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March 31, 2019

The social and demographic dynamics of Al-Andalus

Filed under: Spain — Razib Khan @ 12:08 am

A slight detour from Rulers, Religion, and Riches took me to Brian Catlos’ Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain. I’ve enjoyed Catlos’ work before, and he has an engaging narrative style. His books are quick reading and I recommend them, incuding his monographs.

But, there is always a weird aspect to his work and analysis that has always struck me: his overall narrative often works at cross-purposes with specific assertions he makes in passing. As an example, Catlos rightly points out that in Spain under the rule of the Muslim Arabs particular and specific religious confession was not a major issue, since most people lived lives not dominated by religion. But as you keep reading you notice that the overall arc of history is strongly shaped by confessional identities.

You may read in one chapter that the Christian Visigothic nobility maintained its power and landholdings under Arab Muslim rule, but in the next chapter Kingdoms of Faith outlines how these families were either dispossessed of their property due to their marginalization or converted to Islam to join the new ruling class. Religious identity can both be fluid and liminal, and, be extremely important in organizing social groups and arranging a cascade of status.

I state “Arab Muslim” rule here specifically because one of the things you will notice in Catlos narrative is that ethnicity was extremely important for the Muslims. You may have read that non-Arab North Africans, who we call Berbers, provided the muscle for the Arab Muslim conquest. This is true. Catlos’ narrative makes it clear that during the golden age of Al-Andalus they had a role, but as a subaltern people. Though the last great Caliph of Al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman III, was mostly of native Iberian blood (he was related to the Christian monarchs of northern Spain), even in the 900s, over 250 years after the conquest, the commanding heights of the ulema remained the preserve of aristocratic Arab families with roots far to the east.

Kingdoms of Faith tells a story of Muslim Spain which reminds me quite a bit of Muslim India: these were frontier lands where there were great opportunities for wealth and advancement for young people of promise. Al-Andalus glittered in part because intellectuals drifted west from Baghdad, while a steady stream of fresh troops migrated north across Gibraltar. The initial decades after the conquest were characterized by accommodation between the small Arab elite, their somewhat larger Berber tribal subordinates, and the mass of the native Iberian population. But after 800 the culture and society of Al-Andalus seem to have fractured, with elite urban Muslims looking to motifs and models to the east, the heart of Islam. The Arabicization of even Christian Iberians (“Mozarabs”) seems to have accompanied a broader integration of Al-Andalus with the rest of the world of Islam.

This brings me to the question of numbers. Catlos emphasizes early on that the number of Arabs and Berbers who conquered Visigothic Spain were small. And, he states that a substantial number of later Muslim notables were clearly of Iberian stock (their Arabicized names still indicate Latin ancestral surnames). But the immigration and ethnic diversity and division of the elite of Al-Andalus seem to contract the author’s original assertion. Migrant Muslims play far greater than their fair share centuries after the initial counqest.

The new paper, The genomic history of the Iberian Peninsula over the past 8000 years, seems to confirm that though North African and Levantine settlers were never predominant in Iberia, they left a substantial stamp. A minority of the ancestry of southern Spain to this day probably dates to elements which arrived with the Arabs and Berbers, though a smaller minority than was the case during the period of Muslim rule. If the latter is true, then it also attests to the fact that strongly segregated groups of Arabs and Berbers persisted rather late in the history of the peninsula, and that these groups were most strongly adherent to the Islamic religion, and were the ones most likely to have migrated or been expelled.

Related: Patterns of genetic differentiation and the footprints of historical migrations in the Iberian Peninsula.

March 30, 2019

BrownCast Podcast episode 25: Christoph, center-left edgelord on social justice, Islam, and cosmopolitanism

Filed under: Podcast — Razib Khan @ 11:25 pm

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 I talk to Christoph, the erstwhile “Eurasian Sensation.” Long-time readers of this weblog will know that Christoph was an early contributor to this weblog. Over the past few years, he has gained prominence on Twitter as a verbal pugilist of sorts, punching Right and punching Left from the de facto center.

We talk about his own mixed-race identity, and cosmopolitan lifestyle choices and orientation. Both of us also talk about the interesting fact that we are regularly lectured about Islam by non-Muslim progressives.

South Asian Genotype Project, Spring 2019 update

Filed under: South Asian Genetics,South Asian Genotype Project — Razib Khan @ 11:01 pm

It’s been a while since I updated the South Asian Genotype Project. Well, I updated almost everyone. A few people had strangely formatted text files, so I’ll go add them tomorrow. Thanks to everyone who has submitted so far!

