Saturday, September 17, 2005

Scrambled Eggs and Brains

Two recent papers in SCIENCE (9 September 2005) report on a couple of variants in genes associated with increased brain size have increased in frequency rapidly, too rapidly to be explicable as instances of genetic drift. Statistical tests indicate that one of the variants in the gene Microcephalin arose about 37,000 years ago. The second, haplogroup D of the ASPM gene, is more recent and probably began to occur around 5800 years ago.

The press noted that the two variants occur less frequently in sub-Saharan Africa than elsewhere, which doubtlessly reinforced the belief, nearly universal in America, that blacks are genetically inferior to Europeans. What the newspapers didn’t notice, however, is that the incidence of the genes is highest not in Europe but in places like Pakistan. Some 78.6% of the French population tested possessed the Microcephalin variant, but 98% of the Siberian Ubermenschen. 45% of tested North Italians had haplotype D, but they couldn’t compete with Papua, New Guinea where the sample came it at just under 60%.

Well, the ifs, and, and buts never impress anybody. They are routinely dismissed as liberal piety. It probably doesn’t help to point out that a host of genetic variants affect brain development and that there is no way of determining from purely statistical studies whether the Microcephalin variant or haplotype D are particularly important determinants of better cognitive functions or, indeed, whether they in fact improve cognitive function at all. Natural selection obviously favored these genes, but what phenotypical effects account for their greater fitness is unknown. Genes typically have multiple effects so it is perfectly possible that the variants in question flourished because they boosted immunity to some pathogen or directly increased fertility like another rapidly spreading gene variant recently identified in Iceland.

The authors of the papers go so far as to speculate that the timing of the appearance of the two genetic variants matches up with important milestones in human cultural evolution; but if cave painting or agriculture were somehow made possible by these mutations, they must have been potent indeed since at the outset and for many generations afterwards, only a tiny percentage of individuals possessed them. I’m more inclined to look at things from a reversed perspective. Every cultural accomplishment increases the value of intelligence and makes it likely that any mutation that improves cognitive functioning will spread through the population. What occurs is analogous to a common pattern in the history of technology, the invention of a new practice—extracting motive power from fuel, telephony, flying—inspires an often motley series of secondary inventions that implement or exploit the primary innovation. No point in having more brains if there’s nothing to do with them. It might be that cultural changes circa 38,000 BCE or 5600 BCE made the genetic changes more likely to spread rather than the other way around.

If civilization persists long enough, the genetic basis of human cognitive performance will eventually be elucidated and the results may be ideologically embarrassing to everybody, though probably not in foreseeable ways. In the meantime, it’s a good bet that every isolated research result will be taken as confirmation of the prevailing tribal prejudices. A true statement is validly implied by every other statement, true or false–trust me, it’s logic—so if you are an absolute believer in some tenet, it is perfectly though insanely reasonable to assume that everything you hear is further evidence of its truth. Which is why, incidentally, every surprising result in biology can be instantly seized upon as evidence for intelligent design and people can actually be edified by the sufferings of marching penguins. This sort of thing makes me very dubious about the whole enterprise of popular science.

By the way, there is at least one widely held belief that really is challenged by results like the papers in SCIENCE. I refer to the endlessly repeated notion that the advent of anatomically modern human beings signaled the replacement of genetic evolution with cultural evolution. This commonplace never made any sense at all. Natural selection is inevitable whenever heritable phenotypical characteristics lead to differential rates of successful reproduction. Since not everybody has the same number of live offspring and their relative fertility is surely not a matter of mere chance, evolution will proceed, although its action will often take the form of apparent stasis under the action of what is usually called stabilizing selection, the biological version of quality control. Anyhow, as I previously pointed out, the emergence of culture actually promotes directional evolution—the development of animal husbandry led to the rapid spread of genes that allow adults to drink liquid milk, for example—and I wouldn’t be surprised if ever more complex technological civilization eventually leads to one or more speciation events.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Unparallel Lives

