So you’re thinking of being a traitor

I was just reading something by Freeman Dyson, a review of a biography of Bruno Pontecorvo.  He explains that technical spies, like Pontecorvo or Klaus Fuchs or Ted Hall, are unimportant because the Soviet Union had plenty of first-rate scientists already, people like Yuri Khariton and Zeldovich and Sakharov, and would have eventually gotten to the same place anyhow.  He thinks that people like Hall only accelerated the Soviet bomb program by two or three years. But tactical spies, people like Aldrich Ames or Kim Philby , who burned fellow agents and got them killed – they’re quite naughty.

So I guess being a atomic spy in the service of the Soviet Union was almost a peccadillo.  Right-thinking people certainly want to think that, since so many of them were sympathetic to Uncle Joe (‘ he rolls the executions on his tongue like berries’ ) and his antics. Of course, right-thinking people are always wrong.

Gee, what happened in those two or three years? Anything bad? Anything that wouldn’t have happened if Stalin was Bombless?  The Korean War, certainly.  Heard of it? Moreover, those technical spies saved the Soviets money as well as time – we explored all the possible approaches to manufacturing fissionables in the Manhattan Project, most of which were expensive failures, but the Soviets didn’t have to.  Their resources were limited: this helped.  Their first bomb was made from Los Alamos engineering blueprints (thanks, Ted Hall !)

Usually,  you have to be careful not to be too hard on public intellectuals, since they’re not very smart and don’t know jack about anything. You really can’t expect anything from them.  Dyson, however, is smart – very smart –  actually knows some things, and has accomplished a lot.  But he’s still utterly full of shit, when it comes to making excuses for ‘his kind of people’.

Let me make a few suggestions for the next crop of foolish scientists considering aiding the next noxious ism. I think there’s a ‘due diligence’ principle – maybe, just maybe, before  changing sides, you really need to check if the guys you’re aiding are tyrants and mass murderers,  And if they are, that’s a bad thing, not a proof of how serious they are. Check first.  Pontecorvo didn’t check: I think he was a a damn fool, worse than stupid.  He came to agree: “The simple explanation is this: I was a cretin,’ he said. ‘The fact that I could be so stupid, and many people close to me should have been quite so stupid . . .’ The sentence was left unfinished. Communism, he went on, was ‘like a religion, a revealed religion . . . with myths or rites to explain it. It was the absolute absence of logic.’ ”

I know that means reading something other than Nature or Phys Rev.  It might even mean listening to the Lithuanians in the neighborhood bar as they complain about their cousins being shot – but I don’t think that’s asking too much.  Parenthetically, why is it that intellectuals feel attracted to monsters like Stalin or Lenin, but hardly ever become agents/disciples of Switzerland or Canada or Uruguay?  Nice countries finish last?

Perhaps nothing can really be done: it may be that a high fraction of the psychological types that produce scientific advances are just silly people, without a bit of common sense.  Born that way.  Maybe we could work hard at making executions more certain, frequent and terrifying:  in a better world, Ted Hall would have shit in his pants at the mere thought of committing treason.




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Y-chromosome crash

A recent paper on  Y-chromosome phylogeny  found that a big fraction of Y-chromosomes  fall into a few star-cluster lineages that are a few thousand years old.  You’ve  already heard of some of these (R1a and R1b, for example).

I might be wrong, but I get that the impression that some people have gravely misunderstood what this means.  For example, something at Slate  writing about this work seems to think that back in those old times, only one man passed on his DNA for every 17 women.  Others apparently got the same impression.

Let’s think about it. If only 1 in 17 men reproduced, Y-chromosome diversity would be reduced, all right – but overall genetic diversity, autosomal diversity, would also decrease, which apparently has not actually happened, as Alan Rogers has pointed out.  More than that: is such a society, one in which 94% of men never reproduce, very plausible?  Would it be stable? Reminds of a case in which some drunken soldiers wandered into a hard-core Baptist church service, and after an inspired sermon on the torments of Hell,  objected: “There couldn’t be no sich place! People wouldn’t stand for it !”

Such a society would be like the famous car-wash scene in Cool Hand Luke – all the time.

Here is a more plausible scenario, one that fits the facts. Some conqueror has an inordinate number of kids (because he can).  His sons, and his sons’ sons,  rule for a long time – eventually most of the aristocracy are their male-line descendants.  That first generation had a huge reproductive advantage, but we’re only talking one guy:  if our hero had 100 wives,  that doesn’t make much difference in the overall fraction of men that reproduce.  As the generations pass, his patrilineage gets bigger but their average  reproductive advantage becomes smaller (they can’t ALL be kings). The conqueror’s autosomal contribution is cut in half each generation ( at least while this patrilineage doesn’t make up much of the total population) , unlike his Y chromosome: his genes never make up much of the overall autosomal ancestry, even when most of the men in the population have his Y-chromosome.   Autosomal genetic diversity is hardly reduced, effective Ne does not drop noticeably, while the Y chromosome is almost fixed – would be, except for continuing mutations.

Let’s suppose that this process (one  Y chromosome becomes dominant in this Genghis-Khanish way) takes place over a thousand years.  I think at the worst point, the fraction of guys having offspring is probably 80% as large as it was back in the egalitarian days of old.

Genetic inequality may have increased some. The rich may well have out-reproduced the poor, although with cities as population sinks, you can’t be sure. In Europe, this process surely involved conquest, likely with a lot of indigenous old-farmer men getting whacked.

