Biology and Human Capital

I don’t pretend to be an economist.  If I had been, I’m sure that I too would have been unable to see the big real-estate bubble back in 2008, even though crazed Californians  were flipping houses all around my neighborhood.

Nevertheless, I am trying to think useful thoughts about the biological aspects of human capital. Wiki says that human capital is ” the stock of competencies, knowledge, habits, social and personality attributes, including creativity, cognitive abilities, embodied in the ability to perform labor so as to produce economic value. ” I’m down with that, although I’d choose to to take a separate look at creativity.

That stuff is all learned – babies don’t know much – but people vary in how easily they learn things. There are also cognitive ceilings,  such that you can’t really understand a subject beyond a certain complexity.  This can bite pretty hard when you run into it, as Luis Alvarez once said: ” The world of mathematics and theoretical physics is hierarchical. That was my first exposure to it. There’s a limit beyond which one cannot progress. The differences between the limiting abilities of those on successively higher steps of the pyramid are enormous. I have not seen described anywhere the shock a talented man experiences when he finds, late in his academic life, that there are others enormously more talented than he. I have personally seen more tears shed by grown men and women over this discovery than I would have believed possible. Most of those men and women shift to fields where they can compete on more equal terms. “

Or perhaps you could understand those things, but it would take more time than you have (say longer than a human lifetime) or more energy and dedication than you have.  I would guess that there is also a practical limit on how many things you can know  – because of time, if nothing else. That too must vary between individuals. John von Neumann absorbed info pretty easily – a professor of Byzantine history, at one of his Princeton parties, was dismayed to find that  John knew more about the subject than he did.

You might compare the human capital situation to soil fertility.  Some people are cheaper to educate than others (Ramanujan!), and the practical limit of education is not the same for everyone. An observational fact, not something that absolutely had to be the case, is that the payoff for educational investment plateaus:  we have a lot more ways of spending on education than we did in 1940, but the grandkids of people who took the Iowa Basic Tests in 1940 score about the same as the oldsters did.  Spending on education is like pushing a rope: past a fairly low point, nobody knows how to further improve things by spending more money. Although, to be fair,  the universe of proposed improvement methods is a narrow one.  I’ve never even heard an educationist suggest caffeinating the hell out of students – certainly worth trying.

At the upper end of the IQ distribution, people can learn things rapidly. High-school freshmen in in the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), who had tested in the top one-hundredth of one percent, managed to get a median score of 727 out of 800 on an AP Biology exam (95th  percentile) after an intensive three-week course.  Of course, to be fair, they averaged 52nd percentile before they even took it, even though they had not previously studied biology.

That’s an extreme example, of course, but it shows how far up is in this business.

On the other end of the spectrum, there seem to be plenty of kids who just don’t get algebra II.   By which I mean that they can’t get algebra II:   many suggest getting rid of the NEA, or supplying them with sufficiently magical teachers, or some other currently fashionable education nostrum,  just has to work.

It doesn’t have to work.

Even if you came up with a scheme that worked – which nobody has – it would have to be practical, affordable, and nontoxic, which rules out many possibilities.

Moreover, the fraction of kids that don’t get algebra II varies a lot between populations.  Generally, such racial /ethnic ‘gaps’ seem to bother people a lot more than randomly-distributed incompetence, of which we also have plenty.  Note: that SMPY sample was about half Ashkenazi Jewish, although for some reason they never seem to have published anything about that.

If economists absorbed the results of psychometrics and genetics,  they would have a reasonable start on the biological influences on human capital.  I say this realizing that other personality factors matter, not just intelligence – but A. we don’t have good measures and B. intelligence is genuinely important.  If Brad Delong did this, he would not find low per-capita GDP in Kenya such a mystery, or economic success in South Korea.  But he won’t, of course. There are more important things than figuring stuff out.

If economists took those results into account, they’d be mighty skeptical of the current enthusiasm for Pre-K.

In thinking of the long-run, they’d have to think about heritability and natural selection, which they sure don’t now. Considering those issues, it’s pretty obvious that what we now consider an efficient way of running an economy has disastrous long-term consequences for human capital formation.










