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

September 13, 2017

The rise of “orthodox” Sunni Islam in Indonesia is inevitable

Filed under: Indonesia,Islam — Razib Khan @ 7:07 pm


Curfews, Obligatory Prayers, Whippings: Hard-Line Islam Emerges in Indonesia:

In the Indonesian market town of Cianjur, new rules require government workers to clock in with their thumb prints at a downtown mosque to confirm attendance at morning prayers. That’s on the order of district chief Irvan Rivano Muchtar, who also wants a 10 p.m. curfew for the town and is sending police to stop teenage girls and boys hanging out without parental supervision.

One one of the first things I wrote on the internet in 2002 was about Indonesian Islam (on a blog platform which is now gone). The reason for me writing on that topic was that the media representations of Southeast Asian Islam in the wake of 9/11 seemed excessively simple and reductive. For the West Indonesian Islam is often asserted to be moderate, and a counterpoint to the intolerance and exclusion which is the norm in the Middle East. In other words, Indonesia as the world’s most populous Muslim majority name plays a specific role in a broader narrative. A bit part in the grand narrative of moderation and radicalism. In the process, the textured uniqueness of Indonesia itself often gets lost.

First, let’s take a step back and frame the history of maritime Southeast Asia, what eventually became Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It is often stated that in Indonesia Islam spread peacefully through trade. This is supposedly in contrast to what occurred in the Middle East or South Asia, where military force was the dominant theme of Islamization. Superficially this is true.

But the reality is that forced conversion was likely a marginal phenomenon at any given time, and especially during the early centuries of Islam. The prominence of men such as Timothy, Patriarch of the Church of the East, under the Abbasids attests to the power of the non-Muslim majority (there was a similar eminence for the Zoroastrian community). But the conversion of Malays around Malacca in the early 15th century after the conversion of the king is not quite as different from what occurred in Persia after the Arabs arrived as one might think. The rapid shift of the Iranian nobility to Islam in provinces under Arab control seems to have triggered a gradual change among the masses (those regions, such as Tabaristan, where local elites maintained the old religion resisted Islamization until they were conquered and converted). It was not a matter of the sword or conversion.

Of course, religious wars were a necessary part of the expansion of Islam in the Middle East and South Asia, even if they did not effect much of the religious change which occurred later. But this is not a qualitative contrast with the Middle East and South Asia in comparison to Indonesia, though it is a quantitative one. Some polities, such as Malacca and Aceh, came to Islam through their integration into the maritime mercantile network of Muslims from Arabia to China. Centuries later the collapse of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, whose earlier hegemony served as some of the basis of broader Javanese-Indonesian claims to the whole archipelago, occurred due to attacks from Muslim sultanates who organized in part on the basis of religion. Majapahit fell because of jihad. It was not converted peacefully.

In sum, the history of what became Indonesia and its relationship to Islam is different from that of South Asia, or the Middle East, but that difference is one of degree, not kind. Second, one must also distinguish between Java and the rest of the archipelago. In the article above there is an reference to Aceh, a province where the practice of Islam aligns very strongly with that found in the Middle East. But Aceh is also culturally and historically very different from Java, Islam came to Aceh a the dominant religion at least two centuries before it did in Java, and probably earlier. On the map above Aceh is also geographically rather distant from the central islands, at the far northwest tip of Sumatra.

To a first approximation, orthodox Islam is a much more salient and central aspect of the identities of people from outlying islands than it is to Javanese. The complex indigenous-Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic synthesis which is said to characterize traditional Indonesian Islamic culture is actually a feature most evidently of Javanese culture. Parts of far western Indonesia came to Islam earlier, and integrated into the Muslim cultures of the Indian Ocean more thoroughly, so that earlier Buddhist affinities faded over time (Aceh at one point was aided by the Ottomans in fighting the Portuguese). In contrast, parts of eastern Indonesia, such as Sulawesi, were Islamicized after the fall of Majapahit, but the impact of Indic culture had been relatively superficial (though not trivial, as Indic influence is evidence as far east and north as the islands which became the Philippines).

At nearly 40% of the population of all of Indonesia the Javanese loom large in the identity of the nation-state. Most of the presidents of Indonesia have been Javanese (B. J. Habibie was raised in Sulawesi, where his father was from, but his mother was Javanese; Sukarno’s mother was Balinese, while his daughter’s mother was Sumatran, though both seem to have identified culturally as Javanese). Many of the things people say about Indonesian Islam are really about Javanese Islam, with the model implicitly derived clearly from Clifford Geertz’s tripartite division between santri, anbangan and priyayi.

The santri are basically what we define as world normative orthodox Muslims. The priyayi are the Javanese aristocracy, who self-consciously explored mystical concepts and practices with an extra-Islamic origin. But the vast majority of Javanese are the anbangan, rural peasants who practice an Islam which emphasizes custom and tradition as much as sharia. Because custom and tradition have deep organic roots within Java they naturally include many elements which are ‘pre-Islamic.’ In Java both the Mahabharata and Ramayana are still part of the living culture, for example.

It strikes me that the attitude of the Javanese may have analogs with that of the Persians in relation to their cultural history. By and large like the Persians the Javanese are Muslims without apology.* But like the Persians the Javanese take pride in a history before Islam, in particular Majapahit, whose writ tentatively spanned most of contemporary Indonesia. And Majapahit can not be separated from a Hindu-Buddhist synthesis which left massive cultural artifacts such as the Borbobudur temple complex (and the modern Balinese also serve as continuous cultural links with the Hinduism of Majapahit).

But the economic and social development of Java will naturally lead to a waxing in the santri tendency. Orthodox Muslims among the Javanese have not been part of the underclass, but rather outward facing portions of the traditional mercantile class or middle class urbanites. Santri Islam is portable, and commensurable with international Islam. Anbangan Islam is rooted in the rural landscape of Java, and urbanization will inevitably erode its hold on future generations. Meanwhile, priyayi practices are structurally limited to a narrow class of elites.

Overall then the rise of ‘conservative Islam’ in Indonesia is a complex story with two primary threads. One is regionalism. The regulations introduced in the story above are in Cianjur, in western Java. This area is more Islamic than central or eastern Java, and the native people are not Javanese, but Sundanese.

As local identities were given more freedom of play after the New Order in the late 1990s it was reasonable to expect that more strikingly Islamic practices would become more public, as they were dampened earlier by the dominant Javanese orientation of the Suharto regime. Second, modernization within Javanese culture itself will likely lead to the emergence of a more numerous group of sharia compliant and world Islam oriented group of Muslims, as they can not rely upon community and adat in an urban landscape remote from their backgrounds of origin.

This is not to say that the standard chestnuts about Saudi funding are not important. But it is important to note that portions of Indonesian Islam have long been deeply connected to the Muslims of the Arabian Sea; this is not a function simply of the rise of petro-states, though their wealth has certainly allowed them to put their thumbs on the scale. Maritime Southeast Asia is the eastern segment of what is operationally a Shafi international of Sunni Muslims who ring much of the Indian Ocean. As Indonesia becomes globalized, it will gravitate to other nodes within the international network which it already has long-standing connections. This is probably inevitable in some ways, and the working out of the reality of contemporary Indonesian pluralism has to face the inevitable tensions that modernization will bring. A more universal and non-local Islam will probably also be more exclusive and culturally muscular.

* A minority are Christian or Hindu. A Hindu Javanese kingdom persisted in the east of the island until the 18th century.

Freedom of thought as a perpetual revolution

Filed under: classical liberalism,Liberalism,Liberals,libertarianism — Razib Khan @ 1:15 am

I mentioned offhand on Twitter today that I am skeptical of the tendency to brand the classically liberal emphasis on freedom of thought and speech as “centrist.” The implicit idea is that those on the Right and Left for whom liberalism is conditional, and a means at best, are radical and outside the mainstream.

This misleads us in relation to the fact that classical liberalism is the aberration both historically and culturally. Liberty of thought and speech have existed for time immemorial, but they were the luxury goods of the elite salons. Frederick the Great of Prussia had no use for religion personally, and famously patronized heretical philosophers, but he did not disturb the conservative social order of the polity which he inherited. For the masses, the discourse was delimited and regulated to maintain order and reinforce social norms.