One of the main things that I’ve been curious about is undersampled groups. I finally got an Uttar Pradesh Kayastha in the data set (well, technically my second…but the first is a friend). I also got a submission of a Bengali Brahmin with origins in the west, and another in the east (in fact, from Comilla, which is where my own family is from). And, I got the submission of another West Bengali Kayastha.

Finally, I got another Maharashtra Kayastha.

If you click the image above you see some obvious things:

  • Bengali Brahmins don’t seem to be geographically structured. The eastern and western individuals are night near each other on the PCA. Additionally, they are very close to Uttar Pradesh Pradesh Brahmins. Not the main Bangladesh cluster.
  • In contrast, the West Bengal Kayastha is positioned close to the Bangladeshis, though outside of their cluster.

In other words, to some extent Bengal’s landscape reflects both aspects of the South Asian genetic variation: it is strongly structured by caste, and, geography also plays a role. People from western Bengal have least East Asian ancestry and more affinity with peoples to the west on the Gangetic plain. But Bengali Brahmins are genetically entirely dissimilar from other Bengalis.

The dissimilar position of Kayastha groups across South Asia is in contrast to Brahmins. Though Brahmin groups in Bengal and South India seem to have mixed with local groups (they are always somewhat shifted to the regional substrate), overall their genetic character indicates shared common ancestry. In contrast, the different Kayastha groups seem much more likely to be a case of local populations who arose to fill a particular occupational niche that emerged with polities which required a bureaucratic class.

Between Tariq and Columbus

Filed under: Islam,Spain — Razib Khan @ 12:27 pm

I have long followed Brian Catlos’ more academic works, so I was excited to read Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain. Aside from some strange contemporary allusions, this is a good introductory book. If you are curious about more detail, the author has written good monographs.

The reason that this work is interesting is that Al-Andalus is a frontier society that’s been well studied. Liminal to both Islam and Western Latin Christendom, for various political reasons it is of particular interest in modern times.

One of the themes is Catlos’ work is though that we tend to refract the history of the Iberian peninsula between 700 and 1500 in simple stark modern dichotomous terms, the reality was that confessional identities were simply one of many loyalties. And yet if you read his work you see the meta-ethnic/civilizational identities are what determine the long-term arc of history, the hinges around which it turns.

In the initial decades after the conquest, local Christian elites and power structures remained intact, and the Arab conquest elites utilized them as administrative intermediaries. But after 800 AD a combination of local Iberian converts and Muslims from other parts of the Islamic world were numerous enough that Christianity society begins to be pushed to the margins, even if numerically they remained a majority in the 800s.

Additionally, Catlos emphasizes the deep ethnic divisions between old Arab families, who monopolized religious offices 300 years after the conquest, tribes of Berber origin who occupied a position between the indigenes and the Arabs, and finally, Arabicized converts and Christians, Mozarabs. While the high culture became Arab, Latin speech persisted among the rural peasantry. Even the remnant Christian elites within Al-Andalus were literate primarily in Arabic.

One of the major insights from Kingdoms of Faith is that the conversion of Latin elites, whether Basque, Visigoth, or post-Roman, to Islam, resulted in corrosion of Christianity within Iberia. That corrosion was reversed only with political reconquest, and migration of Christian peasants from the north and the gradual conversion of Muslims in the centuries before the final expulsion of the remnant Moriscos.

Kingdoms of Faith is a useful read, not because of what it tells us about the history of Spain, but how we can compare to other regions of the world….

March 29, 2019

Deep Denisovan population structure

Filed under: Denisovans,Human Evolution — Razib Khan @ 5:09 pm


The Denisovan session at the American Society of Physical Anthropology meeting was very interesting. In Science Anne Gibbons reports on the findings, Our mysterious cousins—the Denisovans—may have mated with modern humans as recently as 15,000 years ago:

The elusive Denisovans, the extinct cousins of Neanderthals, are known from only the scraps of bone they left in Siberia’s Denisova Cave in Russia and the genetic legacy they bequeathed to living people across Asia. A new study of that legacy in people from New Guinea now suggests that, far from being a single group, these mysterious humans were so diverse that their populations were as distantly related to each other as they were to Neanderthals.

The finding of two Denisovan lineages in Southeast Asia adds to results reported in Cell last year by Sharon Browning of the University of Washington in Seattle and her colleagues. They had suggested that New Guineans had a separate source of Denisovan DNA than people in East Asia, suggesting at least two mixing events.

