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The Twists of History and DNA 337

Posted by Zonk
from the dna-certainly-is-curved dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The New York Times has a piece today talking about the possible connection between genetic evolution and history." From the article: "Trying to explain cultural traits is, of course, a sensitive issue. The descriptions of national character common in the works of 19th-century historians were based on little more than prejudice. Together with unfounded notions of racial superiority they lent support to disastrous policies. But like phrenology, a wrong idea that held a basic truth (the brain's functions are indeed localized), the concept of national character could turn out to be not entirely baseless, at least when applied to societies shaped by specific evolutionary pressures."
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The Twists of History and DNA

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  • Germans (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Reality Master 101 (179095) <RealityMaster101@noSpAM.gmail.com> on Sunday March 12, 2006 @08:43PM (#14904611) Homepage Journal
    As someone with a pretty large ladle of German heritage, I have to say that I have the gene that desires meticulous organization. This possibly can also be seen by German's love of clocks. Of course, the extreme expression of that are the almost ridiculous levels of Nazi record keeping. I've often wondered if this is a cultural trait, or if it's something genetic in the brain. Given that I have pretty close to zero German cultural influence, I tend to by sympathetic toward a genetic possibility.

    More generally, I think people are going to have to face someday that brain genetics are not somehow special. Just like certain races are shorter, taller, darker, lighter, faster, stronger, etc, certain races (and sexes...) are going to have bell curves that are different shapes. Of course, this doesn't preclude any individual from falling anywhere on the bell curve.

    • Of course, the extreme expression of that are the almost ridiculous levels of Nazi record keeping.

      > Does that mean that Richard Nixon was German? His tapes of everything, IMHO, exceeded even the Nazis.

    • Re:Germans (Score:5, Insightful)

      by thrillseeker (518224) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:01PM (#14904678)
      More generally, I think people are going to have to face someday that brain genetics are not somehow special. Just like certain races are shorter, taller, darker, lighter, faster, stronger, etc, certain races (and sexes...) are going to have bell curves that are different shapes. Of course, this doesn't preclude any individual from falling anywhere on the bell curve.

      Yet you would be drawn and quartered if you said that from any position of authority on a college campus, as Larry Summers discovered. Indeed, suggesting that there may be genetic differences to explain any collective group's below the average showing in any endeavor would preclude you from ever obtaining any sort of achievment in the academic world. However, if you can state that genetics might explain how one particular named group (better known as dead white guys) have unfairly gained advantage in history due to a gene of violence, or whatever, then you can write your own ticket.

    • Re:Germans (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Savage-Rabbit (308260)
      ...the extreme expression of that are the almost ridiculous levels of Nazi record keeping. I've often wondered if this is a cultural trait, or if it's something genetic in the brain. Given that I have pretty close to zero German cultural influence, I tend to by sympathetic toward a genetic possibility.

      Being that I am a German and have had alot of German cultural influence as a consequence of being a German (you know: 'knackwurst, bier und sauerkraut') I can tell you that this has nothing to do with genetic
      • Re:Germans (Score:4, Interesting)

        by tenchiken (22661) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @10:50PM (#14905055)
        My german history professor traced a lot of this back to the various wars that occured while Germany was fragmented and was a plaything of France. It became obvious to the german people that they needed to organize and become stronger.

        As a historian, trying to clasify people according to genetics or prejudices is useless. While the "Great Man" theory is a simplification, the ability of a person to change a life, a civilization and world history irregardless of how/where they were brought up and their enviornment is written all over history.
      • Re:Germans (Score:3, Funny)

        by ipfwadm (12995)
        Think of it as a simple scheme, aimed at preventing us from making the same mistake twice

        I think you're forgetting about this little thing called World War II ;-)
    • Re:Germans (Score:3, Funny)

      by Mad Martigan (166976)
      More generally, I think people are going to have to face someday that brain genetics are not somehow special. Just like certain races are shorter, taller, darker, lighter, faster, stronger, etc, certain races (and sexes...) are going to have bell curves that are different shapes. Of course, this doesn't preclude any individual from falling anywhere on the bell curve.

      As per usual, The Simpsons provides guidance. From episode 3F06, 'Mother Simpson' [snpp.com]:

      In Burns' office, Joe Friday and Bill Gannon [FBI agents sear
    • An interesting idea. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by jd (1658) <{moc.oohay} {ta} {kapimi}> on Monday March 13, 2006 @01:37AM (#14905497) Homepage Journal
      The main drawback is that although we do indeed know that genes have evolved in the past 10,000 years, it's not by very much. The bulk of modern societies are substantially younger. Britain was inhabited 15,000 years ago, but the current mixture of genes we call the English, for example, are a mere 940 years old. There would be precious little differentiation in a paltry thousand years. Certainly not enough to explain the peculiarities of the English.

      (Well, having said that, I'm not sure that anything short of experiments by sadistic aliens from the planet XYZZY can explain the English, but that's another story...)

      Likewise, many European nations are very young, in evolutionary terms, and spent most of the time invading each other, mixing the gene pools substantially. It's actually quite impressive that there is any "national trait" in appearance, all things considered. By all rights, that should have been totally eliminated through wars, raids, invasions and the occasional mass population migration.

      I'm inclined to reverse the direction of the theory - that nations did not evolve people to fit the circumstance, but rather people evolved nations to fit their whims.

      Under this theory, genetics is quite irrelevant. Rather, you start off with small bands of people espousing a specific philosophy or attitude, and that attracts like-minded people. The bands that become large enough become nations, the smaller bands become yokels to be scorned by the masses.

