Bad politics in Nature: Bunce and McElreath (2019)

Today I read a paper in Nature by John Bunce and Richard McElreath, entitled “Sustainability of minority culture when inter-ethnic interaction is profitable.” As a staunch advocate for cultural pluralism, and a supporter of the theoretical autonomy of all cultures regardless of minority status (since history tells us that what is a majority today can quickly become a minority tomorrow, and vice versa; ask the Aztecs) I was enthused by the subject matter, and read the paper with great interest.

The paper opens strongly with some well-phrased descriptions of cultural shift and variation. Very quickly though, we start to see a political leaning emerge:

The highlighted sections, while not necessarily incorrect, give us a clear look at authorial intentions. Cultural displacement occurs when minority cultures are lost to a “powerful majority group.” The suggestion that preventing the loss of minority cultures may contribute to the richness of society is something I entirely agree with, but it is also inherently subjective and inappropriate for one of the world’s leading scientific journals. The citation (no. 12) used for the ‘richness’ claim is a dummy citation which refers only to language preservation activist Michael Krauss giving the same opinion. There’s more to criticize about the idea of “optimally distinct group identities” (optimizing for what, specifically?) but you get the idea.

What I think is truly inappropriate is this next part of the work:

We can now infer that this article is the brainchild of John Bunce (author 1) whereas McElreath (author 2) probably played the role of methodological consultant, which makes sense as his best received book is on coding and mathematics. I’m going to continue in reference to Bunce as the author.

Bunce’s description of ethnically Mestizo Peruvians – those of mixed Spanish and South American heritage – is an accusation that carries a moral charge far too great for his feeble implications to support. To describe these people as ‘colonists’ because some of their ancestors were indeed colonists is no different to describing Muslim minority communities in the Balkans as ‘invaders’ because many of their ancestors did indeed enter the Balkans as part of Muslim military invasions. I use this example, because ‘invaders’ is exactly the term used by Brenton Tarrant to describe his victims in Christchurch. I am sure that Bunce himself would be horrified by the Christchurch massacre, and would strongly protest the legitimacy of Tarrant’s terminology. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Bunce’s language isn’t intended to be used both ways; it’s a hypocritical, ideological accusation that lacks logical consistency.

The lack of consistency in moral standards is something that we see in the article’s conclusion as well. Toward the end of the article, Bunce finishes by concluding that minority cultures may be preserved by establishing interethnic barriers or boundaries which can be freely crossed by the minority culture, but not the majority culture. This isn’t particularly surprising or novel, insofar as this is something we’ve been implementing as a political solution to the problem of cultural preservation of ethnic minority cultures. In the UK, for instance, we have a Welsh Parliament, a Scottish Parliament, but not an English Parliament. I don’t think the legislators who enacted these parliaments would be surprised by the scientific revelation here, since they presumably already guessed it would be the case.

But to me there’s an issue beyond that which Bunce (and perhaps also McElreath) bear responsibility for missing. When proposing solutions to social problems, researchers are faced with a theoretically limitless number of ways in which to achieve their goals. I could just as easily publish a paper concluding ‘wholesale systematic genocide is a very effective way of eliminating minority cultures.’ It’s obviously true, but also obviously not worth publishing. Likewise in the case of this paper, it seems that author John Bunce is making statements which are obviously true, combining them with those that are logically incoherent, and packaging these into a ‘scientific paper’ hardly fit for purpose in order to promote his political ideology.

Angela Saini thinks about race like Richard Spencer

Quillette just published this essay by Drs. Bo Winegard and Noah Carl, who joined forces to review Angela Saini’s new pop science book, Superior.

For the unfamiliar, Saini is a Desi journalist and writer from Britain considered popular within her undergraduate and professional audiences. More specifically, her popularity appears relatively confined to the center-left and middling-high (+1 SD) openness portion of that audience. Her wikipedia page (which she probably wrote herself) emphasizes her two MA degrees from high-tier British universities (Ox and Imperial) and the two books she wrote prior to Superior seem like manifestos on behalf of perceived underdogs, whose true virtue she is compelled to explain. I’m going to let a page from her book on women, entitled Inferior, speak for itself:

Just one page alone tells us so much about the kind of person who succeeds in the industry of science journalism today.

In Saini’s worldview, the “early divisions” that appear and begin to distinguish male and female humans in childhood reflect only a belief about biology, not biology itself. Reproductive and sexual behavior by consenting adults is guided by a kind of zombie notion, fed by scientific research (which is thus implied to be unreliable). If we have an interpretation of the past that contradicts this, it is only because our visions are tainted by “myths.” Men are dominant, therefore women must be, and are, submissive.

Amidst this, we (meaning Angela Saini) have “this dark, niggling feeling that never seems to go away no matter how much equality legislation is passed: the feeling that we aren’t the same, that, in fact, our biology might explain the sexual inequality that has existed… across the world.” We don’t need Freud to point out how much closer this is to a childhood diary of shameful thoughts than a book about science. Yet Saini moves decisively to nip this ‘dark feeling’ in the bud, dispelling it with one phrase: ‘thoughts like these are dangerous.’

This, in a nutshell, is Angela Saini. Her motivation is to act against the very thought that anything biological could explain anything she views as sociological. If the science seems to suggest any differences that can be related to biology, this is only because, she tells us, the science is itself flawed:

You can probably guess what her latest book Superior: The Return of Race Science had to say about its subject matter. The Quillette article did a pretty good job evaluating Saini’s arguments, so I won’t repeat their rebuttal. Instead, I want to draw attention to Saini’s fundamental mistake that we see in both Superior and Inferior: she combines strawman ideas of race and gender into a Frankenstein belief system no-one actually holds. Let’s start with her definition of race from the prologue of Superior:

“No place or people has a claim on superiority. Race is the counter-argument. Race is at its heart the belief that we are born different, deep inside our bodies, perhaps even in character and intellect, as well as in outward appearance.”

