Mercs in Iraq

The Iraqi army we trained is totally useless – training doesn’t impart motivation. Not our kind of training, anyhow. So how  should the Iraqi government deal with the Islamic State?

The obvious answer is mercenaries, many of which already know Iraq pretty well.  The Iraqi government has sufficient oil revenues to pay the sort of force I’m thinking of; at least they would if they could just moderate the corruption for a while.  You’d want to hire the better sort of merc as far as you could – ex-US and British. Avoid bottom-feeders like Colombians.

Although ISIS is far more effective than the Iraqi  Army, they’re far less competent than any Western army. They have plenty of enthusiasm, but so did the Dervishes at Omdurman. It’s not enough.

Of course the Iraqi government hates Blackwater types (who doesn’t?) , and might well stab them in the back after they take care of the the enemy. Still, I think that they could take care of themselves.

Ten Thousand should be enough for the job.



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Out of Africa

There is a new paper out in the American Journal of Human Genetics, in which the authors try to determine the path by which modern humans left Africa – basically, through the Sinai Peninsula into the Levant,  or crossing the Bab el Mandeb strait (very narrow in glacial times) into Yemen.  Life is probably somewhat more complicated than this question suggests, since there were probably at least two expansions out of Africa ( judging from those mysterious Basal Eurasians) and maybe more, but the question itself is not an unreasonable one.

They try to see which population – Egyptians or Ethiopians – is genetically closer to  Eurasians. That sounds nuts, since both populations have had massive genetic inputs from Eurasians, but they try to identify and mask the Eurasian components of the genome  and compare the residual genomes.  Nuts is maybe too strong a word here, but that strategy (assuming that you can implement it correctly) is extremely dubious, because it implicitly assumes that, prior to relatively recent Eurasian gene flow , the locals have been sitting in the same place – without being replaced (or mostly replaced) by a different population – for  sixty or seventy thousand years.  In the regions where we have good information (parts of Eurasia, from ancient DNA) this never happened. Eurasians are like ogres – multiple layers of ancestry.

They talk about Ethiopian genetics. They say that highland Ethiopians like the Amhara are about 50% Middle Eastern, Somalis 30-40% Middle Eastern, but almost no Eurasian ancestry in the Gumuz (a Nilotic people that speak a (probably) Nilo-Saharan language). So they use Gumuz samples for their  comparison..  But since the Nilo-Saharan expansion is thought to be recent (a few thousand years), and to have originated in the eastern Sudan, the odds are strongly against the Gumuz having been sitting in place in Ethiopia  for the last 70,000 years.  I don’t think the Gumuz are  a good proxy for ancient Ethiopians – they look like recent immigrants from the Sudan.  They live pretty close to the Sudanese border now, and used to be closer. There may well be people in Ethiopia that have some local hunter-gatherer ancestry (there are indications of this) but the Gumuz are probably not among them. And, even then, it’s unlikely that those hunter gatherers  are a good proxy for Horn-of-Africa types from 70,000 years ago.

But their treatment of Egypt is far worse. They find that Egyptians are about 80% Eurasian – which means Middle Eastern mostly, and sounds about right. They estimate that the time of admixture (between Middle Eastern and African ancestry) was around 750 years years ago, which also sounds about right. But from what they actually say in the paper, it sure sounds as if they think that Egypt was sub-Saharan-type African until the Arab conquest ! Someone bleached all the mummies!

In fact, Egypt was settled by Middle Eastern type farmers maybe 7000 years ago (later than the Balkans) , who brought in all the standard crops, and most of that sub-Saharan component arrived after the Arab conquest, through the slave trade.

But crazy as it sounds, they must think that the black African ancestry in Egypt is old while the Eurasian ancestry is new, else there is no point at all in what they are doing.  They have it backwards.

Now those Middle Eastern farmers settling Egypt (speaking something in the Hamito-Semitic family) must have encountered some kind of hunter-gatherers living in the Nile Valley, and there’s likely some genetic trace of that. But it’s probably not very big,  and for all I know their genetics looked Eurasian as well ( looking at the Berbers, for example).  To have any chance of figuring this out you probably need to sequence mummies, if that can be done.

