early Christian thought as it diffused throughout the ancient world and began to make converts among the elites. Christian thinking may hinge upon divine revelation, but its theistic illuminations gained rigor and steel via philosophical certitudes.

St. Ambrose was a man of such steel. A scion of the West Roman elite he matured in an era when the heights of society were still religiously pluralistic, with the most eminent and ancient families and men of renown, such as Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, exhibiting clear pagan sympathies. Or perhaps they might characterize it as a fondness for the customary gods of Rome.

In 382 there was a dispute in Rome over the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Roman Senate. Symmachus entered into the record an apologia for the restoration of the statue. He makes a plea:

We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road; but this discussion is rather for persons at ease, we offer now prayers, not conflict.

St. Ambrose, whose faith was on the march, and the future, did not mince words:

But if you deny Christ to be God, because you believe not that He died (for you are ignorant that death was of the body not of the Godhead, which has brought it to pass that now no one of those who believe dies), what is more thoughtless than you who honour with insult, and disparage with honour, for you consider a piece of wood to be your god. O worship full of insult! You believe not that Christ could die, O perversity founded on respect!

Symmachus asked for tolerance, because that was all his kind could ask for. St. Ambrose and the other militants saw no gain to such tolerance, because they had truth before them, and denying the truth was an insult to all. Tolerance of idolatry and superstition was no tolerance.

In 1965 Herbert Marcuse wrote Repressive Tolerance. He begins:

THIS essay examines the idea of tolerance in our advanced industrial society. The conclusion reached is that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed. In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period–a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice. Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.

These ideas find relevance today, where one descendent of Critical Theory has transformed dissent and offense into violence, and so justifies suppression of disagreeable thought. St. Ambrose would have used different logic because of a differing metaphysical basis, but I believe the psychological impulses are not so different. Tolerance of error is problematic when that error leads to injustice, impiety, and diminishes the “good society,” however it is imagined.

There are those who believe that they know the Truth. Plato and his acolytes had their conceit as philosopher kings. St. Ambrose and his fellow believers had divine revelation, and were seeking to bring all those in the darkness who disagreed with their views to the light. Following St. Augustine the pre-modern Catholic Church asserted that “error has no rights”.

The latest flare up of this sentiment among particular cultural elites, sometimes termed the “regressive Left” (somewhat of a contradiction clearly), is but latest incarnation of this viewpoint. They believe that the time for tolerance is over, as tolerance gives sanction and space to error and impiety (these are called “oppression” now). The liberal “end of history” seems to be evading us, the old battles reoccur with a regularity that hints at an eternal recurrence.  Every few generations the battle with Tiamat must be joined, as monsters issue from the darkness of our cultural Id.

As a descriptive matter it strikes me that some have now denied that words as a tool of discussion, dialogue, and dispute, have utility to discover truth. Those who object with words are engaged in a likely futile exercise, just as pleas for the tolerance of the old religion were futile. A new world was upon them, they simply lacked our hindsight to see the dawning of the age of the One True God. Perhaps in a different universe history took a different course. In those universes I doubt the old gods survived through persuading the believers of the new Lord with words.

The age of words is over. If words become violence, then violence becomes the tool of ultimate persuasion, compulsion. If truth is all about power, then power is all there is. In a Whiggish telling we as a species came out of the blood and darkness, the struggle for power and zero-sum contests for collective domination. But perhaps we are destined to become what we were, creatures forged in blood and power, unable to resist the temptations of coercion and compulsion.

November 3, 2013

Open Thread, 11/3/2013

Filed under: Culture,Open Thread — Razib Khan @ 10:34 am

Origins-of-the-Irish1After reading Ancestral Journeys, I decided to get J. P. Mallory’s The Origins of the Irish. A bit on the academic side for some, but definitely a good dive into the literature. Mallory is well aware of the latest genetic research, so this is as up-to-date as it gets. It’s a good case study in how multidisciplinary prehistoric studies should be done.

As I’ve suggested earlier prehistory looks to be a good deal more complex than we had previous thought, so expanding beyond single methodological perspectives is probably essential if we really care about truth.