      I do not believe that there is a "work-till-you-die" gene, for example. It's counter-productive. You end up doing less effective work, die younger and are unable to take full advantage of the skills and abilities of those who cannot physically work under such rigors. We can see that although American medicine is the best in the world, and American mental and physical healthcare is highly advanced, more people die in America from stress-related disorders (including stress-related addictions) than do so in any other technological civilization on the planet. From a purely evolutionary perspective, a more efficient, less militant work-ethic should be better adapted for survival.

      Clearly, evolution isn't the determining factor in what civilization survives, or indeed becomes dominant. However, no civilization can become dominant without some advantage, and no civilization will maintain a philosophy that doesn't provide it with some payback.

      America has a lot of resources, a lot of usable land, a lot of just about anything imaginable. Combine that with a rapid population growth, and you've the makings of a very respectable superpower. The payback then becomes obvious - with that much in hand, it is very easy to accrue both wealth and influence. Those factors alone are enough to describe American philosophies.

      But American philosophies didn't evolve out of thin air. They came from the Puritans - known to the English as the Roundheads. The Puritans ruled England after seizing power in a military coup under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, and beheading the King for no better reason than he liked to party too much. (The Royalists were known as the Cavaliers, from which we have inherited the term to be "cavalier".) After Cromwell himself was forced from power, the Puritans fled England for America, becoming the controlling force there.

      The Puritans were a strange English sect and really didn't feature much in English history prior to the English Civil War. If genetics plays any role in culture or history, the Puritans evolved in exactly the wrong place and the wrong time. England, by that time, was becoming seriously sick with endless internal religious wars. Strangely, the Puritans managed to move to about the one country in the world that could handle them. This is simply not something genetics can do for you.

      I am much more inclined to believe that there is nothing here that needs explaining genetically, that the genetic makeup o

  • Just a Clue-In (Score:2, Informative)

    by those.numbers (960432) *
    For those of us who didn't already know much about the concept of national character, Google defines it as "studies based on the assumption that collectively members of a society have a distinctive set of psychological qualities." Interesting article.
  • by Pig Hogger (10379) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `reggoh.gip'> on Sunday March 12, 2006 @08:45PM (#14904620) Journal
    But like phrenology, a wrong idea that held a basic truth (the brain's functions are indeed localized), the concept of national character could turn out to be not entirely baseless, at least when applied to societies shaped by specific evolutionary pressures.
    What bullshit! All men are the same!!! National characters are shaped by History, and very often, History is dictated by Geography.

    An example: the british live on a poor island, which was soon depleted of it's natural ressources. In order to avoid starving, they simply went overseas to get the essential ressources they lacked at home. Hence they developped a commercial empire, and the ability to do trading on a global scale was elevated to a "desirable national characteristic", which explains that the anglo-saxons are the most imperialistic people on Earth.

    Nearby France is a rich country, overflowing with bountiful ressources. It followed Britain by constituting an empire, yes, but this was just for copycat purposes; it never vitally needed an empire just to survive, and the best illustration of this is, after World War II, when both Britain and France lost their empires, Britain sunk into decadence and decrepitude, whilst France had the highest economic growth during the 30 years following the War.

    And this is also why in France, excelling in the Arts and Science is viewed as a "desirable national characteristic", whilst commerce is viewed as a vile, unwholesome, fithy activity.

    • by ross.w (87751) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {yelrednowr}> on Sunday March 12, 2006 @08:56PM (#14904659) Journal
      Nearby France is a rich country, overflowing with bountiful ressources. It followed Britain by constituting an empire, yes, but this was just for copycat purposes; it never vitally needed an empire just to survive, and the best illustration of this is, after World War II, when both Britain and France lost their empires, Britain sunk into decadence and decrepitude, whilst France had the highest economic growth during the 30 years following the War.

      DOn't forget that France and all the other countries in Western Europe that were occupied (including West Germany) benefited from Marshal Plan money that bought them new steelworks, railways, etc to replace the old ones that were destroyed. Britain on the other hand got squat from the Marshal Plan, and struggles to this day with pre-war infrastructure that in nearby countries was destroyed and subsequently replaced.

      • by LWATCDR (28044) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:05PM (#14904688) Homepage Journal
        Actually the UK did receive help from the US after the war. Not as much as the rest of Western Europe but it also didn't the level of destruction that the rest of Europe did. It was an extension of the Lend Lease program and not the Marshal Plan but it did get some help.
      • The OP is just on crack, man (although you're right on about the Marshall Plan). He's arguing two mutually contradictory theses:

        1) France has been an economic powerhouse in the second half of the 20th Century; AND

        2) In France, commerce and business pursuits are reviled and seen as dirty.

        How do those two add up, again? They don't--they contradict. And the OP is an idiot.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        Britain on the other hand got squat from the Marshal Plan, and struggles to this day with pre-war infrastructure that in nearby countries was destroyed and subsequently replaced.

        The British got about $14 - $20 billion of war material from the US via the Lend-Lease program during 1941-1945. This was in 1940s dollars, so it really was a substantial fraction of GDP. None of this was repaid in cash; rather, in return, the US got leases on various British naval bases.

        Now, the name "Lend-Lease" is a bit mislead
    • What bullshit! All men are the same!!!

      Politically, I agree with you. All men (and women) should be treated fairly and with dignity.

