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« Government Supported Arts | Main | A Week With Gregory Cochran: Day Two »

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 you spend a little while reading in evolution, that Gould is the John Kenneth Galbraith of his subject. That is, he is a wonderful writer who is beloved by literary intellectuals and lionized by the media because he does not use algebra or difficult jargon. Unfortunately, it appears that he avoids these sins not because he has transcended his colleagues but because he does not seem to understand what they have to say; and his own descriptions of what the field is about - not just the answers, but even the questions - are consistently misleading. His impressive literary and historical erudition makes his work seem profound to most readers, but informed readers eventually conclude that there's no there there.

Ernst Mayr thought so too, but then he wasn't exactly a fountain of good sense either. I mean, he simply dismissed all of population genetics as invalid. I keep running into mysteriously common wrong ideas, for example that hybridization, gene flow between species, is an insignificant factor in evolution. No reason given, no logic to it, and then it turns out to be something that Ernst Mayr promulgated.

Ashley Montagu, once upon a time, said things like this, but I'm not sure people remember him.

As for why, I suppose the driver was (for some people) the notion that admitting the existence of significant genetically-based differences between ethnic and racial groups would inevitably lead to beastly behavior. I'd say that the evidence strongly indicates that we don't need any such excuses.

2B: What genuine reasons were there ever to believe that human evolution stopped?

GC: I can't think of any genuine reasons for thinking that human evolution had stopped. Some people seem to have thought that 40,000 years was small potatoes compared to the time since the chimp-human split (five or six million years), so that there wouldn't have been much change over that time period. Of course this ignores the massive ecological changes that humans experienced over the last 40 millennia, and the resulting selective pressures.

Others seem to have thought that newly clever humans instantly came up with a technological fix for any problem that arose, which would have removed the selective pressure associated with the problem. Face it, we're not that smart. People suffered from malaria for thousands of years before figuring out that it was transmitted by mosquitoes (in 1897, by Ronald Ross) -- and we haven't knocked it out yet.

And often when we did solve problems, they didn't stay solved. For example, whenever we came up with better methods of food production, population increased until people were hungry again. At that point you see selection for metabolic efficiency, for the ability to digest newly available foods such as milk, etc.

2B: Were the reasons nonscientific? And if so, what were they?

GC: Certainly some were (are) heavily invested in a vision of human sameness. I'm not sure how much of that is driven by practical payoffs: ethnic and racial differences continue to exist whether people "believe" in them or not.

2B: To what extent is the scientific mainstream still devoted to the notion that human evolution screeched to a halt 40,000 years ago?

GC: Henry thinks that few are "devoted" -- it's more conventional wisdom. I value his insights on this, since he actually drinks with these people. On the other hand, some certainly worry about political fallout of possible discoveries, about the impact on their NIH funding, etc.

2B: Are these people relying on any actual science? Or are they doing canny p-r?

GC: I think that some are genuinely confused. This is easier than you might think since very few biologists or human-science types know much about genetics and natural selection. Others simply don't know much about human variation, while others are probably just spreading ink.

2B: To my soft generalist mind, the evolution-stopped-40,000-years-ago claim is part of a general Blank Slate package that prevailed for way too long. These days, though, it seems as though the Blank Slate thing is dead. Is that fair so far as actual science goes?

GC: As far as science goes, it never looked plausible. Obviously humans have a tremendous ability to learn: equally obviously, it's a hell of a lot easier to learn some things than others -- particularly things that we've evolved to do, like talk and walk, which every non-dinged human can do. Walking and talking are not easy -- try programming a computer to do either.

On the other hand, there are subjects (like higher mathematics) are hard to learn, enough so that they're effectively impossible for a significant fraction (probably the majority) of the population. We haven't been selected for our abilities in analytic number theory or differential topology.

Consider the fashions in phobias: it's easy for people to learn to fear spiders or snakes, hard to learn to fear electricity or automobiles. Sure looks like the footprints of evolution. But that also opens up the possibility of population differences: maybe the Irish aren't inclined to fear snakes.

2B: How much longer will polite society be able to go on clinging to the Blank Slate myth?

GC: As long as they want to, barring the appearance of important practical applications in humans that flow from an understanding of ongoing human evolution. Probably even then.

For example, say that we found that every population with a short history of agriculture was highly vulnerable to type-II diabetes, learned why and how other populations with long experience of agriculture (and high-carb diets) were better protected, and then somehow used that knowledge to defeat diabetes among the Navaho and Pima. That would be great, but it wouldn't change Malcolm Gladwell's mind, now would it? Sheesh, the guy spends his spare time defending the good character of car salesmen.

On the other hand, if people wanted to believe in ethnic or racial differences that didn't even exist, they would do that too.