In other news, a short piece in The New York Times refers to Salafis as ‘ultraconservative.’ I think this misleads most people about the nature of Salafism: it is a radical utopian system which recently arose out of Islam’s confrontation with Western derived modernity. It isn’t conserving anything. This aspect of Salafism explains why Saudi Arabia condones the bulldozing of Muhammed’s tomb and celebrates modern monumental architecture in Islam’s holy city.

The post Open Thread, 11/3/2013 appeared first on Gene Expression.

October 27, 2013

Open Thread, 10/27/2013

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 2:33 am

I’ll be on the Kathleen Dunn Show on Monday, 2 to 3 PM Central Standard Time. You’ll be able to listen to the show after it airs on the website. It will be about my piece in Slate.

AJjacketI recently read Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings by Jean Manco. You can find more information at her website, but I pretty much would recommend this book to all my non-scientist readers. I’d recommend it to many of the scientists too, if you are rather weak on archaeology, because that’s where Manco’s knowledge is really impressive. It’s not a perfect book, and I don’t agree with all the details, but it’s a very detailed, dense, and fast read.

There was a question below in regards to the Fast Company profile of 23andMe and what they’re trying to do. A major ethical issue brought up is whether it is acceptable to type children and disclose possible disease risk later on in life. As an extreme case, what if you find out that your child is going to develop a life threatening disease by the time they’re 40? My own perspective as a parent is that I’d like to know, and I’d probably want to tell my child as soon as I think they can handle it. The reason is simple: you base your life decisions on various aspects of life expectancy. People put things off, or forgo consumption, all the time.

The post Open Thread, 10/27/2013 appeared first on Gene Expression.

January 5, 2013

The future is e-books!

Filed under: Books,Culture,e-books — Razib Khan @ 4:12 pm

Nicholas G. Carr, purveyor of high-brow neo-ludditism and archeo-utopianism, has a piece out in The Wall Street Journal, Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay. The subtitle is “The e-book had its moment, but sales are slowing. Readers still want to turn those crisp, bound pages.” Here are some of his rancid chestnuts of un-wisdom:

… Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.

What’s more, the Association of American Publishers reported that the annual growth rate for e-book sales fell abruptly during 2012, to about 34%. That’s still a healthy clip, but it is a sharp decline from the triple-digit growth rates of the preceding four years.

The initial e-book explosion is starting to look like an aberration… 2012 survey by Bowker Market Research revealed that just 16% of Americans have actually purchased an e-book and that a whopping 59% say they have “no interest” in buying one.

From the start, e-book purchases have skewed disproportionately toward fiction, with novels representing close to two-thirds of sales…Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.

Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call “real books”—the kind you can set on a shelf.

…In fact, according to Pew, nearly 90% of e-book readers continue to read physical volumes. The two forms seem to serve different purposes.

Having survived 500 years of technological upheaval, Gutenberg’s invention may withstand the digital onslaught as well. There’s something about a crisply printed, tightly bound book that we don’t seem eager to let go of.

An immediate issue with this op-ed is that it engages in shell games with quantities. Starting from a baseline of zero a new technology will undergo incredible rates of initial growth in adoption. But this will level off rather quickly. A 34% rate is still indeed healthy, and a sign I think that the explosive phase is giving way to robust and expansionary growth as the market slouches toward maturation. Other data in the piece seem to me to be irrelevant red-herrings. People who read e-books tend to be readers, so naturally one would expect that they read physical books. Most people with e-books have extensive personal libraries, and many works which they already own are not in e-book formats, or, are expensive in e-book formats (e.g., I have textbooks which I purchased for more than $100, which are discounted 50% for e-books, so they still come in at $60!). Additionally, asking all Americans about reading is rather misleading. A small proportion of the public are intense readers, with most being casual at best, if they read at all.
To the left is a figure I generated from an AP/IPSOS survey on American book reading habits in 2006. As it is a self-report this probably overestimates the reading habits of the general public, as well as the nature of what they read. 25% of Americans admitted reading no books in a year, while the median number of books read was 6.5. This I think gets at the heart of why e-books aren’t as popular as you might expect: books are’t that popular! The typical entry-level e-reader runs in the $50 to $100 range. This initial fixed cost is heavily subsidized because the makers of these devices want you to purchase content from them. But consider that the average American reads on the order of 5 books a year.  And Daniel McCarthy brings up the important issue that you need to analyze the trends across age cohorts; most readers are older, but most future readers are not going to be from the older cohorts. Some of these books that people read are likely to be relatively cheap mass market paperbacks or library books, but assuming on average $20 per book, the expenditure of Americans on new books per year is going to be about the same as an e-reader. These devices are not without hassle or risk, they break or malfunction, and, there are the notorious issues with digital rights.

