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  1. A Week with Gregory Cochran: Day Five
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  3. Too Big to Succeed?
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  7. Government Supported Arts

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Friday, January 30, 2009

A Week with Gregory Cochran: Day Five
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's day five of our week with Gregory Cochran, celebrating the startling and exciting new book that Greg has co-written with Henry Harpending, "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution." (Buy the book here; explore the book's excellent website here.) On Monday we talked about the fact that human evolution didn't -- as we were once told -- come to a screeching halt 40,000 years ago. Tuesday's topic was culture and its impact on evolution. On Wednesday, we discussed Cochran and Harpending's contention that not only has human evolution continued during the last 10,000 years, it has sped up considerably. Yesterday we considered the possibility that early modern humans and Neanderthals might have interbred. Today Greg fields some of the questions and comments that visitors have left over the course of the week. *** A Q&A With Gregory Cochran, Part Five 2Blowhards: Julian Jaynes -- thoughts? Reactions? And what about that "bicameral mind" idea? Gregory Cochran: I read Jaynes' book years ago and thought at the time that he was deeply, entertainingly crazy. Nowadays, it seems likely that people have changed enough over recorded history to generate noticeable personality differences. That doesn't mean I buy his bicameral mind model: just the idea that people now may have significantly different minds from people then. 2B: One visitor thinks that "the best way to test Jaynes' ideas would be to study some of the uncontacted tribes in the Amazon and New Guinea and see if they are still of 'bicameral' mind." Has anyone bothered to do this? GC: If someone really believed in bicameralism -- some non-Nebraskan -- sure. I wouldn't myself. 2B: From another reader: "[You say that people will cling to the Blank Slate myth as long as it pleases them to.] The Catholic Church reluctantly stopped believing in the geocentric model of the universe long before there were important practical applications. They had an enormous investment in the geocentric model, but the empirical evidence was too strong. Are you saying that the scientific evidence against the 'Blank Slate myth' will never be strong enough, or that the motivation to cling to the myth is stronger than that for the geocentric model, or perhaps that heresies are suppressed more efficiently nowadays?" GC: I think people -- some people -- care a lot more about this than anyone ever cared about geocentrism. There are also practical political aspects. 2B: From another reader: "Depiction of trickster gods in West Africa seems a bit positive, at worst morally neutral. In Northern Europe, Loki was a clear-cut villain. Could that contrast come from selection-induced personality differences?" GC: And yet Bugs Bunny is our hero. I think this line of analysis is about as sound and solid as Citibank. 2B: "I have heard that the wide varieties of thalassemia are the result of reproductive isolation. If populations mixed in Italy, the best ones would be common, and the rest rare. Maybe that was from Cavalli-Sforza? But maybe... posted by Michael at January 30, 2009 | perma-link | (48) comments

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Week With Gregory Cochran: Day Four
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's day four of our week with Gregory Cochran, celebrating the startling and exciting new book that Greg has co-written with Henry Harpending, "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution." (Buy the book here; explore the book's excellent website here.) On Monday we talked about the fact that human evolution didn't -- as we were once told -- come to a screeching halt 40,000 years ago. Tuesday's topic was culture and its impact on evolution. On Wednesday, we discussed Cochran and Harpending's contention that not only has human evolution continued during the last 10,000 years, it has sped up considerably. Today: Did Neanderthals and modern humans interbreed? *** A Q&A With Gregory Cochran, Part Four 2Blowhards: Your contention is that 1) modern humans and Neanderthals may well have interbred. 2) Any beneficial alleles we picked up from these interbreedings would have spread throughout the population even if the instances of interbreeding were few. 3) These developments may help explain the cultural explosion of 40,000ish years ago. Is that a fair summary? Gregory Cochran: Yes. 2B: How should readers take this contention? As a hypothesis? A provocation? GC: A hypothesis that we think probable. But there are unlikely circumstances that might have blocked such gene flow, so we could be wrong. 2B: What kinds of evidence is there so far for interbreeding with Neanderthals? GC: There are a lot of paleontologists who think that the skeletal record suggests some interbreeding. In addition, there are a few genes with strange patterns that might have parachuted in from another hominid species such as Neanderthals. 2B: How and why did you come to this hunch? GC: Before I learned some of the relevant theory in population genetics, playing with simulations left me aware of the fact that even a few copies of a better version of a gene had a good chance of becoming common. Turns out that there was an exact result that shows just how likely this is: for a single copy, the chance of ultimate success is twice the gene's advantage. For example, one copy of a gene with a 1% advantage has a 2% chance of becoming universal in the population. 2B: Why do you think that the possibility of interbreeding is a useful idea to float? GC: Well, if it is correct, we'll understand a bit more about prehistory and the development of modern cultural capabilities. 2B: Where might evidence for interbreeding pop up? GC: Out of the current work on sequencing the Neanderthal genome. With a little luck, we might also find some better skeletal evidence for interbreeding. 2B: What kind of evidence would nail it down one way or the other once and for all? GC: Neanderthal DNA. For example, if we found that Neanderthals had a particular favorable version of a gene before we did, a version that was quite different from the version humans used to have (and that some people might still have), we'd have to think it originated in Neanderthals.... posted by Michael at January 29, 2009 | perma-link | (15) comments