The attempt to position the liberal stance as a centrist one is clearly historically and culturally contingent. It reflects the ascendancy of a particular strand of Anglo-American elite culture worldwide. But it is not universal. In the Islamic world and South Asia free expression of skepticism of religious ideas in public are subject to limits explicitly to maintain public order. The Islamic punishments for apostasy have less to do with the sin of individual disbelief and more to do with disruption to public norms and sedition against the state. Similarly, both China and Russia tap deeply into cultural preferences for state and elite paternalism in regards to public freedom of thought.

In fact, the classical liberal perspective on prioritizing freedom of conscience and the ability to explore the full range of ideas is probably counter to the “lowest energy state” of human cognitive intuitions. It reflects only a slice of the “moral foundations” which Jonathan Haidt explores in The Righteous Mind.

To explore some of the demographic correlates of classical liberalism I utilized the General Social Survey. As instruments to assess liberal attitudes toward free speech and thought I focused on two variables, SPKMSLM and SPKLRAC. For the first variable respondents were asked:

Now consider a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community preaching hatred of the United States, should he be allowed to speak, or not?

For the second:

Or consider a person who believes that Blacks are genetically inferior. a. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community claiming that Blacks are inferior, should he be allowed to speak, or not?

I assess the pro-free speech position by inspecting the subset who accept that both groups should be allowed to speak, and those who reject that either group should be allowed to speak. That is, these are people consistent in their attitudes when it comes to speech which conflicts with community norms.

For demographic variables, I looked at educational attainment (DEGREE), verbal intelligence (WORDSUM), and political ideology (POLVIEWS). For verbal intelligence scoring 0-4 out of 10 was below average, 5-7 was average, and 8-10 above average.

What is clear above is that those with more education and those who are more intelligent tend to support free speech more than those who lack education or are less intelligent. But it is also notable that moderates, in particular, are overrepresented among those who reject freedom of speech. Though the proportion of liberals goes up appreciably, the proportion of conservatives also goes up a bit!

I ran a quick logistic regression model which attempts to predict the odds of two outcomes (support or reject free speech here) across a range of variables simultaneously. Statistically significant B coefficients are bolded. You can see that the demographics which support speech across the two are consistent:

B – Allow Muslim B – Allow racist Who supports free speech?
AGE 0.01 0.006 Younger people
SEI -0.008 -0.007 Higher SES people
POLVIEWS 0.061 0.072 Liberals
WORDSUM -0.306 -0.145 Smart people
DEGREE -0.274 -0.153 More education
INCOME -0.026 -0.026 Richer
SEX 0.45 0.24 Men
GOD 0.151 0.159 Less religious

From looking at the GSS data moderates are the less interested in politics overall, and also less educated and intelligent. In general, when they respond to a political issue they’re going with their gut. Humans are social animals and tend to not look favorably upon public disruption. The rationales for why one should discourage offensive and taboo speech are rather coherent. The liberal instrumental argument for freedom of thought as a social good tends to take a longer view that the proliferation of ideas will lead to greater prosperity and moral advancement.

This is a very Whig model of history. Whether the model is correct or not, it captures a particular moment in the Zeitgeist of the early modern West. The reason that classical liberalism is classical is that it in minimal terms it has never gone beyond its roots in the late 18th and early 19th century in relation to its preoccupations. Within the West many conservatives and reactionaries have argued against the presuppositions of classical liberal thought, which have tacitly been ascendant for the past two centuries (the fascists being the inchoate apotheosis of these reactive strands). Marxists and other radicals have beyond the liberal fixation on liberty narrowly defined, while modern Left-liberals tend to put as much emphasis on economic liberty through redistribution as upon civil liberty.

But I also want to suggest here that perhaps the classical liberal fixation on freedom of thought reflects the interests and preoccupations of a particular segment of society: those for whom ideas are fascinating and give sustenance and meaning to life. The Enlightenment can be thought of as the revolt of the middle class, broadly construed, from the mercantile high bourgeoisie down to the broad professional class. These are people for whom “post-materialist” considerations loom large because material considerations have faded into the background. For the poor and those in material want freedom of thought is less important by necessity. Similarly, the large segment of the population which is not interested in novel ideas may not care much about the importance of intellectual novelty. Finally, there are those with post-materialist values which may emphasize the importance of taboos and social conformity of the collective.

Though the majority of the population (at least in the West) seems inclined to go along with liberalism as part of the broader suite of post-Enlightenment Western culture, there is no guarantee that they will always hew to such a position. Classical liberalism understood to be fundamentally radical would be useful insofar as the elites for whom it is an ends, and not a means, would be less complacent and more motivated toward maintaining the primacy of the values which give meaning to their lives.

September 11, 2017

Inbreeding causing issues in Osama bin Laden’s family

Filed under: Human Genetics,Osama bin Laden — Razib Khan @ 5:07 pm

I didn’t figure I would have to say much about 9/11 really that others could not say (aside from perhaps you should read Marc Sageman’s Understanding Terror Networks if you want an ethnography of the Salafi jihadist movement which lead to al-Qaeda). But The Daily Best has a profile of one of Osama bin Laden’s sons:

Moreover, by this time, bin Laden already had two wives. But Najwa, the first of them, encouraged him to pursue Khairia, believing that having someone with her training permanently on hand would help her son Saad and his brothers and sisters, some of whom also suffered from developmental disorders.

Osama bin Laden had two dozen some children (approximately). But it was strange to me to see mention of several children with developmental disorders. Inbreeding is a major burden for Arab Muslim societies. And sure enough, Osama bin Laden’s first wife was his first cousin. She gave birth to around 10 children. Her father was Osama bin Laden’s mother’s brother. With the possibility of several generations of cousin marriage their relatedness may have been closer than normal half-siblings.

Note: Osama bin Laden’s father was from Yemen and his mother from Syria. So he was most certainly not inbred.

September 10, 2017

Amazon will go to Denver

Filed under: Amazon,Economics — Razib Khan @ 9:11 pm

Lots of discussions last week in the office about where Amazon will locate its second headquarters. After looking at the criteria the consensus converged on Denver. The Upshot did a similar analysis…and settled on Denver as well.

The huge downside of Austin is its deficits in transportation. Its airport is relatively modest. The mass transit is minimal. And traffic congestion is horrible.

Open Thread, 09/10/2017

Filed under: Open Thread — Razib Khan @ 7:06 pm

Read The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith this weekend. It’s a quick read, and a pretty good concise survey of the religion and its history. Recommended.

Next up I think I’ll tackle Martin Meredith’s The Fortunes of Africa.

Genomic evidence for population specific selection in Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo linguistic groups in Africa. The title gets at the interesting parts (though unsurprising). Not sure about the phylogenomic/population history aspect…for example, contends that Sub-Saharan ancestry mostly derives from Nuba mountains. I don’t think that’s true.

“Open Threads” seem to have a huge variance in number of comments. Perhaps what I prime has a big impact?

Why I am not blogging anymore. I am one of a dying breed.

In relation to why Twitter is getting dumber, there are five times as many users as in 2010. Can the platform really keep quality up? What I like to think of as “dumb Twitter” is getting to be a bigger and bigger proportion, and the bigger it gets the more people go silent who are of high quality.

Posting on the Rohingya controversy the last few days has convinced me that most people who express opinions are mostly interested in posturing. People of conscience can agree that killing of civilians is wrong. But the details of action from that premise vary wildly. Also, my attempt to get at the facts of contextual elements apparently make me suspicious to many people!

In relation to foreign policy, I think that distrusting “elites” is probably for the best. The primary thing they know is their own interests.

The Last Days of ISIS’ Capital: Airstrikes if You Stay, Land Mines if You Flee.

PETA versus the postdoc: Animal rights group targets young researcher for first time. I think this sort of behavior is more acceptable in the world of ‘social media shaming.’

Americans Losing Faith in College Degrees, Poll Finds. Not all Americans:

Today, Democrats, urban residents and Americans who consider themselves middle- and upper-class generally believe college is worth it; Republicans, rural residents and people who identify themselves as poor or working-class Americans don’t.

