March 3, 2010

NYT: "Human Culture, an Evolutionary Force"

NYT genetics reporter Nicholas Wade has a new article with the self-explanatory title "Human Culture, an Evolutionary Force," using good old lactose tolerance as an example. It features a picture of a beautiful Kenyan highland meadow that might make even me want to take up long distance running. (Kenyan herdsmen are sort of "horseless cowboys" who hunt down strays on foot, so distance running ability is a useful trait for them.)

One question is why favorable traits such as lactose tolerance often don't reach fixation.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

40 comments:

rkillings said...

And no mention at all of Cochran and Harpending. How about that.

Anonymous said...

Ay, yai yai, a wealth of ignorance on display in the comments section of that NYT article.

Nanonymous said...

The article is a great illustration of how some evolutionary scientists can take a complete banality (culture influences genetic traits) and make a discovery out of it ("It wasn’t like we were despised, just kind of ignored,” Dr. Boyd said. But in the last few years, references by other scientists to their writings have “gone up hugely,” he said").

That's right, nobody before Drs. Boyd and Richerson suspected that technological advances helped humans to populate areas north of arctic circle and it is really a mind-blowing revelation that the environment there is different from that in sub-Saharan Africa. Nor the idea that epidemics are only possible in areas of high enough population density has ever crossed anyone's mind. And that maybe epidemics exert selective pressure. And ... Ah, never mind.

"Culture has become a force of natural selection, and if it should prove to be a major one, then human evolution may be accelerating as people adapt to pressures of their own creation."

Someone call Hawks and Cochran - they might want to take note of this insightful observation. It is pretty odd that Nicholas Wade decided not to even mention them in the discussed context.

Anonymous said...

Well, I read 123 comments. And mercifully, I was rewarded because comment #123 actually made sense. The only other comments that made any sense whatever, you could count on one hand.

Anonymous said...

Food allergies are kinda interesting to read up on.

There are people who are allergic to soybeans, peanuts, tree nuts, berries, milk, barley, rye, wheat, eggs(!), shellfish, Pollock, salmon, cod, tuna, snapper, eel, and tilapia, chocolate (why Lord, why?), and almonds. There are more.

I remember seeing a segment on Nightline a year or two back about a Amazonian tribe that ate nothing except fish and one particular root that they ground up into a paste. I imagine that this group would have problems if other foods were suddenly introduced into their diets.

Chief Seattle said...

I hope everyone remembers what happened last time Germans got interested in human genetics.

"... Mark Stoneking, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany."

OneSTDV said...

Wade also hints at cognitive HBD here:

"A third group of selected genes affects brain function. The role of these genes is unknown, but they could have changed in response to the social transition as people moved from small hunter-gatherer groups a hundred strong to villages and towns inhabited by several thousand, Dr. Laland said. “It’s highly plausible that some of these changes are a response to aggregation, to living in larger communities,” he said. "

Surprised he hasn't been barred from the NYT. I wonder if all his colleagues consider him a racist. He probably gets away with it because he just presents others peoples words.

He also wrote an article a few years back arguing for the biological existence of race.

kudzu bob said...

I eagerly await the New York Times' follow-up piece on how the rise of the welfare state might influence the course of human evolution.

Cordelia said...

It features a picture of a beautiful Kenyan highland meadow that might make even me want to take up long distance running.

You're just picturing yourself teeing off from that green. ;-)

Gyan said...

From the article I see no evidence that it was the cultural practice of drinking raw milk that led to lactose tolerance.

Why and how would non-tolerant adults drink raw milk?
Isnt it more likely that they first begin with fermented milk products and then slowly moved to less-fermented and then to unfermented but boiled milk and finally to raw milk.

I believe Masai mostly consume fermented milk products and not raw milk.

holmegm said...

I like the balance and caution in this article, at least compared to the great mass of evolution articles.

The amount of sheer speculation involved is quite startling.

Anonymous said...

"The amount of sheer speculation involved is quite startling.
"

True, and call me mister conspriacy but the 'milk' argument is also often used by the 'race doesnt exist crowd to 'prove' europeans are just like africans.

Anonymous said...

The example of lactose tolerance does seem rather over-used these days.

John M Auston said...

I think the "along for the ride" speculation has the most merit. We already know of several physical characteristics that come along for the ride when we select for tameness in wolves or foxes, and in humans we have things like the red hair/freckles/pale skin combination.

Interesting that 'recent' evolution effects are always still about 10,000
years ago. It seems logical to me that the combination of technology ( especially medical ), and the fact that we only need to get 'bad genes' past about 30 years so life to get the next generation created, would mean there is not much pressure anymore for 'improvements'.

Looking forward, I fear the Idiocracy effect, more than anything.

mnl said...

Regarding, "...why favorable traits such as lactose tolerance often don't reach fixation"...