Posted in Economics, Education | 17 Comments


Mitanni, controlling northern Syria and southeastern Anatolia, was a major player in the Bronze Age Near East from 1500 BC-1300 BC.  They contended and negotiated with the Hittites and the Egyptian New Kingdom.

Most of the population seems to have spoken Hurrian, but there are traces of something very different in their ruling class.  We have preserved diplomatic correspondence (cuneiform tablets last!)  showing that the rulers of Mitanni swore by Mitra, Varuna, Indra, and Nasatya.  There are other hints: names of the ruling class often make sense in Sanskrit.  Kikkuli of Mitanni’s horse conditioning manual has some Indo-Aryan words (aika, tera, panza, satta). Etc.  The semi-educated guess is that Indo-Aryans, as early charioteers, were hired by Mitanni as mercenaries and eventually grabbed the reins of power.   After, of course, making a wrong turn at Albuquerque: North Syria is quite a ways from the known stomping grounds of the Indo-Aryans.

There’s likely an interesting story here, but we are missing almost all of it, because we have never found Washukanni, the Mitanni capital. If we did, we’d probably find lots of cuneiform tablets – as we have other capital cities of that era, such as Boğazköy.

Washukanni was probably somewhere in the Khabur triangle.  Which brings me to the present, and possible near future: if we end up occupying that area, it’d be nice if we could manage a little digging on the side.  We just need to start embedding archaeologists into the infantry.



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Secondary Crops

There are weeds that gradually came to resemble the crop they infested.  When they were recognizably different  from the crop species, people pulled them up or separated out their seeds – automatically selecting for weeds that loo0ked more and more like the original crop.   Some of  the traits acquired are those we actually desire in a crop plant, such as larger seeds that don’t drop off spontaneously – and so in some cases, a weed became a  new crop.

Rye probably started out a a weed in wheat and barley fields.  It was originally a perennial, but that didn’t work very well in cultivated fields, so it evolved into an annual, like wheat and barley.  It  was hardier than wheat, and tolerated poorer soils, so it eventually became the main crop east of the Rhine and north of Hungary.

Oats has a similar origin: it does best in areas with cool, wet summers, like Scotland.

It seems to me that there may be some social parallels: bandits turning into governments, alchemists into chemists, Galenic doctors into almost-scientific medicine.





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501 (c)(3) : The Adventure Begins

The Dark Lords of the IRS have proclaimed that West Hunter Incorporated has Federal tax-exempt status. Contributions, including various forms of real property,  are deductible.  For details, write

West Hunter’s purpose is the advancement of education and science in anthropology and evolution.  That means this blog, scientific and popular articles, books, talks, and research projects.  Depending on resources, possible projects might include a search for  effective nootropics (possibly inspired by some of the Ashkenazi mutations),  cloning  a super-Neanderthal, or breeding the Kwisatz Haderach.

Robert Heinlein, in Methuselah’s Children, imagined the Howard Foundation.  Founded by Ira Howard, who made a pile in the California Gold Rush but died young (of old age!) and childless,  the foundation bribed people with unusually long-lived ancestors into marrying people with similar backgrounds, thus selectively breeding for longevity. This was written in 1941, when many people still knew that such things were possible.

You can imagine a similar foundation that breeds for intelligence: Cyril Kornbluth did, as background for The Marching Morons.  But today, there’s no such thing. Any attempt would be denounced, even if utterly non-coercive and completely successful.

Nobody’s thinking about the long run, the big issues.  Well, hardly anybody.



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Last Survivor

Over about 2500 years, the Middle Eastern farmers occupied almost all of Europe. That migration seem to have a single origin:  genetically they seem quite similar, even as far as north as southern Sweden.

The indigenous foragers didn’t disappear instantly, and some seem to have survived amidst the dominant farmers for a long time, without much gene flow. This pattern looks similar to what we’ve seen with Pygmies and Negritos.  In these contemporary examples, the encapsulated foragers have lost their original language. Probably those persisting European hunter-gathers also adopted the language of the surrounding farmers.

If this picture is correct, it seems likely that almost all of Europe, circa 4000 BC, spoke related languages, languages descended from a language that originated in the Fertile Crescent. The language map probably looked something the Bantu languages in Africa.