Also, colleges don’t get it:

Schools such as Michigan State, the University of Wisconsin system and the University of Florida are trying to improve their public standing with marketing efforts. In Wisconsin, the university system has taken out billboards across the state highlighting the impact alumni have had on the local economy.

The problem isn’t in marketing, it’s in the product.

On a related vein, over at Oberlin, Enrollment Drop Creates Financial Shortfall. In the Pacific Northwest, After a turbulent spring, Evergreen faces enrollment decline, budget woes. Finally, Long After Protests, Students Shun the University of Missouri. Hyper-politicization does not seem good for the product.

Finally, interested readers should consider getting a copy of Introduction to Quantitative Genetics. The next five years or so will be saturated with results coming out of massive genomic studies which will make much more sense if one has a theoretical framework with which to interpret the them.

Quantitative genomics, adaptation, and cognitive phenotypes

The human brain utilizes about ~20% of the calories you take in per day. It’s a large and metabolically expensive organ. Because of this fact there are lots of evolutionary models which focus on the brain. In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human Richard Wrangham suggests that our need for calories to feed our brain is one reason we started to use fire to pre-digest our food. In The Mating Mind Geoffrey Miller seems to suggest that all the things our big complex brain does allows for a signaling of mutational load. And in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language Robin Dunbar suggests that it’s social complexity which is driving our encephalization.

These are all theories. Interesting hypotheses and models. But how do we test them? A new preprint on bioRxiv is useful because it shows how cutting-edge methods from evolutionary genomics can be used to explore questions relating to cognitive neuroscience and pyschopathology, Polygenic selection underlies evolution of human brain structure and behavioral traits:

…Leveraging publicly available data of unprecedented sample size, we studied twenty-five traits (i.e., ten neuropsychiatric disorders, three personality traits, total intracranial volume, seven subcortical brain structure volume traits, and four complex traits without neuropsychiatric associations) for evidence of several different signatures of selection over a range of evolutionary time scales. Consistent with the largely polygenic architecture of neuropsychiatric traits, we found no enrichment of trait-associated single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in regions of the genome that underwent classical selective sweeps (i.e., events which would have driven selected alleles to near fixation). However, we discovered that SNPs associated with some, but not all, behaviors and brain structure volumes are enriched in genomic regions under selection since divergence from Neanderthals ~600,000 years ago, and show further evidence for signatures of ancient and recent polygenic adaptation. Individual subcortical brain structure volumes demonstrate genome-wide evidence in support of a mosaic theory of brain evolution while total intracranial volume and height appear to share evolutionary constraints consistent with concerted evolution…our results suggest that alleles associated with neuropsychiatric, behavioral, and brain volume phenotypes have experienced both ancient and recent polygenic adaptation in human evolution, acting through neurodevelopmental and immune-mediated pathways.

The preprint takes a kitchen-sink approach, throwing a lot of methods of selection at the phenotype of interest. Also, there is always the issue of cryptical population structure generating false positive associations, but they try to address it in the preprint. I am somewhat confused by this passage though:

Paleobiological evidence indicates that the size of the human skull has expanded massively over the last 200,000 years, likely mirroring increases in brain size.

From what I know human cranial sizes leveled off in growth ~200,000 years ago, peaked ~30,000 years ago, and have declined ever since then. That being said, they find signatures of selection around genes associated with ‘intracranial volume.’

There are loads of results using different methods in the paper, but I was curious note that schizophrenia had hits for ancient and recent adaptation. A friend who is a psychologist pointed out to me that when you look within families “unaffected” siblings of schizophrenics often exhibit deviation from the norm in various ways too; so even if they are not impacted by the disease, they are somewhere along a spectrum of ‘wild type’ to schizophrenic. In any case in this paper they found recent selection for alleles ‘protective’ of schizophrenia.

There are lots of theories one could spin out of that singular result. But I’ll just leave you with the fact that when you have a quantitative trait with lots of heritable variation it seems unlikely it’s been subject to a long period of unidirecitional selection. Various forms of balancing selection seem to be at work here, and we’re only in the early stages of understanding what’s going on. Genuine comprehension will require:

– attention to population genetic theory
– large genomic data sets from a wide array of populations
– novel methods developed by population genomicists
– and funcitonal insights which neuroscientists can bring to the table

September 8, 2017

As many Americans think the Bible is a book of fables as that it is the word of God

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 6:07 pm


America, that is, the United States of America, has long been a huge exception for the secularization model. Basically as a society develops and modernizes it becomes more secular. At least that’s the model.

In the 1980s Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge wrote The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. Stark and Bainbridge’s work was predominantly empirical; they looked at survey data to present a model of the American religious landscape. But they also had a theoretical framework, whereby religion was modeled with a rational choice framework on the individual religion, and denominations and sects were viewed as “firms” providing “goods and services” to “customers.”

A whole field emerged over time which attempted to use the methods and models of economics to explain religious phenomena. Larry Witham’s Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion surveys the various scholars in this discipline. I’ve read the book, and what I will say is that like many imperial ventures, this one failed. The predictions of the “supply-side” model of religion haven’t panned out.

In 2004 Samuel Huntington wrote in Who Are We? that the United States likely had a more Christian future than the present. He was actually writing this as a massive wave of secularization was going on in the United States; the second since that of the 1960s had abated.

For a long time, people were in denial about this. After all the United States had been the great exception to the secularization trend in the developed world. Their priors were strong. And the market also provided what consumers wanted; books such as God is Back and Jesus in Beijing catered to the demand. Writing in the early 2000s the author of Jesus in Beijing suggested that 20 to 30 percent of China would be Christian two to three decades, so between 2023 and 2033 (from the publication of the book). Credible statistics in 2017 put the current number of Christians in China at 2 to 5 percent.

In 2009 I took John Tierney of The New York Times to task for dismissing the secularization hypothesis in a column. I emailed him my blog post, and he denied that it showed what it showed. Today I suspect he’d admit that I was more right than he was.

Today everyone is talking about the Pew survey which shows the marginalization of the Anglo-Protestant America which I grew up in. This marginalization is due to secularization broadly, and non-Hispanic whites in particular. You don’t need Pew to tell you this.

At the top of this post you see the response to the GSS query BIBLE, which asks respondents how they view the Bible in relation to whether it is God’s literal word, inspired word, or a book of fables. I limited the data to non-Hispanic whites. In 2016 as many people viewed the Bible as a book of fables as the word of God. In 2000 twice as many people viewed it as the word of God as a book of fables. That is a huge change.

Note: Robert Putnam’s American Grace is probably the best book which highlights the complex cultural forces which ushered in the second wave of secularization. The short answer is that the culture wars diminished Christianity in the eyes of liberals.

Jerry Pournelle, 1933-2017

Filed under: Jerry Pournelle,science fiction — Razib Khan @ 4:49 pm

A few years ago I stumbled upon Fred Pohl’s weblog. Born in 1919, for a few years there before his death in 2013 Pohl was a living breathing window back to the “Golden Age” of science fiction. He knew men like Asimov and Heinlein personally. He was a witness, a participant, to history. It was great to have someone like him on the internet.

Today we lost another piece of history. This evening I learned that Jerry Pournelle passed away in his sleep. I have had a few interactions with Pournelle over the years, and it was really strange in light of the fact that I read many of his books as a child. His collaborations with Larry Niven, in particular, The Mote in God’s Eye, were always great in my opinion (each author had their own strength, and together they were better).

One thing about Pournelle’s science fiction is that their politics and sociology always struck me as unrealistic when I first encountered them. I believe in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction he identified himself as a “13th century liberal.” As in, he was on the side of the nobles against King John. Even if tongue-in-cheek that had at the time struck me as a ridiculous claim.

But over the years I’ve come to realize that my teen years in the 1990s were excessively suffused with The End of History. Pournelle was older and had a longer view of things. I didn’t necessarily end up agreeing with Jerry Pournelle in all his views, but as I got older I began to realize that there was a lot I didn’t understand.