Won't this always be the case? Not until a species is made perfect--which is itself a never-ending quest... Or not until all members of the species live in an identical environment... won't there always be found some traits in transition?

At this point in time, one of those un-fixated traits is lactose tolerance. At some point 10,000 years hence, it will be yet some other (presently unconsidered) trait about which we'll ask the very same question.

Bill said...

Why and how would non-tolerant adults drink raw milk?

Because they're really, really hungry?

However, I'd guess that lactose tolerance developed because it gave children rather than adults a selective advantage.

Mortality in kids is significantly higher than adults until age 15 or so, and then it drops for a while.

Kids who could drink milk for longer (past the age of four or five) probably could get more vitamins and nutrients in hard times than kids who couldn't, so more of them reached adulthood.

As for Steve's question about why lactose tolerance wasn't fixed, there again the answer may be culture. People found workarounds and stuck to them. Most Mongols are not lactose tolerant, but they consume milk products all the time.

Anonymous said...

Since this is an "evolution" thread...

Last night someone on the ONT at AoSHQ posted a link to this story:


Employment for Adult Males is at Record Lows
By Barry Ritholtz
March 3rd, 2010, 11:30AM
ritholtz.com


And then somebody in the comments at ritholtz.com pointed to this PDF file at the Bureau of Labor Statistics:


Labor force participation: 75 years of change, 1950–98 and 1998–2025
bls.gov

Male 16+ LFPR, 1950: 86.4%
Male 16+ LFPR, 1960: 83.3%
Male 16+ LFPR, 1970: 79.7%
Male 16+ LFPR, 1980: 77.4%
Male 16+ LFPR, 1990: 76.1%
Male 16+ LFPR, 1998: 74.9%

Female 16+ LFPR, 1950: 33.9%
Female 16+ LFPR, 1960: 37.7%
Female 16+ LFPR, 1970: 43.3%
Female 16+ LFPR, 1980: 51.5%
Female 16+ LFPR, 1990: 57.5%
Female 16+ LFPR, 1998: 59.8%


Anyway, it dawned on me that maybe some of T99/Whiskey's insane theories aren't so crazy after all - maybe what we are seeing here is some sort of a bizarre darwinian-nihilist nightmare in which the women of a society turn on their men and devour them and rend the entire enterprise into oblivion.

Mark said...

Why and how would non-tolerant adults drink raw milk? Isnt it more likely that they first begin with fermented milk products and then slowly moved to less-fermented and then to unfermented but boiled milk and finally to raw milk.

Learned behavior isn't inherited. Almost all adults can consume a small amount of milk without digestive problems. They were probably doing so before lactose tolerance became widespread. But the people with the gene for lactose tolerance gained more nutritional benefit from the drinking of milk and so, with the domestication of cattle, the gene became advantageous.

How much of that benefit was due to the particular nutritional qualities of cow's milk and how much was due to simply being able to have a ready supply of extra calories? There are a lot of people today who somehow think that milk consumption is bad for you, though many (most? all?) of these people seem to be of a far left orientation and seem to hate traditional culture for all kinds of reasons. They also tend to appear pretty unhealthy to me. The people I see shopping at Whole Foods are the ugliest, unhealthiest looking people of all, even edging out the shoppers at WalMart.

josh said...

Those comments are something else. People really can't see the logical non-PC conclusion at the end of the creationist-bashing.

Mark said...

Part of me actually wonders how much of the left-wing opposition to milk consumption is stirred up by people who hate whites. If you look at many of the articles arguing against milk consumption, part of their argument always seems to rest on the fact that very few non-white adults drink milk (or are able to), so it is therefore somehow "unnatural." Or perhaps the key-movers in the field are motivated by some desire to level the racial playing field.

bbartlog said...

'Why and how would non-tolerant adults drink raw milk?'

Because they had moved north, the barley crop failed, and they were on the edge of cold starvation; yet retained enough sense to realize that slaughtering their cows for meat would result in certain death at a later date? One thing the genetic record tells us (via the oh-so-neutral term 'selection pressure') is that our ancestors faced some damned grim circumstances.

As for the rarity of favored alleles reaching fixation... uh, how do you know? Seems like there are probably plenty of things that have reached fixation. They just aren't easy to identify as you would need to find the extinct allele in the fossil record or in a related species.

Sideways said...

Why and how would non-tolerant adults drink raw milk?

Everyone is lactose tolerant at some point (except for a few unfortunate babies). If we knew how and at what age people stopped drinking milk when this popped up, we might have the answer to your question.

Anonymous said...