Henry says "Look at cognitive testing, neuroimaging, and all that. We know a lot about such things, nothing much has changed in 100 years, yet polite society still pretends that there is something deeply flawed about all of it. Incredible."

2B: What legitimate points is the "evolution stopped" team still able to make?

GC: Well, one usual claim is that individuals from every human population are fully interfertile, completely able to interbreed -- so there hasn't been much change. Of course, like so many sweeping statements, no one has carefully tested this for all possible combinations. I once contemplated writing a grant proposal aimed at settling this question once and for all.

Another argument is that most human genetic variation is within-group, rather than differences between groups. But that doesn't mean much: you can't simply count the differences, you have to weigh their effects. Many common genetic variants do nothing interesting (they're neutral), but strong between-group genetic differences appeared recently and are mostly the results of natural selection -- which means that they have significant effects. Along the same lines, most genetic variation in dogs is within-breed rather than between breeds, but that hardly means that Chihuahuas and Great Danes are just pretending to be different.

2B: What are some of the strongest arguments that your team -- the "evolution continues" team -- can make?

GC: Environmental change leaves a species poorly fitted to the new environment and opens up opportunities for genetic improvement (a situation we call selective pressure). So, fast change causes rapid evolution. And that is what humanity has experienced over the past 50k years: we left Africa, colonized new lands, watched the glaciers come and go, while inventing radically new ways of life like farming. A storm of change, triggered by an increased ability to innovate.

Well, here there is no shortage of facts. Different ethnic and racial groups vary in many ways, and we know that those differences arose fairly rapidly, since humans only left Africa ~50,000 years ago. The only plausible explanation is recent evolution.

Increasingly we have strong evidence that particular genes have recently been completely or partly replaced by new variants: we know, for example, that most people in north Europe today have a mutation that allows them to drink milk as adults, and we know that this mutation was very rare or nonexistent in the inhabitants of those same lands 7 or 8 thousand years ago. And we know that similar mutations have appeared (more recently) in other milk-drinking, cattle-raising populations such as the Tutsi.

2B: What are your own favorite examples of human evolution continuing?

GC: Lactose tolerance is cool because it likely had a huge influence on history. I think that the new versions of genes for brain development, neural growth, and neurotransmitter receptors are ultimately going to be more interesting, but we don't know too much about their effects yet. I know that a new version of a serotonin-transport gene has recently become common in Europe and Asia, but I don't yet know what it does.

2B: Is the argument completely over as far as you're concerned?

GC: At this point the argument is more about just how much and how rapidly humans have changed -- I don't hear anyone working with the data who argues that change stopped.

2B: Your book is informative, and it's also somewhat speculative -- full of "must have beens" and "might haves." You're reasoning your way around a terrain where the evidence still seems a little sparse, in other words. Are the basics secure? Or are they still being laid in?

GC: I'll go with Henry on this:

Excellent question. The basics are secure -- population genetics, demography, history, etc. But there are certainly a number of hypotheses we have that are not solidly established. But that is the way science works. If something were rock solid it would be widely known and would be too boring to talk about in the book. We don't spend a whole lot of time for example on malaria defense polymorphisms.

We really hope to see our hypotheses tested, maybe modified, maybe falsified, or not. We don't believe them in any strong sense. Whenever you read a scientist who is deeply committed to his or her ideas, hang on to your wallet! We think that the hypothesis, for example, that lactase persistence was the biology of the expansion of Indo-Europeans is plausible and natural in many ways, but we could be dead wrong. We hope we encourage some real science with it.

We had a very interesting experience a few years ago when we came out with a paper about Ashkenazi history and evolution. Reviewers mostly hated it, but the criticisms we got were almost entirely worthless. We had population geneticists telling us we had the history wrong (citing "Fiddler on the Roof"!), historians telling us we didn't understand evolution, lab geneticists telling us that we didn't understand population genetics.

We hope we don't get a lot of that kind of thing. But when historians criticize our history, population geneticists our evolutionary theory, lab geneticists our lab genetics, we are delighted and grateful for their interest.

You know, I suspected that particular reviewer had obtained his deep historical knowledge of the Ashkenazi Jews in the Middle Ages by watching "Fiddler on the Roof." That shows just how cynical I am. And then he confirmed it, when I asked him.

2B: How should someone with an amateur but sincere interest in all this take matters? As already settled? Or as the door just beginning to crack open?

GC: Again I'll quote Henry:

The door is just beginning to crack open. And with the net and the mandate that genetic data be posted, amateurs are at no great disadvantage at all. We often pay closer attention to a select group of blogs than we do to journal tables of contents.

Of course the amateurs have to bother to learn some population genetics, molecular genetics, read Falconer on quantitative selection, be able to write simulations, know something about history, historical demographics, archeology, paleontology, plant and animal domestication ... if they want to get somewhere.

