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The Twists of History and DNA 337

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)

    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.

  • by Pig Hogger ( 10379 ) <> on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:45PM (#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 MoralHazard ( 447833 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:56PM (#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.
  • The Blank Slate (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bytal ( 594494 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:58PM (#14904665) Homepage
    A great book on this subject is Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate : The Modern Denial of Human Nature []. 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.
  • by DigiShaman ( 671371 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @10:05PM (#14904687) Homepage
    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 is what it is, and you shouldn't deny this fact.
  • by barutanseijin ( 907617 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @10:29PM (#14904764)
    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 relatively recent, and itself a product of history. You can't simply take it as a given.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 12, 2006 @10:39PM (#14904810)
    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 someone's character and cry for social approval by appealing to popular ideals about the so-called sameness of the human race.

    You are free to agree or disagree with any of the notions he says. And I am certianly free to say that I don't agree with Murray's obsession with modernism in relations to people with high IQ, but you should at least hold your self up to higher standards of rational thought that go beyond saying that some guy you don't agree with is a "dunderhead".

    As I said in another post, the denial of human evolution that consists of the equality-obsessed people is no different than the denial of Darwinism that is of the Intelligent Design crowd. Lots of people shouting all sorts of ignorant non-scientific and often just ad hominem type statements.

    The least you could do is counter with something that resembles a logical argument that actually can be debated in scientific manner. Otherwise, lowering ourselves down to the level of calling each other names and appealing to some sort of popular "sensibilities" just throws the whole idea of scientific inquisition out of the window.
  • Re:Asians? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cranos ( 592602 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @10:39PM (#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.
  • Re:Germans (Score:1, Interesting)

    by ricosalomar ( 630386 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @10:49PM (#14904842)
    Even a cursory perusal of any psychology (or any science) textbook would show you that your personal opinion of your psychological/genetic makeup is about as valid as your opinion on any other matter, ie. not at all. Science is science. Claiming that you understand it doesn't make it so.

    To date, there heve been exactly zero scientific studies that point to a genetic component of personality, including the famous twins studies of the late 1990s. Yet there have been literally thousands of studies that point to a cultural component, including those that show that early childhood trauma can result in physical damage to the brain.

    If someone were intending to show a genetic component to personality, he or she would first have to show a physiological component to personality. That has yet to happen. So your analogy of shortness and strongness, which are physiological traits, can not be applied to personalities, which are not physiological. The brain may be genetic, but we are many, many years from proving or even suggesting that personality traits are.
  • Re:The Blank Slate (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Ikester8 ( 768098 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @11:03PM (#14904893)
    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.
  • Breeders know this (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 12, 2006 @11:09PM (#14904913)
    Why is it scientifically hard to apply the same ideas to humans? You can see various traits and charcteristics based on breed with any number of animals, anyone who raises dogs, horses, cattle-whatever, can see this is just true facts. Seems more or less a gimme it would apply to human sub species "breeds", even if it is politically incorrect. Legally there should be no difference, biologically and genetically, of course there are various differences. Some are overt, obvious physical characteristics that are easy to see. So, we should be surprised if there are psychological make up differences, or ways to socialize or interact in other ways? I would be surprised if they COULDN'T find traits. People who would deny science and say any differences are purely local and immediate environmental and cultural are failing to acknowledge that "genes" do in fact exist, and we are still just scratching the surface on the subtle nuances of slight variations. It could well be that various genes drive culture and basic behavior.
  • 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 another way: there has never been a solid proof that genetics really do determine human behavior. It's an influence, but not a greater influence that paternity, upbrining, or self-determination. It's certainly not a factor in the success rate of persons attemting equal goals with equal resources resolve.

    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.

    Saying that there are no such thing as human races is an untenable abuse of language. The right term, perhaps, would be "there are only minor changes between the races" or rather "there is almost universal interbreeding between the races." No ammount of genetics will ever change the fact that children look like their parents, and genetically different groups have identifiable physical differences.

    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.

    (do you know who Yao Ming is?)

    He's an oriental basketball player. And, apparantly, a bad strawman on your part.

    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.

    Sheesh. If sub-group A (let's call them Republicans) has more children than sub-group B (let's call them Democrats), then the tribe that contains both sub-groups will, generation after generation, tend to be more like sub-group A.

