Man’s best friend

Steve Hsu has suggested that we might be able to vastly increase human intelligence via genetic engineering, by finding the many small-effect alleles that affect IQ and engineering embryos with all-plus versions of those alleles – leading to people whose IQ would be 30 standard deviations higher than us yokels.

There are some possible problems with this scenario. The new & improved humans might not like us. They might be crazy: the risk for certain kinds of crazy increases with the number of plus alleles. Smarter than human, they might realize that life is not worth living, then rush out and do us all a favor.

It risks the death or domestication of the human race.

Now presumably intelligence in dogs is also highly polygenic. We could find those alleles and engineer super–dogs that were 30 std smarter than dogs today.

This might be a better idea. Dogs actually like us, which is not at all guaranteed for supermen.

Of course, they’d dominate internet poker, but that’s a a small price to pay.

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The Third Sex

There isn’t one. But you have to admit that it would be interesting if there were.

There are all kinds of different twists on basic biology that would make for a different kind of society, if they only existed in humans. Some of these have been talked about a lot, served as the framework of various science fiction novels, etc. Most have not, because not many people know the biology – including most biologists.

Bees, wasps, termites, aphids, ambrosia beetles, naked mole rats, and a few species of parasitic shrimp are eusocial. That is, they cooperate in taking care of the young, overlapping generations live within a colony, and there are reproductive and non-reproductive castes. Usually, there is a single shared living space which is protected by some of the non-reproductive castes – the Place That Must be Defended.

Are humans eusocial? They do cooperate, sometimes – but in truth they’re not at all like the social insects. E. O. Wilson thought so, but then he’s kind of dim. No castes, no reproductive division of labor, while most cooperation is with non-relatives. I’ve certainly seen SF stories with this theme – Big Sword, Rogue Queen

Some pinheads have suggested that male homosexuals are a kind of caste, one that pays its genetic way by helping their sibs raise more kids. As far as I can tell, this idea originated with a student of E.O. Wilson. Since homosexual men do not actually support their sibs noticeably more than straight men, this is silly. If you’re to invoke a behavior in support of some evolutionary hypothesis, the behavior has to actually exist. I shouldn’t have to say this. I could say that you expect mothers to work hard to take care of their offspring, because of kin selection, and because basic biology in mammals already requires that a female invest heavily in every offspring (not the case for males), etc, etc: but mother love ACTUALLY EXISTS.

One might as well talk about homosexual men as a natural soldier caste, born to die defending the nest. But they aren’t like that, don’t act like that, even counting the Sacred Band. And humans, especially in the old hunter-gatherer phase, didn’t usually have fortress-nests.

There are a lot of interesting twists in eusocial species that would make for even more interesting societies. There are harvester ants with two kinds of reproductives: females are AA or BB, males are A or B, but workers are all AB. It looks as if this is the residual of hybridization of two species. Apparently these ants have harnessed hybrid vigor, way before we invented mules.

There are cytoplasmically-transmitted thingies (microorganisms and rogue DNA) that distort sex ratios. Wolbachia infects many insects, and causes weird shit like male killing, parthenogenesis (curable by antibiotics), cytoplasmic incompatibility, and sometimes turning genetic males into functional females. Anything like this in humans? No, but it sure would be interesting if there were. Actually, cytoplasmic maternally-transmitted thingies might exist (they would probably be mutualistic), but if they do, they they don’t cause sex ratio distortion or parthenogenesis – we would have noticed.

Wood lemmings have two kinds of X chromosomes, X and X*. X* chromosomes ensure that the embryo is functionally female, whether the other chromosome is an X or a Y. So XX, X*X, and X*Y individuals are female, while only XY individuals are male – and are about 25% of the population. Sounds like a Beach Boys tune.

Some hybrid creatures, like our state lizard, are completely parthenogenetic. Again, that would make for a wildly different society. Virgin Planet, by Poul Anderson.

Many species have several different kinds of males (a few have different kinds of females as well). For example, a lizard species in California has three different kinds of males – aggressive orange-throated guys that successfully dominate blue males, sneaky yellow guys that get past orange males guarding a big territory, and blue mate-guarding males (that are also cooperative – possibly a green-beard gene) that successful guard females from sneaky yellows. The population frequencies oscillate: scissors, paper, rock.

Ruffs (birds) have three kind of males: territorial males, satellite males (literally ‘wingmen”, about 16% of males), and sneaker males ( ~1% ) that look very much like females. If we were like that, life would be complicated, but at least you’d know where you stand. I don’t think that anything similar exists in humans, though: right now there isn’t really any evidence that variation in human personality traits is adaptive, although it might be. Even if nonadaptive, it can be useful: you hire OCD guys for security and quality assurance, nymphomaniac receptionists, etc.

It’s not impossible that different Y-chromosomes have some effect on fitness in humans – they can influence behavior in mice – but again, no evidence for it right now. Never seen a story based on male morphs, but I haven’t read everything.