2B: If you were a betting man, what kinds of new info and results would you expect to be showing up next? And for how long will these new bits of information be coming at us?

GC: Henry again:

We think that thinking this way may open a big new box of medical advances. Here is a plausible example, quite hypothetical at this point but illustrative of the general kind of insights that may come pouring out once we quit denying human differences.

There is a lot of evidence from genetic variation in genes involved in immunity that the inflammatory response is "turned up" in African Americans. We have a list of such variants, and in all cases the pro-inflammatory version is at higher frequency in African-Americans. This is no surprise of course given the high disease load in Africa, full of primates, our genetic relatives, and full of pathogens that had millions of years to co-evolve with us.

Could this account for some or all of the awful prevalence of prematurity and low birth-weight in African-Americans? If so, perhaps we could figure out what to do about it.

Right: we have gathered quite a bit of evidence on this pattern. A stronger inflammatory response might explain some of the other bad syndromes that are more common or strike earlier among blacks, like cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s.

2B: Why should anyone care that human evolution has continued? What are examples of how it makes us picture things differently than we used to?

GC: It means that people were different in the past, enough that we'll have to take it into account when trying to understand history. Ultimately it may cause us to radically reevaluate some of our historical ideas -- the past may never be the same again.

It may well mean that some of what we call progress was made possible by biological changes over historical time, as Greg Clark suggests. Recent evolution must have taken different courses in different populations: we're going to have to take that into account too. Group differences in outcomes won't all be environmental: it's hard to see how environment explains why the grandchildren of immigrant Chinese tin miners run all the industries in Malaysia.


Henry Harpending's faculty page is here. Here's the Unofficial Gregory Cochran Site. Harpending and Cochran often make appareances at GNXP.

Here's a site that the authors made for their book. Be sure to visit it; the website provides an excellent overview of the book's contents and includes some well-worth-reading outtakes. Buy the terrific book here.

Some of the buzz around the web:

Back here and here, I interviewed Greg Cochran about the Iraq War.

Please leave comments and questions. As I mentioned above, Greg will respond to a selection of them on Friday. And please return tomorrow for Part Two.



posted by Michael at January 25, 2009


You wrote that people will continue believing the "Blank Slate myth"

[a]s long as they want to, barring the appearance of important practical applications in humans that flow from an understanding of ongoing human evolution. Probably even then.

Could you elaborate on that? 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? Or is my historical example wrong?

Posted by: Ploni Almoni on January 26, 2009 7:57 AM

Hi Michael, Drs. Cochran and Harpending,

I got the book yesterday, it is fascinating. I'd say it's Guns Germs and Steel and Genes, if the authors wouldn't be insulted.

On ancient peoples being different: when I read the Iliad, I always had the feeling that the culture that produced it wasn't quite human. Spartans and Romans also seemed a bit alien. Because they were.

Speculations on personality, population, and cultures was especially interesting. Depiction of trickster gods in West Africa seem a bit positive, at worst morally neutral. In Northern Europe, Loki was a clear-cut villian. Could that contrast come from selection-induced personality differences?

A mild critique: I have heard that the wide varieties of thesalemmias 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 malarias varied regionally, leading to regional adaptation: there is no best resistance?

It got me wondering about several disorders and differences

Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder is more common in Northern populations. Summer SAD is more common in Africans and African Americans. Defects should go the opposite way, with cold adapted populations having less winter SAD. SAD is typically thought of as a defect, which it might be these days. But one can easily envision it as mild hibernation: an adaption to lower energy and activity expenditure in a season where it pays to be lazy. Especially in agricultural populations selected for high general activity.

Tutsi and lactose tolerance: since the last massacre in the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, it has been fashionable to claim that both are Belgian-created ethnic groups. Are the Hutu as likely to be lactose tolerant? If they are not, Europeans figuring out who was and was not lactose tolerant just by looking at them seems far fetched.

I sort of wonder if virilization in women with CAH protects against estrogen-sensitive breast cancers associated with BRCAI and II. Is it possible that some glucose-androgen related disorders like PCOS are also cognitive boosters.

Interestingly, adult onset CAH is fairly common in Eskimos, who reportedly have high visuospatial IQ.

Possibly not truly a disease, but an androgen receptor allele associated with male pattern baldness shows signs of strong selection in some populations. Does the difference have cognitive effects, personality affects, does it increase paternal investment, reduce intergenerational mate competition, socially-mediated personality differences? I have an uh, personal interest in this one.

Gotta go to class, but wonderful book.

Posted by: rob on January 26, 2009 8:44 AM

I have all of Gould's books, and they are well-written, but he is a fringe character in evolutionary theory who skates very close to denying natural selection. His Marxism (which he falsely denies having) controls his science. In the "Mismeasure of Man" he makes the elementary statistical error of confusing the standard deviation of the sample with the standard error of the mean, and goes on to criticize others for making the correct choice.