“I’m skeptical,” added Cosimo Posth of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. He suggests the hints of a late mating could reflect an encounter of previously isolated modern populations rather than of moderns and Denisovans. In this scenario, modern humans mated with Denisovans, then the modern populations diverged, with each branch retaining a different set of Denisovan genes. The moderns then reconnected, mixing the two sets of Denisovan DNA together again.

Here is one thing that I think is important to remember: unlike Western Eurasia parts of Eastern Eurasia were better insulated from extreme climatic events. Neanderthals show strong evidence of repeated die-offs and population expansion so that in general Neanderthal relatedness is more a function of time than location (i.e., Neanderthals tended to go extinct in much of their range periodically, to be repopulated from refuges).

In contrast, the Denisovan range likely went far into Southeast Asia. It is not surprising that this is a highly structured population, with deep lineages. This is exactly what we see in Africa for the same time period. Tropical Southeast Asia is not as extensive as Africa, but it was more expensive during the Pleistocene due to lower sea levels. Hominins with low population densities occupying a huge range of territory almost certainly had developed local lineages and traditions.

As should be clear in the quotes we shouldn’t take these presented results as definitive. But they are suggestive and align well with earlier work that there were several Densiovan admixtures across Eurasia.

Open Thread – Brown Pundits

Filed under: Uncategorized — Razib Khan @ 2:19 am

Please keep the other posts on topic. Use this for talking about whatever you want to talk about.

March 27, 2019

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 20: This View of Life, Completing the Darwinian…

Filed under: Evolution,Genetics,Podcast — Razib Khan @ 1:27 pm

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 20: This View of Life, Completing the Darwinian Revolution

This week on The Insight (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Google Podcasts) we discuss the “evolutionary thinking” with David Sloan Wilson, the President of the Evolution Institute. The author of Evolution for Everyone, Does Altruist Exist, and Unto Others.

We discuss his newest book, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. And to do that, first, we discussed how the whole idea of “Social Darwinism” in modern times emerged out of Social Darwinism in American Thought, a book written in the 1940s. In This View of Life Wilson aims to ‘update’ modern policy discussion with evolutionary principles. I asked him if he thought that this was a promising time for this sort of evolutionary ‘imperialism.’

This is framed primarily by Tinbergen’s 4 questions. We also discussed the relationship to the ‘multi-level selection’ framework that Wilson and colleagues have been developing for the past few decades.

Wilson addresses his problems with ‘Homo economicus’ and the economics profession more generally, before outlining the Nobel prize-winning work of the late Elinor Ostrom on cooperation in communities as a positive contrast.

We talked about more practical insights of evolution as well, such as how it informs us in our views of child-rearing, and why myopia is increasing due to our ignoring the natural inputs that children need.

Finally, I address Wilson’s openness to some ‘far out’ ideas such as the cosmic mind theories of a 20th century Jesuit priest and evolutionary theorist.


The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 20: This View of Life, Completing the Darwinian… was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

March 26, 2019

The arrow of evolution

Filed under: History,philosophy,science,Teleology — Razib Khan @ 11:46 pm
5,000 years of change

Most evolutionary biologists would agree with the contention that evolution has no long-term direction. In other words, evolutionary change is shaped by the contingencies and exigencies of the present set of circumstances, searching blindly through “adaptive space” for local optimal solutions. Just “good-enough.” For now.

In the realm of biology, this is illustrated by various “retrofits” one can see in form and function. The human vertebrate is a notoriously suboptimal feature, but it is the outcome of hundreds of millions of years of prior evolution when our ancestors were primarily quadrupeds. We make upright posture and bipedal locomotion work for us, but there’s a reason that prehistoric bipedal dinosaurs would likely run us down with ease. Jurassic Park isn’t all fantasy.

Upright hominins are utilizing new engineering technology which still has a lot of “bugs.”

Wrong!!!

Even the classic view of human evolution where short slouching creatures become upright moderns requires a rethinking. The reality is that Homo erectus was probably already as tall, on average, as modern human populations. And until contemporary times the tallest human populations known seem to date from the Pleistocene. Humans have been shrinking since their Paleolithic peak, with the 20th-century spike across the developed world reversing millennia of decline.

If evolution has a goal, oftentimes it looks like it hasn’t made up its mind.