So why e-books? Interestingly Carr asserts those who read more “serious” books prefer the physical medium. I’d like to see more analysis of this. Certainly I am of the opposite opinion. Though I don’t read mass market science fiction or fantasy paperbacks anymore, these $8 purchases are the sort which I would run through once, never to revisit. I don’t need to have something in my digital library if I never revisit it. This is in contrast to meatier references and classics. But for someone who reads a lot one of the biggest hassles of physical books is storage and retrieval. I’m an avid user of libraries, and am assiduous about making a trip to the used book store every few years, but even I nevertheless have a relatively cumbersome collection of texts which I have to transport on every occasion that I move. In addition, any travel plans would often result in my deciding how many books I could stow before it became more of a nuisance than a boon.

Because I do much of my reading on a Kindle I’ve accrued a massive portable library of classics, most of which I purchased for a few dollars at most. I’d wager that the number of people who would actually read War and Peace all the way through (as opposed to being seen reading it, or mentioning offhand that they’re reading it) would be facilitated by its packaging in a less cumbersome format. Contrary to the waxing of someone like Nicholas Carr about the tactile physical experience of a book I’ve never enjoyed the fact that works of more than 500 pages tend to be unwieldy. This is not an abstract concern for me, I’m an intellectual generalist who has a taste for very expansive surveys on a variety of academic topics. Both A History of the Byzantine State and Society and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory would benefit from not being in a physical format (the latter is heavier than my laptop in hardcover!). Not only is the reading experience made difficult by the mass of the book, but the long term physical integrity of the work is often endangered by the reality that the number of pages tends to exceed the capacity of the binding of the spines.

What of the musty pleasures of the scroll?

Finally, there’s the issue of what e-books are in relation to various other forms of books, printed or audio. I think the analogy to audio books is totally ridiculous; e-books and printed books are fundamentally the same thing, only in somewhat different physical formats. Additionally, the printing press was a quantitative, not qualitative, change. It took the codex format, which attained popularity in late antiquity, and elevated it to the level of mass industrial production. The big change in qualitative formatting was the move from the scroll to the book over 1,000 years earlier. Prior to this there was the shift from the antique Near Eastern forms of writing, such as cuneiform or hieroglyph on heavy non-portable medium, to alphabetic script on papyrus. The alphabets packaged in a light scroll allowed for literacy to be more broadly accessible to the higher orders of society, rather than just the specialized vocation of a scribal class. Reading has always been subject to periodic revolution. I am dismayed by the fixation of some on the physical medium of the book, as opposed to the information content of the book. If the smell of paper and the tactile experience of a hardcover jacket is so critical, then I think consumers of text are missing the point somewhat. Frankly, it makes me think that the term “book slut” is more than metaphorical. Many of the lovers of the physical porn linger longingly upon vivid descriptions of smell and texture of the page in a manner which is reminiscent of what “food porn” factories such as the Food Network indulge in.

All that being said there are genuine concerns with the transition to e-books, in particular the scope of intellectual property, and the possibility of monopolistic domination of the sector by a firm such as Amazon. The struggles of the Nook should worry those who appreciate the spur and pressure which competition forces upon companies, though one must remember that e-book consumption occurs across a variety of platforms (e.g., I can read my Kindle books on the phone, computer, and Kindle, as well as tablets). A more substantive concern is the control which we cede to Amazon when we purchase e-books in their specific format. These are real difficulties which we need to address over the next decade, but I think they’re surmountable, and will be resolved. Information is too important to simply abdicate all control of the means of production to a few firms.