I could only shrug my shoulders at a recent survey in which Ronald Reagan emerged as the greatest American president. Ideologies aside, anybody with even a rudimentary knowledge of history has to wonder how a one-dimensional figure like Reagan, who spent most of his life as an actor or corporate spokesman, didn’t write even his own speeches, and never led his nation through a war or comparable crisis could be compared to, for example, Abraham Lincoln, who having given himself a profound, if narrow education, became a great orator, the emancipator of an entire race, and the tragic hero of a desperate civil war. The worst disaster Reagan ever faced was the loss of the 300 marines in Lebanon, a blow to his political image that he conveniently recouped three days later by invading a small and defenseless island in the Caribbean. It is difficult to imagine Reagan dealing with the costs and sorrows of an Antietem or a Gettysburg. I do give him credit for resisting the worst impulses of his right-wing advisors and allowing himself to listen to Gorbachev. But Gorbachev, after all, was the great man of the era while Reagan was never much more than a PR confection, a masterpiece of audioanimatronics even before he fetched up in Disneyland. Yet Reagan outpolled Abraham Lincoln. You might as well compare Thomas Jefferson and George Bush.

Speaking of Jefferson and Bush, there is actually a formal basis of comparison. Jefferson came into office with a minimalist view of government, but the opportunity to acquire Louisiana quickly changed his mind about what the Federal government should or should not undertake. Bush is also finding that New Orleans can make you change your tune about the proper responsibilities of the state. Supposedly a proponent of small government, Bush was heard last night trying to sound like FDR, though his version of the New Deal, supervised by fixer-in-chief, Karl Rove, is likely to come off like a botched bank robbery. Indeed, it is likely to come off as a botched bank robbery.

It should be noted, of course, that the hurricane is not the first disaster to derail Bush’s plans—9/11, the failure of the Iraq invasion, and the oil crunch kept him in Brownian motion even before his problems with Brown. Every president sooner or later finds his preconceptions defeated by events, but Bush was a hostage to fortune from the beginning. He gets blown about by every unforeseen contingency, which means he gets blown about quite a bit since he doesn’t do much foreseeing. He may be stubborn and prejudiced, but he certainly isn’t steadfast and principled. With his utter lack of substance, in fact, he might eventually be a worthy competitor to Ronald Reagan in some future greatest American poll.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Judicial Notice

With a resounding title like the Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Bryan Ward-Perkins’ new book figures to be a magisterial brick. In fact it is more accurate to call it an extended pamphlet—it’s barely more than 200 pages. Written for a polemical purpose, it is a move in the on-going debate about the advent of the Dark Ages. Over the last twenty or thirty years, several influential historians have tried to re-imagine the era between 200 and 800 AD as “a quite decisive period of history that stands on its own” rather than a depressing coda to a glorious antiquity. Ward-Perkins is not entirely hostile to some of this work. He obviously respects Peter Brown, for example, though he points out that such books as the World of Late Antiquity and the Rise of Western Christendom focus on the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of the era rather than its economics and politics. But Ward-Perkins dissents when revisionist historians attempt to downplay the gravity and violence of the fall of the Empire in favor of an irenic vision in which the Romans and barbarians gradually accommodate to one another. In the West, at least, there was indeed a catastrophe in the 5th Century, a comprehensive crash comparable to the collapses of civilizations documented by Jared Diamond.

Mentalities are fine, but Ward-Perkins concerns himself with piles of broken pottery, the remains of old villages, and the bones of ancient cattle to address realities. The contrast in material conditions before and after the 5th Century is startling. One easily forgets how wealthy and comfortable the Empire had become, not only for a tiny elite but also for farmers and tradesmen who lived in well-build houses with tile roofs and emptied the wine and oil from mountains of amphora. Literally mountains. A view of Rome from 1625 shows Monte Testaccio, a 50-meter high hill made of some 53 million amphora imported from southern Spain.

Before the Barbarian invasions, the prosperity of the Western Empire depended on the long-distance exchange of cash crops and other goods. When first Gaul and Spain and then Africa fell to invaders, the dismembered parts could not sustain themselves either economically or demographically. The enormous manufacturing industries that used standardized methods to gin out good quality clothing, pottery, and weapons failed. As Ward-Perkins documents, domestic animals became smaller as farmers reverted to less efficient subsistence agriculture. Though the book doesn’t address the issue directly, one can only assume that people were similarly stunted. Things really, genuinely, no fooling, went to Hell.