      Biologically, I disagree. While everyone is (if not mostly) capable of performing the same functions, some people are better adapted at specific tasks than others. While it doesn't prevent you from being a musician or a football player, clearly you will have to work harder than others and vise versa.

      Evolution (Mother Nature) is a bitch. It doesn't care friend from foe. But it i
    • Bear in mind though that people create history - history doesn't create people.
    • What bullshit! All men are the same!!! National characters are shaped by History, and very often, History is dictated by Geography.

      Why wouldn't brain functions be under evolutionary pressure like most important biological features built by genes?

      How can you make such broad statements? Are you a troll or does this go against your religion (christianity, marxism, etc)?

      (Now, which way did evolutional pressures go? We won't know much for quite a few years.)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 12, 2006 @08:50PM (#14904633)
    This amazing book sums up what happens to humans when placed in different geographies. Just like animals, certain traits are more advantageous and lead to increased specialization.
    • I enjoyed Guns, Germs, and Steel [amazon.com] a lot myself. Still, it must be taken with a grain of salt and accompanied by opposing views. While Diamond has experience in the fields of physiology and ecology, he is no expert in the numerous other fields which contributed to his book. Some of the anthropology has already been criticized as way off.
  • Asians? (Score:3, Funny)

    by kennygraham (894697) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @08:53PM (#14904643)
    One can only wonder what evolutionary pressures caused well endowed Asian males do die out.
    • I can take a few guesses.

      More testosterone means more violence. It means greater muscle mass and general body size.

      If food is scarce and the winning strategy is cooperation, villages full of big violent guys would starve out more often than villages with small peaceful guys.

      Well, there you go. Survival of the fittest.
      • assuming the villages with big violent guys don't just raid and pillage the small peaceful villages.

        Is this particular tidbit a fact though? It sure sounds like urban legend to me.
        • by r00t (33219)
          Some weirdo actually weighed testicles removed from cadavers. The asians were smallest. The others didn't differ all that much. The same is true of penis measurements, but note that africans look better equipped because the "flacid" state isn't as flacid as that of other populations.
      • Re:Asians? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by cranos (592602) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:39PM (#14904811) Homepage Journal
        I'm guessing you were posting tongue in cheek, but just in case:

        Um, Mongol hordes conquering three quarters of Eurasia? China was basically one long war for centuries, Japan liked to play "Guess who's Shogun this week" and Korea kept coping it from both sides. Not exactly a history that suggests a lack of testosterone in any measure.
        • That doesn't say much about day-to-day village life. Starvation was probably a bigger concern than war.

          Also, depending on the war conditions, small fighters may be better off. War is often won or lost based on supply lines. You can't fight too well if you run out of food.

    • Re:Asians? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Stickerboy (61554) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:25PM (#14904744) Homepage
      "One can only wonder what evolutionary pressures caused well endowed Asian males do die out."

      One can also only wonder at the evolutionary pressures producing large numbers of white boys obsessed with comparing their penis sizes to males of every other culture.

    • Re:Asians? (Score:4, Funny)

      by dartarrow (930250) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:29PM (#14904763) Homepage
      One can only wonder what evolutionary pressures caused well endowed Asian males do die out.

      its the food silly...
      ordered according endownment:
      1. Africans (eat elephants)
      2. Americans (eat hotdogs)
      3. Asians (eat rice)

      note: rabbits eat carrots which are about their own body-length. And now you know why they breed so fast.
    • Re:Asians? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by de Selby (167520) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @10:12PM (#14904923)
      Well, not to accuse any culture of having an unusual history... there is a connection between reproductive strategy and penis size in the animal kingdom.

      Promiscuous creatures tend to have large penises. Big schlongs (especially with the shape of the penis head) can remove some competitor's man-juices while insuring ideal placement of his own; and greater numbers of sperm increase his chances of reproduction, rather than some of the other guys working the same womb.

      In contrast, creatures that force females into harems have smaller dicks. Males beating each other to gain alpha-male status is where all the pressure is at for these guys. The size of the penis and testicles atrophy to almost the minimum necessary in order to reproduce under nearly ideal (read: sole access to the female) conditions.

      While gorillas developed huge upper bodies to do the beating, human beings may have developed culture to do the same thing (kings and the wealthy get lots of women, etc.). /Not to say there is a real size difference or that this is how it happened.
  • by MoralHazard (447833) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @08:56PM (#14904653)
    There has been some recent trending toward the thinking that recent human history (the past few millenia, that is) involves our genetic history. Most of it is cited in the article, though--it's a pretty scant number studies willing to even look in that direction. As the article notes, Western societies tend to be pretty sensitive to suggestions that genes predispose behavior or personality traits, because it has so recently been the justification for war, mass murder, and horrific social policies (eugenics).

    BUT... the problem, from a scientific perspective, is that the more we learn about genetics the more evidence exists that there ARE behavioral and personality traits linked to our genes. Nobody's talking about master races or anything like that, but there's still a morally offensive (to some, at least) supposition there: Not all men are created equal.

    This is a big moral problem for liberal Western democracies. Most European and North American states, and a good portion of nations in the rest of the world, are founded on the basis that every person is entitled to the same basic rights as the rest. The philosophical rhetoric that underlies these claims needs the postulate that all human beings are somewhat equal--nobody is so much better equipped, morally or intellectually or otherwise, that he can take away the political rights of self determination from other men.

    Although I'm behind scientific inquiry 100%, and I don't think that these researchers should ever compromise their work for political purposes (well-intentioned or not!), I am a little worried about how this kind of work will affect the new few centuries of government and political thought.
    • Equal? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mike_n2em (639096) <michael.conlon@sPARISru.edu minus city> on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:16PM (#14904719) Homepage
      > Not all men are created equal.