Guest Right Is Holocene

Filed under: Cooperation,History — Razib Khan @ 12:03 am

With the surfeit of genomic data, whether contemporary or ancient, there is a lot of mileage to be gained by description and inference. That is, looking at the data, generating a result, and drawing some conclusion from that result. But another way to skin the cat is construct an explicit model and then test the data. There are details, and then there are generalities.

I’ll offer up a proposition here then: the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and pastoralism has increased the rate of gene flow between neighbor populations. Several years ago Science published ancient DNA results which showed that there was little gene flow between Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers in Germany. Those trained in population genetics will know that only a small rate of gene flow can quickly homogenize difference between neighboring groups. Large genetic distances between neighboring populations requires strong taboos in relation to intermarriage.

It also happens that this summer I saw a poster presented by Anders Bergstrom at SMBE where he reported very high genetic distance values in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Ethnographically we’re well aware that New Guinea is characterized by high degrees of linguistic diversity as well as xenophobia an war between neighboring groups. But a deeper dive into the genetic patterns suggest common descent in New Guinean from a random mating population on the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, and more recent barriers to contact. New Guinea’s agriculture, which is gardening horticulture, is somewhat different from cereal cultivation. So there may be some differences there which we need to explore.

But something happened in the Holocene. In Game of Thrones “guest right” is sacred. That may seem like a silly observation, but the same principle is the clear in the Bible. The visitation of the angels to Sodom saw an attempt by the natives of the city attempt to violate the hospitality offered by the family of Lot, to the point where Lot offered his own daughters to the men who aimed to rape the angels.

The most recent genetic work suggest that the past 5,000 years or so have seen massing mixing across the world, and reduction of inter-group genetic distances. This is clearly the consequence of rapid increased rates of gene flow. You can take a cultural evolutionary viewpoint for the reason behind this, as Ara Norenzayan does in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Or you can take a more traditional materialistic route which puts the causal agent in the hands of mechanistic processes having to due with increased density and economic complexity. But whatever the reason, we know a transition occurred.

September 7, 2017

South Asian gene flow into Burmese and Malays?

Filed under: Burma,Genetics,Malaysia,Southeast Asia — Razib Khan @ 10:22 pm


I happen to have a data set merged from the 1000 Genomes and Estonian Biocentre which has Malays, Burmans, and other assorted Southeast Asians, East Asians, and South Asians. In light of recent posts I thought I would throw out something in relation to this data set (you can download the data here). Above you can see the populations in the data. You see Bangladeshis consistently are shifted toward Southeast Asians in comparison to other South Asians. But both Burmans and Malays exhibit some shift toward South Asians.

I ran ADMIXTURE at K = 4. Click the image for the larger file which shows the populations, but I will tell you what’s going on.

The yellow to green represent a north-south axis in East Asia. The Han sample is mostly yellow, but there is a green component in varying degrees. This almost certainly represents heterogeneity in the Han sample of north to south Chinese. The green component is nearly ~100% in some individuals from indigenous tribes in Borneo, and balanced with the yellow among peninsular Malays. It is more at a higher frequency in Cambodia than in Vietnam or Burma, indicating the older roots of Khmers and their relative insulation from later migrations of Sino-Tibetan and Tai peoples.

The red South Asian component is found in many Southeast Asians, but curious in the Burmans and Malays there is a lot of variation within the population. That indicates admixture over time that has not homogenized throughout the population.

I ran Treemix with 5 migration edges and French rooted (1000 SNP blocks out of 225,000 SNPs) and they all looked like this. Commentary I will leave to readers….

September 6, 2017

Burma can thank the British for its current mess

Filed under: Burma,Rohingya — Razib Khan @ 8:56 pm


Since my last post on the Rohingya I’ve kept reading up on the topic, mostly in relation to their origins. Google scholar has been of minimal help to be honest, though this draft of a presentation given to Southeast Asia scholars in 2014 has been one of the better analyses I’ve seen, with lots of citations that you can follow up.

For me the biggest hard fact that one can not deny is that there was massive increase in the number of Muslims in Arakan recorded in the censuses of 1871, 1901, and 1911. The number of Muslims tripled in this period, and work out to an annual growth rate of 5.5%; far above anything recorded in South and Southeast Asia at the time (where growth rates were closer to 1%).

The most plausible model seems to be that most of the self-identified Rohingya in Burma today descend from a population which was part of the broader migration of peoples from the Indian subcontinent during the period of the British Raj. Between 1874 and 1917 nearly 100,000 Indians emigrated to Trinidad. In fact millions of Indian peasants were sent to far flung regions of the British Empire in the period between 1830 and 1920 (as well as merchants and traders to East Africa and elsewhere).

So where does this idea of Rohingya being in Arakan for 900 years come from? There are many websites on the internet litigating the Rohingya issue from both sides. Let me quote from one such site, Voice of the Rohingya:

The Origin of Rohingya

Rohang, the old name of Arakan, was very familiar region for the Arab seafarers even during the pre-Islamic days. Tides of people like the Arabs, Moors, Turks, Pathans, Moghuls, Central Asians, Bengalees came mostly as traders, warriors, preachers and captives overland or through the sea route. Many settled in Arakan, and mixing with the local people, developed the present stock of people known as ethnic Rohingya. Hence, the Rohingya Muslims, whose settlements in Arakan date back to 7th century AD are not an ethnic group which developed from one tribal group affiliation or single racial stock. They are an ethnic group developed from different stocks of people. The ethnic Rohingya is Muslim by religion with distinct culture and civilisation of their own. They trace their ancestry to Arabs, Moors, Pathans, Moghuls, Central Asians, Bengalis and some Indo-Mongoloid people. Since Rohingyas are mixture of many kinds of people, their cheekbone is not so prominent and eyes are not so narrow like Rakhine Maghs and Burmans. Their noses are not flat and they are a bit taller in stature than the Rakhine Maghs but darker in complexion. They are some bronzing coloured and not yellowish. The Rohingyas of Arakan still carried the Arab names, faith, dress, music and customs. So, the Rohingyas are nationals as well as an indigenous ethnic group of Burma. They are not new born racial group of Arakan rather they are as old an indigenous race of the country as any others.

The Origin of Rakhine

In the year 957 AD, a Mongolian invasion swept over Vesali, and killed Sula Chandra, the last king of Chandra dynasty. They destroyed Vesali and placed on their throne Mongolian kings. Within a few years the Hindus of Bengal were able to establish their Pala Dynasty. But the Hindus of Vesali were unable to restore their dynasty because of the invasion and migrations of Tibeto-Burman who were so great that their population over shadowed the Vesali Hindus. They cut Arakan away from Indians and mixing in sufficient number with the inhabitants of the eastern-side of the present Indo-Burma divide, created that Indo-Mongoloid stock now known as the Rakhine Arakanese. This emergence of a new race was not the work of a single invasion. But the date 957 AD may be said to mark the appearance of the Rakhine in Arakan, and the beginning of fresh period.

If you didn’t connect the dots here, what is going on is that the Rohingya are being presented as the more indigenous population of Arakan in comparison to the Rakhine majority in the text above! This is almost certainly wrong in any straightforward reading…but imagine how Rakhine react to this sort polemic, even though it is almost certainly a reaction to Rakhine nativism.

The Rohingya extensively cite their Arab and assorted West Asian antecedents in Arakan. The admission of a Bengali contribution is typical, but, it is rarely given outsized influence or importance. This, despite the fact that Rohingya are physically indistinguishable from the peasants of southeast Bengal, and their language closely resembles the Chittagong dialect of that area.

I can make judgments on the issues of physical appearance and language. My own family is from a nearby region (Comilla, and some branches of the family, Noakhali), and I have been to Chittagong. I can understand to some extent the Chittagong dialect, and the Rohingya language is clearly related to it (the peasant Bengali of the region of Bangladesh my family is from is almost certainly closer to Chittagong dialect than standard Bengali because of proximity).