The final comment (#123) on the article says it all:

#123.
Zaotar
Los Angeles
March 2nd, 2010
5:44 pm
There is an astonishing amount of scientific illiteracy displayed in these comments, ranging from the person denying that evolution is "causal" on the grounds that it is "non-teleological" -- an absurd non sequitur, whether something is teleological has no necessary relation to whether it is causal -- to the gibberish about inheritance of "acquired traits." Evidently a significant portion of the NYT readership is composed of convinced Lamarckists. Sad. This article's research has absolutely nothing to do with Lamarckism. And that's not even to mention the various bonkers permutations of "evolutionary theory" other commenters are putting forward.

Goes to show that creationists aren't the only ones operating with a miserably defective understanding of how the modern evolutionary synthesis works. Apparently most of the NYT readership is in the same boat as the creationists."

Anonymous said...

Lactose tolerance evolved only in certain places. Competitive altruism evolved only in certain places

I think it is pretty well established that competitive altruism is very much prevalent among the people who lives in Northern Europe and not so prevalent in the rest of the world. Why is that? Is competitive altruism a product of evolution?

Let's put it another way, the english speaking whites in S Africa seem to have demonstrated competitive altruism in pushing to hand over control to the majority population.

Swedes decided to allow massive muslim immigration. Is it possible that there is no motive among the swedes other than competitive altruism?

When you look at the political positions that the average highly educated person of european ancestry holds, how many of these positions actually correspond with self interest? I mean I see many many people in Manhattan who inherited tremendous wealth who are in favor of much higher inheritance tax.

Amy Biehl's parents held political positions that led them to send their daughter to her death. And after their daughter was murdered, Biehl's parents reaffirmed that their political beliefs hadn't changed at all.

In South Africa there was a reasonably large group of "liberal" english speaking white citizens that worked tirelessly to hand control of the country to the majority. So far I have seen no evidence that these whites benefitted financially from the transition. In fact, not only are their lives demonstrably worse under black rule, but in many cases their wealth has been decimated. For example, commercial real estate prices in Jo'burg are down 80% since the handover (google some photos of downtown Jo'burg and you will see why)

Again, does competitive altruism explain the behaviour of the hundreds of thousands of White South Africans that fought to hand over control of the country, or is there some other explanation?

It seems to me that many n europeans have a deeply rooted altruism gene. This altruism gene often over rules their own self interest, and leads them to do things and to fight for political positions that are at odds with their own self interest.

I see this over and over again. Altruism drives people (often in the wrong direction) that is why a political appeal to naked self interest won't work -

l said...

"Culture has become a force of natural selection, and if it should prove to be a major one, then human evolution may be accelerating as people adapt to pressures of their own creation."

Maybe we can create a truly progressive utopia after all. Maybe with enough pre-school counselors and sensitivity training, the human race can transcend it's killer/racist/homophobic ape present.

Anonymous said...

Where the hell have you been?

Anonymous said...

Interesting the comment regarding competitive altruism. Here's a thought: the genes we have did not evolve in the environment we live in, but in the environment we lived in. That environment did not include things like democracy, where competitive altruists could race to see who could give away their country the fastest. Moreover I think that successful people are typically people who haven't been beat up much by life, so they're touched with a certain liberality that keeps them from recognizing the dangers around the corner. That's why our country is an open border party to which all should be invited. Of course this liberality doesn't apply to their own bank account in the same way it applies to the taxpayer wallet...

Anonymous said...

working on a new book?

Anonymous said...

I think it may even be simpler. Say there are 20 toddlers is a village and food is scarce because cold weather destroyed grain crop or other veg. food. The people keep feeding the toddlers the milk because that is what is available and it becomes a habit. Those who are most tolerant to milk grow and thrive more than those who aren't. With usual high childhood mortality, people might not have figured out that sick kids might be better off not drinking milk so the selection effect continued after the short term food shortage. So it is like you said those who are tolerant gain advantage to their less healthy peers and more of them reproduce, probably with one another.

David Davenport said...

If you look at many of the articles arguing against milk consumption, part of their argument always seems to rest on the fact that very few non-white adults drink milk (or are able to), so it is therefore somehow "unnatural."

I suspect that some opposition to milk consumption has to do with keeping kosher:


Meaning of the Word “Kosher”

“Kosher” is the common word that refers to following Jewish dietary laws. Kosher food is “fit” if it meets the Jewish dietary laws.

List of Kosher Foods

...

Milk and milk products derived from a kosher animal

Cheese made with vegetable-based enzymes

Unprocessed or unleavened grains and cereals

In order for foods to remain kosher, they must be prepared in certain ways, and some foods must not be combined. For instance, never mix meat and milk products. And never mix fish with milk or mix fish with meat or place fish and meat on the same dish.

...

Anonymous said...

Human Culture may be an evolutionary force for those within that a particular culture, but each culture competes against others in a global ecosystem.

Cultures that become too decadent, self-destructive or can't compete eventually fade into the background, are conquered by more vigorous cultures or simply collapse from within.