The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould made a forceful case for the importance of chance and necessity, randomness, in the diversity of life on earth. In his book A Wonderful Life, he states:

The divine tape recorder holds a million scenarios, each perfectly sensible. Little quirks at the outset, occurring for no particular reason, unleash cascades of consequences that make a particular feature seem inevitable in retrospect. But the slightest early nudge contacts a different groove, and history veers into another plausible channel, diverging continually from its original pathway. The end results are so different, the initial perturbation so apparently trivial.

Gould’s understanding of evolution is at one extreme of the views about the role of randomness, and lack of purposiveness, of natural history. It should not be a surprise that his view is not universally held.

The researcher upon whose work his argument in A Wonderful Life was built, Simon Conway Morris, strongly disagreed with Gould’s interpretation of paleontology and natural history. In a series of books, he outlined the idea that evolution does have a broad directionality due to various forces, such as the necessity of streamlined body-plans for predators in the ocean. The fact that dolphins resemble ancient Mesozoic marine reptiles is obviously not a coincidence and illustrates that rewinding the tape only led to large-bodied land vertebrates converging upon the same body plan to adapt to the oceans.

Ichthyosaur from the Mesozoic

Richard Dawkins reiterates this argument in The Ancestor’s Tale. Dawkins also observes that over the billions of years that life has been present on earth, there seems to be a gradual, if sometimes halting, progression toward greater complexity. Most of our planet’s history was dominated by cyanobacteria and other prokaryotes, but more recently multicellular life forms have emerged to make up a much greater proportion of the biomass and dominate ecosystems. Despite mass extinctions such as the one at the end of the Permian or the event that resulted in the extinction of dinosaurs 60 million years ago, multicellular life is here to stay.

Now, over the last several million years humans have been expanding across the face of the earth and reshaping the landscape. While it is easy to dismiss humans as just another medium-sized megafauna, today we and our domesticates account for 96 percent of the mammalian biomass on planet earth!

Human occupation and seen through the lights we produce

This is amazing in light of the fact that tens of thousands of years ago it seems likely that our species numbered in the tens of thousands. Today we number in the billions. It is just our luck and happenstance?

Humans are wont to perceive themselves as the pinnacle for creation, so scientists are cautious and skeptical of presuming we are in fact something special. Much of modern science has been involved in the project of showing just how banal our place in the universe is. An extension of the Copernican project, which rejected the old idea that the earth was the center of the universe.

We’re on the edge of a spiral galaxy, on a small planet circling a modest G-class star. Our species has been present on this planet for a tiny fraction of its existence of 4 billion years. What are we in the grand scheme of things?

And yet, it is quite likely that we are the first intelligent species on this planet capable of exploiting its mineral resources, judging by the fact that there were so many exploitable surface deposits of coal and iron during our own industrialization. The emergence of humans was also likely a final push in the extinction of numerous megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene, which had persisted through many interglacials.

Humans were the first large placental mammal to arrive in Australia and New Zealand, eventually bringing a host of others in their wake. No other large mammal seems to have been able to occupy six of the seven continents before our own species. And this feat was achieved 15,000 years ago when we were small hunter-gatherer bands.

Today, the entire biogeography of the planet has been resculpted by us, from red deer in New Zealand to European earthworms in North America.

This is then the “Anthropocene.” An age when humanity holds the leash on the planet’s biosphere and engages in endeavors which will change the future of the planet, or endanger it….

Breaking the Malthusian trap!

The pessimistic outcomes for the planet due to the evolution of humans, an intelligent, social, and technological, species have been well aired. But what about the optimistic ones?

There are some thinkers who have long argued that evolution on this planet was almost certainly at some point going to produce intelligent technological life. The “encephalization” of large animals on this planet, the relative size of the brain in relation to the body, had been gradually increasing long before the emergence of the hominin lineage, which is well known to be defined by very large brains.

If organisms are biological machines, the machines have been getting more complicated over time.

In the 1950s a Catholic priest and paleontologist named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin promoted the idea that evolution was driving the universe toward a cosmic consciousness. Most scientists were very skeptical of such teleological thinking. That evolution had some ultimate purpose beyond optimizing local fitness. Some direction toward a final culmination. Today, they still remain very skeptical.

Decades later in the 1990s the science writer Robert Wright wrote Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. In it, he argued that evolutionary processes were leading up to humans and that our species was advancing through “non-zero sum” interactions. We had broken the grip of Malthus and the standard carrying capacity charts of ecologists through cultural innovation.