Winegard and Carl did a good job at picking up on what she actually means. In their words, Saini’s definition “inextricably binds up race with morality, making it an  affront to human dignity and a threat to metaphysical equality.” To Saini, race is the idea that these features on which any two randomly selected humans from the same society will differ (appearance, character, intellect) grants a metaphysically and morally superior status. Racism, then, is a Nietzschean view in which one’s group is a master, and others are slaves.

Interestingly, Saini’s attitude here is much closer to the ‘pro-race-ists’ such as Richard Spencer than any credible scientist working in biology or related fields. As far as I’m aware, Spencer – like Saini – believes that race does indeed confer some metaphysically superior status; he only disagrees with Saini on the small matter of its existence.

Saini Spencer
Race is real No Yes
Race is socially constructed Yes No
Race determines metaphysical value Yes Yes

Ignoring her inadvertent agreement with the alt-right, I’m going to throw a curveball into our discussion by arguing that both Spencer and Saini are wrong. In common English parlance, we use the word race to legitimately describe groups defined by shared cultural characteristics, but also those defined by shared patterns of biological descent and variation, and often we see a substantial degree of overlap between the two. Yet we do not (or, at least, cannot) use race as a marker of metaphysical value or worth, and it is for this reason that both Saini and Spencer are incorrect.

Saini counters throughout her book, most notably when she interviews David Reich in chapter 7, that racial categories are mere (i.e. imaginary) social constructions. Consider the following paragraph:  

There’s some truth to be found here: racial categories are indeed socially constructed. Consider the list of racial categories proposed below (from chapter 5 of Nicholas Wade’s book on the topic):

By definition, these are social constructions because they were assembled by a social community (scientists) and are subject to change and redefinition over time. But does this truly suggest, as Saini & Co. assume, that this makes them worthless and harmful? Don’t all categories of human knowledge, like fashion, physics, religion, and law operate the same way – being constructed by a social community and then applied for a specific purpose within a relevant domain? To her credit, the paragraph above does give the remarkable admission that “some categories may be useful” but discredits itself by making a full 180 to conclude that race is both useless (i.e. invalid; not fit for purpose) and pernicious, which is a synonym for wicked and malevolent.

A common-sense response might seek to look at some examples of what we often call ‘race’ in order to evaluate how harmful or inaccurate it really is. African Americans are a great place to start, because they are indeed genetically heterogeneous to a degree that makes the notion of biological homogeneity seem hard to defend. As we know, those considered racially ‘black’ in America include original AAs of West-African slave descent, recent arrivals from East African countries like Somalia and Ethiopia, or Khoisan immigrants from South Africa (who are described in Wade’s book as a separate racial category altogether). Therefore, it’s fairly unsurprising that AAs have among the highest levels of intragroup genetic diversity in the world, and are composed on average of roughly 79% African ancestry. In the case of individuals with 0% African ancestry like Sean King, it’s very clear that African/black American is a social identity or ethnic grouping, bearing little resemblance to the biological category Wade proposes.

For people like Saini, the definitional breadth of blackness in the American social context is the strongest possible case to support her argument. Yet if we concede that black is too broad to be useful, we tacitly accept that any trends, gaps, or disparities revealed by the adoption of ‘black’ are just as useless as the category itself. Prostate cancer, which remains the biggest killer of Western men today, has rates among black Americans that are “50–60 times higher than the rates in Shanghai, China.” Do we really think that pretending black and Asian Americans to be equally susceptible to prostate cancer will rid us of a “nonsense” and “wicked” category? Or would it worsen the already severe health disparities dividing America along racial lines today?

We don’t have to speculate – let’s check for common-sense by looking at a country overtly opposed to racial categories. France has a legal prohibition on collecting demographic statistics of ethnicity or race, which it has ardently enforced for many years. Yet despite this, the French government assiduously collects data on the proportion of newborns considered ‘at risk’ for sickle cell disease – a genetic disorder effectively limited to individuals of Sub-Saharan African ancestry. If France consistently avoided collecting statistics on racial demography altogether, then the life expectancy of its black population as well as the efficiency of its health service would obviously suffer as a result. How this would further the cause of justice, let alone science, is never explained by Saini – but it’s consistent with a set of policy measures her book strongly supports.

While Superior commendably admits that “understanding [medical] correlations is important” it never tells us why health disparities occupy a unique position among behavior, socioeconomic outcomes, social attitudes, or any other characteristic that will on average differ between groups; knowing one is important, but no harm will befall a society that ignores every other disparity that exists (???). When paraphrasing the section quoted above, we get: ‘no need or value to categorize people biologically, but understanding medical implications of biogeographic ancestry is important, but most categories are nonsense, but there are some physical differences, but most categories are useless, but some are useful, but race above all else is a wicked and insidious way to interpret the diversity we believe to characterize the human species in our world.’ While hyperbolic, this is no less extreme or radical than the claims and normative proposals found in Superior, particularly in its sections on cognitive ability.

You could counter that any concept of race which clumps Ethiopians, West Africans, Khosian, and Sean King in a single category is inherently silly, and should be removed or refined. This is a reasonable suggestion, but it fails to acknowledge the advantages of ‘fuzziness’ we’d trade off by enforcing a more strictly genetic interpretation on the general population. Saini is well-aware of this, rightly noting:

“…according to the rules laid out by the US government in its 1997 Office of Management and Budget standards on race and ethnicity, people who originate in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa are automatically classified as white. Since Hefny arrived from Egypt, he is officially white.”