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Too Big to Succeed?
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards, One constant of this financial crisis is the way essentially political decisions keep getting presented to the public as if they were simple matters of pragmatism. One current example is the rumored plan of the Obama administration to rescue the banking system by creating a bad bank to buy distressed assets. This will of course presented as essential to our economy, our way of life, and presumably God, cherry pie and motherhood as well. This presentation, however, glosses over an inconvenient reality, which is that something like two thirds to three quarters of these bad assets sit on the balance sheets of a tiny number of enormous institutions...oddly, the very ones commonly spoken of as 'too big to fail.' It is apparently simply not possible in modern American politics to recognize reality, at least not where huge campaign contributors are concerned. The reality I'm alluding to is that letting such large financial institutions go into the tank, get broken up and be sold off to their smaller competitors in pieces would probably be the fastest and cheapest way out of our troubles. As a brilliant discussion over at Institutional Risk Analytics, "The Big Banks vs. America: A Roundtable with David Kotok and Josh Rosner" puts it: ...the Good Bank/Bad Bank debate is really a political battle between the large banks listed above [Citigroup, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo] plus Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley...vs. the rest of the [banking] industry and the US economy. Although the banking system is commonly discussed as if it were a single entity, there are banks and banks, so to speak. And the divisions within the ranks are growing: Remember that the entire banking industry stands in front of the taxpayers in terms of loss absorption at the FDIC [depositor insurance fund, paid for by contributions from the entire banking industry], so you can understand why the smaller banks in the industry are SERIOUSLY PISSED OFF at the large banks and their minions in the Obama Administration like Tim Geithner and Robert Rubin. Oh, and don't forget Chairman Ben Bernanke and the entire Fed board of governors. These leading officials are increasingly taking the side of the large banks in the battle over limited financial resources, a fact that is causing the community [i.e., smaller] bankers to rise in anger. Stay tuned. Sadly, I doubt that the small fry have the political muscle to prevail over their very well connected, if incompetent, larger competition. Still, check out the whole thing if you want to understand who is really doing what to whom under the covers. Cheers, Friedrich P.S. The malfunctioning link to the story in question is now working. My apologies to one and all.... posted by Friedrich at January 28, 2009 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Week with Gregory Cochran: Day Three
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's day three of our week with Gregory Cochran, celebrating the startling and exciting new book that Greg has co-written with Henry Harpending, "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution." (Buy the book here; explore the book's excellent website here.) On Monday we talked about the fact that human evolution didn't -- as we were once told -- come to a screeching halt 40,000 years ago. Yesterday's topic was culture and its impact on evolution.Today we discuss Cochran and Harpending's contention that not only has human evolution continued during the last 10,000 years, it has sped up considerably. *** A Q&A With Gregory Cochran, Part Three 2Blowhards: What are the main reasons you think that human evolution has accelerated over the last 10,000 years? Gregory Cochran: Theory and evidence. Theory says that humans would be less fitted to a new way of life, and that genetic changes that made the fit better would spread. It also says a greatly increased population would result in more of the rare mutations that cause such favored changes. We have lots of evidence of recent change, evidence of several kinds. We find unshuffled regions of the genome that have apparently increased in frequency recently (over the past few thousand years). We're just starting to look at ancient DNA, the genes of people who died thousands of years ago, and we see differences from the present. Of course we can look at their bones as well, and they look different -- human skulls have changed quite noticeably in the last 10,000 years, more among some groups than others. Along that line, we know of many other differences in phenotypes (bodies) that we don't yet understand the genetic underpinnings of. We know quite a bit about measureable differences involving disease between existing human populations: susceptibility to infections, diabetes and alcoholism: there is reason to think that these originated recently. In a number of cases, we know that risk alleles are ancestral alleles, the version of the gene everyone once had (and some still do). Populations vary in color-blindness, in the fraction of working olfactory genes, in visual acuity, in susceptibility to myopia. They vary in brain size by more than a standard deviation (from smallest to largest). And of course IQ scores vary by more than that. 2B: How certain a thing is it that human evolution is speeding up? Is it a settled fact? GC: Cranial capacity has shrunk 10% in 15,000 years: that's the fastest rate of change ever seen in the human fossil record, by far. Consider the number of genetic differences between humans and chimpanzees: they occurred over about six million years, from which you can determine the average rate or change. The number of genes that are apparently being replaced by new versions is much larger than you would expect from that long-term rate -- something like 100 times larger. 2B: What are your favorite examples of that evidence? GC: I tend to... posted by Michael at January 27, 2009 | perma-link | (10) comments