But it does seem clear that some Muslims were present in Arakan at a relatively antique date. The romance of Sinbad the Sailor reflects that even in the period before 1000 AD Muslim travelers and traders were a common on the shipping lanes of the Indian ocean, even as far east as the trading entrepot of Guangzhou in Tang China. This can be confirmed by the fact that Muslim conflict with Chinese occurred in 758 and culminated with a well known massacre of foreigners, mostly Muslims, in 875. They were certainly in Arakan by this period in some numbers.

Nevertheless this Arab connection to Arakan is tenuous at best. The Muslims of Arakan are of the Hanafi school of shariah, which is dominant in the Turco-Persian-Indian world. In contrast, Arabs tended to transmit the Shafi school to the eastern shores of the Indian ocean. This is evident among the Muslims of Kerala, who have long had a relationship with southern coastal Arabia, and so adhere to the Shafi school unlike the vast majority of India’s Sunni Muslims (Southeast Asia is Shafi as well).

More concrete and substantive is the association of kingdom of Mrauk U with Islamicate civilization, and in particular the Sultanate of Bengal and later the Mughal Empire. This polity flourished between the 15th and 18th centuries. In the early period the Muslim rulers of Bengal to the north and west patronized the dialect of the region, what was becoming Bengali (elite support for Bengali among Muslims declined during the Mughal period). This is also when large scale Islamicization began on the eastern frontier according to The Rise of islam on the Bengal Frontier. A number of Muslims settled in Mrauk U during these centuries, often in association with the sultan’s court. It seems likely from the literature I have seen that the term Rohingya began to become popular among Muslims in Arakan during this period at the latest. Even before the British conquest of Arakan they noted the existence of a community of Muslims who called themselves Rohingya.

So what is the connection between the Rohingya, who certainly existed as a community in Arakan before British conquest, and the modern Rohingya, who probably descend from peasants who arrived from southeast Bengal in the 19th century?

First, one needs to be reminded that at in 1940 16% of Burma’s population was of recent Indian subcontinental origin. They spanned the gamut from wealthy Chettiar financiers to middle class Punjabi police to peasants from Bengal. In the decades after World War II the majority left the country, especially the prosperous ones. The literature I’ve read indicates that the less prosperous ones, who did not have portable skills or assets, were less likely to leave. Many of them have assimilated to Burmese culture in cities such as Yangon (many Hindus have switched their religious affiliation to Buddhism, while all Burmese with total fluency).

The Rohingya were drawn exclusively from a peasant culture, and exist in concentrations in a particular region where they are preponderant (northern Arakan), and so exhibit cultural critical mass. The Rohingya are by and large not a literate people. At least until recently. Though their language is clearly Indo-Aryan, and closely related to Bengali, they do not use Bengali script.

In Bangladesh there are two regions where Bengali-related dialects are extensively spoken. In Sylhet in the northeast and Chittagong in the southeast the local dialects are unintelligible with standard Bengali. But because Bengali is a dialect continuum (standard Bengali derives from a particular region of West Bengal, in what is today India) I have better understanding of Chittagong dialect that most Bengali speakers, as I also understand to some extent rural Comilla speech, which is nearer to the Chittagong dialect. People in Sylhet and Chittagong can generally speak standard Bengali, and though both groups exhibit some ambivalence they do consider themselves Bengali.

So why are the Rohingya different? The period when the Rohingya migrated to Burma was also the period when European-style conceptions of nationalism, based around a common written language, were starting to take hold in South Asia. South Asians of all religions, at least of an elite background, understood themselves as being part of Hindustan, which was characterized by its own unique traits. But their identity on a national level, bound by language, was weak. This is in part because the languages favored by the elites were Persian or Sanskrit, with the simultaneous emergence in North India of the dialects that later became Urdu and Hindi (South India had its own independent traditions).

In Germany, Italy, and France, the standard national languages spread in the 19th and 20th centuries so that local dialects went extinct. That process in a place like South Asia has been much slower because the illiterate agricultural peasant majority has been more insulated from literacy. Just as Italian is based on the dialect of Florence, so standard Bengali derives from a particular region in modern West Bengal, and spread as an elite language across the Bengali dialect continuum (when I was a very small child in Bangladesh my parents made an effort to speak in very standard Bengali so that that was my native language, as opposed to a lower status dialect).

From what I can tell the Rohingya were untouched by the changes triggered by the Bengali Renaissance in the early 19th century, which first captured the imaginations of the Bengali Hindu upper castes, and then spread over the decades to the middle classes of all both religions and all regions. In lieu of a Bengali identity the Rohingya seem to have co-opted the identity of the earlier Muslim community of Arakan, whom they likely absorbed. This is not entirely fantastical. I have some experience talking to peasants in the countryside of Bangladesh, and even now the lower classes are vague about their national and ethnic identity. Rather, they focus on their village and locality, and exhibit little sense of scale of difference in relation to outsiders. In 1990 when I was visiting rural Bangladesh I remember being introduced to a woman from Bogra district as a “fellow foreigner.” Bogra was less than 200 miles from where I was at the time, but for these peasants it was another world, and we were interchangeable in our alienness.

There is a clear analogy to what might be happening with the Rohingya, and that exists in the Central Asia. In the 19th and early 20th centuries a broad group of settled Turks and Iranians in Central Asia under Chinese nationalist and Russian rule transformed their ethnic identities into those we know today. Groups like Uyghurs and Uzbeks have tenuous connections to the historical groups which were called Uyghurs and Uzbeks. The decision of the various Turkic speaking groups of the oases of Xinjiang to call themselves Uyghur, and so established a connection to the Turkic confederation which flourished more than 1,000 years earlier, occurred in the 1920s. Of course today we don’t say that the Uyghurs aren’t real Uyghurs; the assent of the Turkic speaking population to the term Uyghur has resulted in that becoming their new self-identity.

Similarly, a reshaping of the self-identity of the people who became Rohingya in Burma likely occurred in the 20th century. Without an educated upper class which was literate they were totally detached from the emergence of a modern Bengali identity. Rather than become Bengali the more upwardly mobile members of the Rohingya elevated their own dialect into its own language (and adopted a non-Bengali script as well). Additionally,  they synthesized various aspects of Islamic history in Arakan and integrated it into their own identity, and so establishing their bona fides as sons of the soil.

To the question of whether Rohingya have been present in Arakan for 900 years, I think it is clear I believe that the answer there is no, not at all. But, to the question of whether they actually Bangladeshi, I would also have to say at this point, no. This is a subtle and nuanced issue, but the existence of a Bangladeshi national identity is relatively new, just as the nation is new. But it is has likely been on the order of 100 years or more since most of the ancestors of the Rohingya left the districts of southeastern Bengal to which they were originally native. Not only have the ancestors of the Rohingya never lived in Bangladesh, but they never lived in Pakistan. It would be somewhat similar to suggesting that an Indo-Trinidadian would be comfortable in India, though the gap here is larger because most Indo-Trinidadians lack fluency in any South Asian language today.

The non-Bengali identification of the Rohingya has also made their Islamic identity more salient. If you Google image Bangladeshi women as opposed to Rohingya women, the latter look far more Muslim. I’m no expert, but the Rohingya seem partial to the headscarves of the sort common in places like Malaysia, again attesting to their attempt, conscious or not, at indigenization. Without a connection to Bengali elite culture, which is multireligious, and of a secular bent due to that fact, the Rohingya will naturally gravitate toward an Islamic identity when they attempt to transcend their peasant origins.

Why does any of this matter? Obviously the truth matters. And if the world community is to foster peace in Burma it will not help its cause by promoting false narratives created by the Rohingya as a counterargument against those Burmese who deny their national status. The Rohingya have established their non-Bengali identity, as they have created a different one in Burma. But attempts to the deny their relatively recent origins in South Asia will almost certainly inflame and agitate the Rakhine majority and the Burmese state even more than is the case now. It will also undercut any credibility that outsider have in fostering moderation and peace.

Chinese metropolitan areas blanketing the earth

Filed under: China — Razib Khan @ 4:40 pm

One of the fascinating insights from When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order is that since economic development occurred so rapidly in East Asia its cities lack the historic charm of European urban areas. The reason being that the organic accrual of construction and history over more than a century of economic development simply did not occur in much of East Asia. The modern nation-state of China is the most extreme case of this (of course one issue is that historically East Asians have used more perishable materials in construction, and not emphasized the importance of the permanence of great public buildings).