The idea that Egypt of the pharaohs was genetically African – by which they mean in practice sub-Saharan Africa – is lunacy. The sub-Saharan component in the Egyptians is mostly pretty new –  from the Arab slave trade, a lot of it from Nubia. In fact, that’s what it says in one of their references on this, in the abstract even:  “a migration of individuals with Nilotic ancestry into  (my emphasis) Egypt occurred about 25 generations ago (approximately 750 ya).”

Some of that Nubian ancestry is probably a bit older –  the Pharaohs hired Nubian mercenaries back in New Kingdom days – but still, nothing like ancient.

I’ve been complaining about  researchers being too narrow.  This article is a spectacular example. But it’s not just the lead author: everyone whose name is on the paper must be assumed to be equally ignorant and incurious – as well as the reviewers, and editors, and for that matter anyone who doesn’t stay up all night laughing at them.

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When Public Policy Meets Elementary Biology

I have been thinking a lot about public policy, welfare, support of the indigent, and the growth of the underclass in industrial societies, mostly to prepare for this meeting. Public discussion and journalism routinely identify people as “right wing” or “left wing”. My reaction is that most public commentary—on both the right and the left—is hardly worth our attention.

Some trends that I find particularly distressing are outlined by Charles Murray and Robert Putnam in a youtube video which we discussed in a previous post. Both Murray and Putnam describe growing numbers of the underclass in this country with their failure of community and family organization. Single mothers are normative. Both speakers focus on white people: Murray explicitly restricts his recent book to ‘White America’ while Putnam’s new book is ethnographic in style about his own home town, again mostly white. Is there a way out of the trends they describe through social engineering?

Neither Murray nor Putnam have much in the way of policy suggestions. Murray identifies increasing isolation between the prosperous and the impoverished and the failure of the prosperous to advocate their own moral and social values to the to the poor. Putnam advocates a Soviet style system of public education in which teachers assume the duties and roles of parents, starting with early childhood education.

Politicians, journalists, and education advocates agonize a lot about issues of our social future but most of it is wordspeak and twaddle. Many politicians are shameless vote chasers with no principles, journalists seek sensation and scandal, and educators have had no real accomplishments in a century. What would be the outcome if social engineers understood evolution? Does biology have a contribution to make to the solution of do our social and economic problems?

The reasoning would go like this (straight from freshman biology): diploid organisms are shaped by evolution to generate copies of their DNA. In order to make these copies a diploid organism has to allocate energy and risk to competing demands of (a) growth and maintenance and (b) reproduction. Reproduction has two parts, mating and parenting. This allocation is the stuff of life history theory. The allocation problem is complicated by the presence of two sexes that are designed differently. This is especially so in mammals: internal gestation, mammary glands, and prolonged immaturity indicate of the commitment of females to bear the brunt of reproductive effort. Fish, for example, are not engineered in this way. In fish species where males mouth brood, mama fish is free to shed some eggs and abandon dad and the kids to continue her partying unimpeded.

Humans exhibit a diversity of strategy “choices” that are solutions to the allocation problem between mating and parenting. Males can devote most of their effort to mating effort, usually involving competition with other males. Male commitment to parenting effort is not common in mammals but there are familiar examples like beavers, coyotes, gibbons, and some humans. In the jargon the polar strategies of male mammals are called “cad” and “dad” strategies.

Females have a more restricted set of strategy choices because of their engineered commitment to parenting. At one extreme a human female can seek a dadly male who provides resources like food and protection to their joint offspring. At the other extreme, a human female can pay little or no attention to her mate choice, instead letting the guys work things out. In the jargon these female alternatives are called “coy” and “fast”.

You can find a more detailed account of this game between the human sexes works in a chapter of our book (that the editor discarded as “too academic”) on our website here. Briefly we are likely to find dad males/coy females in ecological situations where male labor and resources are critical for successful reproduction. Think of labor-intensive agriculture, European peasants and Asian farmers, as examples. In the United States in the past, “working class” meant stable mated pairs who together provisioned and cared for children. An archetype of working class in American television was Archie Bunker.