Posted by: Bob Sykes on January 26, 2009 9:59 AM

Has evolutionary change come to a stop in modern society, now that almost all children survive to adulthood?

Posted by: Peter on January 26, 2009 10:00 AM

So far I have purchased two copies of the book. One for my daughter who is at UC Davis and has applied for graduate work in primate behavior, and one for me :-)

You say:

" Which is untrue; brains have shrunk about 10% over the last 30,000 years, and almost certainly changed in other ways as well. "

So, why is that? Is it that we have less need for more generalized brains? Or have genes that lead to more efficient brains predominated?

Can we compare brain size between hunters and gatherers (such as are left) or slash and burn types with those who live in complex societies?

Posted by: Richard Sharpe on January 26, 2009 11:09 AM

The matter of how people thought in ancient times is endlessly interesting. I was surprised to hear (more than once) at the Tucson "Consciousness" conference last spring, the name of Julian Jaynes mentioned with approval. I thought he'd gone the way of William Sheldon and "somatotyping," but he seems to be having something of a revival. I certainly agree about the Iliad. They weren't thinking the way ANYONE thinks nowadays. The thinking in the Aeneid, however, seems quite modern (I forget what Jaynes said about it).

Posted by: John Derbyshire on January 26, 2009 11:29 AM

What an odd coincidence that you mentioned Julian Jaynes. When I was reading the part in "10,000 Year Explosion" about humans in the Iliad potentially being different from us, I immediately though of Jaynes and his "bicameral mind" hypothesis, and in particular his comments on consciousness (or lack thereof) as portrayed in the Iliad.

Posted by: dev on January 26, 2009 12:45 PM

Mr. Derbyshire:

Large parts of the Heberew Bible are as ancient as the Iliad, but they don't seem nearly so alien. Is that just our familiarity with the Bible? I'm not sure. The Epic of Gilgamesh doesn't seem quite so alien either, at least to my ears.

Anyone else have any thoughts?

Posted by: Thursday on January 26, 2009 12:46 PM

According to Jaynes, the "consciousness revolution" took place about 3,000 years ago, which would put the Iliad (or the events depicted in it)just prior to the big change, and the Aeneid well after it, which would correspond to Mr. Derbyshire's (and my) impressions of the two works. Interesting.....

Posted by: Tschafer on January 26, 2009 12:48 PM

Ploni Almoni asks "could you elaborate on that?" re the blank slate myth.

One difference is that we and others are not proposing anything radically different, we are proposing a "quite blank slate." IOW we are merely nudging the old consensus. We are also proposing that there is a lot of "hidden writing" on the slate, e.g. genes that only have an effect in the presence of some environmental nudge. There was discussion on gnxp, for example, yesterday of MAOA, citing


We aren't revolutionaries.

Rob says "I'd say it's Guns Germs and Steel and Genes, if the authors wouldn't be insulted." That is not an insult, it is a compliment. GGS is a great book.

Re Rob's suggestions, wow. If Rob is a student, which I deduce from his remark "Gotta go to class" and his calling us "Drs. Cochran and Harpending", I want to point out to Michael that this post is an answer to your question about whether only professionals and high priests contribute to this field.

Rob, I hesitate to bore everyone and abuse the Blowhards' bandwidth by going into detail on your suggestions. Greg and I need to get a discussion board going on the book site at we will try when our webmaster gets out of class. If it doesn't show up in a day or two please drop me a note and I will tell you what I know, which may well be a lot less than you know about these topics.

Peter there is plenty of opportunity for selection these days. First, fetal loss in the first few months is often undetected. There has never been found anyone with two copies of the common brca1 mutation, for example: they are apparently lost so early in pregnancy that no one notices. Second, if we look at a group of women at age 50, many have had no children, many have had 6 or more. This is potentially a lot of selection. Finally there are big ethnic group differences in fitness, i.e. rate of reproduction. People with ancestry in Latin America and, to a lesser extent, in sub-Saharan Africa have a large fitness advantage in the US today.

Thanks for the comments, Henry Harpending

Posted by: henry harpending on January 26, 2009 12:52 PM

So, it turns out that no one has really taken a hard look at interfertility among human population groups. I can't say I'm surprised.

What about interbreeding success between dogs? Are there differences?

Posted by: Chip Smith on January 26, 2009 1:43 PM

Of course the elephant in the bedroom is the huge gap between average black and average white IQ. Whites had to grapple with and survive ice age conditions. Blacks didn't. That's the thinking as to why the gap exists. But since the gap itself must not be! in the world of bien pensants, there must not have been! evolution in intelligence for the last 50,000 years.