Today, David Sloan Wilson, a mainstream evolutionary biologist, argues that selection pressures on human groups may have driven increases in altruism and prosocial behavior to such an extent that he now imagines that successful completion of the Darwinian project may lead exactly to some sort of global consciousness, as envisaged by de Chardin. A mind which is able to optimize fitness at the level of the whole planet.

Of course, even David Sloan Wilson is not speaking in terms of inevitabilities. The Anthropocene is a dangerous time for the long-term time horizon of the planet’s ecosystems. The evolution of modern humans and their cultural creativity has unleashed a Pandora’s box of problems. But Wilson and his fellow-travelers seem to be suggesting that this is not just chance and necessity. That the earth has two possible final outcomes, one dire, and one nearly utopian.

And remember, opening Pandora’s box also unleashed “hope” upon the world.

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

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 22, 2019

Open Thread – Brown Pundits

Filed under: Open Thread — Razib Khan @ 2:18 am

Please keep the other posts on topic. Use this for talking about whatever you want to talk about.

March 20, 2019

The population turnover in westernmost Europe over the last 8,000 years

Filed under: Historical Population Genetics,Spain — Razib Khan @ 7:53 pm


The figure above is from The genomic history of the Iberian Peninsula over the past 8000 years. If you had seen something like this five years ago, you’d be gobsmacked. But today this is not atypical, especially in light of the fact that Spain seems to harbor many good sites in relation to the preservation of ancient DNA. In the figure above you see an excellent representation of the different streams of ancestry and settlement within Spain over the last 8,000 years. You can conclude from it, for example, that only a small proportion of the ancestry of modern Spaniards derives from people who were residents of the peninsula during the Pleistocene. Similarly, you can also conclude that a minority, though non-trivial, proportion of the ancestry of modern-day Spaniards derives from people who arrived during Classical Antiquity and the Moorish period.

And, confirming earlier work, the Basques seem to be relatively untouched by these later gene flow events. To some extent, we all knew that, as the Basques were famously exempt from limpieza de sangre, the blood purity laws of medieval Spain. But importantly, the Basques have a substantial amount of ancestry from peoples whose heritage goes back to Central Europe, and to a great extent, the forest-steppe of far eastern Europe. This is a huge change from what was understood fifteen years ago. As the Basques speak a clearly non-Indo-European language, many scholars hypothesized that they were remnants of hunter-gatherer peoples, who had been resident in the Iberian peninsula since the Pleistocene.

But the reality is that the origin of the Basques is likely in the arrival of Near Eastern farmers. The Basques share a strong genetic affinity with the peoples of Sardinia, who are the closest proxies in modern European populations for this group. Importantly, the Basque difference from Sardinians is their much greater proportion of Central European/steppe-like ancestry. How did they get this ancestry?

One of the major results of this paper is that a particular branch of R1b came to dominate Spain around 4,000 years ago. Before this period the dominant Y chromosomal lineages in the Iberian peninsula were those associated with the farmer populations. The frequency of R1b is above 80% in Basque males. This is one reason that earlier scholarship assumed that R1b was associated with European hunter-gatherers (the Basque being the descendants of those people). Today, we know that both branches of R1 seem to have expanded ~4,000 years ago and that the most common lineages in western and southern Eurasia seem to go back to the steppe peoples.

It may be that the Basque language actually derives from the steppe as non-Indo-European peoples expanded along with the Indo-Europeans, adopting similar cultural habits and characteristics. This is not a crazy position. The Magyars, for example, are not Turkic or Indo-European, but they adopted a lifestyle associated earlier and simultaneously with Turkic and Indo-European pastoralists. But let’s set this possibility aside. Another option is that the Basque descend from one of the post-Cardial cultures of southwest Europe. That is, their language has roots in the dialects of the early Anatolian farmers. Unlike other peoples, they absorbed the influx of Indo-Europeans, and culturally assimilated them.

This too is not crazy. But how might they have absorbed the Indo-Europeans? In the paper above they tentatively argue, from some of their results, that the Indo-European influx was more male than female. There are suggestions that Basque society may have had matrilineal aspects. This does not entail that they were “matriarchal,” but rather, that inheritance passed through the maternal line. Matrilineal societies are not necessary pacific. The Iroquois are a case in point. And, they have a natural way of assimilating warbands of alien males: these men could become integrated into the preexistent kinship networks.

How might the rise of R1b lineages have occurred so fast? One could posit those young men with Indo-European fathers may have had connections to hostile Indo-European tribes that their cousins with non-Indo-European fathers lacked. If the Indo-Europeans were patrilineal, as seems likely, and the proto-Basques were matrilineal, then these men would have been well placed to better protect the cultural integrity and political independence of their maternal heritage through connections of their paternal lineage.