      > This is a big moral problem for liberal Western democracies. Most
      > European and North American states, and a good portion of nations in
      > the rest of the world, are founded on the basis that every person is
      > entitled to the same basic rights as the rest. The philosophical
      > rhetoric that underlies these claims needs the postulate that all
      > human beings are somewhat equal--nobody is so much better
      > equipped, morally or intellectually or otherwise, that he can
      > take away the political rights of self determination from other men.

      Well, actually it's not such a problem. To be "created" equal requires a creator. The idea is that, since none of us is the creator, we have no rights over the lives of one another, except insomuch as we mutually agree. Jefferson was not talking about intellectual, muscular, or moral equality--certainly he knew that some of us are smarter, more powerful, or more virtuous than others.
    • Not all men are created equal.

      I agree with your point, but just for the record, that phrase by the Founding Fathers did not mean "equal in ability" or even "equal in value". It meant that no one is born divine, in the sense of more than human. This was a direct attack on the idea that kings are ordained by God.

      • The author goes to extreme ends to try and distance himself from the last people(s) who advocated this philosophy. Namely the Nazis as he himself notes.

        Yet for all that, I don't think that he learned the lesson of the Nazi's and their supposed "scientific evidence". Do not ask Religon for "How". Do not ask science for the answer to "Why". To the degree that he explains certain genetic traits, that is fine. But the dangerous application was when the Nazi's used science to justify their hatred of the Jews. Th
    • Yet somehow "all men are created equal" didn't stop France from imperial/colonial expansion in Africa, nor did it prevent France from trying to conquer Mexico, or the US the Phillipines.

      The actual ideology was created for the purpose of grabbing power for the commercial classes from the Old Regime, not for creating an egalitarian society.

      • by paeanblack (191171) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:51PM (#14904848)
        Yet somehow "all men are created equal" didn't stop France from imperial/colonial expansion in Africa, nor did it prevent France from trying to conquer Mexico, or the US the Phillipines.

        Bypassing that cognitive dissonance is dead simple...you just define the natives/undesirables as "sub-human" and continue on your merry way. Every successful* culture in history did and still does this.

        *I think most metrics of cultural dominance can be used here
    • by liangzai (837960) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @10:00PM (#14904881) Homepage
      A few basics:

      1. genes govern everything we are and are not, and everybody has a different set of genes (with the exception of twins). Thus, no one is actually created equal, in the sense you are suggesting.

      2. although genes on the individual level can vary significantly from another (think John Holmes, think Albert Einstein), there is virtually no difference at all on the group level. This means that if you compare a distinct ethnic group (or "race" as they still call it in the US) with another, you will find a much larger variation within each group than between the groups. This is what scientists mean when they say we are all Homo sapiens sapiens (except for three tiny African tribes, who DO qualify as another sub-species (or "race" as they still call it in the US). What this basically means is that we are all the same on the group level; this is not just politically correct, but also scientifically correct. A few discrepancies such as resistance to malaria, skin color, hair color and other minute genome changes donät change this.

      3. we tend to categorize people by their looks. Japanese and Chinese are all small, and this must be because of their genes, right? Did you know that the average height for a European was 150 cm in the 1500s? That it is now 180 cm is of course because of altered diet, and we now utlizie our genetic potential to the maxium. The same goes for modern Japanese and Chinese to a certain extent (do you know who Yao Ming is?), but many Asians have low protein diets and thus don't maximize their genetic potential.

      4. TFA mentions that some warriors tend to have three times as many babies as non-warriors, and that this would have a social effect, making the tribe more aggressive on the whole. That is such rubbish that I can't even start to think about its national socialist roots; it doesn't work that way, since others still have babies at a significant rate. If you compare artificial selection measures like milking cows, you would see that one weeds out all the "bad" examples; that doesn't happen in real life, and that is why you don't see natural selection happen before your eyes.
      • 1. genes govern everything we are and are not, and everybody has a different set of genes (with the exception of twins). Thus, no one is actually created equal, in the sense you are suggesting.

        Let's you and I, and ten other people, all take a (12 oz) bottle of drinking water, get together, and run some scientific tests. All twelve bottles will have different mineral content, salinity, and various other factors, but despite these minor variations they are all "equal" bottles of water.

        To put the rebuttal ano
        • we tend to categorize people by their looks. Japanese and Chinese are all small, and this must be because of their genes, right?

          No, it's because of their diet. The distinguishing oriental characteristics are slanted eye shape and color, and "yellow" skin tone. Just like the distinguishing african characteristics are "brown" skin and a particular facial characteritics, and the distinguishing "Caucaisan" characterisics are (again) skin tone and face shape.

          Sorry that's just not true. Genes do play an importa

    • All humans are physico-chemically unique; therefore all humans are morally and philosophically equal.

      When everyone is unique there is no logical justification for any particular moral system. Therefore the logical conclusion is to allow and protect every moral system to the maximum possible extent that does not hold one moral system (and therefore its adherent(s)) above another, viz a viz "natural rights".
    • BUT... the problem, from a scientific perspective, is that the more we learn about genetics the more evidence exists that there ARE behavioral and personality traits linked to our genes.

      Not at all;

      Genetics is still in infancy, and all we're finding is statistical correlations.