But only 5 0r 10% of guys fathering kids in a given generation?  Never happened.


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Charles Murray and Robert Putnam on class

Charles Murray recently wrote Coming Apart about growing class differences in white Americans. Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor of government or something, has a new popular book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. They apparently say much the same thing (I haven’t read Putnam’s yet). They appear together at the Aspen Institute, whatever that is, in an excellent Youtube video. They are on the opposite ends of the political spectrum yet they have no disagreements about substance.

When the audience asks about policy implications, Murray has little to say because, he says, he is a libertarian. Putnam’s response, on the other hand, is chilling. We need more pre-K education and we need to train our teachers to fill the role of inadequate parents for our children. Scary: I hope that he will leave our children alone.

One wonders how Putnam thinks about these issues. While we are on the topic I quote a review of a previous famous Putnam paper by the great John Derbyshire from his book We are Doomed.


In September 2006, political scientist Robert Putnam was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize, one of the most prestigious in his field. The prize is awarded in Uppsala, Sweden, by a Scandinavian scholarly association. (Skytte was a seventeenth-century Swedish grandee.)

As usual with such events in the academic world, Putnam presented a research paper to commemorate the event. The paper is titled “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” and can easily be found on the Internet. I’ll refer to it in what follows as “the Uppsala paper.”
That paper has a very curious structure. After a brief introduction (two pages), there are three main sections, headed as follows:

The Prospects and Benefits of Immigration and Ethnic Diversity (three pages)
Immigration and Diversity Foster Social Isolation (nineteen pages)
Becoming Comfortable with Diversity (seven pages)

I’ve had some mild amusement here at my desk trying to think up imaginary research papers similarly structured. One for publication in a health journal, perhaps, with three sections titled:

Health benefits of drinking green tea
Green tea causes intestinal cancer
Making the switch to green tea

Social science research in our universities cries out for a modern Jonathan Swift to lampoon its absurdities.

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The Once and Future Khan

Razib Khan managed to get himself hired and fired by the New York Times over the course of a single day, an enviable record.  Having the Times look upon you with favor is a dubious honor in the first place, something like having a leper ask you out on a date – so a quick hire-and-fire is optimal. Something for the CV, but you never had to actually hang out with the slimebags.  Not as cool as ‘refused the Fields Medal’,  but pretty cool.

I am not Razib, and I disagree with him on some things of importance: but I look forward to the day, a few years hence, when Razib is still cursing the ignorant commenters, while the New York Times is one with the dust of Nineveh and Tyre.

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Europa, Enceladus, Moon Miranda

A lot of ice moons seem to have interior oceans, warmed by tidal flexing and possibly radioactivity.  But they’re lousy candidates for life, because you need free energy; and there’s very little in the interior oceans of such system.

It is possible that NASA is institutionally poor at pointing this out.

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Another one bites the dust!

Iain Mathieson and the Reich-Patterson crew have a new paper out on natural selection over the past 8,000 years in Europe, much fortified by the availability of ancient DNA and knowledge of the ancestral mix.

The first point is that lactose tolerance is a fairly late development in Europe, not common (unseen in these samples) until almost the bronze age (first seen in a Bell Beaker skeleton).  In particular they don’t see it (not common) in the Yamnaya, which must mean that it wasn’t a driver of the Indo-European expansion: we were wrong.  I suspect it did exist in the early Indo-Europeans, since we see the same haplotype in India, but one guy wandering around can change the distribution of an adaptive allele. I also don’t understand how they got such a low estimate of its selective advantage (1.5%), but maybe I can winkle that out.

It looks as if there was selection for greater height among the Yamnaya – a possible parallel with Nilotics?

The strong light-skin allele, SLC24A5, does look to be mainly introduced by the early neolithic farmers, but there’s weirdness.  It’s not found in the western hunter-gatherers, but it is there in Scandinavian hunter-gatherers, where you also see the well-known EDAR 370A mutation. It’s even possible that it originated there – but it’s rare in Europeans today, although you see it in Finns a little.






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Solidarity Forever

If you had a gene with a conspicuous effect (like a green beard) that at the same time caused the carrier to favor other individuals with a green beard, you could get a very powerful kind of genetic altruism, one not limited to close relatives.  A very strong effect, one that caused you to act as if other carriers were just as valuable as you are (as if other carriers were your identical twin) could exist, but weaker effects (green fuzz) could also be favored by selection – if you were just somewhat more likely to cooperate with others bearing the mark.  That could be enough to drive strong selection for the gene, and might not even be terribly noticeable.

This might be especially powerful in humans: we have so very many ways of cooperating  or tripping each other up.   Now and then you get partial alignment of interests, and remarkable things happen. If we could all just get along, we could conquer the world and make everyone else our slaves and playthings!

A green fuzz system would be more likely to have originated fairly recently (say the Holocene) because population had increased – particularly important with such an unlikely mutation. Probably it’s even more likely to have never happened at all, but similar things have been found in some biological systems.

And you, could course, engineer it in.

Shortly after  the Green Beards became influential, you’d see a lot of people wearing fake green beards, which would cut down on the advantage and possibly turn green beards into easy marks, chumps doomed to failure.  It would work best if the identifying mark was hard to copy – difficult today, but in the past some things, eye color for example, would have been hard to copy.

This all gets complicated, since it’s not always easy to know what someone else’s best interest is – let along that of the entire Greenbeard race. For that matter it’s not always that easy to know what your own best interest is.

I’m for it, of course:  trying to fighting off such a mutant takeover would make life more interesting.

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