Posted by: ricpic on January 26, 2009 2:37 PM

If we are going to bring up Jaynes, I have to recommend E.R. Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational, which Jaynes seems to based some of his work on.

Posted by: Thursday on January 26, 2009 2:39 PM

His Marxism (which he falsely denies having) controls his science.

Yep, Gould and Cowan, both denying HBD because of their Marxism.

Heritable Marxism at that!

I have ways of predicting this heritable "Marxism" from surnames and/or appearance, but I can't predict non-heritable "Marxism" the same way. Odd.

Posted by: Svigor on January 26, 2009 2:48 PM

Has evolutionary change come to a stop in modern society, now that almost all children survive to adulthood?

Putting it charitably, I'm a "generalist" like the post's author, and even with my cursory knowledge of Darwin I know better than this. If you let the best dogs in your population breed 100 times, and the worst reproduce once, who's going to have the most effect on the next generation?

Posted by: Svigor on January 26, 2009 2:53 PM

Two comments:

Conceptive and infant survival are vulnerable to situational constraints. Poor people will always lose more babies to lack of care, nutrition, and proper housing. Rich people have control of who gets less care, nutrition and proper housing. Thus, a strong political dimension.

As to dogs, define "best." There is currently a raging war over that definition between the AKC and others who naively assume that registration with the AKC guarantees quality and those who assert either that "best" is defined by working effectiveness (hunting, herding, guarding, etc. -- that is to say, best for human uses) or by natural pressures, i.e. unconfined dogs doing what dogs do.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 26, 2009 3:32 PM

Re : Bicameral mind

If consciousness as we know it arose about 3000 years ago in the West, what of other parts of the world ? Was bicameralism widespread or was it a special feature of ancient "caucasoid" minds only ? Is anyone still bicameral nowadays ?

Posted by: ogunsiron on January 26, 2009 3:38 PM

I seem to remember Jaynes drawing the line between the Iliad and the Odyssey, more than the Iliad and the Aeneid. Jaynes seemed to believe, IIRC, that the differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey showed that the Iliad was a product of the bicameral mind and the Odyssey of the post-bicameral. Hence his conclusion that they could not possibly have been produced by a single author...since they weren't even produced by a single evolutionary stage of human consciousness! (Unless, I guess, Homer had the busiest life in history. A kind of one-man missing link.)

As for Gilgamesh, again IIRC, Jaynes argued that the Epic was the product of the period of the breakdown of the bicameral mind, hence its relatively modern feel. Don't remember what he said about the Bible.

I can't even begin to say how cool it is that Jaynes might be experiencing a revival of sorts. TOOCITBOTBM is one of my favourite books ever. It's got the kind of outrageous wtf thesis that I just have to hope is true.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 26, 2009 3:55 PM

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?

Posted by: kurt9 on January 26, 2009 4:41 PM

"I'd say that the evidence strongly indicates that we don't need any such excuses." Spot on.

Posted by: dearieme on January 26, 2009 4:57 PM

Some of the remarks above on Greece and Rome remind me of Ecce Homo - where Nietzsche declared that in the end the Greeks were too alien for him despite his utter admiration, and that he had really learned from the Romans.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on January 26, 2009 6:56 PM

Svigor, assuming you were referring to Tyler at Marginal Revolution I looked up "Cowen" at


It said: "Scottish and northern English: variant spelling of Cowan."
Also, Tyler's not a Marxist but claims at least to be a libertarian.

Posted by: TGGP on January 26, 2009 8:30 PM

Googling bicameral mind came up with some results suggested that bicamerality could be associated with autism and the capacity for very accurate art, such as that of the cave paintings in europe.

Modern primitive tribes from the amazon (like the piraha ), or even other primitive people like Aborigenes aren`t know for theur great pictorial art. Furthermore, the Piraha are known for their total lack of spirituality and interest in gods ( But then again that`s so rare that maybe the piraha are just too atypical to be taken as representative of any stage of humanity in general ).

That`s why i was thinking that this mental feature may be a european/middle eastern thing only .

Besides Homer and ancient near eastern texts, what`s the other evidence ?

Could it be that ancient people before 3000 years ago were simply of very low IQ and that their mental world is thus very unfamiliar to us ? Even ancient geniuses like , presumably, Homer, would have lived in a world of very low IQ people in general so they would have been only able to express themselves in ways that made sense to their contemporaries and themselves...

Posted by: ogunsiron on January 26, 2009 9:04 PM

Just as a general showbiz observation, Gregory Cochran has kinda got it, at least for people superficially aware of the issues. But there's the big moral ideological badge issues/alienatingness of intellectualism, I guess it makes it necessarily niche, someways. But I'm very entertained, to the extent I'd love to hear him write essays on all kinds of things, just like old-school enlightenment people. I mean taboo-violations embedded in mainstream media make things ENTERTAINING, ILLUSTRATIVE and FUNNY. Not sure why interesting stuff is so stifled in literary culture before-the-fact.