An interesting question is how long does it take for culture to affect evolution? Do dysfunctional cultures persist long enough to have a lasting impact on the genetics underlying such dysfunction on it's population's DNA?

A twist is that modern technology and concentrated wealth has rendered the population genetics of a culture less important than the genetics of a tiny elite subgroup. In today's globalized mobile world, an extremely wealthy tiny elite can blithely wreak havoc on their native culture without suffering any lasting consequences.

Peter A said...

the english speaking whites in S Africa seem to have demonstrated competitive altruism in pushing to hand over control to the majority population

I disputed this assertion at Sigma's place. It wasn't "altruism" at all - the English speaking population of SA considers the Boers their real enemy, and given a choice between a black South Africa or a Boer South Africa the English chose to work for the former. Probably a rational choice actually. In the long run the blacks will need the help of the English a lot more than the Boers would have, so I don't call that altruism.

Anonymous said...

Anyway, it dawned on me that maybe some of T99/Whiskey's insane theories aren't so crazy after all

Geoff has been noticing the same thing:

No Change in Unemployment, but We’ve Traded Full-Timers for Part-Timers
michaelscomments.wordpress.com

...Last month the number of jobs actually increased by about 550,000 from the month before, but almost the entire increase was in the "Women, 20+" category...

Anonymous said...

Here's a simple question: How does ANY negative trait that doesn't manifest it's presence until after the organism is past prime reproduction age, get removed from the gene pool? For goodness sake, some still successful species decapitate the male immediately after copulation.

Anonymous said...

I want to understand the South African situation a little better. I mean, plenty of English speaking whites pushed hard for majority rule. That means control of the country is in the hands of the majority, not the Boers.

From an objective standpoint, are the english speaking South Africans better off because of the transition to majority rule?

Off the top of my head, I would speculate that some of them are and some aren't

For example, If I was an English speaking South African who owned commercial property in a black neighborhood, I have to assume that the value of my property has fallen as crime has increased...

If I was an English speaking South African who owned hotels in cape town, perhaps I benefitted since Cape town gets more tourism now that the country is not a pariah?

I guess you could analyze each white family and figure out which ones benefitted and which ones did not.

My guess is that if you add it all up, the overwhelming majority of the English speaking whites are worse off in terms of (1) loss of wealth and (2) loss of safety

On the other hand, the prestige and status of these English speaking whites among their friends and relatives in Europe is much higher. In other words, English speaking whites can visit Europe and be treated well, not treated as pariahs.

Majority rule is thus worse objectively, but better in terms of status. Can anyone else confirm this to be true?


Since I live near Steve in LA, I see something similar here in LA, some sort of combination of competitive altruism / competitive coolness.

I know some couples with school age kids that live in Venice, and some that live in Calabasas. Sufice it to say that on an objective material standard, the couples in Venice have a worse life. Homeless people living near them, litter all over, public schools that are sub optimal, Dog owners that won't clean up after their pets, lots of other problems I won't even mention (I encourage everyone here to visit Venice to see what I am talking about the next time they are in the LA region)

The families in Calabasas have it much better. Great public schools, clean, safe, and for the price of a small house in Venice you get a big house in Calabasas.

So from a practical, material standpoint Calabasas is better. but the people who live in Venice have much more of a coolness factor. They are regarded as more interesting people, more modern. People from out of state think living in Venice is cool and Calabasas is not. People move to Venice for the status.

Is it possible that the same thing is true of the English speaking South Africans - that they effectively moved from a materially better place (white run south africa) to a effectively crummier place (majority rule south africa) for the coolness factor and prestige?

Anonymous said...

"How does ANY negative trait that doesn't manifest it's presence until after the organism is past prime reproduction age, get removed from the gene pool?"

The important thing isn't just to have children, it's to have grandchildren and great grandchildren. People are still useful after they're past reproduction age. Those with genes that harm them after reproduction make it less likely that their great grandkids will survive.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that the same thing is true of the English speaking South Africans - that they effectively moved from a materially better place (white run south africa) to a effectively crummier place (majority rule south africa) for the coolness factor and prestige?

You're describing the suicidal nature of nihilism [although lately Komment Kontrol doesn't seem to want to allow me to make that observation].

Anonymous said...

Is his new book on religion worth reading?

none of the above said...

Genes that help you survive to 70 and care for your grandkids are only able to be selected for to
the extent that people live long enough to benefit
from them. Before decent medicine, most people didn't
live that long, so there wasn't so much selection for them.

Captain Jack Aubrey said...

Genes that help you survive to 70 and care for your grandkids are only able to be selected for to
the extent that people live long enough to benefit from them. Before decent medicine, most people didn't live that long, so there wasn't so much selection for them.


Right, Sport - now think about that one for a minute. Get back to us when you figure out the flaw(s) in your logic.