I have an explicit model here: the intermarriage of European trappers in the American West with native women. In many cases, the children of these men would be raised within a native context, and so served as a bridge of sorts. And, there is another analogy: the frequency of R1a is quite high in some non-Indo-European groups in South Asia. It will turn out, I believe, that Southern Europe and India share many similarities, as the Indo-Europeans encountered people in these regions with rich and complex societies.

Several years ago, A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture, was published. The authors note there was an explosive growth several Y chromosomal lineages, including R1b and R1a, on the order of 4,000 years ago. Recently the evolutionary anthropologist Joe Henrich stated that “Religion is a technology for scaling up human societies.” With this in mind, I will state here that patriarchy is a technology for swallowing up human societies. The distribution of Y chromosomal lineages associated with early Indo-European extends outside of the boundaries of Indo-European languages. In fact, the expansion of I1, concordant with R1b, suggests that non-Indo-European lineages were assimilated into expanding Indo-European groups.

There is, of course, a debate whether this expansion was violent or not. I suggest above a way in which Indo-European lineages, at least by origin, could become pervasive in a non-Indo-European society. But, it does seem to more plausible that more direct forms of marginalization were likely. In a pre-modern environment not far from the Malthusian limit it wouldn’t take much for certain male lineages to replace themselves, while others to die out. The descent from antiquity project in Europe is difficult because there does seem to have been an elite paternal lineage rupture with the fall of Rome. Many modern noble families are traceable to the centuries after the fall of Rome, but none of them clearly are linked to before the fall of Rome. This does not mean that there was a massacre of those lineages, but that elite lineages which lost their rents would quickly lose their status.

I do think what we call war was part of the expansion. But war was likely simply one of the many manifestations of the power of rise of these bands of brothers.

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 19: Historical Linguistics

Filed under: Historical Linguistics,Indo-European,Language,Linguistics — Razib Khan @ 3:47 pm

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 19: Historical Linguistics

This week on The Insight (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Google Podcasts) we discuss the historical linguistics Dr. Asya Pereltsvaig. The author of Languages of the World and The Indo-European Controversy, Dr. Pereltsvaig is has been an instructor at several institutions in California and Russia, including Stanford and Santa Clara University.

We get our serious nerd on, especially outside of the normal comfort zone, this week. Do you know what a lexicon is? Or a morpheme? Syntax? If you listen, you will know! There was extensive discussion on such major features of human languages, and how they are informative in inferring linguistic relatedness, which has scaffolded so much of our earlier discussions on genetic relatedness.

There was an extensive exploration of Bayesian phylogenetics, and how it applies to an inference of language relatedness and age (the method is used in genetics as well). Dr. Pereltsvaig talks about why she thinks the results from papers, such as Mapping the origins of the Indo-European language family, are misleading. Basically, she believes that the input of vocabulary is not nearly as informative as something like grammar.

See The Indo-European Controversy for much more on this particular topic!

Speaking of vocabulary, Spencer brought up Swadesh lists. These core words are often preserved, and allow researchers to make broad guesses of relationships (for example, simple number words).

Unfortunately, the plasticity of language probably means that the topology of linguistic family trees is correct, but assigning dates to divergence is always going to be problematic. So to archaeology and genetics, it is. Much of the podcast focused on what we don’t know, and may not be able to know, so that other disciplines may have to pick up the slack.


The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 19: Historical Linguistics was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Society creates god, god does not create society

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:30 pm

Several years ago I read Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. This was after a long hiatus from reading about the topic of religion from a broad evolutionary perspective. In the 2000s, I read Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and A Theory of Religion, to name a few works. These are all very different treatments of religious phenomena, from an evolutionary, cognitive, and economic, perspective respectively. But, they are united by examining religious as a ‘natural’ process, and culture as a reducible and analyzable phenomenon.

This is distinct from what you’d find in “Religious Studies”, a field with a more humanistic and historical perspective. Some of the early practitioners in this field, such as Mircea Eliade, were influenced by perennialism, so the epistemological stance tends to differ from the more positivist and scientific frameworks above.

Several years ago I began to look again at the scientific study of religion due to the work of Ara Norenzayan. He seemed to be fusing the evolutionary and cognitive perspective so as to inform how religion might be adaptively useful on a cultural level through co-option of mental mechanisms. Though not rejecting adaptationism, most cognitive anthropologists did not talk much about selective value of religious phenomena, as opposed the psychological mechanistic origins of supernatural intuitions.