I was very charmed when I read all that Iraq war stuff a while back. I'd like to hear other things he has to say.

Must there be PC here? By "interfertility," you mean can white people mate with Australian aborigines: that's all you mean, no? To a reasonably thoughtful person, all you have to say is "Australian aborigine" and "Jew" and the whole mainstream comes crashing down, like a reasonably bright 14 year old realizing God is nonsense.

Posted by: rob on January 26, 2009 9:40 PM

Dr. Harpending,

I'm an engineering grad student. It's odd that CAH could boost intelligence, most virilizing disorders don't. Is it salt balance? There are some people use vassopressin as a smart drug. CAH maybe leads to high vasopressin leads to smarter? Vasopressin has CNS effects. But maybe a limitation of intelligence is Na/K/water balance? IIRC, cooler climate correlates with IQ, but that could be heat as well.

Posted by: rob on January 26, 2009 10:43 PM

By "interfertility," you mean can white people mate with Australian aborigines: that's all you mean, no?

I don't give a damn about PC, but I'm all for economy. "Interfertility" is nice and concise. Besides, it was Cochran's term.

Lions can breed with tigers, but Ligers are infertile, right? So much for the interspecies question. Where intra-species breeding success is at issue, I would assume - perhaps mistakenly - that the question would hinge on graduated differences rather than something like on/off. This is why I wonder if there is good data regarding relatively distant dog breeds, which aren't so different from human races.

If anyone's taking notes, a Jewish-Australian-aborigine would make a great protagonist for a pomo novel.

Posted by: Chip Smith on January 27, 2009 12:11 AM

Hi,I am living in China, a country where there is said to be a high average IQ. But interacting with Chinese people, I feel that a lot of that high IQ is just wasted, because the culture is conformist. Put another way, Chinese people seem to have lazy, intellectually uncurious minds. If you talk to Chinese people about nearly every issue,you tend to find that 99.99% of people just repeat back the Communist Party's views. You could sit a Chinese person down and ask him to memorize the dictionary, and a fair few Chinese would anally plod through, but if you ask his views on a practical question or social issue (from how to mend a broken door to questions of nationalism and democracy), the result is extremely disappointing. It seems Chinese people are intelligent but gormless, if you get the distinction. Why should such a pattern develop/evolve? Why would such a nation need a high IQ if they are culturally constrained from using it?

Posted by: David on January 27, 2009 1:00 AM


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.

Come to think of it, if Jaynes is correct, then I guess American Indians were probably in the bicameral stage before the European colonization. Yet, while they were certainly at a very low technological and civilizational level, I can't think of any accounts where their ways of thinking, attitudes, and behavior struck Europeans as incredibly alien. I haven't read Jaynes's book, although it's been on my reading list for quite a while, so I don't know if he addressed this particular issue.

Posted by: Vladimir on January 27, 2009 1:33 AM

About the claim that human evolution stopped around 40K years ago, I remember the main reasons being that as humans moved into civilization, that most of the selection pressures of the natural world were essentially overcome. With technologies such as medicine, agriculture, shelter and weapons, humans were no longer as vulnerable to disease, starvation, the elements and predation, since these were the primary means of natural selection.

It seemed like a plausible argument at the time, although I think Greg answers this in the interview by pointing out that the introduction of the technologies themselves contributed to changes in the environment more radical than the natural environment, with which humans were essentially at equilibrium. And therefore human evolution accelerated. I don't think this was a blank slate assumption; I think people were thrown by the concept of 'natural' selection; maybe it should be renamed environmental selection.

Posted by: Nathaniel on January 27, 2009 8:08 AM

It seemed like a plausible argument at the time, although I think Greg answers this in the interview by pointing out that the introduction of the technologies themselves contributed to changes in the environment more radical than the natural environment, with which humans were essentially at equilibrium. And therefore human evolution accelerated.

I think what this reveals more than anything is inflexible thinking about the environment.

A moment's thought would reveal that since males and females are acted on by selection pressure caused by the other sex (sexual selection is an idea with a long pedigree, after all) so too should we be affected by selection pressure from all aspects of the environment, including the social environment. Its not like we are unaware of social niches and their interaction with big-5 behavioral traits.

If reading becomes super important, then there will be pressure on genes that reduce the ability to read (eg, dyslexia).

Posted by: Richard Sharpe on January 27, 2009 11:34 AM

Vladimir et al re: Jaynes and tribes,

I don't remember myself what Jaynes said about tribal consciousness. I know his analysis focused on the ancient Near East and Greece, and described the breakdown of the bicameral mind as a transition within agricultural societies (the bicameral societies of the Mycenaeans and of the "hydraulic dictatorships" of the Near East) transforming as the result of the inability of the bicameral brain to cope with a rapid succession of crises ("the gods fell silent").