A Week With Gregory Cochran: Day Two
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This week, 2Blowhards is celebrating the release of Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending's bold and exciting new book "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution" by interviewing Gregory Cochran. (Buy the book here; explore the book's excellent website here.) Yesterday we talked about the fact that human evolution didn't -- as we were once told -- stop 40,000 years ago. Today: Culture and its impact on evolution. *** A Q&A With Gregory Cochran, Part Two 2Blowhards: We were all raised to laugh at the idea that acquired characteristics can be inherited. Yet now I learn from you and Henry that culture does affect evolution. What's the difference between Lamarckism and what you propose? Gregory Cochran: Cutting off a dog's tail will not result in tailless puppies in the next generation (or the next, or the next): Lamarck thought so, but he was wrong. But if you cut off dog tails for a very long time, eventually a mutation might arise that creates a Manx dog -- and that dog might do better in life, if only because it would be spared dangerous trauma. Then the no-tail mutation would gradually become common and might eventually become universal in that breed of dogs. We're saying that when people are subject to a new and different environment, gene variants that cause their bearers to have higher fitness (be better at surviving and having children) will gradually become more common. Given enough time (thousands of years, sometimes less than that) change can be substantial. It is also the case that gene variants that already exist and are fairly common can also influence the fitness of individuals under selection. Since they start out with higher frequency, they can respond more rapidly to new circumstances. An example: a 5% edge can increase a gene's frequency from 40% to 60% -- a 20% increase in gene frequency -- in just a few generations. A completely new mutation starts out with a single copy and takes thousands of years or more to increase from near-zero to 20%. 2B: Is part of what enables us to think of culture affecting evolution the fact that we now know that evolution is proceeding rapidly? GC: Yes. And because different cultures result in different selective pressures, sometimes quite strong ones. 2B: What should the interested Eng-Lit amateur make of the evolution-culture question? What picture could he carry around that would be useful and accurate-enough? GC: He should remember that people can and sometimes have changed biologically over historical time, and that the changes have not taken the same course in every population. He should not expect events over a single generation to have much genetic effect. And he should, if all possible, try to remember that cicumstances over the past 70 years are different than those experienced over most of history: also that 70 years is not enough time for much change. 2B: Would we generalists be wildly mistaken if we were to think... posted by Michael at January 27, 2009 | perma-link | (14) comments