If Nicholas Carr truly believes what he’s saying, I’m curious if he’d be willing to make a bet on the market penetration of e-books in 2017. I suspect the reality is that op-eds such as this are expressions of his sentiment and preference, not a genuine prediction rooted in an understanding of how the world is, as opposed to how an individual might want the world to be.

Addendum: Unlike CDs I believe that physical printed books will persist for the indefinite future. There are some works which are important references where I think many people will want to have in physical format not tied into technology and stored in a cloud. But, the number of these works will be small, and most people will not have any physical books aside from the Bible or a religious text, which has sacred value. Interestingly this will result in a physical reversion to the state of affairs of a few hundred years ago, when for most households the only book might have been of a religious nature.

December 15, 2012

The Hobbit, part 1

Filed under: Culture,Hobbit — Razib Khan @ 2:48 pm

I went and saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey yesterday with some friends. It’s been 20 years since I last read The Hobbit, and even longer since I watched the television film from the late 1970s. So I really didn’t notice all the differences between the three hour film and the original novel. Two quick comments:

1) I didn’t pick up on all the big technological changes. I suspect this is something movie reviewers are going to focus on, because they have such a good grasp of the technical element. But for the average person it’s not as obvious. Some of the 3D was well done, but much of it was a little excessive for me.

2) I wasn’t too bored, but a two hour film would have been more than sufficient. Someone behind me literally fell asleep, judging by the persistent snoring.

I’d give the film a B-. This wasn’t in Jar Jar Binks territory.

December 13, 2012

The spread of ‘white people problems’

Filed under: Culture,Future,Futurism — Razib Khan @ 10:21 am

Life Expectancy Rises Around the World, Study Finds:

A sharp decline in deaths from malnutrition and diseases like measles and tuberculosis has caused a shift in global mortality patterns over the past 20 years, according to a new report, with far more of the world’s population now living into old age and dying from diseases more associated with rich countries, like cancer and heart disease.

In the West declinism has set in, for legitimate reasons. But that doesn’t mean that things aren’t getting better in the rest of the world. They are. What irritates me is that some of my acquaintances who fancy themselves cosmopolitan internationalists nevertheless engage in declinism, despite their avowed concern for the well-being of humans as a whole. Yet their fixation on the decline in the relative status of their own societies, and their own status, reveals the transparent false signalling nature of their cosmopolitan internationalism.

Mind you, I think it is legitimate to worry about your own, and your society’s, position the relative order of things. But to constructively address this issue you need to not confuse your own station with that of the aggregate whole.

December 2, 2012

The balancing act

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 5:01 pm

I am going to expand this into a post on Discover, but it is useful here. Do my parents really want me to get married?:

Evolutionary theory predicts that based on sex-specific reproductive interests maternal grandparents increase child well-being more than paternal grandparents. In this article we study the association between grandparental involvement and children’s emotional and behavioural problems measured by the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). We use the Involved Grandparenting and Child Well-Being 2007 survey, which is a representative data of 11–16-year-old adolescents from England and Wales. We test two hypotheses: (H1) There is an association between maternal grandparents’ involvement and fewer emotional and behavioral problems in children, but there is no association between paternal grandparents’ involvement and fewer emotional and behavioral problems in children; (H2) The involvement of maternal grandparents decreases the child’s emotional and behavioral problems more often than paternal grandparents’ involvement. The results support both hypotheses and are in line with the evolutionary prediction.


* Grandparental involvement correlates with fewer emotional and behavioral problems.
* Maternal grandparents decrease the child’s emotional and behavioral problems.
* Paternal grandparents do not decrease the child’s emotional and behavioral problems.

One needs to be cautious about these evolutionary generalities, but there is a widespread cross-cultural line of research which points to the preferential benefits of maternal relatives. These results are particular striking in societies where the public social norms are strikingly biased toward the paternal lineage. When one looks at the unit of the family the affinity of the maternal grandparent to their daughter’s children makes eminent sense. But why are so many societies today highly patrilineal then? In fact the pattern cross-culturally (and in South Asia) has been to marginalize matrilineal traditions in favor of patrilineal ones.