And then things went bad for the EEF peoples.   There is only one surviving language that seems likely to be member of that old radiation – Basque.  There were other languages that were probably in that family and lasted for quite a while: Iberian, Nuragic,  probably Tartessian,  maybe Etruscan, possibly Minoan and Eteocypriot.   The evidence we have on those other languages generally stems from the Classical era: by that time, these languages had had maybe five or six thousand years to diverge.

This means that Theo Vennemann is probably right about a Vasconic substratum, only it should be considerably more extensive than he suggests. The population in question originated near the heartland of Middle Eastern agriculture (First Farmers would be a good ethnonym), rather than spreading from a glacial refugium like Spain after the LGM.

How to prove this?  Sounds tough.  We may need another Rosetta stone.





Posted in European Prehistory, Linguistics | 86 Comments

Let No New Thing Arise

Thinking about it, it seems that disease burden for Europeans got worse and worse with time.  Some have said that the first farmers in the Middle East wouldn’t had any increase at all in infectious disease over foragers.   That’s wrong, of course, because just being sedentary results in an increase in diarrheal diseases, worm burden, etc. Increased population density also caused trouble.   Still, it wasn’t nearly as bad back then as it would be in later millennia.

I mentioned this a while ago, in the context of warfare: infectious disease wasn’t a huge problem for the legions.  But the increase affected everyone, not just warriors.

It helps to think about critical community size (CCS).  Consider a disease like measles, one that doesn’t last long and confers lifelong immunity.  The virus needs fresh, never-infected  hosts (we call them children) all the time, else it will go extinct.   The critical community size for measles is probably more than half a million – which means that before agriculture, measles as we know it today couldn’t and didn’t exist.  In fact, it looks as if split off from rinderpest within the last two thousand years.  Mumps was around in Classical times (Hippocrates gives a good description), but it too has a large CCS and must be relatively new.  Rubella can’t be ancient. Whooping cough has a smaller CCS, maybe only 100,000, but it too must postdate agriculture.

In Classical Greece,  smallpox hadn’t arrived.  It may have shown up in the Antonine plague (165-180 AD).

Some new infectious diseases didn’t last – like the English Sweate.  But many came to stay.

Bubonic plague showed up in Justinian’s reign and killed off half the population.  It didn’t persist then,  but it hung around for centuries after the second outbreak in 1347.

Syphilis arrived in 1494.  Typhus most likely also originated in the Americas.  Cholera was old in parts of India, but only arrived in Europe during the 19th century (Russia in 1817, the rest of Europe in 1827).

Europeans must have been evolving resistance, but nature kept piling on.  In some cases, like smallpox, fairly high virulence was a favored strategy for the pathogen -and nobody is very good at out-evolving a microorganism.  Medicine was an ineffective pseudoscience, worse than useless.






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Old Europe’s Remnants


Although we know quite a bit about the artifacts, ways of making a living, and recently even the DNA of  Europe’s first farmers, we don’t know anything about their language or much about what they thought or believed in.  Old Europe was one of the more advanced parts of the world, especially in metallurgy, but they don’t seem to have developed writing. The Sardinians are genetically very similar to those EEF farmers, but I doubt that they can tell us much about the old culture.  It’s been a long time.

Gimbutas thought she could reconstruct those cultures from  female figurines and Lithuanian old wive’s tales, but that was ridiculous.

On the other hand, we know a lot about the language of the invaders,  and have figured out a fair amount about Indo-European culture from linguistic archaeology. We can see that something new was added to the European genetic mix,  but we aren’t sure where those invaders originated.  That might be resolved, fairly soon.

We know that the Indo-Europeans crushed Old Europe and eventually imposed their language almost everywhere in Europe ( except for the Basques), but it didn’t happen all at once. I’m wondering if there were any cultures related to Old Europe – not just the high culture in the Balkans, but EEF culture more generally –  that  survived long enough for us to learn more about them.  In particular, I’m wondering if the Minoan culture was a product of this tradition.  EEF farmers certainly settled Crete, and I don’t think that any Indo-European types showed up there until the Mycenaean Greeks –  although I could be wrong about that.  It seems likely that the Minoans spoke a non-Indo-European language.


Posted in European Prehistory, Indo-European | 36 Comments