It’s certainly true that the ostensibly racial category of ‘white’, like ‘black’, is applied very openly in the United States – but why exactly is this a bad thing? After all, if our critique rests upon the divisiveness of race, then we should aim for racial categories that are open and inclusive to the utmost extent that doesn’t compromise the quality of information on health disparities or socioeconomic gaps in our societies. If we don’t bother with pragmatic utility and instead focus solely on the strict scientific accuracy of racial categories, we’re beginning to sound alarmingly close to actual 20th-century Nazis – something that should tell us we’re going in the wrong direction.

Stepping back into the safe territory of common sense, we might ask why on earth Saini gets it so wrong. After all, if categorizing humans into groups based on shared genetic ancestry can help people (which it can) and if these categories can be relatively inclusive (which they appear to be) then why oppose the effort? For our answer, we turn right back to Saini’s prologue, where she writes:

“We invent hierarchies, give meaning to our own racial categories…” “…once defined, these “races” rapidly became slotted into hierarchies based on the politics of the time, character being conflated with appearance, and political circumstance becoming a biological fact.”

Above all, it’s these claims where I cannot help but dig my heels in. The idea that race is made meaningful by hierarchy is as absurd as gender being intrinsically hierarchical. The notion that categorizing people based on shared ancestry invariably conflates character with appearance suggests that well-intentioned scientists like David Reich are ultimately motivated by a sinister desire to determine moral goodness based on physical aspect. While Saini seems to acknowledge that although race can be medically useful and sociologically informative, such benefits are a mere coincidence of its true purpose: to rank order the moral importance of an individual life based on racial ancestry, so that we can treat them differently.

Perhaps importantly, I’d suggest that this would be serious cause for concern, were any of it true and not dramatic fiction. The idea of moral worth or value sounds abstract or arcane to many of us today, but it was very tangible for the passengers of the sinking Titanic, where men (being of lower moral value) resigned themselves to death while women and children descended to the safety of the lifeboats. The case of the Titanic shows that when push comes to shove, ‘moral value’ ultimately means ‘who gets to live and who has to die’ so it’s definitely a subject worth raising if and when we feel there is valid cause for concern. Nevertheless, the fact that military servicemen and first responders routinely give their lives for people of racial groups Saini considers ‘lower’ on her fictitious racial hierarchy should give you a sense of how valid this concern really is.

Ultimately, Superior is very much like Inferior in that both books rest upon a fictitious idea of ‘race’ and ‘gender’ that is always assumed, never justified, and shared only among her fellow ideologues liberally quoted in every chapter as if to hammer their bad and unpersuasive ideas right into your skull. Both of her books start not with their subject matter of race, or gender, but with her – with personal stories from her background and upbringing, and the various ways in which she was ‘unjustly’ and ‘inaccurately’ categorized while growing up as a brown girl in Britain. It could be that this writing style is popular in circles I’m unfamiliar with, or it could be that Saini – like so many others who simply assume the views of their ‘opponents’ – is projecting her ghosts and demons upon an audience that sorely deserves better.

Lies, damn lies, and academics on GWAS

A colleague of mine back at Cambridge (my good ol’ alma mater) studies the history and philosophy of science, and they recently told me about a lecture they had on GWAS. Or perhaps the lecture was on the problems with GWAS, because the impression of the lecture they transmitted would certainly support that interpretation.

One criticism that stuck out to me in particular was the claim that GWAS cannot be trusted because current and future GWAS are conducted upon the basis of databases compiled from results of previously published GWA studies, which can allow for false positives and mistakenly identified variants to proliferate as the research area continues to develop. This is of course why we should be very careful about relying on GWAS, especially for studies on intelligence differences – something the lecturer took pains to emphasize.

This situation interested me, because two things are going on at different levels. On the one level, the lecturer is completely correct – even a small margin of error will inevitably result in a small probability of false-positives that are compounded within future research, allowing for small mistakes to accumulate into big mistakes over time. In truth, this is a feature of human knowledge systems (to which the scientific method belongs) in a broader sense, because the validity of every next step in science depends upon the validity of previous steps, and there is always a non-zero chance that previous steps were wrong-footed. As Gregory (Role of Probability Theory in Science) states:

“Of course, any theory makes certain assumptions about nature which are assumed to be true and these assumptions form the axioms of the deductive inference process… For example, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity rests on two important assumptions; namely, that the vacuum speed of light is a constant in all inertial reference frames and that the laws of nature have the same form in all inertial frames”

This is a useful example because Einstein’s assumptions are not a priori; they are instead assumed based on other developments in physics or natural philosophy which preceded them. As any coder will know all-too well, this cascade of ‘potential errors’ means not only that you have a reasonable expectation of encountering an ‘actual error’ within the system of knowledge you’re dealing with, but that these could also be concealed within your current and future research projects conducted in alignment with that method.

So again, since GWAS is a highly technical application of the scientific method for specific purposes, and this cumulative error probability is indeed a common feature to all science, it could be described as a ‘pitfall’ of GWAS. But in accepting that GWAS is ‘sketchy’ or ‘unreliable’ because of this, we’re also forced to accept that all science – the science that drives our cars or powers our lights or cools our refrigerators – is equivalently imperiled. Have you ever been cautioned about the untrustworthiness of lightbulbs or refrigerators due to human epistemic constants? You can probably guess by now that something else is going on here.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine two men are having a conversation about a cute girl they both know. MAN-A is curious about the girl, and asks MAN-B for his opinion. Imagine that MAN-B excoriates the girl for the following reasons: “Oh hell no dude, that girl is disgusting. Do you realize she shits? Like, she actually goes to the bathroom? And what’s worse, I heard she gets periods constantly, and even sneezes in the springtime. I wouldn’t be caught dead with her.”