I suspect what you are seeing is a classic “multi-level selection” dynamic at work. At the level of the clan/nuclear family there is a tendency toward more provisioning by the maternal grandmother in particular. Therefore from a functionalist perspective matrilineal societies should be more cultural “natural” (or, in the context of small scale societies a matrifocal orientation). But once you scale up the power of male lineages comes to the fore. In the competition between patrilineal and matrilineal societies those men who could rally their male kinsmen, biological and fictive, were more successful than those who were embedded in the norms whereby you defend your sister. As a matter of course matrilineal societies give women far more influence in decision making, and one might even posit that having women involved may have reduced a propensity toward conflict. Again, beneficial in the short term, but perhaps not the ticket to long term flourishing.


December 1, 2012

Ah, the joys of multiculturalism!

Filed under: Culture,Multiculturalism — Razib Khan @ 8:58 pm

I’m not particularly close to my family, but this Christmas we are thinking of inviting my parents for a bit. The reason is that they haven’t seen their first grandchild very often since she was born. But for me the main worry is that my parents are Muslim (in the case of my father in a somewhat serious way, and in the case of my mother more nominally/culturally). This means that we don’t see eye to eye on many things. When I visit their house I generally respect the rules of their house. I’m not a big drinker, but I would never think of even bringing alcohol to their abode. But what to do for the holidays? I am frankly uncomfortable drinking in front of my parents, because it seems disrespectful, even if it’s within my own home. I don’t judge their abstention, but they judge my consumption. If it was just my nuclear family it wouldn’t be a problem. My wife is even less of a drinker than me, and my daughter is a teetotaler. But for my in-laws drinking in the evenings, especially during festive occasions, is a normal part of life. Frankly it feels disrespectful to even consider asking them to change their behavior because my parents disapprove of alcohol consumption.

In the United States people glibly celebrate “diversity.” But the reality is that there is a great deal of self-segregation, and people within their own homes often eschew diversity of norms and mores. This isn’t hypocrisy as much as it is common sense. In domains like food and drink which loom large within the home & hearth there are major differences of expectation across cultures. Unlike most people from whom the experience of diversity is a choice, to a great extent for me diversity is a natural structural parameter of my life. Granted, I could cease contact with my parents, from whom I am ruptured in terms of my values and outlook, but that seems fundamentally inhumane. And of course it is even more strange for my wife; she never imagined that she’d have Muslim in-laws! For me negotiating between and across cultures is second nature. Despite being well traveled (she has lived in several European countries for years at a time), it is sometimes difficult for her to adjust to the reality that my parents expectations are very different from any she grew up with.

Life goes on. In a abstract sense my family is an instantiation of the process of cultural transformation. My parents are Bengali Muslims for whom English is a second language. All four of their children are non-religious Americans (Atheist, agnostic, apathetic, atheist) for whom Bengali is a second language. Despite having grandparents who were born in raised in eastern Bengal (Comilla), my daughter will be very much a child of the American west coast. The process of this change is not always without tension and discomfort. That is something I wish those who celebrate multiculturalism and change would reflect upon sometimes. Neighborhood color and authentic ethnic cuisine have other correlations.


High culture in the mega-city

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 5:02 pm

A Passage to Bangladesh:

For years, Dhaka—the sprawling capital of Bangladesh—has been known for the ancient beauty of its mosques, its nauseating traffic jams, and the thick parade of rickshaws lining the narrow streets. But English literature? In Dhaka? Any mention of it, especially in rarefied Western circles, would have prompted disbelief. Not anymore. Over the past few months, as Tahmima Anam’s novel The Good Muslim has been met with international acclaim, the city has fast emerged as an enclave of literary talent. At the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts last year, a thousand people thronged the British Council. Buoyed by its success, Hay returned to Dhaka this November with a far bigger retinue of talent, this time at Dhaka’s prestigious Bangla Academy, the premier government institution for the promotion of Bengali language and literature. Over two days, 20,000 people passed through the expansive banyan-shaded grounds of the academy and the lakeside Hay Dhaka Music Festival at Rabindra Sarobor. On the lawn, under the mellow winter sun, a packed crowd listened to recitals by the likes of Indian novelist Vikram Seth and Bangladeshi poet Syed Haq. Several English-language books and journals were launched, and two new talents, Khademul Islam and Maria Chaudhuri, were signed by Bloomsbury for world release of their memoirs.