I think Ward-Perkins makes his case effectively, but it’s telling that he needs so few pages to do so. The point of view he combats was never very strong in arguments and evidence. Its appeal was and is extrinsic. Ward-Perkins claims that it has become convenient to find nice things to say about the barbarians since most of the E.U. nations are heirs to the barbarian kingdoms; but I think there is something else at work besides multicultural sweetness and light, though the fetching picture of the barbarian couple he reproduces from a recent French book suggests he’s got a point. I note that, as it did in late antiquity, much of our intellectual life has turned inward—Derrida and Lacan are highly reminiscent of Plotinus and Proclus—so that the mental life of the Church fathers and Neoplatonics seems more interesting to many scholars than the noise and numbers of economics and demography. Writers who obsess about what people think and feel instead of what they do and make have become idealists in practice if not in theory. They just aren’t interested in what used to be quaintly called the external world.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Of Some of the People, By Some of the People, For Some of the People

The administration is spending billions of dollars in response to Katrina. One is supposed to be grateful that they have finally decided to do something, but it is quite likely that they are going to waste an enormous amount of public money in the process. The same cost-plus, no-bid contracts that were awarded to Bush’s political allies in Iraq are very much a feature of the current relief effort. Of course from a purely partisan point of view, this sort of looting of the treasury is not a waste at all since it’s going into the right pockets; but for those of us who aren’t in on the swag, it’s just more looting. And the damage is not merely fiscal. Bush et. al. are past masters of using emergency situations as cover for passing laws that continue their settled policy of dismantling unions and weakening environmental protections.

The Republicans harm us, as much when they are driven to address genuine public needs as when they pursue more overtly selfish ends. Last year’s Medicare bill, for example, ostensibly enacted to provide drug benefits to seniors, has turned out to be a gruesomely expensive boondoggle that provides minimum help at maximum cost while containing a host of deal sweeteners for the political connected drug firms. No bill at all would have been much preferable to this measure, which not even the conservatives have bothered to defend except as a more or less necessary piece of political cynicism in an election year.

In lieu of encouraging the government to do anything at all over the next three years, responsible politicians need to follow a consistent program of obstructionism. Nothing good will come from this corrupt crew, whose defenders are more accurately described as accomplices than supporters. What we have here is a new version of the Grant administration, except that it was possible to believe that the President in that case was simply na├»ve. It was said that Grant never met a businessman he didn’t trust. But Bush is a businessman who, absent amnesia, should surely know better than to trust himself.
The Inextinguishable Laughter of the Blessed Gods

While everyone except salaried administration personnel and pundits on Fox has denounced the conduct of the Iraqi war, criticism of the war itself remains strangely muted beyond the radical left. A great many Democrats, including self-defined liberal Democrats, favored the invasion even though most of them thought the PR preparation was inadequate. For them no less than for Rumsfeld or Bush, international laws and treaties are just scraps of paper; and the doctrine of preemption is unproblematic. But the liberal hawks have more in common with the administration than the traditional sociopathy of the international relations professional. They share the right’s belief that America can do anything it likes because of its enormous military and economic preponderance. Beneath their purported political realism lies a thick deposit of nationalist fantasy. They seem to actually believe that we can get away with almost any level of incompetence.

The theologians missed something when they didn’t include complacency among the divine attributes. A God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and eternal is necessarily also immune to anxiety. I mildly care about such things, because I’ve always liked the first person of the Trinity. Some fictions are more lovable than others—I’ve still got the hots for Elizabeth Bennett, for example—and part of the appeal of the figure of Father to me is the attraction of somebody, someplace who has everything under control. It would be similarly gratifying to imagine that one lived in a nation so powerful as to be unmenaced even by its own errors. I’ve got a head cold just now, so I can’t say with 100% certainty that our shit doesn’t stink. Nevertheless, I believe as an article of rational faith that it does. I don’t think that any country ever has or ever could achieve so transcendent a status.