If MAN-B in our thought experiment seems stupid, misogynistic, or even totally detached from reality, it’s because he is. As unattractive as human bodily functions might be, they’re described in relation to the ‘human body’ for a reason; they’re universal. They are features, not flaws, of human physiology that all of us still alive are equally guilty of. If you ever find yourself interested in or curious about a nice girl you meet and you hear similar remarks reflected in a mutual friend’s opinion of her, he really shouldn’t be your friend.

The illogicality encapsulated within this highly vulgar and contemptible example, where MAN-B reveals his nasty attitudes through ridiculously discriminatory standards, is really the same thing you’re seeing in the GWAS example given above. It makes no sense to criticize a girl for having features common to all people or women, unless you’re an utter jerk with a grudge against them. In the very same way, it makes no sense to argue that GWAS are invalid or untrustworthy because of a feature common to literally all science. Yet if you are a hypocritical person who simply dislikes GWAS specifically, it makes perfect sense for you to use flawed reasoning and discriminatory standards to support your equally unjustifiable hostility.

To clarify, I am not saying (nor have I ever said) that GWAS is or should be free of criticism. One of the most important criticisms of GWAS is the distinctly WWEIRD (White, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) shade of GWA study participants, which precludes people lacking these characteristics in other parts of the world from sharing in the undeniable benefits that GWAS have brought to healthcare and family planning. Consider how fundamentally different this is to previous eras, where new innovations (e.g. the railway, 3D printing) could bring benefit on a global scale regardless of where or by what demic group (whites and the Japanese, respectively) they were pioneered. Today, cutting edge GWAS results in educational attainment, disease risk, and psychopathology continue to expand the scope of informed options available to white prospective parents or healthcare recipients, for whom these results are applicable. But if by chance you happen to be Desi, or Asian, or Sub-Saharan African, or of any other genetically distinct grouping, these benefits are often unavailable. Razib Khan wrote about this recently:

Because most GWAS are performed in European populations, PRS values for individuals not of European ancestry are far less accurate. This phenomenon is caused by several factors. One of the major ones is that each population has genetic variations that cause diseases special and unique to a given population (“private alleles” in the jargon). Studies which use only Europeans cannot detect unique variation in non-European populations by definition. Those variants are not found in Europeans! Additionally, sometimes genetic variants even give different risks in Europeans than non-Europeans because of interactions of genes. The predictions in one population do not transfer to another.

This is a serious problem with current GWAS research that I would expect any decent person to express concern about. It becomes especially relevant for family planning, because in a number of non-Western societies infanticide remains a common method for dealing with children with unwanted genetic diseases – something that embryo selection, for instance, would render obsolete.

Clearly, this is not what the lecturer said. The lecturer attacked GWAS on the basis of ‘muh cumulative error probability’ despite this being a feature inherent to the scientific method itself. All before an audience of philosophy of science students, no less.

I am not in favor of arbitrarily attributing ulterior motives, particularly bad faith, to others with whom I disagree. But in cases with fallacies so obvious, and discrimination so blatant, it’s almost unreasonable to think that underlying hostility isn’t at play. While it would be completely fine to give a lecture on epistemic issues in science in which you discuss the example of cumulative error probability in relevant GWAS cases, to selectively apply this principle to undermine GWAS as a whole is a logically invalid weaponization that says more about you as a lecturer than it does about GWAS itself. Perhaps if you had actually done your research into the topic you claim to know so much about, you would be lecturing instead on real issues specific to GWAS, such as the lack of diversity mentioned earlier. By neglecting to do so, you actually reveal yourself to be ignorant of the discussions within relevant disciplinary communities (e.g. BehavGen) regarding the limitations or flaws of GWAS that aren’t simply universal features of the scientific method.

Again: if a friend badmouths a girl because she has a feature literally everyone else has, he probably shouldn’t be your friend. If a lecturer badmouths GWAS because it shares features common to all applied scientific fields, well…

…You’re probably in college.

In east as in west, Anti-Arab bigotry is historically ignorant and anti-Christian

The fact that ‘Arab’ as a word invokes negative connotations to certain people would likely be unsurprising to most Westerners. Yet it would probably come as a highly surprising fact that this antipathy also comes from the Middle-East.

No, I’m not making a point about Israeli Jews and anti-Arab bigotry. I’m talking about native Arabic speakers, born in Arab countries, who dismissively reject the term ‘Arab’ as a vulgar term at the same time they are identified as Arabs by the majority of the non-Arab world.

https://twitter.com/AbuUrdon/status/1087511370600460294

Perhaps the main reason for this can be found in the connotations invoked by the very word ‘Arab.’ To many native speakers in the Levant, the word ‘Arab’ is associated with Bedouin people and lifestyle for a plethora of historical reasons. Most people don’t realize, but the Qur’an itself even participates in slander against Arabs, as in the following passage (adapted from the Talil Itani translation: note that the literal translation is just “the Arabs” (العراب) not “the Desert-Arabs” or “Bedouins” or anything else):

(9:97) “The Arabs are the most steeped in disbelief and hypocrisy, and the most likely to ignore the limits that God revealed to His Messenger. God is Knowing and Wise.”

Seems Muhammad didn’t know how to play his audience!

Although most Westerners today don’t need to be told not to say bad things about other groups, recent developments in some parts of the Arab world have gone the opposite direction. Beginning in the latter half of the 20th century, Arabic-speakers in historically Christian Levantine countries such as Lebanon and Syria have sought to re-assert old identities, rebranding themselves as Phoenicians, Assyrians, or Greeks whose ties to the Arab identity exist in language alone. Nassim Taleb, for instance, Taleb proudly refers to himself as a descendant of the Greek colonists in Syria, who intermixed with the Levantine population to form a unique and flourishing Greco-Semitic Christian culture, and many others engage in similar acts of historical reclamation.