As I have alluded to before, it seems that the “South Asian way” which stands in contrast to the model of development in Western Europe and East Asia is one in which high culture can flourish in the midst of persistent poverty and squalor. This is not an exceptional path; it was arguably the one which characterized antique civilizations like those of ancient Rome. The forum was a place where rhetoric and monumental architecture flourished, but it was almost certainly at the same fetid level of shocking hygiene that one can find in modern Third World mega-cities.


November 18, 2012

Skydiving + cats = ?

Filed under: Cats,Culture — Razib Khan @ 2:48 am

November 4, 2012

The rewilding of the Northeast

Filed under: Culture,Wildlife — Razib Khan @ 9:52 pm

Lake Placid, credit: Wikimedia

If you accept the thesis reported by Charles C. Mann the great eastern forest which the American settlers turned into farmland was actually secondary growth. The consequence of the depopulation of vast swaths of North America of its indigenous population due to disease which preceded the expansion of Europeans (recall that until 1800 whites hugged the Atlantic coast, leaving the interior to indigenous people by and large). And yet by 1900 that great forest was gone. Now it’s back again. A piece in The Wall Street Journal highlights how incredibly robust the recovery has been, America Gone Wild:

…Since the 19th century, forests have grown back to cover 60% of the land within this area. In New England, an astonishing 86.7% of the land that was forested in 1630 had been reforested by 2007, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Not since the collapse of Mayan civilization 1,200 years ago has reforestation on this scale happened in the Americas, says David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest, an ecology research unit of Harvard University. In 2007, forests covered 63.2% of Massachusetts and 58% of Connecticut, ...

Earthsea is Earth

Filed under: Culture,science fiction — Razib Khan @ 12:30 am

Slate has a respectful take on Ursula K. Le Guin‘s oeuvre by Choire Sicha up. By way of surveying her contributions to the domain of fiction the author takes issue with those who would elevate ‘literary fiction,’ a term whose boundaries seem to lack distinction or clarity, above ‘genre.’ In this case Le Guin’s career has been marked by extensive forays into the genres of fantasy and science fiction, and speculative fiction more broadly. But while we’re castigating the narrowness or particularity of the aficionados of literary fiction, it should be admitted that Le Guin herself does not always deny the value of parochialism.

Her Leftist politics pervades many of her works, implicitly and explicitly (just as one can not but help sense Jerry Pournelle’s conservatism in the texture of his narrative). But perhaps more subtly important for the character of her fiction Le Guin has emphasized her lack of interest in the details of the physical sciences which suffuses ‘hard science ficiton.’ Rather, her creations manipulate and tease apart filaments of the social assumptions and values we take as normative (e.g., how many other science fiction writers would admit ...

October 29, 2012

I, for one welcome our yellow overlords!

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 8:33 pm

The above infographic from The New York Times article For Asians, School Tests Are Vital Steppingstones, was titled “1027-asians” when I tried to save it. No idea why, but I think that’s an amusing file name. My offensively titled post is inspired by the cliche reference to Confucianism in the piece. As my previous posts on “Tiger Mom’s” indicate I am not a big fan of the “Asian” way of obtaining academic laurels through brute force alone. In places like South Korea a cram-school bidding war has distorted the culture. The single-minded focus on a specific test means that the whole society has to shift to keep up with the innovators in the educational “arms race.” Think of it as the analog to the doping scandal in cycling. And it’s an irony that the term innovation is being used here by me, because this sort of “education” destroys the creativity, flexibility, and originality which is the engine which motors modern civilization. Sufficient for producing engineers, but I doubt fruitful as the seedbed for an individualistic scientific culture which aims to shift paradigms.