Social organization with cad males and fast females is found prominently among tropical gardeners where women provide most of the food for themselves and their children as well as for the men, who are often just parasites on the women. The euphemism in economics for these societies is “female farming systems”. These share many characteristics with our industrial “underclass” in which women have no ecological force pushing them into long term stable pair bonds.

Notice that in each of the above descriptions there are two hands clapping: in cad/fast social systems neither a coy female nor a dad male does very well while in dad/coy systems neither a fast females nor a cad male does very well. The two polar social types are deeply rooted in contemporary politics. The zany feminism of the 1980s (“a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”) precisely advocated the cad/fast setup. Our religious right with its chatter about “the natural family” and “stable marriages” and the like pushes hard for a dad/coy world.

Back to our social engineers who know biology. They share a goal of a society in which dad males mate with coy females because children enjoy the care and security of a stable home and streets safe from gunfire. The new policy is simple: welfare payments are to be given only to males.

This policy would mimic, they think, the ecology of most dad/coy societies. How would this work out? In a new post we can imagine how the new policy can be modified when the engineers are given a sense of human decency and responsibility for human well being.

Part II to follow ……

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Breadth-first search

When I complain about some egregious piece of research,  particularly those that are in some sense cross-disciplinary, I often feel that that just knowing more would solve the problem. If Roland Fryer or Oded Galor understood genetics, they wouldn’t make these silly mistakes. If Qian and Nix understood genetics or American post-Civil War history, they would never have written that awful paper about massive passing.  Or if paleoanthropologists and population geneticists had learned about mammalian hybrids, they would have been open to the idea of Neanderthal introgression.

But that really amounts to a demand that people learn about five times as much in college and grad school as they actually do.  It’s not going to happen.  Or, perhaps, find a systematic and effective way of collaborating with people outside their discipline without having their heads shaved. That doesn’t sound too likely either.


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Dogs and Men

Razib Khan talks about a new article that suggests that dogs were domesticated quite a long time ago, perhaps more than 35,000 years ago, well before the last glacial maximum.

We know that dogs have adapted to life with people, have changed in many ways.

I wonder how humans adapted to dogs.  If they were like modern pariah dogs, hanging around the village and eating garbage, doesn’t seem that they would have been that influential. But if used in hunting, they could have been very important, especially back in the Ice Age – and if they were that important, the partnership might have generated significant selective pressures in humans.

Parenthetically, there was an article a few years back that claimed that dogs had probably been domesticated for ~100,000 years, while most other estimates were around 14,000 years. Obviously there was a simple way to reconcile those two numbers.



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One more time

One of our local error sources suggested that it would be impossible to rebuild technical civilization, once fallen. Now if every human were dead I’d agree, but in most other scenarios it wouldn’t be particularly difficult, assuming that the survivors were no more silly and fractious than people are today.  So assume a mild disaster, something like the effect of myxomatosis on the rabbits of Australia, or perhaps toe-to-toe nuclear combat with the Russkis – ~90%  casualties worldwide.

Describe the recovery process, why it’s feasible and in fact almost easy. Show your work.

There’s no reason that I should have to explain everything.

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Measles and immunological amnesia

A new paper in Science , by Michael Mina et al,  strongly suggests that measles messes up your immunological defenses for two or three years. This is the likely explanation for the fact that measles inoculation causes much greater decreases in child morbidity and mortality than you’d expect from preventing the deaths directly due to measles infection. The thought is that measles whacks the cells that carry immunological memory, leaving the kid ripe for reinfections.  I think there can be a similar effect with anti-cancer chemotherapy.

If correct, this means that measles is much nastier than previously thought. It must have played a significant role in the demographic collapse of long-isolated peoples (such as the Amerindians). Its advent may have played a role in the population decrease associated with the decline of the Classical world.  Even though it is relatively new (having split off from rinderpest a couple of thousand years ago) strong selection for resistance may have  favored some fairly expensive genetic defenses (something like sickle-cell) in Eurasian populations.

We already know of quite a few complex side effects of infectious disease, such the different kind of immunosuppression we see with AIDs, Burkitt’s lymphoma hitting kids with severe Epstein-Barr infections followed by malaria, acute dengue fever that requires a previous infection by a different strain of dengue, etc: there may well be other important interactions and side effects, news of which has not yet come to Harvard.

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