      There is not a single good scientific explanation (I said scientific, not just materialistic -- that is, it has to be backed by experience and have stood to scientific criticism) alive that tells, mechanically, how you get from specifi
    • Nobody's talking about master races or anything like that, but there's still a morally offensive (to some, at least) supposition there: Not all men are created equal.

      It's important to note that the concepts "All men are created equal" and "All men shall be treated equally" are *not* synonymous. Just because some individuals may or may not have better inherent abilities at some tasks is *not* justification for denying equal opportunities.

      Similarly, it would not be justification for excusing certain behavi

    • What the hell are you even talking about? The phrase indicates that all men are equal UNDER THE LAW. In no way does it mean that I'm somehow equal to Linus Torvalds when it comes to kernel programming or any other such nonsense.
    • but there's still a morally offensive (to some, at least) supposition there: Not all men are created equal.

      I would argue that not all men are created the same, but that has little or nothing to do with equality, however you choose to define it.
  • The Blank Slate (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bytal (594494) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @08:58PM (#14904665) Homepage
    A great book on this subject is Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate : The Modern Denial of Human Nature [amazon.com]. He spends a good while explaining the biological evidence for certain traits such as increased intelligence being just as much genetically determined as someone's eye color. He also takes the time to explain why so many people instinctively demonize this stance and why facing the truth about our genetic heritage will actually allow people to live in greater harmony with each other. The explanations are surprisingly clear and he mostly stays away from rhetorical and psychological bubble that so many philosophers often resort to.
    • Re:The Blank Slate (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Ikester8 (768098)
      One thing that evolutionists that study humans agree on is that while the human race, as well as the various local adaptations, evolved via Darwinian natural selection, human culture is inherently Lamarkian. Everything that makes up a human culture is passed from generation to generation and from mind to mind. There is nothing random about human action, as opposed to genetic variability. Looking at the evolution of culture through a Darwinian lens is bound to lead you down the wrong path.
    • Re:The Blank Slate (Score:4, Interesting)

      by garyboodhoo (945261) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @10:28PM (#14904978) Homepage

      Pinker's book is not without interesting points, however I consider his qualification of "intelligence" highly questionable and in my opinion, simplistic. Eye color and other physical features are simply observed. Intelligence on the other hand is notoriously slippery. The behaviors (internal & external) we label as intelligence have everything to do with the context in which they occur.

      As an example, I'd ask is someone with amazing drawing skills but lacking mathematical aptitude less intelligent than a mathematician who lacks the synaptic connections between hand & eye that lead to advanced drawing technique? Who is more intelligent - a computer scientist or a physicist? A theorectical physicist or an experimentalist?

      As an over the top example I'd say that solving linear equations on board a sinking ship instead of jumping on a life raft is spectacularly unintelligent.

  • I don't buy it (Score:2, Insightful)

    by the_humeister (922869)
    Some geneticists believe the variations they are seeing in the human genome are so recent that they may help explain historical processes. "Since it looks like there has been significant evolutionary change over historical time, we're going to have to rewrite every history book ever written," said Gregory Cochran, a population geneticist at the University of Utah. "The distribution of genes influencing relevant psychological traits must have been different in Rome than it is today," he added. "The past is n
    • buy it (Score:5, Informative)

      by r00t (33219) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:29PM (#14904768) Journal
      If you were able to take a baby from ancient times and transplant him to the present, he'd grow up to about the same as the rest of us, because "the rest of us" have enough variation that you'd not notice any difference.

      Take 10000 ancient babies and 10000 modern babies though, place them in equal situations, and you'll see a pattern of differences between the groups.

      It's easy to prove this for physical attributes like height. The Mayan and Inca people of Central America were very short. If you brought one to the modern world, part of that difference would go away (better food) and part would remain. Maybe the guy is 5'4" instead of the average 5'10", but you couldn't say for sure if it was something particular to an ancient person. If you got 10000 of these people though, and the average was 5'4", then you'd know there was a difference.
      • Take 10000 ancient babies and 10000 modern babies though, place them in equal situations, and you'll see a pattern of differences between the groups.

        Sorry, still don't buy it. Considering the experiment is (unfortunately) impossible, we'll have to go about another way to prove or disprove the role of genetics in our behaviour.
    • >Surely if you were able to take a baby from ancient times and transplant him to the present, he'd grow up to really be no different than the rest of us.

      If you read things like Seneca's letter of consolation to his mother from his exile, you find that ancient people had the same feelings and quirks that we do. You can even spot comparable personality subtypes. What was Archimedes if not a superlative nerd? Ancient politics malfunctioned in all the same ways that contemporary politics does, and the US Fou
    • Surely if you were able to take a baby from ancient times and transplant him to the present, he'd grow up to really be no different than the rest of us.

      Is this a tenet of faith, or can you cite research supporting this claim? Science doesn't advance by upholding what you think is "patently obvious".

      Perhaps this is testable...find the DNA of long-dead humans and clone them. One heaping of luck/tenacity finding the DNA and one heaping of Jurassic Park semi-sci-fi...shake, stir, and repeat a statistically si
    • The distribution of genes influencing relevant psychological traits must have been different in Rome

      Rome was a cosmopoliton city at the heart of a large empire with a policy of granting priveleges to people who spend many years in overseas service so would have had a very wide genetic distribution even if you don't consider the importation of slaves from all over the empire.