That being said, as highlighted in the piece ...

October 2, 2012

The real end of science

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Culture,science — Razib Khan @ 10:02 pm

Fifteen years ago John Horgan wrote The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age. I remain skeptical as to the specific details of this book, but Carl’s write-up in The New York Times of a new paper in PNAS on the relative commonness of scientific misconduct in cases of retraction makes me mull over the genuine possibility of the end of science as we know it. This sounds ridiculous on the face of it, but you have to understand my model of and framework for what science is. In short: science is people. I accept the reality that science existed in some form among strands of pre-Socratic thought, or among late antique and medieval Muslims and Christians (not to mention among some Chinese as well). Additionally, I can accept the cognitive model whereby science and scientific curiosity is rooted in our psychology in a very deep sense, so that even small children engage in theory-building.

That is all well and good. The basic building blocks for many inventions and institutions existed long before their instantiation. But nevertheless the creation of ...

Who would vote for an atheist: Dems vs. Republicans

Filed under: Culture,Politics — Razib Khan @ 8:43 am

In response to a comment below, I thought this chart from Gallup is particularly informative:

October 1, 2012

Knowledge, not opinion, information extraction, not persuasion

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 11:12 pm

A few days ago I was having drinks with some friends, and it came up that some of them had only recently become conscious of the fact that I leaned more toward the Republican party than the Democratic (I had remarked that my wife preferred that I keep my sideburns, as otherwise I would look too much like a Republican…though I sort of was one!). More shockingly for them was that I did not consider myself a liberal. I was somewhat bemused by the whole situation because it isn’t as if I’m particularly shy about expressing my various politically-incorrect opinions on any specific topic at work or play (these are people who I have met within the past ~2 years).

I assume that the problem here is that I violated a cognitive schema: liberal people are smarter than conservative people. Since I was conservative, they were, logically, smarter than me. The reality is probably not so convenient for the theory in this case, generating some dissonance. In the course of conversation I expressed frankly what I actually do hold to be a rough & ready approximation of my attitude toward ...

September 29, 2012

Free speech Über Alles!

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 1:45 am

Will Saletan has has published a piece making a traditionalist American absolutist case for free speech. He points out that in most Western nations there are in fact curbs on speech which is considered offensive, disturbing, and perhaps dangerous. Therefore, Muslims who point to Western hypocrisy have a point. I agree with this argument without reservation. But, I do want to reiterate the putative targets of offense are illustrative of a divergence of values in and of themselves. Though I wouldn’t criticize non-Western Muslims for pointing out the existence of laws banning denial of the Holocaust, I do have issues when Western Muslims bring this point up even innocuously. The reason is simple: the Holocaust concerns the systematic state-sponsored murder of millions of human beings. This is a far more serious issue than the reputation of the prophet Muhammad. Of course that statement reflects my particular values. And, whether you accept the idea of hate speech or not I suspect most Westerners would accept the validity of this proposition.

More generally a major thread running through conflicts about speech is globalization and technology. Today communication and propagation is nearly frictionless, and government curbs on speech either have to be ...

September 24, 2012

The delta quadrant of American politics & culture

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 9:43 pm

Apparently when he was a consultant Mitt Romney would praise the merits of ‘wallowing in data.’ I agree with this, you can’t get more data than you need. Therefore I highly commend Public Religion Research Institute‘s survey of the “white working class.” More specifically, do read the full PDF. It’ll take you some time, but just trade that in for commenting on a weblog! Of course the results are strongly contingent upon the definition of what the white working class is. In this survey they fix upon the white population which does not have a college education (though may have some college) and is not employed in salaried labor. This seems like serviceable definition. The incomes range from low to lower upper middle class, with a mode in the lower middle class, so you get a broader cross-section of non-elite white America than Honey Boo Boo, which is to working class white America what the “ghetto life” is to working class black America.

But an interesting aspect of the survey is who it is addressed to: not to the white working class, they don’t read white papers by ...

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