A photo essay in The Guardian, The great leap upward: China’s Pearl River Delta, then and now, illustrates this with images of rapid change in urban areas. But that reminded me to do something I’d been meaning to get to: compare the size of urban areas in China to those in the United States and Europe.

Below is a table I constructed of metropolitan regions. The data are from Wikipedia and I selected the administrative classifications which seemed the most equivalent. Using a cut-off of 5 million inhabitants you can see China has many more metropolitan areas than the United States already. I know an decent amount of Chinese geography for a foreigner, but I don’t even recognize 7 of the 22 metropolitan areas!

China   USA   Europe  
  population   population   population
Shanghai 24500000 New York City 20153634 Ruhr 13400000
Beijing 21500000 Los Angles 13310447 Istanbul 11400000
Guangzhou 20800654 Chicago 9512999 Paris 11200000
Chongqing 18384000 Dallas-Forth Worth 7233323 Milan 8247125
Chengdu 17677122 Houston 6772470 London 8200000
Tianjin 15500000 Washington DC 6131977 Amsterdam 7500000
Shenzhen 12357938 Philadelphia 6070500 Munich 6100000
Harbin 12000000 Miami 6066387 Berlin 6000000
Wuhan 10670000 Atlanta 5789700 Madrid 5600000
Suzhou 10349090     Frankfurt 5600000
Hangzhou 9018000        
Xi’an 8627500        
Shenyang 8255921        
Dongguan 8220937        
Nanjing 8216000        
Foshan 7197394        
Jinan 7067900        
Wenzhou 6642592        
Qingdao 6188100        
Quanzhou 6107475        
Shantou 5346708        
Changsha 5288800      

September 4, 2017

The GRE is useful; range restriction is a thing

Filed under: Intelligence,Psychometrics — Razib Khan @ 8:05 pm

The above figure is from Beyond the Threshold Hypothesis: Even Among the Gifted and Top Math/Science Graduate Students, Cognitive Abilities, Vocational Interests, and Lifestyle Preferences Matter for Career Choice, Performance, and Persistence. It shows that even at very high levels of attainment on standardized tests there are differences in life outcome based on variation. The old joke is that results on intelligence tests don’t matter beyond a certain point…that point being whatever your own position is! But these results show that mathematics SAT outcomes at age 13 can still predict a lot of things across a wide range.

From personal experience people outside of psychology are pretty unaware of the power of cognitive aptitude testing. This includes many biologists. I was reminded of the above figure as I read portions of Richard Haier’s The Neuroscience of Intelligence. If you are a biologist curious about the topic, this is a highly recommended book.

The main reason I am posting this is that this it was asked of me by a friend in academia. There has recently been a backlash against the GRE exam, with support from the highest echelons of the science media. Additionally, many researchers in public forums are voicing objections to the GRE very vocally. Naturally this has resulted in counterarguments…but respondents have to be very careful how the couch their disagreement, because they fear being accused of being racist, sex, or classist. Such accusations might trigger social media mobs, which no one wants to be the target of (and if past experience is any guide, friends and colleagues will stand aside while the witch is virtually burned, hoping to avoid notice).

Because of the request above I finally decided to look at the two papers which are eliciting the current wave of GRE-skepticism, The Limitations of the GRE in Predicting Success in Biomedical Graduate School and Predictors of Student Productivity in Biomedical Graduate School Applications. To my eye they suffer from the same problem as all earlier criticisms: range restriction.

The issue is that if a university is using the GRE and other metrics well as filters for those admitted then there shouldn’t be that much variation in outcome left (the outcome being publications or some other important metric which actually leads to the production of science, as opposed to test scores and grades). The two papers above look at those admitted to biomedical programs at UNC and Vanderbilt, while another study looked at UCSF. These are all universities with standards high enough that there are either explicit or implicit cut-off scores so that many students are removed from the applicant pool immediately (the mean scores are well above the 50th percentile, you can see them in the paper yourself).

When I was in graduate school I was on a fellowship committee for several years, and I had access to GRE scores and grades. But I didn’t really pay much attention to them because there wasn’t that much range. And to be honest if the student was beyond their first year I didn’t look at all as time went on. In contrast, I did look really closely at the recommendations from their advisors. From talking to others on the committee this seemed typical. Once students were admitted they were judged based on how they were doing in graduate school. And how they were doing in graduate school had to do with research, not their graduate school GPA or what they scored on the GRE to get in.

As an empirical matter I do think that it is likely many universities will follow the University of Michigan in dropping the GRE as a requirement. There will be some resistance within academia, but there is a lot of reluctance to vocally defend the GRE in public, especially from younger faculty who fear the social and professional repercussions (every time a discussion pops up about the GRE I get a lot of Twitter DMs). My prediction is that after the GRE is gone people will simply rely on other proxies.

If the GRE is not required, but can be taken, then students who do well on the GRE will put that on their application. Sometimes strong students encounter tragedies in their undergraduate years which strongly impact their grade point averages, and very strong GREs can help show admissions committees that they can do the coursework despite their undergraduate record (I’m not positing a hypothetical, but recounting real individuals I’ve known of and seen). It seems cruel to deny these students the chance to submit their test scores. This means that those professors who believe the GRE is valid will show preference to students who take the test and have strong scores (and to be sure, many more care about the GRE when it means someone concretely joining their lab, as opposed to the abstraction of who gets admitted to the department).

More broadly, professors who are taking students will look more at proxies for GRE score, such as undergraduate institution, or the prestige of the recommendation letters. In some places, such as Britain, standardized testing emerged in part as a way to identify strong students from underprivileged backgrounds. These are not the type of students who would ever be able to present a prestigious letter of recommendation. This is a sort of student which still exists (often they are from non-academic backgrounds, being the first to graduate from college in their family; what they lack in polish they compensate for in aptitude, but that take the right environment to express).

The recourse to other variables besides the GRE score will likely have mixed results at best. Consider the successful campaign to ban asking for job applicants’ criminal records. It turns out that just increased discrimination against all young black men, because employers could not longer differentiate. In general I think removing the GRE would probably hurt graduates of less prestigious state universities the most if I had to guess (and of course students from East Asia, who tend to have a comparative advantage on standardized tests). I’m pretty sure we’ll see, as the experiment will be run.

Addendum: There are professors at relatively prestigious research universities who had mediocre or sub-par GRE scores. We all know them. To some extent I think many of these individuals almost take pride in the fact that they accomplished so much in science despite negative feedback due to their impressive test scores. But remember that we’re talking about trends and averages, not deterministic predictions.

The issue is with the model, not precision!

Filed under: Personal genomics — Razib Khan @ 6:38 pm

The Wirecutter has a thorough review of direct-to-consumer ancestry testing services. Since I now work at a human personal genomics company I’m not going to comment on the merits of any given service. But, I do want to clarify something in regards to the precision of these tests. Before the author quotes Jonathan Marks, he says:

For Jonathan Marks, anthropology professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the big unknown for users is the margin for error with these estimates….

The issue I have with this quote is that the margin of error on these tests is really not that high. Margin of error itself is a precise concept. If you sample 1,000 individuals you’ll have a lower margin of error than if you sample 100 individuals. That’s common sense.

But for direction-to-consumer genomic tests you are sampling 100,000 to 1 million markers on SNP arrays (the exact number used for ancestry inference is often lower than the total number on the array). For ancestry testing you are really interested in the 10 million or so (order of magnitude) markers which vary between population, and a random sampling of 100,000 to 1 million is going to be pretty representative (consider that election year polling usually surveys a few thousand people to represent an electorate of tens of millions).

If you run a package like Admixture you can repeat the calculation for a given individual multiple times. In most cases there is very little variation between replicates in relation to the percentage breakdowns, even though you do a random seed to initialize the process as it begins to stochastically explore the parameter space (the variance is going to be higher if you try to resolve clusters which are extremely phylogenetically close of course).