Perhaps another test of Jaynes thesis then would be to examine ancient China for evidence of bicamerality: if they underwent a similar change, then bicamerality would be characteristic of settled agricultural societies. I have no idea if any such thing happened in ancient China.

I'm skeptical though. Jaynes' theory seems too geographically focused to carry the weight he wants it to carry. Damn. I love his theory. I want it to be true!

Sigh. Sometimes I don't like reality.

P.S. If you want a great novelistic treatment of how alien the Mycenaean mind was, and which almost anticipates Jaynes, read Mary Renault's novels of Theseus, esp. the first, "The King Must Die". Divination involving House Snakes, groves of trees whose atmosphere is oppressive and tense because there "the dryads stare hard at your back", ritual murder of kings each year, and over everything: fate, moira.

Great read. Good stuff. Camille Paglia would love Mary Renault. I wonder if Michael or the other 'Hards have anything to say about her? Like Donald Westlake, she's a great writer and not lit-ficcy at all.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 27, 2009 11:46 AM

Jaynes work seems to place an awful lot of emphasis on one book: The Iliad. And, dammit, it is one weird ass book, but it is only one.

Posted by: Thursday on January 27, 2009 1:16 PM

PatrickH is correct about the geographical specificness of his theory. Jaynes simply does not discuss other regions of the world (e.g. China, S.E. Asia, Native Americans, etc.). Why he neglected the rest of the world is not clear to me as this represents a form of intellectual laziness. It is a major hole in his theory that he should have addressed.

One thing about Jaynes theory that does appeal to me is that it very concisely explains the "Fall" that is an integral part of Abrahamic religion.

Posted by: kurt9 on January 27, 2009 3:51 PM

I can't bear to read a foreign book without comparing a few pages of the leading translations, since the choice of translation can make such a huge difference. Just look at the King James Bible vs any other english bible. Can anyone tell me which english versions of the Iliad are worth considering?

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on January 27, 2009 6:58 PM


Here is my post on just that topic:

Posted by: Thursday on January 27, 2009 7:28 PM

Thx Thursday.

Re: Jaynes, I haven't read him, but why make so much about a lack of inner reflection in the Iliad? How bout if Homer just didn't feel like including any?

Look at vernacular usage - Celine was one of the first to use it extensively in French literature, or so I seem to recall from one of Manheim's introductions to his renderings of "Journey" or "Mort a credit." Look at raw stream of consciousness, basically not used in English before the time of Joyce, I think. Look at impressionist painting, post-impressionism, cubism. Granted, none of these elements is quite so fundamental as the presence or absence of introspection in a literary work, but they are perhaps not incomparable. It's odd to think of people doing art and lit for centuries without ever using these elements or styles.

Cormac McCarthy writes great novels even today with virtually no introspection passages, though I can't remember whether this applies quite so much to his early novels that predate Jaynes' book, which he might well have read and been influenced by.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on January 27, 2009 8:24 PM

It might interest some people here to know that the Julian Jaynes society quotes Cochran as support for Jaynes' theory here (scroll down just a bit):

Posted by: Mark on January 27, 2009 9:06 PM


Don't know if this helps, but here goes. C. S. Lewis said that Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum was his key-in to the classics. He sensed, as a boy, through a Victorian English poem, a nameless tradition. When Lewis later came to read Greek, he enjoyed the Iliad for its echoes of Matthew Arnold! Those who wonder about the "chaste, royal style" of Virgil, might do well to examine Tennyson at his best, rather than a translation of the Aeneid.

Translations of Dante (Sayers, Longfellow etc) did nothing for me until I stumbled upon a fragment of the Purgatorio by the little regarded Laurence Binyon. That clunky, literal translation gave me a sense of something special in the original, long before I could read the original. To this day, I can only describe it as a sense of terza rima and of Dante's pace.

I'm saying all this because I have long felt that a plain prose translation of Homer is dandy for those who want to read a yarn, but all mainstream translations I've encountered, whatever their merits, are just not Homeric. I can't hear or taste Homer in them. Just that word for dawn - the muscly, abrupt "eos" - finds no echo in English. And yet...

The first Canto of Ezra Pound is (god knows why) a translation of a Latin translation of a few lines of the Odyssey. To complicate things, it's written as a kind of literal English translation of Anglo-Saxon. It's all too weird and off-topic, so I should shut up now. I just want to say that I can hear and taste Homer in that first Canto. Can't tell you why.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on January 27, 2009 9:49 PM

To David, who's living in China and finds the locals intelligent yet gormless, I'd like to point out that China has a long history of rewarding those who could memorize monumental amounts of academic material with high-income, high-status positions within the imperial bureaucracy.