      I know very little of anthropology but have immediately seen a big hole in the argument - is this some fringe religeon pushing an agend

  • McEvolution (Score:5, Funny)

    by Dachannien (617929) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @08:58PM (#14904670)
    Quoth the article:
    Many of the reshaped genes are involved in taste, smell or digestion, suggesting that East Asians experienced some wrenching change in diet. Since the genetic changes occurred around the time that rice farming took hold, they may mark people's adaptation to a historical event, the beginning of the Neolithic revolution as societies switched from wild to cultivated foods.
    By extension, we can expect evolutionary changes in North America within the next couple of centuries to accommodate our fondness for the Double Bacon Cheeseburger.

    • Re:McEvolution (Score:3, Insightful)

      by the_humeister (922869)
      Well, it's interesting that native South Americans living in the rural Andes mountains are thinner than their westernized North American counterparts. This is mostly attributed to genetics where they have genes that allow them to store more energy in a low food environment. Place them in a high-food environment, and they become overweight.
      • The tech conferences I've been to generally are high food environments, and the attendees are not thinner compared to their hypothetical low food dwelling cousins.

        Studies have found that we're wired to eat more food the more choices of food we see. Given unlimited refills we on average will eat just one or two servings if there's just one choice of lunch. But at a lunch buffet we can easily eat 3x or 4x the calories.

        Because all of us are just a few hundred generations (at most) away from our hunter gathere

    • We will develop a reduced desire for calories, salt, and protien.

      We will handle trans fats better, or we will become able to taste them and find them yucky.
  • Uh oh.. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by StikyPad (445176) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:03PM (#14904684) Homepage
    Here we go again. This reminds me of the not-incorrect observation by a certain Harvard dean that women, in general, tend to be better in areas not related to math and science. Regardless of the merit of such a claim, the current political climate is such that any observation other than the obvious is regarded as demeaning. Even obvious differences are often taboo. It would be fine to observe, for example, that asians tend to excell at math and science, but mentioning that they're generally shorter than their european counterparts would be considered insulting by some, regardless of the fact that being smaller has many advantages for survival.

    I suppose though, in light of our inability to view differences objectively, that it's probably for the best. Invariably, when someone points out differences, one group will use those differences to assert some sort of supreriority over the other. While it would be nice if we could discuss differences with scientific detachment and actually learn something, it seems that the most common trait among humanity -- our desire to be the best; to feel superior -- prevents such objectivity.
    • It isn't in a vacuum (Score:4, Interesting)

      by dbIII (701233) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @11:57PM (#14905227)
      This reminds me of the not-incorrect observation by a certain Harvard dean that women, in general, tend to be better in areas not related to math and science
      I live in Australia. For cultural reasons women were discouraged from being educated in science and mathematics when I went to school, but excelled in languages, history, art etc. The poor average results for women in these subjects worried a lot of people in education - so something was done about it and the culture in schools moved from discouraging girls in these subjects to encouraging them. As a result now people are now worried about the poor results in science and mathematics for boys, which is probably also cultural and related to bullying. If it was really about the brain and it was a major influence the Australian girls would not be doing much better than the boys.
      or example, that asians tend to excell at math and science
      Cultural - an expectation to have to know what you are doing to succeed and not just be buddies with someone whose dad can get him a top job (recently appointed US ambassator to Australia a case in point - was in the same club as GW Bush at Yale).
      mentioning that they're generally shorter than their european counterparts would be considered insulting by some
      Due to cultural differences I couldn't order a coffee the same way in the USA as in Australia without being called a racist - Australia is quite a racist country but the names for coffee have nothing to do with it. It must be the same thing with the height comment being considered an insult - or the way it is said. People hate to have generalisations put on them from those who identify themselves as outside of their group - especially if it is used in some sort of context implying superiority over them (eg. someone from the USA pointing out that Australia is a racist country would make people angry, while I can say that from within after watching an election campaign.)
  • by radtea (464814) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:05PM (#14904686)

    Never trust work that moves from the digestion of milk (dependent on a single enzyme in adulthood) to broad cultural generalizations. Why would anyone think that East Asians have been selected for intelligence, unless they buy into a particular cultural stereotype that has been common only in the past few decades, as the East has sent its best and brightest to the West for education? A generation ago East Asians were considered much less mentally capable than Europeans. Both stereotypes are fact-free.

    Here's a real howler from the article:

    "It is easy to imagine that in societies where trust pays off, generation after generation, the more trusting individuals would have more progeny and the oxytocin-promoting genes would become more common in the population."

    Easy to imagine, yes, at least if you are completely ignorant of how societies have actually behaved in history. It's easy to imagine the Earth is flat, if you are sufficiently ignorant.

    Trust pays off most in societies that trade under the rule of law, like Rome. And we all know that generation after generation Roman families grew and grew, especially amongst the most properous classes, who benefited the most from trust...

    Except they didn't.

    Certain types of benefit to individuals result in decreased procreation, as we see in modern developed societies. Rome struggled with declining population amongst the middle and upper classes throughout most of its history, to the extent that laws and other social pressure requiring marriage and progeny were common features even during the late Republic.

    Local genetic adaptation to a rice-based diet I can believe. Adaptation to cow's milk is plausbile. But until you show me quantitative, unbiased performance measures of "cultural types" I'll say you're telling the kind of just-so story that faux-evolutionists have been foisting off on the public for generations, starting with Spencer and coming down to the present day in the form of statistically illiterate dunderheads like Charles Murray.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      I'll say you're telling the kind of just-so story that faux-evolutionists have been foisting off on the public for generations, starting with Spencer and coming down to the present day in the form of statistically illiterate dunderheads like Charles Murray.