As I have stated before, the reason these different companies offer varied results is that they start out with different models. When I learned the basic theory around phylogenetics in graduate school the philosophy was definitely Bayesian; vary the model parameters and the model and see what happens. But you can’t really vary the model all the time between customers, can you? It starts to become a nightmare in relation to customer service.

There are certain population clusters that customers are interested in. To provide a service to the public a company has to develop a model that answers those questions which are in demand. If you are designing a model for purely scientific purposes then you’d want to highlight the maximal amount of phylogenetic history. That isn’t always the same though as the history that customers want to know about it. This means that direct-to-consumer ethnicity tests in terms of the specification of their models deviate from pure scientific questions, and result in a log of judgment calls based on company evaluations of their client base.

Addendum: There is a lot of talk about the reference population sets. The main issue is representativeness, not sample size. You don’t really need more than 10-100 individuals from a given population in most cases. But you want to sample the real population diversity that is out there.

On the Rohingya issue

Filed under: Islam,Politics,Rohingya — Razib Khan @ 6:53 am

I have a post over at my primary blog, Rohingya Unmasking Complexity In A World We Want Simple. Because the Rohingya issue is going to be in the media spotlight for a bit in the near future we need to be clear about the deep historical facts, which frankly the press is going to not be concerned about in their reporting.

September 3, 2017

Open Thread, 9/4/2017

Filed under: Open Thread — Razib Khan @ 10:23 pm


I found the above video through Rod Dreher. It touched me on a visceral level because the baby in the first portion looks strikingly like my youngest. He’s sitting and smiling so much now. Really appreciating his infant-hood, as this is the third time we’re going through this.

All I can say in relation to having children is that now I know what matters, all that matters, and that none of the rest matters.

The penultimate season of Game of Thrones has come and gone. They’re really compressing a lot of material into only a few episodes. I didn’t watch the earlier seasons before the show got ahead of the books, but I have to think they were more leisurely. I’ll watch the final season to get a sense of the ending in the books in case George R. R. Martin doesn’t finish them, but I think the sprint to the finish line means that if he does write the remaining books he’ll have a lot of free territory to himself.

Now on Stage: The Countdown to a New Taylor Swift Album. Streaming has gone from 23 to 63 percent of the market in three years.

Neanderthals and Denisovans as biological invaders.

Evolutionary biology today and the call for an extended synthesis.

The second sage. The fact that Westerners don’t know who Mencius is (a premise of the piece) is ridiculous. But probably true. I would still recommend Xunzi: The Complete Text for another early Confucian viewpoint.

I added a disclosures page. Mostly all that matters right now is that I work at Insitome, trying to do interesting things in the personal genomics space (and now that the Helix store is open you can purchase our first offering).

If you haven’t, please sign-up for my newsletter. I’m seeing more and more despondency on the nature of Twitter from the people who use it the most and produce the vast majority of the content. I suspect it will collapse sooner than later….

The Looming Decline of the Public Research University. As someone with intellectual aspirations but a conservative political viewpoint I’m conflicted. On the one hand the academy produces great work. On the other hand a lot of academics don’t see a difference between someone like me and Nazis (judging by “likes” of things I’ve retweeted to test the waters in relation to those promoting the proposition). Like it or not many conservatives perceive that a subset of the academy is dangerous to us on existential grounds. Why should we pay for our own destruction? If we could surgically remove these departments then the university could maintain itself, but that seems impossible. So you see where the future leads.

This is probably the worst US flood storm ever, and I’ll never be the same. “…Houston may not be a nice place to visit, but you would want to live there. I do.”

The Best DNA Ancestry Testing Kit. There is some good and some bad in this review. But it’s thorough.

Fun fact, 44% of this site’s traffic is now mobile.

Rohingya unmasking complexity in a world we want simple

Filed under: Burma,International Affairs,Rohingya — Razib Khan @ 9:00 pm

There is currently a major humanitarian crisis in Burma as Rohingya Muslims flee conflict between the military and separatist militants. Obviously this is a developing story. Unfortunately, very few in the West and the media have a well developed understanding of the history of Burma. Therefore the easiest framework is something worthy of a DC superhero film: there is the good, and there is the bad.

Just because such black and white dichotomies tend to collapse complexity doesn’t mean they are wrong. In World War II the Nazis were the bad. But details are often illuminating and informative. The Soviet Union was on the side against the Nazis, but it wasn’t exactly a “good” actor. Similarly, Finland at points made common cause with Nazi Germany, but that was less about its affinity with Hitler’s regime and more about surviving a Soviet invasion. There are people who are good and bad. But there are also people in situations, which dictate actions which are bad, or enable actions which seem good. (and a mix)

If you want a broader view of mainland Southeast Asian history, which Burma plays a large part in, I’d recommend Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830. Unlike Africa (with the exception of Ethiopia and Egypt), Indonesia, and much of the Middle East (Iran and Turkey excepted), mainland Southeast Asia developed nation-states organically. Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, were not dreamed up by European colonialists, but evolved through their own historical logic (in this case, the migration out of southern China of Tai peoples and the response of the older Southeast Asian polities, being the central narrative thread).

The only book about Burma’s history I’ve read is The River of Lost Footsteps. It has a lot of personal detail, as the author is himself a member of the Burmese Diaspora, and seems to come from an elite family with many connections the people who have run the country since independence.

In The River of Lost Footsteps the author alludes to the fact that Burma in the early modern period was on the edge of Islamicate civilization. At its peak the Mughal Empire had within its penumbra the Burmese polity, and it was impossible for the latter not to be influenced by the former (the influence actually pre-dates the Mughals, though intensified with them). The Buddhist kings of Arakan styled themselves sultans, and employed Muslims of Indian (or West and Central Asian) origin in their armies.

The descendants of these soldiers are part of the story of Islam in Burma. Too often the media representations of Islam in Burma reduce them to the Rohingya. The reality is that there are several Muslim communities within Burma, with different relationships to the majority Theravada Buddhist ethnicities. The River of Lost Footsteps claims that Aung San Suu Kyi herself (or more precisely her father) is in part from a family whose ancestry includes some of these Muslim soldiers.

Aung San Suu Kyi of course is at the heart of current events right now. Many are confused as to why this person, who has put her life on the line to defend the rights of self-determination of the Burmese people in the past, will not speak up for the Rohingya now. To a great extent this reminds me of the Lewis’ trilemma in relation to Jesus, that he was either a liar, lord, or lunatic. For many of us the answer may not be any of the above. Aung San Suu Kyi is a complex person at the heart of complex events. It was easy to portray her as a selfless saint, who was always on the side of the good as we understand it, but current events show that she was never immune to the exigencies of reality and practicality. Just as she was not saint in the past, I doubt she is a monster in the present, even if she has become caught up in events of monstrosity. Remember, if Gandhi was alive today he would surely be excoriated for his lack of solidarity with other people of color at least, and his racism at most.

Stepping aside from Aung San Suu Kyi, I think it is no surprise that democratization of Burmese society and culture has been occurring while there has been a rise in aggressive Buddhist chauvinism. Americans often do not want to admit that democratization and liberal tolerance do not go hand and hand. In places like China, and yes, Burma, authoritarian governments likely keep a lid on ethnic tensions because they are destabilizing for the public order. It was with universal white male suffrage in the United States that the racialized character of the American republic became much more explicit. Similarly, popular nationalism in Europe was associated with drives toward homogeneity and assimilation of subordinate groups.

Why are the Rohingya so hated in Burma? There are several possible reasons:

– They are racially distinct (all the photographs make it clear that they are not physically different from Bengali peasants) from most of the other ethnicities in Burma (including some groups of Muslims who descend from intermarriages with the Bamar majority).

– Their Muslim religion is very distinct from that of the dominant culture in Burma, Theravada Buddhism. Unlike China, where Buddhism is a strand within the national culture (and not a dominant one), in Burma Buddhism occupies the role that Christianity does in Northern Europe: the religion’s arrival was associated with the rise of complex societies, and political self-awareness. Though the Theravada Buddhism of Burma has local flavors (nat worship), it unites many of the disparate ethno-linguistic groups together, from the majority Bamar, to the Tai Shan, to the Austro-Asiatic Mon.