If scoring well on tests gets you multiple wives and the income needed to support many children, well, you do the math.

Posted by: Isegoria on January 28, 2009 10:09 AM

Jaynes work seems to place an awful lot of emphasis on one book: The Iliad. And, dammit, it is one weird ass book, but it is only one.

Indeed.... It's magnificent but using it for any analysis of the very ancient mind is a labyrinth. I wonder if Jaynes, who I am not very familiar with, understood the Orality Theory of epic composition; it's pretty clear none of the commenters above are familiar with it. The basic idea, and this is very complicated issue, is that what texts we have are some kind of compendium, possibly the final version of a possible master bard possibly named Homer possibly from the 8th century...maybe, of many orally composed, semi-extemporaneous songs, some of them with material dating very probably back to the Mycenean period, but most of it very much more recent. And the writing down of the version we have probably did not occur until the time of Peisistratus in Athens, though this is also extremely controversial. But though the details are sketchy, the basic theory of orality is very nearly as uncontroversial among classical philologists as evolution is among physicists. And the major caveat is that Greeks by 8th century, let alone later, had virtually no idea about life in the earlier period except through songs, whose traditional vs. made-up-on-the-spot-to-please-the-artistocrat-who-was-feeding-the-bard-that-day parts are extremely hard to disentangle. Comparing this what Virgil made is...problematic.

Posted by: ERM on January 28, 2009 10:26 AM

Jaynes didn't compare Homer to Virgil. He compared the Iliad to the Odyssey. The differences between the two are so profound it's almost impossible that they could have been composed by one man.

And it's not quite a question of whether Homer excluded introspection from the Iliad, it's how decisions were made by its characters in moments of stress: Iliad, a god intervenes and "tells" or "compels" the individual facing a decision how to act. Odyssey: nope. Just doesn't work that way. Compare Athena pulling on Achilles' hair to prevent him from doing something really stupid...and Odysseus running his con on that poor old murderous cyclops, messing around with his one-eyed head by running meta-linguistic riffs on the meaning of "nobody".

And not a god to be seen or heard anywhere!

The bicameral mind was a type of consciousness that solved problems in a certain way, or more properly, gave answers to those problems in a certain way: as the voice of some kind of external agent presenting the solution in a manner that those who experienced the presence of that agent found utterly compelling. When the bicameral mind broke down, from then on, in moments of stress, no voices would sound, no gods would appear...and the person in the bind of that moment, now like us, alone and afeared for the gods have disappeared...had to work out the answer for himself.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 28, 2009 2:11 PM

RT thanks for the pointer to the Canto, I read it on the web... alongside some not-so-homeric blinking sidebar ads, I'm afraid.

To me, the KJV Book of Job is the greatest thing one can read in English, which is my only language. If you feel like commenting, I've always wondered how the KJV Job compares to the Hebrew. Did they change much of the idiom and syntax - or did they simply copy it, and achieve what they did by choosing English words totally perfect in connotation and rhythm, and perhaps shuffling parts of sentences as necessary without really changing the syntax and logic.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on January 28, 2009 2:50 PM

the voice of some kind of external agent presenting the solution in a manner that those who experienced the presence of that agent found utterly compelling

That's an interesting way of putting it and I think I understand better now.

Make this scheme "milder" - substitute instincts for gods - and you could compare it to Socrates as conceived by Nietzsche: an "absurdly rational" (and rabble-ish) revolution against the old aristocratic order which was based on well-tuned, well-bred instincts that had no logical justification or aspiration to be justified (eg Aristophanes).

On that note it's ironic that Socrates would be the one to claim a personal daemon.

It certainly seems like there has been some trend of this general sort, and I guess science and the "condmenation to be free" could be the two ultimate products.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on January 28, 2009 4:53 PM

Jaynes didn't compare Homer to Virgil. He compared the Iliad to the Odyssey. The differences between the two are so profound it's almost impossible that they could have been composed by one man.

They are indeed very different works, stylistically and linguistically also, but the point to be made here is that neither of them were composed by one man in any sense worth talking about. You've got to look elsewhere than this premise for support for this bicameral mind business -- which seems like a perfectly possible idea -- since neither book can be said to have any unified authorial standpoint, mental or artistic, in the same sense as other works; trying to piece together what material is from where and when is a little like gathering water in a sieve.

Posted by: ERM on January 29, 2009 9:02 AM

For those who are interested in reading Wikipedia articles on this sort of thing, here is not a bad introduction:


Posted by: ERM on January 29, 2009 9:07 AM

wow, this is great, thnx

Posted by: spencer lord on February 4, 2009 8:15 PM

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