      Ah yes, a blatantly unfounded ad hominem disguised as scientific argument. Someone doesn't like a statistic? Instead of showing how it is somehow wrong (and in the case of Murray , his statistics are rather impeccable and irrefutable), just attack someon
  • by MikeRT (947531) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:09PM (#14904694) Homepage
    What the poster fails to mention is that the pendulum has swung to an opposite extreme that isn't good either. We're not all biochemically equal, and that should be at the foundation for our belief that all people are deserving of equal rights. Each life has its own individual existance, even twins.

    The tendency I have notice is that those who preach the idea that we're all equal, instead of all equally worth human dignity, is that they tend to favor control of others. In the name of "equality," people have been turned into cogs to fit into some sociologist's "scientific" organization of a corporation or society.

    That's why libertarianism is so hard for liberals to swallow. We don't believe that all people are equal. In fact we do believe that some are born with clear advantages over others, and the opposite is equally true. Instead, what should be emphasized is that no one is born with the inherent right to control others, and all arguments for controlling others ought to be based in the highest standards of morality and reason.

    Besides, I have been around enough foreigners to know that the majority around the world doesn't really believe this bullshit Western idea that we are all born equal, save for an equal right to be free from all arbitrary controls. Instead of focusing on equality, perhaps we should be focusing on the more pressing need to make the government work more efficiently and in a fairer way, that does not (as it has always happened in the past) end up making it simply a powerful means for the strong to control the weak.
    • in mirror image. libertarianism has as much a tenuous hold on reality as communism, and doomed to just as much miserable failure

      communism holds that altruism, working for the benefit of the group, as something that trumps human selfishness. bullshit. likewise, libertariams holds selfishness, working only for your benefit, as something that trumps human altruism

      the truth? human nature is a duality of altruism and selfishness, none superceding the other, and one ignored in favor of the other at the peril of creating a philosophy out of touch with real human nature, and therefore bound to fail as a valuable guiding philosophy in leading your life and building a society

      the wisest guiding philosphies for capturing the essence of human nature and harnessing it to maximize human wealth and happiness is to be both altruistic and seflish. capitalism, with social safety nets, as in the usa, or socialism, with a capitalist engine, as in europe.

      so beware dear impressionable souls: libertarianism is bunk of the same order and magnitude, in mirror image reverse, as communism. libertarianism is nothing but selfishness with a philosophical bumper sticker stuck on its ass that somehow purports to elevate it to respectability. libertarianism will succeed as soon as human nature is purged of empathy, sympathy, love for one's family, love for one's community, love for humanity itself

      in other words, never

      the only people who take this shit seriously are earnest but naive college students with too much philosophy classes under their belt and no real life experience, 40-something selfish assholes behind on their alimony payments, and nutjobs who horde guns in the woods and consider themselves to be part of the minutement militia, 2 centuries hence

      i wish libertarians and the residual communist idiots would get together on some south pacific island, and leave the rest of us more in touch with the altruistic AND selfish parts of our human nature in peace

      libertarianism = loud, useless nonsense, utterly out of touch with human nature
      • by linguae (763922) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @11:30PM (#14905162)
        libertarianism is nothing but selfishness with a philosophical bumper sticker stuck on its ass that somehow purports to elevate it to respectability.

        Libertarianism, in essence, is classical liberalism. Are you calling John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Hayek, and Milton Friedman supporters of selfishness? Selfishness is the last quality that I would equate with these people. Where and why do people equate libertarianism with selfishness; somebody please tell me before I go off.

        the only people who take this shit seriously are earnest but naive college students with too much philosophy classes under their belt and no real life experience, 40-something selfish assholes behind on their alimony payments, and nutjobs who horde guns in the woods and consider themselves to be part of the minutement militia, 2 centuries hence

        And what does that make you?

        Libetarianism is about civil liberties and free-market economics. The socialism that you are pandering doesn't work in the long run and restricts the freedoms of its citizens. One very fallacious error that leftists make is that they claim that government should be "compassionate" and forcibly take money from the most successful in society and give it to the poor because all rich people are selfish (or some other theme). However, governments cannot be compassionate, because governments are entities of force. You should read this article [mises.org] which further explains my viewpoint.

        You need to get some books and read them before you spew all of this ignorant crap about a political philosophy that you do not fully understand.

        • Libetarianism is about civil liberties and free-market economics. The socialism that you are pandering doesn't work in the long run and restricts the freedoms of its citizens.

          When government takes money from a millionaire and uses it to educate an immigrant's son, it does several useful things:

          • It maximizes average well-being by moving money from where it is undervalued to where it is highly valued. An extreme example of this is those World Vision commercials about how the price of a coffee per day can save a third-world child from going blind.
          • It maximizes the overall size of the economy by improving the quality of the work force.
          • It minimizes the social tension that arises from extreme disparities in wealth and power.

          The benefits of this are obvious to the person on the street, from a high school drop-out to a mainstream economist. This is why libertarianism can never succeed. Furthermore, libertarianism is its own worst enemy. If it is ever close to succeeding it will just trigger a socialist reaction that will strengthen unions and communist parties.

          The "ideal" system is one that rewards people in proportion to their individual (not familial) contribution to society. When you get very far from this ideal (as under pure libertarianism or pure communism) people will cry fowl. Their sense of justice is much stronger than their dedication to any abstraction.

    • There is a dichotomy to this view that is important.