While this itself is innocuous and widespread, some people take it too far. Taleb, for instance, has actually suggested that the Lebanese dialect of Arabic is rather an entirely different language – not Arabic, but a direct descendant from the Phoenician/North Canaanite language, which he asserts developed independently, but under heavy Arabic influence. Okay. Now things are starting to get a bit weird.

Now again, I have no problem with the appropriation of distant history to create newfound identities. If Levantines like Nassim Taleb wish to brand themselves as Phoenicians, or as relics of Byzantine glory, then so be it. What I do not accept on any terms is the para-racist bigotry against the Arab identity that so frequently accompanies these recent developments of self-expression. For instance, see stuff like this:

Sure, it is an old tweet – but if you’re in the right circles, you hear this sort of stuff much more commonly. The Lebanese intellectual Said Akl, for instance, famously said “I would cut off my right hand just not to be an Arab.” Among other persecuted minority communities of the Middle-East, such as Kurds (particularly Yazidis), Assyrians, and Armenians, such remarks are even more often heard.

Unfortunately, a substantial proportion of this crap comes from Arabic-speaking Christians, who are unaware of the valuable and enriching role Arabs actually played in Christian history. For instance, look at this map from 565 AD:

Substantial Christian communities likely existed in the Hejaz and in Yemen (contested between Persians and Axumites)

As you can see, the picture of Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of Christian East African kingdoms around Ethiopia) is very unclear, and Britain is a veritable clusterfuck of Celts, Latins, and Germanics bashing each others’ heads in. But what about the (very foreign sounding) kingdoms at the northern end of the Arabian Peninsula? It might surprise you to know that both of these were not only Christian – but Arab, too.

The war banner of the Ghassanid kingdom

The Ghassanids (ar: الغسانية) were a foederatus of the Roman Empire, who played a critical role in securing the empire’s southern border against incursions from Pagan Arab raiders (who themselves formed the main body of the Islamic converts that overran this border in the 620s). While they mostly stayed true to Rome during the initial Islamic invasion, many were forced to convert sometime before the year 900, though others fled as refugees to Byzantium. Incredibly, the Christian influence remained so powerful that the surname ‘al-Ghassani’ still signifies Christian heritage today. One of the oldest surviving Orthodox Christian schools in the Levant bears the name ‘Al-Ghassaniyyah‘ for instance, and while Muslim Ghassanids can be found today. Perhaps most important of all, at least one Roman emperor – Nikephoros the First – was of probable Ghassanid descent.

The Lakhmids (ar: المناذرة) have a similarly impressive history. Although suzerains to the Sassanid Empire, they resisted the influence of state Zoroastrianism for centuries, holding stubbornly to their Christian heritage. They played a similar role to the Ghassanids as borderguards against the nomadic raiders to the southern deserts, although relations with their overlord were far less positive. The Sassanid overthrow and execution of the last independent Lakhmid king Nu3maan may have caused an Arab uprising which left this southern border effectively unguarded, allowing for the early Muslims to stage a bold and sweeping invasion of the Sassanid heartland of Asoristan just decades later, by which time the Persians were critically weakened due to infighting and war exhaustion. Despite repeated betrayals and oppression, some Arab Christians still rallied to the defense:

Pourshariati 2008 pp201

So what have we learned from all this?

Clearly, the moral matrix of the modern West has internalized – along with a great many other things – the notion that discrimination on the basis of group identity, or attacks against entire ethnic groups, is uncool. There isn’t so much of a ‘lesson’ for Westerners here as much as a reminder – yes, Arab Christians existed, yes, they still exist today, and yes, it’s wrong to draw an equivalence between the Arabic language or identity, and Islam or Islamism. Yet perhaps many Arabic-speakers in the Middle-East too could do with a reminder that anti-Arab bigotry is not only wrong, but historically ignorant and anti-Christian.

Evil as entertainment

You may be aware that Netflix has a new documentary series on infamous 20th century serial killer Ted Bundy. The Ted Bundy Tapes, as the series is entitled, utilizes ostensibly unknown footage to produce a new, more detailed portrait of the killer and his actions.

I watched the first episode of Netflix’s with my partner and a roommate. As I test relatively low in disgust sensitivity (20-50th percentile on the disgust scale) and extremely high in openness to experience (99th percentile BFI) I did not expect to be particularly unnerved or unsettled. I also have no problem with representations of violence or evil in film – Upgrade, one of my favorite films of all time, features brutal violence that ends with the bad guy getting away with it.

Yet to my immense surprise, this doc completely shut me down.

The Tapes begins with Bundy’s childhood, and sketches the chronological progression of his transformation into America’s most infamous serial killer. No violence is shown onscreen; the relatively tame crime scene photographs constitute the only PG-13 material on screen. Scene-by-scene, the content left nothing to be disturbed by.

Yet what both grips and horrifies the viewer at the same time is the interplay between the atrocious violence of Ted Bundy, retold with consistently palpable glee on audio, and the helpless, frustrated horror it caused, as retold by whose who knew his victims. The constant back-and-forth tennis match between Bundy’s reveling in his murders and the tortured confusion of the communities and families gives way to an emergent property of abject horror that by far outstrips anything one might expect to see in even the worst of horror films.