    In order to dismiss the claim, you'd have to show that either warriors/republicans tend not to raise children that grow up to be warriors/repulicans, or that a significant ammount of warriors/republicans die before having children, or that the tribe as a whole is distinct enough that its sub-groups don't influence each other at all.
  • Re:The Blank Slate (Score:4, Interesting)

    by garyboodhoo ( 945261 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @11:28PM (#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.

  • Re:Germans (Score:4, Interesting)

    by tenchiken ( 22661 ) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @11:50PM (#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.
  • Mutations (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Questioning ( 163996 ) * on Monday March 13, 2006 @12:21AM (#14905132)
    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 chromosome less prone to mutation?

    There was an article some time ago on slashdot science noting that extreme temperatures can influence the rate of mutations in certain single-celled lifeforms. The ability to change the rate and target of mutations in response to changes in environment is an extremely useful adaptation, particularly for asexual creatures that might often be exposed to circumstances too difficult for their progeny to survive without some genomic change.

    The adaptation of being able to trade genes - sexual reproduction - seems far less trivial than the adaptation of keeping some genes off limits while letting others mutate with a high degree of frequency. Life doesn't "choose to evolve" per se, but having a non-uniform degree of mutation across the entire genome is by itself an extremely functional adaptation .

    My point? Each gene might have a different propensity for mutation and different mechanisms for propagating within a population.

    And that could make it much harder to determine noise and margins of error (among other statistical issues).
  • Re:Asians? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by 19thNervousBreakdown ( 768619 ) <davec-slashdot&lepertheory,net> on Monday March 13, 2006 @12:25AM (#14905142) Homepage

    Because when you have a too-closely coupled food circle, you make an excellent environment for parasites, and they kill you. Cannibalism is an instinctual horror because of millions of years of evolution.

    Now, before you say that you have no instinctual horror when you think of eating human, remember that you're, well, human, and your big ass frontal lobe makes instinct a little distant. But I bet it's different if you've got a big slab of sizzling human thigh in front of you.

    Now that I think about it though, given that we cook our food nowadays we may be one of the first animals in history that could actually get away with it.

  • by linguae ( 763922 ) on Monday March 13, 2006 @12:30AM (#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 [] 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.

  • by kklein ( 900361 ) on Monday March 13, 2006 @12:43AM (#14905188)

    Have you ever owned a dachshund?

    Dachshunds are bred to go down into animal burrows and flush game out. Humans bred them to do that. And if you ever own a dachshund, you are likely to find that he likes digging holes and seeks out small, confined places to explore, no training necessary. But we don't find that surprising because, as I said before, he was bred to do that.

    So why on Earth would you suggest that humans--another animal constanty being bred for desirable traits--are somehow "above" this, aside from the reason that it is politically and historically uncomfortable?

    We all know we end up like our parents. We know that identical twins, even separated at birth, very often develop many of the same personality quirks. Why, then, is it so controversial to say that people who have more children will result in there being more of these traits out there, until at some point, they dominate a population?

    This truth is as plain as the nose on your face and the simpleminded ignorance of your post (and of my self-righteous and condescending attitude!).

  • It isn't in a vacuum (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Monday March 13, 2006 @12:57AM (#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.)
  • Re:Germans (Score:5, Interesting)

    by idlake ( 850372 ) on Monday March 13, 2006 @02:06AM (#14905403)
    If someone were intending to show a genetic component to personality, he or she would first have to show a physiological component to personality. That has yet to happen.

    Personality has an extensive physiological component, as demonstrated by numerous drugs that alter personality, as well as numerous well-documented and consistent changes to personality from brain trauma and injury. Something as simple as testosterone alters personality.

    To date, there heve been exactly zero scientific studies that point to a genetic component of personality, including the famous twins studies of the late 1990s.

    There are so many demonstrations of genetic components of different aspects of personality that this isn't even worth anything debating anymore.

    It's kind of ironic that, just as the right wing has their creationists, the left wing has a group of people like you that, for purely ideological reasons, deny elementary facts about individual differences.

    The real argument against eugenics and racism is not to deny, against scientific evidence, that there are genetic differences between individuals and groups of people, it is to respect, accept, and support people regardless of what genes they happened to have inherited.
  • An interesting idea. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jd ( 1658 ) <> on Monday March 13, 2006 @02:37AM (#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

This process can check if this value is zero, and if it is, it does something child-like. -- Forbes Burkowski, CS 454, University of Washington