      Liberals = All men are created equal and must stay equal.
      Conservitives = All men should have equal opportunities.
      Lbertarianism = All men are equal if government gets out of their way
  • by dartarrow (930250) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:25PM (#14904742) Homepage
    ..with examples like
    men who had killed in battle had three times as many children as those who had not.
    and
    East Asians tend to be more interdependent than the individualists of the West, which he attributed to the social constraints and central control handed down as part of the rice-farming techniques Asians have practiced for thousands of years

    I have to say it is pretty badly written. Asians are indeed more community/ society-oriented than westerners who are more individualistic (look at our emphasis on personal freedom and privacy), but that may not all be based on genetics. The level of priority for an asian is Country-> Community -> Family -> ME whereas westerners are traditionally more of ME->Family -> Community -> Country. The asian argument is that without a strong country there cannot be a safe family. However the western priority list above is not something inherent in all westerners, it is just more obvious these days and mostly only in America which the researcher assumes applies to the rest of the western civilisation. A Glance through history would reflect that the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Vikings and even the more modern Britains and Americans have accepted that the country's welfare is in fact more important than their own personal ones, or else nobody (almost) would want to voluntarily enter the Armed forces.
    A community-based individual is the by-product or perhaps even the pre-requisite of ancient civilisations. The asians were amongst the first to realise this and never found any reason to change their believe. Thats why they are what they are.

    To attribute everything asian to rice is rather immature. This article tells us what we already know - adaptation and evolution happens. But nothing else is new or even believable.
  • I love these "controversal" articles.

    '

    I have to agree that we are not created equal. I also have to agree that we all have equal right to human dignity. However, the question is whether being inequal means one being better as a whole than another. What standard are we using to define what makes a human better than another? Survival? Intelligence? Physical Strength? TFA seems to be saying that there is inequality between races, but each race is best suited for their own region. So we do have a sort of equ

  • I wonder if there's a gene, extremely common in NYT editors, that inclines the organism towards theories of genetic determinism.

    This article is built on a foundation of sand. To begin with what's a "nation"? In what sense are distinct populations like the Basques part of the modern nation state that rules over them? Are my Alsatian ancestors "French" or "German"? Or, how do you explain the genetics of places like Poland, which went extinct and then came back?

    The category of the nation is relativel

  • of course

    in australia, a bunch of colonists from the murky british isles dropped on a brightly sunlit desert has meant soaring skin cancer cases. am i saying pale people shouldn't wear sunscreen because that would be racist? of course not. that would result in thousands of needless deaths in australia alone ever year

    less melanin means you should protect yourself from the sun in other ways. duh. and... what is this supposed to mean to me? what great lessons is supposed to be drawn from this? geographic variations in biochemistry exist

    so what? what does it mean? it doesn't have ANY SIGNIFICANCE WHATSOEVER. because race simply doesn't matter

    there are many medical conditions which can be shown to be confined historically by geography. sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, lactose intolerance, HIV immunity, rhabdomyelosis vulnerability when on statin drugs, tay-sachs disease, chilblains, vulnerability to gout, etc., ad nauseum. just like nose size (arid or humid conditions), finger length (hot or cold), and skin color (melanin protection from sun), etc., ad nauseum

    did you know that on the average, worldwide, men are about 10% darker than females because for females protection from the sun is less important than the critical need for folic acid during early pregnancy, and that can come from the sun? what does this all mean?

    nothing!

    not a fucking thing! JUST LIKE THIS FUCKING RACIST BULLSHIT

    it's little scientific tidbits that don't add up to a whole. all of these little different surface features and biochemical quirks all overlap with each other. you can't draw any lines in the sand that signifies anything meaningful, because all these little quirks you add up have different geographical ranges. it's simply genetic white noise, and it's a quiet signal

    meanwhile there is a strong solid tone that is a lot louder: the similarities. so how come the static of surface differences matter so much to some, when if you mapped them they would barely pierce the thick volume of similarities? to focus on these surface statistical perturbations is like someone looking at ripples on the surface of the lake, and completely missing the volume of water in the lake underneath

    this is the logical fallacy of racism: ripples on the surface have lessons for us about the volume of water underneath. race is a concept that is silly shallow antiquated nonsense, for if you really truly understood what you were talking about when you bring up medical quirks and statistical anomalies, if you truly had some wisdom behind your words, then the vast volume of medical knowledge and statistics would speak to you of the similarities more than differences, by orders of magnitude

    so what the fuck is this article supposed to mean? tell us how ripples on the surface of a lake means something. tell us racists, tell us the deep significance. tell me about sickle cell anemia... what is the lesson for us? what great significance are we supposed to attach to this?

    this article is nothing more than a window into the filthy soul of racism, and the fallacies in the reasoning of racists that they overlook to make the evidence fit their presupposed ideas about how much we differ

    when the real lesson of all medicine and biochemistry is how similar we are. focusing on the ripples on the surface, versus the volume of water underneath: the fallacy of the "logic" of racism
  • Are we nothing more than gene machines, controled by our genes determined from the distant past? It seems like the implications of several of the genetic articles I have recently read. It seems to be the mechanistic assumption of many of the scientists studying our genes. Are they correct to assume this?

    I think we are more than gene machines.
  • Mutations (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Questioning (163996) *
    Every mutation need not be random or equally common. We've discovered that some genes produce multiple proteins while others consistently mutate between generations via a set of strange rules (this is a major factor in understanding telomeres). It is a fact that some genes cannot be mutated without causing fatalities - evidenced in part by the presence of said genes in nearly all organisms - so why wouldn't life (single-cell or larger) evolve safeguards for these, such as locating them on the part of a ch

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