As a curious teen with an internet connection, I recall many times stumbling across grotesque shock videos on the dark corners of the internet. Images and videos of women in high-heels stepping on cats, among other unspeakably sick things involving children or animals. I recall struggling to analyze my own disgusted emotions at the time, and realizing that a key factor lay in the helplessness of the victims depicted. Obviously, it isn’t hard to step on a cat because a cat can’t defend itself; what keeps us from abusing animals and people isn’t the difficulty of the act, but the fact that every moral sensibility, innate or acquired, tells us not to do so.

Upon analysis, the actions of Ted Bundy seem strikingly similar. It was not hard, in the overwhelmingly white areas of 1970s America that Bundy victimized, to gain someone’s trust – but to abuse that trust, and the person offering it, would have been unthinkable.

Bundy reveled in that unthinkability. In the documentary, we see him boasting about gaining the trust of women whom he later violates and brutally murders. The shock value derived from his unspeakable crimes is precisely what motivates him to retell them to the recording interviewer.

It’s not particularly surprising that this experience left me as shocked and disgusted as it likely did his interviewer. But by feeling the reaction he intended, I gave him – even in death – exactly what he wanted. The entire audiovisual experience of this Netflix series inadvertently validates the motive behind Bundy’s psychopathic crimes in the first place.

Is it good that we make documentaries designed to give serial killers what they want, even in death? Probably not. Many news sites have already started anonymizing school shooters to address this very problem. Netflix’s commercialization of it is thus something I want nothing more to do with.

The Crafting of History: Christianity, Pakistan, and colonial narratives

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was created in 1947, but its foundation has roots in the pro-segregationist stance of the British colonial administration, which generally viewed Muslims and Hindus (including also Jains, Buddhists, Animists, Christians etc) as incapable of coexistence. In part, such views motivated the many maps of the subcontinent divided by ethnic or religious minority that were drawn up under British rule, although these are mostly as meticulous as they are hopelessly inaccurate.

Nevertheless, the Wiki page for ‘History of Pakistan’ takes you back to the Neolithic period, telling the story of its people through their vibrant past well before Pakistan was conceptualized, and well before Islam was invented/revealed (whichever your preference). It describes the brilliant achievements of the Indus Valley Civilization, the Buddhist and Hindu dynasties which once ruled the area, and their positive contributions to what is now Pakistan.

A map of ‘prevailing religions’ within British India in the year of 1909. The mapping should be seen as highly speculative at best, since many regions depicted consisted of only slight majorities

By contrast, the Wiki page for ‘Christianity in Pakistan’ starts in the 1800s, and does not go further back than the Jesuit missions in the 1500s. In doing so, it casts Christianity as a foreign and alien import – sometimes explicitly with sentences like this: “The Europeans won small numbers of converts to [Christianity]… from the native populations.”

You will find zero mention of the Apostles Thomas and Bartholomew, who were sent to India through the Parthian Empire, and established Orthodox Christian communities that still exist today (see St. Thomas Christians). Nor will you find reference to any of the role played by ancient Pakistan as the heartland of Nestorian Christianity in the Indian subcontinent, or the ecclesiastical province (headquartered in Herat, but comprising most of modern Pakistan) which was elevated to the highest rank under Nestorian Patriarch Sliba-zkha in order to meet the needs of the local population after they fell to the advances of Islam in the mid-late 600s.

Just like evolution, history selects and rejects.

No, that’s not polygyny… comments on Ross et al. (2018)

Royal Society recently put out a massive paper by Ross et al. with over 9000 authors (you know, one of those ones) on polygyny and wealth inequality. The title, “Greater wealth inequality, less polygyny: rethinking the polygyny threshold model” would have you thinking that the authors were able to refute or quantitatively disprove the polygyny threshold model with some sophisticated mathematics, but unfortunately this is not the case. Instead, the paper uses a strange mixed sample of hunter gatherer and highly developed industrial populations to argue that the transition to agriculture increases socioeconomic inequality, and additionally results in conditions of subsistence living that for most make polygyny effectively impossible.

Don’t you love it when the author and affiliation list is so big you can’t even screencap it? Maybe it’s deliberate!

Firstly, we should realize that this doesn’t amount to either a refutation or even the titular ‘rethinking’ of the polygyny threshold model. While results from their quant analysis are basically legit, it doesn’t change the fact that the authors have effectively based their study on a tautological proposition; subsistence living results in no surplus wealth (also tautological) which means that it is exceedingly rare for polygyny to be mutually beneficial. Alright. So where’s the challenge to the polygyny threshold model?

I have read a lot about polygyny, but I have never encountered any claim that polygyny ipso facto increases linearly with socioeconomic inequality per se. Rather, claims are made that conditions of high socioeconomic inequality will guarantee polygyny, as male reproductive success is subject to greater resource-dependent elasticity than female fitness due to inherent biological features (i.e. 9 months of pregnancy). This great presentation has more details, but for those with little time:

I had to screenshot this in word since I don’t have LaTeX on my WordPress acc ;_;

Or if you prefer (from the presentation linked above; this contains an error, as the 1948 paper cited is by A.J. Bateman, not Bateson):

To be fair, the authors recognize this by stating their intention to merely “extend” the polygyny threshold model, but I’d argue they haven’t done so in a way that’s significant enough to merit the “rethinking” boast. But this is not to suggest the paper has no value. Instead, what the authors have actually done is modeled the conditions for polygyny to take place in a largely monogamous society at subsistence-level conditions – unironically a notable achievement. This is a far more interesting result, and one that would merit wider recognition than the paper has currently received.

There are still some problems though. For instance, the paper notes:

“Sequential marriage can be considered a form of polygyny insofar as men typically replace divorced wives with younger women, allowing a subset of males in the population to increase their lifetime reproductive success relative to less wealthy males in the population, as has been shown in many of the populations sampled…”

Now this actually is a problem, since the definition of polygyny that the authors are using is not actually “polygyny” but “effective polygyny” so defined. I hate it when researchers redefine constructs in this ad-hoc fashion (especially when it’s not highlighted in the abstract) because it can mislead people who don’t read the full paper, and most of the postdocs I know don’t. Luckily, I did.