Green-beard-genes, originally suggested by Bill Hamilton, would modify appearance in a specific way and cause bearers to cooperate with others that bore the same allele. something like this occurs in fire ants: those with one version of a supergene have single-queen colonies that are hostile to each other, like Greek city-states, while those with the other version have multiple-queen colonies that extend indefinitely, rather like Los Angeles. In humans, a green-beard would probably rapidly lead to world conquest: perfect asabiya would be unstoppable. One more interesting application of CRISPR.

A species can have a weird genetic substructure, which may be hidden. Mice mate with mice that have dissimilar MHC alleles. Do people? Since it is a really fun idea, while the results of studies are mixed – probably not. Likely it’s all wishful thinking. It could be true though, or might be true in some populations.

White-throated sparrows fall into white and tan morphs with different behaviors. White males are highly promiscuous, while tan morph males are monogamous and contributed more to caring for offspring. The pattern is similar in females. In practice, practically all mating involves a male from one color morph and a female of the other color morph: effectively, this sparrow has four sexes. A similar pattern in humans would, I think, drive us all crazy.

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The Shaker Revival

Sometimes, when watching the ever-accelerating madness spreading through our ‘elites’, I worry. When Judith Shulevitz says “Scientists mostly agree that sexual identity is multifarious, not binary: fungible, not fixed.”, it sure sounds as if the EndTimes are approaching. You can recognize the fifth Horseman by the arrow through his head.

Then again, if you think about it, it’s just possible that this problem is going to solve itself. And in so doing, solve many other problems at the same time.

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Polynesia’s bloody roots

Polynesians are mostly descended from a population on Taiwan, represented today by Taiwanese aboriginals, and from a Melanesian population similar to New Guinea or the Solomon Islands. They’re about 25% Melanesian autosomally, 6% Melanesian in mtDNA, 65% Melanesian in Y-chromosomes.

Until recently, the dominant model was the slow-boat hypothesis, in which the Taiwanese-derived Lapita culture mixed with Melanesians in New Guinea and the Solomons before sailing out into the deep Pacific. The funny numbers for mtDNA and Y-chromosome were explain by some hand-waving matrifocal cultural bullshit.

Now they’ve looked at ancient DNA from Tonga and Vanuatu. The old samples don’t have any noticeable amount of Melanesian ancestry. So it was like this: the Lapita derived from Taiwan (thru the Philippines), settled Vanuatua and Tonga – then were conquered by some set of Melanesian men, who killed most of the local men and scooped up the women. Probably their sons extended the process, which resulted in a lower percentage of Melanesian ancestry while keeping the Y-chromosomes mostly Melanesian.

After this conquest, the Polynesians expanded further east, and those later settlement (Tahiti, Marquesas, Hawaii, etc) all had that ~25% Melanesian component.

If you want to approach this kind of problem with reasonable priors, read Robert E Howard, not Brian Ferguson.

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Lions, Tigers, and Bears

There’s a recent article out arguing that since there is no gold-standard , randomized controlled study that shows that removing predators reduces livestock predation – so we should stop killing lions, tigers, and bears. Also wolves.

I guess that’s it for everything else we do that doesn’t have that kind of supporting evidence. No more arresting murderers!

Just kidding, of course. These guys are lying. Veeck effect, moving the fence up and down. They should be fired – and that’s no joke.

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You can characterize a group by its gene frequencies – which can be thought of as a point in a very high-dimensional space. Another group is a different point, and the between-group difference is a vector in that space. Ignoring linkage, assuming no substructure, etc.

There’s a vector of this sort that describes the genetic differences between the Irish and Germans, or for that matter between the Irish and the average of the human race.

For Sardinians, that point is unusually distant from other Europeans, since they’re almost-pure examples of Europe’s first farmers. The Iceman genome is like that of a Sardinan, but even more so: more like Sardinia before Sardinian soaked up some genes from the mainland. More Sardinian than the Sardinians: the vector in that high-dimensional space between the Iceman and modern Italians is like the vector between Sardinians and the mainland, in the same direction, but with a greater magnitude. You would expect that the Iceman’s phenotype differed from mainland Italians in the same way that Sardinians do, only more so. Modern admixtures have produced many examples of this: mestizos differ from Spaniards in gene frequencies and traits: Amerindians (from central America, say) differ in the same general way, only more so.

With modern genetic technology, we could make these vectors even longer, while still pointing in the same direction – longer than they are in any existing population, longer than they ever were in any population that has ever existed.

So.. we could make synthetic Irishmen that were far more Irish than anyone in the emerald Isle – so Irish that they were barely human. It has been said that the Irish excel in all the qualities that make a man interesting rather than successful – compared to our new and improved product, today’s Irish would seem a nation of shopkeepers.

“The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”

Now square that.

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Personnel decision

Who should be head of the FDA?

Ideally he should understand how drug development is drying up and have some decent notions about fixing it – this is probably the biggest current problem. He should understand big pharma’s sins and virtues. He should not be paralyzed by some stupid ideology, or be in someone’s pocket. And the usual – know something about navigating Congress and the bureaucracy, not have any really hilarious personal habits involving small woodland creatures.

Looking for names, but also qualities/experience to add to this list.

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