The Muslim religion of the Rohingya also enforces a stronger divergence from the majority religion than the Hindu background of other South Asians in Burma. Though most Indians left Burma in the years after independence, a substantial number have remained. The ethnographic literature I’ve seen indicates that many have re-identified as Theravada Buddhist, though no doubt maintaining many Hindu customs and practices within the community. This is not that difficult when you consider that Burmese Buddhism has many indigenous and Hindu influences already. Additionally, Hinduism and Buddhism are connected traditions, and arguably exhibit a level of commensurability that makes identity switching less stressful for both individuals and communities.

– They are perceived to relatively recent migrants to the Arakan coast from Bengal, and so not an indigenous ethnic community within Burma. Note that there are Muslim communities, even within Arakan, which are not Rohingya, which are recognized as indigenous. Not only are they perceived to be migrants, but their numbers threaten the dominance of the Rakhine people of the region.

In highlighting these elements I’ve suggesting that the Rohingya are arguably the most marginalized group in Burma. There are other Muslims ethnicities in Burma, but most are not demographic threats, derive from attested older migration events, and have intermarried with local populations so that the physical differences are not quite as salient. There are Christian minorities, such as the Chin, which have been targeted for persecution based on the religious differences, but the Chin are not perceived to be alien to Burma, simply unassimilated to dominant Theravada cultural complex. Additionally, there is no large racial difference between the Chin and the Theravada groups.

Much of the public debate revolves around the issue of Rohingya indigeneity or lack thereof. Though I have only modest confidence in my position, I believe that most of the Rohingya presence in Arakan dates to the period of British rule. Though the Rohingya language is not intelligible with standard Bengali, it is rather close to the dialect of southeast Bangladesh, Chittagong. My family is from Comilla, which borders the Indian state of Tripura. When I listen to Rohingya speak it’s only slightly less intelligible to me than the dialect of West Bengal (which is the basis for standard Bengali). In fact, the accent of Rohingya men is uncannily similar to what I remember from peasants in rural southeast Bangladesh when I visited in 1990!

If the Rohingya are not Bengali, they are something very close.

But the Rohingya will tell you something different. They do not self-identify as Bengalis, but as Burmese. Additionally, like some South Asian Muslims they deemphasize their South Asian origins, and create fictive extra-South Asian genealogies. It is important to note that the Rohingya do not write their language in the Bengali script. This means that their intelligentsia has no strong consciousness of being Bengali.

Earlier on I noted that mainland Southeast Asian had polities which easily transitioned to nation-states, because of the organic development of their identities. This is not true in South Asia. There is a bit of artificiality in the construction of South Asian polities (perhaps with the exceptions of Bhutan and Sri Lanka). Though South Asians no matter their identity are clearly defined and demarcated from other peoples, among themselves religion and community, rather than nationality scale ethnic identity, have been paramount.

In The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier the author points out that a Bengali cultural identity evolved relatively slowly over the past 1,000 years. He makes the case that the Islamic character of eastern Bengal had to do with its underdeveloped state, and that land reclamation projects under the aegis of Islamic polities stamped the local peasantry who were settling the territory with the religion of the regnant order. And yet until recently the Muslim elite of Bengal was not culturally Bengali; they were Urdu speaking. The Bengali dialects of the peasantry were not prestigious, while the Bengali Renaissance was predominantly driven by upper case Hindus who helped shaped what standard Bengali became.

I will elide over the details of the emergence of a self-consciously Bengali and Muslim intelligentsia. It is something which I am only aware of vaguely, though I have seen fragments of it in my own extended family and lineage, as people from Urdu-speaking backgrounds have allowed their children to grow up speaking only Bengali, and fully assimilated to a Bengali identity without any qualification.

But the development of a Bengali and Muslim self-identity was occurring like at the same time as the ancestors of the Rohingya were pushing beyond the borders of traditional Bengali, into Arakan. Their lack of Bengali identity comes honestly because peasant identity has always been more localized and inchoate, and the Rohingya intelligentsia crystallized around other identifiers which could distance themselves from their relationship to Bengalis. In particular, the Rohingya seem more uniformly Islamic in their orientation. The female anchor for Rohingya news updates always seems to wear a headscarf, as opposed to those for Dhaka news reports.

In the short-term the killing of infants and raping of women has to stop. But these simple answers have behind them lurking deeper complexities. While agreeing upon the urgency of action now, we need to be very careful to not turn complex human beings into angels and demons. We have enough history in the recent past that that sort of model only leads to tragedy down the line, as those who we put utmost faith in fail us due to their ultimate humanity.

August 31, 2017

Two thousand years of philosophy on the margin

Filed under: philosophical,philosophy — Razib Khan @ 9:50 pm

A little less than two years ago I began to read Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy. It’s a big book, on the order of ~1000 pages. But that’s not the reason I’m just now finishing it. The book is divided by chronologically and thematically. I read about the ancients in about a week, but struggled to get past the medieval section. I’ve mentioned this before.

And yet in my self-pity I did wonder: is this partly just a function of the fact that ancient philosophy provided most of the answers (or non-answers) in what we think of as philosophy over a few centuries? As they say, perhaps the rest is simply commentary and extension.

If society collapsed and we reverted to barbarism it seems it would be a loss if we didn’t have the Principia. But if we had philosophy up to Seneca, would we miss what came after?

August 30, 2017

People believe in evolution, just not for humans

Filed under: creationism — Razib Khan @ 7:58 pm

The term “liberal Creationism” refers to the fact that on the cultural Left there is a strong belief in the concept of evolution on the whole, but in the case of human beings biological evolutionary processes are seen as marginal in comparison to culture. In other words, natural selection and adaptation explain the diversity around us in the animal and plant world, but can tell us little about human beings.

This viewpoint exhibits various degrees of sophistication, but I think it gets at a real deeply held perspective (though not universal one, in Defenders of the Truth it is recounted that Noam Chomsky held his fire during the sociobiology controversy in part because he was quite open to the idea that behavior could have some biological basis).

Looking at the General Social Survey though, I believe now that the liberal Creationist viewpoint is actually just a spin on the normal American position. That is, Americans as a whole are quite open to the idea of descent with modification and common ancestry in the context of animals, but much more squeamish when it comes to humans. Some conservative religious Creationists admit that this rather frankly. Their objection to evolution is not about science, but about human dignity.

A new GSS variable, EVOLVED2, which complements an older variable, EVOLVED, allows us to explore this question.

Here is what they ask:

EVOLVED: Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (Is that true or false?)

EVOLVED2: Elephants evolved from earlier species. (Is that true or false?)

53 precent of respondents answered yes to true in the first case, but 86 percent in the second case. In other words, presenting evolution in a non-human context reduces resistance.

You can check the responses against attitudes toward the literality of the Bible:

I think this suggests to us that on a broader social scale resistance to evolution is culturally conditioned, and derives from deep intuitions about human dignity. The specific details of where that dignity comes from, whether it be Protestant Fundamentalist or Social Justice is incidental.

Heraclius was a great man, but a dirty old man

Filed under: Byzantium,History — Razib Khan @ 3:20 pm

The Emperor Heraclius is someone who more people should know. He saved the Byzantine Empire before it truly became the Byzantine Empire in a mature form. When he took power the Persians were on the march, and ruled vast swaths of the Asian and African possessions of the East Roman Empire. Theodore of Tarsus, one of the early Archbishops of Canterbury, grew up under Persian rule. Like Hannibal’s early victories Heraclius’ defeat of the Persians is a tour de force of strategic brilliance. I’ll leave it to the reader to find out why themselves (I recommend A History of the Byzantine State and Society to any reader).

But this post is inspired by pop-culture. People are talking about nephew-aunt relations right now. As it happens Heraclius’ second wife was his niece, Martina. Here is something I found on Wikipedia: “He had two children with Fabia and at least nine with Martina, most of whom were sickly children…Fabius (Flavius) had a paralyzed neck and Theodosios, who was a deaf-mute….” The history of this period can be patchy and unreliable. So I’m not sure there were nine children and most were sickly…but probably inbreeding was causing some serious issues.

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