I think the problem with including sequential marriage into a working definition for polygyny is that there are substantial qualitative differences that distinguish these behaviors. For instance, technical polygyny (one man, multiple women at the same time, in a sexually exclusive [typically marital] arrangement) actually alters the operational sex ratio, among other things. Sequential marriage, by contrast, only means that the available pool of females includes larger numbers of women who already have children – that is, single mothers. Of course this may change the calculus for male satisfaction or some other outcomes, but these are not equivalent to the social effects we expect from a normatively polygynous mating equilibrium. For example, they completely negate some of the reported correlates for polygynous mating, such as female suffering and self-reported detriment to well-being noted amongst women in polygynous marriages (source from observational study in Cameroon). I understand that well-being wasn’t strictly a feature of relevance to Ross et al.’s analysis, but it DOES have implications for the precise ‘leveling’ of the polygyny threshold. A situation where a woman is going to be a second or third-order co-wife is very different to one in which she’s merely a second or third-order sequential wife. These differences matter quite a lot if we’re paying any attention to the implications for (1) the OSR (2) female well-being and gender inequality (3) male violence and intrasexual competition, among many other things.

Sourcing locations for data used in the paper. Does this look representative to you?

Now look, I’m not trying to be an ass and negate all the hard work the forty-thousand authors of this study did. But I do find it somewhat annoying when people publish work under “GOTCHA!” titles like “rethinking XYZ” despite nothing comparable to this having actually taken place. Far from rethinking, the authors actually RELIED ON the polygyny threshold model for their analysis, and came to the result that the agricultural transition killed incentive for polygyny amongst most normal people living in subsistence-level conditions. Fair enough. But why not just say so?

IMHO, the far more interesting result we get from the paper is this: we know that transition to monogamy occurred around the transition to agriculture in some societies, and this paper provides some really awesome and useful analysis to explain why that might have happened. But what it DOESN’T do is explain why monogamy actually became a social institution to the exclusion of plural marriage. Just because it isn’t worth it to have 2+ wives doesn’t mean that your society will necessarily ban having 2+ wives. We still don’t have an answer for why polygyny becomes legally and socially prohibited in these agricultural societies. However, I think that primate inequality aversion (as exhibited by this outraged capuchin monkey) might be a good place to start.

I don’t have the data to hand, but I do have a hypothesis. Agricultural transition makes polygyny functionally impossible for overwhelming majority of people, who are living at subsistence. But it DOES NOT affect the ability of men with sufficient social standing and resources to obtain and retain multiple wives. Historically, such men were stratified into classes or castes – merchants or Japanese 商 etc. It seems plausible to suggest that the impoverished majority of monogamous males (and perhaps their wives!) would have expressed strong opposition to their rich rulers taking multiple wives, and rallied to condemn this behavior. Others have articulated this hypothesis before (e.g. Henrich, Boyd, and Richerdson, 2012) but this study provides some useful background evidence for its plausibility. If you’re a man farming away in a Neolithic village under fairly awful living conditions, you might be able to tolerate paying taxes to your overlord despite his nice villa on top of the hill. But what if he has 6 wives and your daughter is one of them? Perhaps there might be an ‘outrage threshold’ we need to think about alongside the polygyny threshold model.

God, why does Gurlockk get to have the biggest rocks, the shiniest gems, and 12 wives when I can’t even count past ten?

The meta-analysis that wasn’t: assessing Flynn Effects through diachronic change in ICV

A while ago I was conducting a meta-analysis on diachronic variation in cranial volume measurements for different East Asian populations. I got into the project after being inspired by Lynn’s suggestion that the Flynn Effect is primarily nutritional, as presumably this would also show an effect on height, head size, and thus ICV. It could even be possible to control for ICV changes to show only the direct change to IQ over time, which would be a more rigorous way to compare Flynn Effect magnitudes. What a great idea, I thought.

Unfortunately as I got deeper into the project, I realized that virtually all of my data couldn’t be sourced back to any obtainable research. A lot of numbers were sourced from papers that were only available in physical archives in Japan or Korea, so I did what any good researcher does and promptly gave up.

However, even with the limit to my data integrity acknowledged, I was still able to get some plots of the cranial volume measurements that show some interesting results. Here’s a scatterplot I built using values from all studies I could find; the x-axis shows the year of the study’s publication and not the date of subject collection, expiry, or measurement. Note that all datapoints are n-unweighted (raw averages).

While initially there doesn’t seem to be much to say about this graph, it’s noteworthy that there don’t appear to be (when plotted in this form) any outliers, but two relatively clear clusters by gender. Clearly the female cluster is far less grouped than the male one (the source of its statistical insignificance that can be clearly seen in the following trendlines) but both clusters have mutually exclusive ranges, which are interesting. Since all of the studies here had sample sizes that were above 20 we’d expect distributions to be roughly normal, meaning that group-level sex differences in ICV are likely very reliable. This of course is no surprise seeing as ICV is effectively a function of body size and height, which are also variant with respect to sex in the same way. This becomes more obvious when we ignore the insignificant ethnic variation and go purely to the sex differences:

Overall it is fairly clear that ICV as reported in studies is increasing overtime. However, note the lack of any female reports going back beyond the early 1920s? This is a sign that our data is shitty. For many of the earlier studies no sex information was present, and although in some cases I was able to make informed estimates based on the averagees (i.e. a mean ICV value close to 1500 is almost certainly male or mostly male in content) it was never really certain how accurate or representative the values might be. However, if we are correct in inferring that earlier studies likely did not disambiguate male and female samples (as opposed to exclusively using male samples) then it could be suggested that the actual observed gap would be even greater, seeing as the female values would go down and the male ones would go up. This of course would throw the trendline for diachronic variation into doubt, which is currently strong with p value < 0.05 when excluding females.