Big Gods was a step forward. The thesis was simple: moralistic high gods were major additions to the prosocial toolkit of humans, allowing for the emergence of complex polities beyond the level of the clan. There were two major ways in which Norenzayan tested this hypothesis. The first was experimentally, by showing that priming subjects with “agents” they were less likely to behave unethically. That is, you didn’t do wrong because an ethical supernatural judge was always watching. The second method was using historical methods looking at the changes across societies over the past 10,000 years. Here there were suggestions that “big gods” preceded the rise of social complexity.

I have expressed some skepticism about the priming research in light of the “replication crisis” in psychology. Now it looks like the second path of analysis may provide different results than Norenzayan’s original thesis. A research group using a large dataset have found that complex societies give rise to moralistic high gods, moralistic high gods don’t give rise to complex societies. Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history:

The origins of religion and of complex societies represent evolutionary puzzles…The ‘moralizing gods’ hypothesis offers a solution to both puzzles by proposing that belief in morally concerned supernatural agents culturally evolved to facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies…Although previous research has suggested an association between the presence of moralizing gods and social complexity…the relationship between the two is disputed…and attempts to establish causality have been hampered by limitations in the availability of detailed global longitudinal data. To overcome these limitations, here we systematically coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions…powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations…generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.

The second figure from the paper shows the general trend:

In the first panel you see that social complexity rises, and as it plateaus moralizing gods show up. The second panel shows the distribution of time difference between the emergence of the plateau and moralistic gods across their data set. What’s striking is how soon moralizing gods shows up after the spike in social complexity.

In the ancient world, early Christian writers explicitly asserted that it was not a coincidence that their savior arrived with the rise of the Roman Empire. They contended that a universal religion, Christianity, required a universal empire, Rome. There are two ways you can look at this. First, that the causal arrow is such that social complexity leads to moralizing gods, and that’s that. The former is a necessary condition for the latter. Second, one could suggest that moralizing gods are a cultural adaptation to large complex societies, one of many, that dampen instability and allow for the persistence of those societies. That is, social complexity leads to moralistic gods, who maintain and sustain social complexity. To be frank, I suspect the answer will be closer to the second. But we’ll see.

Another result that was not anticipated I suspect is that ritual religion emerged before moralizing gods. In other words, instead of “Big Gods,” it might be “Big Rules.” With hindsight, I don’t think this is coincidental since cohesive generalizable rules are probably essential for social complexity and winning in inter-group competition. It’s not a surprise that legal codes emerge first in Mesopotamia, where you had the world’s first anonymous urban societies. And rituals lend themselves to mass social movements in public to bind groups. I think it will turn out that moralizing gods were grafted on top of these general rulesets, which allow for coordination, cooperation, and cohesion, so as to increase their import and solidify their necessity due to the connection with supernatural agents, which personalize the sets of rules from on high.

March 18, 2019

Open Thread, 03/18/2019

Filed under: Open Thread — Razib Khan @ 9:04 pm

Going back to finishing Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not. My general attitude so far is that I’m skeptical, but the author presents a plausible thesis. Additionally, the book is worth reading because of its engagement with the whole literature in this area. It’s got a good bibliography you can follow-up.

We had Shadi Hamid on the Brown Pundits podcast. Really appreciate Shadi’s interest in engaging with a diverse array of people. A real intellectual for our time, and unfortunately all too rare in many places these days (I think Shadi should go on the Extremely Offline podcast, even though he is extremely online).

There’s a Fake Outrage Machine on the Right, Also. Basically, they’re trying to get a professor fired for saying in some forum several years ago that cops should be killed. This is egregious, but one of the features of academia, as it is today, is that egregiousness is defended.

Some people are making the analogy to the professor who is under fire at Sarah Lawrence, who wrote an op-ed suggesting there needs to be more intellectual diversity in academia. That’s a pretty weird comparison, but I guess it tells you something. If you are conservative your very existence is scary. If you are on the Left, suggesting people should be killed is scary. But look, there are literal Communists in the academy. No one is demanding they be fired, and unless you add all sorts of caveats being a Communist often means you believe in violent revolution against a class of people. Being liberal in the broad sense is illustrated only when it’s hard, not when it’s easy.

A conservative assault on academia may need to occur, but it shouldn’t be around small things like a professor here and there. Go for the money. That’s the heart. Crazy professors are like stray strands of hair.