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Week with Gregory Cochran: Day One
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here I raved about Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending's "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution," which I'd had the chance to read in proofs. This week -- to celebrate the book's actual publication date -- we're pleased to run an interview with Gregory Cochran. We'll run one part a day, Monday through Thursday. On Friday, Greg will return and address a selection of the comments and questions that visitors leave from Monday through Thursday. (Actually Greg will do as he damn well sees fit. But that's the plan.) A few words about the book, which I found a compact marvel. It's full of information, teaching, thinking, and speculation. It's also a civilized, even impish and playful, joy as a reading experience -- one of those easy-to-digest wonders that nonetheless leaves your head spinning for days. Briefly: The book is a discussion of the last 10,000 years of human evolution. Cochran and Harpending's contention is that humans have continued to evolve -- and in significant ways -- over this period of time. This makes for quite a contrast to the story many of us were raised on, namely that human evolution essentially stopped around 40-50,000 years ago, and that any changes that have taken place since are so superficial as to be insignificant. Cochran and Harpending argue not only that human evolution has continued, and in ways that are indeed significant, but that it has been accelerating thanks to the pressures brought to bear on our genome by civilization. It's fun to see that Cochran and Harpending give some of our own favorite bloggers -- John Hawks and da GNXP boyz -- a nod in their book's Acknowledgments. Let's all remember to visit Hawks and GNXP regularly, and to offer thanks for this new age when we civilians get so much better a chance to connect with the experts than we've ever had before. Now, on to the fun --- Part One of our q&a with Gregory Cochran. *** A Q&A With Gregory Cochran, Part One 2Blowhards: We've been told for decades that human evolution ground to a halt 40,000ish years ago. Were we misled? Gregory Cochran: Sure, you were misled. Stephen Jay Gould said it, among others: "There’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain." Which is untrue; brains have shrunk about 10% over the last 30,000 years, and almost certainly changed in other ways as well. In his case, it's hard to tell whether any given statement was a deliberate falsehood or just mistaken. Paul Krugman summed it up pretty well: I have tried, in preparation for this talk, to read some evolutionary economics, and was particularly curious about what biologists people reference. What I encountered were quite a few references to Stephen Jay Gould, hardly any to other evolutionary theorists. Now it is not very hard to find out, if... posted by Michael at January 25, 2009 | perma-link | (46) comments

Government Supported Arts
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I noticed this piece ("An Old, Bad Idea for the Arts" by David A. Smith) in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. Its subject is the matter of creating a cabinet-level "arts czar." Towards the top of the article, Smith notes: But despite the severity of the troubles facing arts institutions, they're nothing new. Nor is the call for a cabinet-level office for the arts. In 1952 the head of the American Federation of Musicians said that "the sad and declining estate" of the arts required nothing less than the establishment of a Federal Department of the Arts. Shortly after, screen legend Lillian Gish appeared before a star-struck Senate committee and all but demanded a Department of Fine Arts. The calls continued periodically, even after the National Endowment for the Arts was created in 1965. Even absent an economic crisis, the "arts" (ranging from opera houses to art museums to local children's theater groups) seem to be figuratively and sometimes even literally at our doorsteps, tin cup in hand, begging for cash. Aside from the annoyance, I'm okay with that. It's when the tin cup routine involves governments I get queasy. Yes, there are many, many examples of government-supported arts and culture that benefit even capitalist-tool me; those museums all over the Paris tourist zone quickly come to mind. Still, I'd be happier if they weren't government-funded. That's because government involvement or ownership means bureaucracy and control, something I find antithetical the arts and culture. Consider all that lousy "public art" demanded by regulations and selected by committees comprised of an in-group of back-scratching arts mavens of the Culture Establishment. Under a crisis-generated spasm of government spending designed to emulate Roosevelt's public works arts projects, things likely will get worse. Actually, I wonder how much good the Post Office mural-painting and other artist employment activities of the 1930s did for the arts. If he hadn't done WPA murals or whatever and instead painted Post Office walls government pale green, Jackson Pollock might have gotten the idea of drip-painting a lot sooner than he did. So far as this graying arts buff is concerned, arts are not a necessity, and the government would be wise to focus on something besides a new WPA Federal Art Project, or arts czar concept mentioned in the article cited above. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 25, 2009 | perma-link | (3) comments