 

Email me if you want the full dataset to work on.

Narratives of conversion

A while ago I was doing a research project on converts to Islam and their motivations through qualitative self-reports, which I collated into a series of ‘types’ or narrative trends. Here’s what I found.

Identity
For many in the increasingly multicultural, heterogeneous, disoriented West, Islam provides a specific identity by which they can define themselves and their relationships with other entities in the world.

A young guy at my gym (16) who recently converted to Islam is an example; he is son to a white father who abandoned his black immigrant mother before he was born, and described to me the difficulties of identification at school. He was being raised by a black mother in a black neighborhood, but looks more white. Islam grants him a consistent in-group with which he can find solidarity. He knows absolutely nothing about the theological aspects of Islam and hasn’t read the Qur’an, but takes pride in his new identity as a Muslim and often drops standard Muslim vocab (hamdulillah, mashallah, etc).

His newly obtained insider status he displays frequently, saying ‘we’ (Muslims) and ‘you’ (non-Muslims) even though he only converted a few months ago. Previously, as a ‘white’ looking kid yet also a product of a black subculture, there were presumably fewer individuals he could feel connected with in the same way.

Philosophy
The West is increasingly irreligious, but the human need for spirituality remains a motivating factor in many of our lives. We naturally seek out something to fill that void. For many, Christianity seems ‘weak’ and ‘feminine’ in comparison to a much more ‘muscular’ and uncompromising Islam. The level of piety displayed by self-declared Christians, many of whom do not go to church and the vast majority of whom do not do anything ‘Christian’ above that, might also seem ‘shallow’ in comparison to Muslims, who (ostentatiously) display strong degrees of religious attachment and faith.

For some, then, a quest for spirituality and a desire to know the ‘truth’ of existence can drive them towards religion; Islam will often be the obvious choice due to its constant proselytizing, its muscularity and universal presence, and the unwavering faith (and total lack of doubt) of the vast majority of its adherents. As a convert, I myself fell into this category.

Purpose
Islam is a religion, but that religion mandates a specific way of life for its adherents in a way that no other organized religion does. While this is authoritarian, many people in the West, especially young people, feel that this gives them a sense of purpose; they are no longer sleeping in until 1 in the morning on weekends, but waking up for fajr at 5 AM.

Not only that, but they have a clear template for how to live their lives; do this, do that, and things will all turn out fine. For many, these firm guidelines bestow upon their lives a sense of drive that would otherwise be lacking. There are also clear tiers of accomplishment and progression that allows someone to feel successful; memorizing surahs, for example, or improving one’s tajweed gives a sense of achievement that is otherwise lacking for many people, especially those in dead-end jobs or careers.

Indigenous women are the largest source of converts to Islam in Europe. Islam assigns women a clear role as homemakers submissive to their husbands (4:34) and although this may seem counterintuitive, some women (not only underachievers) are quite happy to be just that, and feel uncomfortable with an increased burden of responsibility placed upon them by feminism and the equality of the sexes, which demands they do more. For them, Islam gives them a more ‘traditional’ template which not only does not punish them for not taking on a career and being a stay-at-home mom, but in fact rewards them for it.

Others
I feel like narratives around conversion in prisons is also something worth examining, as it is happening at an alarming rate in the UK and often results in the emergence of religious gangs within prisons openly exposing extremist views, which can impede reintegration. I’m currently reading more on this phenomenon.

Another type, the ‘decolonialist’ type of conversion, is observed particularly in the United States, where Islam has been seen as a more authentically ‘African’ religion, ever since the 1930s with the founding of the Nation of Islam movement. Prominent individuals like Malcolm X have popularized this model, and many black Americans feel that they have a collective grievance against Christianity for slavery which is best solved by turning to Islam. The MASSIVE increase in appropriated names of Arabic origin in the black American community is symptomatic of this trend.

The ideological benefit curve

Before I became more biologically oriented in my thinking, I used to be super into ideologies – not any particular ideologies, but the very idea of ideologies as a category. It’s virtually impossible to have anything approximating a scientific discussion about ideologies, because even the very word is a semantically and semiotically loaded cultural construct; as Žižek says, we cannot look at ideology as we inhabit ideology. However, there are still a few interesting things to say about the topic. Take the following example:

This is one of the goofy graphs I made on the topic, that just so happens to encapsulate an interesting idea (ignore the numerically ordinated axes for a moment). The question is – who benefits most under a specific ideology? What the curve shows is that an authoritarian society will provide maximal benefit to those unable to coordinate their own affairs, simply because in such a society your affairs are already done for you. However, strong-willed thinkers and creative types will probably suffer in such conditions, lacking autonomy over their ideas and self-expression.

An individualist society, by contrast, will provide maximal benefit to those who have the aptitude to organize their own affairs and excel in absence of supervision. Yet such a society will necessarily provide less assistance to those who are less able to organize their own affairs – some of whom will be desperately in need of such assistance.

So which society is better? One constant feature of human sociality is that there rarely appears to be anything that is objectively ‘better’ than anything else; everything comes down to tradeoffs and opportunity costs. So if you’re Nikola Tesla you’ll probably do better in the individualistic United States, but if you’re a lonely depressed person suffering from the atheistic anomie that seems to grip Western civilization as of late, then you’d likely be better off staying in Serbia. At least homes are cheap there.