The Stanford professor who rejected one of Elizabeth Holmes’ early ideas explains what it was like to watch the rise and fall of Theranos. If you listened to The Dropout, you get the feeling that Dr. Phyllis Gardner was the hero we didn’t deserve. It must have been difficult to watch what has happened over the past 15 years for her. She knew it was fake all along.

Immune Gene Diversity in Archaic and Present-day Humans. Starting to think that the low diversity and population sizes of northern humans were a long-term problem, and one reason they were absorbed by southern modern humans. Not totally sure though.

Jomon genome sheds light on East Asian population history.

Shared polygenetic variation between ASD and ADHD exerts opposite association patterns with educational attainment.

The Scandals of Meritocracy. Virtue vs. competence. Would you rather have a boss who is evil but competent, or good but incompetent? The reality is you have to balance the two. Richard Nixon was probably smarter that Dwight Eisenhower in raw g, but Eisenhower was probably a better person.

Indian population is growing much faster in the north – and the south is paying the price. Much of South India is below replacement. Kerala’s fertility is similar to Japan’s. The Gangetic core of North India is well above replacement. The state of Bihar has 100 million people and a total fertility rate of 3.41. That’s similar to Pakistan’s.

Classic Mechanism of Epigenetic Inheritance Is Rare, Not the Rule. Some geneticists are in “but we all knew that” mode. But the reality is that going by the popular press the public doesn’t know that. The unfortunate reality is that scientific revolutions don’t come around that often.

DNA Friend. Amusing parody site.

Genome-Wide Polygenic Risk Scores and prediction of Gestational Diabetes in South Asian Women.

Fooled By Randomness is my favorite Nassim Taleb book.

Graham Coop has released a textbook, Population and Quantitative Genetics. Since I periodically get emails to delete comments from kids in high school and college, I knew younger people read this weblog. I’d recommend a resource like this to see if you are really interested in population and quantitative genetics.

Check out the Population Genomics blog.

A History of the Iberian Peninsula, as Told by Its Skeletons.

Survival of Late Pleistocene Hunter-Gatherer Ancestry in the Iberian Peninsula.

Population histories of the United States revealed through fine-scale migration and haplotype analysis. White Americans are the garlic people.

BrownCast Podcast episode 24: Shadi Hamid, American politics, Egyptian politics, being online

Filed under: Podcast — Razib Khan @ 5:42 pm

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 we talk to Shadi Hamid, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. The author of Islamic Exceptionalism and Temptations of Power.

The range of topics was diverse, from the new live-action Aladin film, the role of religious minorities in Egypt, and what it’s like to seem politically heterodox online. I say seem because Shadi’s sympathies with a sort of Left economic populism that isn’t quite exotic, but he evinces less fixation on epistemological hygiene than is common for modern public intellectuals.

We also talked extensively on his views about the role of religion in life, and religious identity in his own life, and the incentive structures of the careers of D.C. intellectual types.

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.

The evolution of languages

Filed under: Diversity,Evolution,Language,Linguistics — Razib Khan @ 2:56 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.

March 16, 2019

Open Thread – Brown Pundits

Filed under: Open Thread — Razib Khan @ 2:17 am

Please keep the other posts on topic. Use this for talking about whatever you want to talk about.

March 15, 2019

Two phases of Brown Pundits

Filed under: Analytics,Blog — Razib Khan @ 1:03 pm


No idea what happened in Feb of 2018. But that’s when engagement/traffic really went up to a new plateau.

March 14, 2019

The Ubiquitous Sequencing Age

Filed under: Genomics — Razib Khan @ 10:46 pm

Several years ago Yaniv Ehrlich published A Vision for Ubiquitous Sequencing. We’re inching in that direction. In The Atlantic Sarah Zhang has a piece, An Abandoned Baby’s DNA Condemns His Mother, while The New York Times just came out with, Old Rape Kits Finally Got Tested. 64 Attackers Were Convicted:

Still, even with such successes, the problem of untested rape kits persists. Advocates for rape victims estimate that about 250,000 kits remain untested across the country.

Unfortunately, until recently, the ‘forensic genetics’ employed rather primitive 1990s technology. But that’s changing, though both money and expertise need to be brought to bear. Companies such as Gencove and Othram are bringing that expertise to a broader market, with the latter company focusing specifically on the forensic market.

So ubiquitous sequencing is happening. Soon. What does that mean? We need to think about privacy. We need to think about data. We need to reflect on the broader implications of this world beyond specific targeted tasks such as forensic identification.

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