The Long Count

They’ve managed to sequence a bit of autosomal DNA from the Atapuerca skeletons, about 430,000 years old, confirming that they are on the Neanderthal branch.

Among other things, this supports the slow mutation rate, one compatible with what we see in modern family trios, but also with the fossil record.

This means that the Pygmies, and probably the Bushmen also, split off from the rest of the human race about 300,000 years ago. Call them Paleoafricans.

They are anatomically modern: they have chins, etc. Behaviorally modern? There have been only a few attempts to measure their intelligence: what has been done indicates that they have very low IQs. They definitely talk, tell stories, sing songs: does that imply that they could, given the right environment, have developed the Antikythera mechanism or a clipper ship?

This means that language is older than some had thought, a good deal older. It also means that people with language are quite capable of going a quarter of a million years without generating much technological advance – without developing the ability to push aside archaic humans, for example. Of course, people with Williams syndrome have language, and you can’t send them into the kitchen and rely on them to bring back a fork. Is the sophistication of Bushman language – this means the concepts they can and do convey, not the complexity of the grammar – comparable with that of other populations? I don’t know. As far as I can see, one of the major goals of modern anthropology is to make sure that nobody knows. Or that they know things that aren’t so.

The minimal definition of behavioral modernity – that set of traits that exists in all of humanity, including those that are most divergent, and that are probably ancestral in anatomically modern humans – may not include much technological creativity.

Next: since we now know that generic Neanderthal and Denisovan alleles don’t fit too well with anatomically modern humans, and AMH alleles didn’t fit too well with Altai Neanderthals, it seem likely that you see the beginning of such functional divergence between Paleoafricans and everyone else. I know of one example of a European haplotype that’s a heart disease risk on a mostly-African genetic background, but not on a European background, but most such incompatibilities are probably very mild, hard to detect. It would probably take thousands of generations for a Pygmy population to lose a significant fraction of its Bantu introgression. You might be able to detect this on a few alleles, but for the most part it just hasn’t been long enough.

Culture gets forgotten, inventions get lost: any populations with a sufficiently low innovation rate probably does not advance at all, culturally. They could respond to natural selection, change in a way that increased their innovation rate… So people could continue to make Acheulean handaxes for a million years: they had to change before there could be further technological progress. Neanderthals had more sophisticated technology, but that technology changed very, very slowly compared to, say , that of humans in the upper Paleolithic. Biology keeps culture on a leash, and you can get to the end of the leash.

Some have suggested that the key to technological development is higher population: that produces more intellects past a high threshold, sure. I don’t think that’s the main factor. Eskimos have a pretty advanced technology, but there were never very many of them. On the other hand, they have the highest IQ of any existing hunter-gatherer population: that’s got to help. Populations must have gone up the Eemian, the previous interglacial period, but nothing much got invented back then. It would seem that agriculture would have been possible in the Eemian, but as far as we know it didn’t happen. Except for Valusia of course. With AMH going back at least 300,000 years, we have to start thinking about even earlier interglacial peiods, like Mindel-Riss (424-374 k years ago)

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Henry Harpending

Henry Harpending has died.

He suffered a stroke 3 weeks ago. Within a few days, he also had a MRSA infection in his lungs. The docs eventually cleared that, but his lungs never recovered. He died this afternoon of Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome.

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Two Kinds of Indians

There’s a new paper out on Amerindian genetic history in Science,mostly looking at 92 ancient mitochondrial genomes (500 to 8600 years old). Because mtDNA has a high mutation rate, it’s useful for seeing rapid changes in population size (Bayesian skyline analysis). It looks as if the Amerindian wave started about 16k years ago, first down the Pacific coast, since this was before the ice-free passage across the Rockies opened up.

There is that weird Andaman-like signature; which they say is compatible with a second migration. They also say that it might have come later, but looking at the distribution, that’s impossible. There’s no way to come in later and end up spread out at the 2% level all across the Amazon. More later.

They see clear evidence of a big population expansion after the move into the Americas – of course that makes sense.

People don’t seem to have moved around too much after the initial settlement. No big expansions like you see in the Old World.

Now for the weirdness. None of the ancient DNA samples have any descendants or close relatives today. Zip. “no ancient haplotype shares a common ancestor with a modern haplotype more recently than ~9,000 years ago. Their samples were mostly taken from large population centers along the western coast of South America: apparently those people went extinct after Columbus. The model that best fit their data was the following:

“Model C also assumes one panmictic population of constant size (2,000 females), and the same growth between 500–600 generations ago as in Model A. Following the massive increase in Ne we assumed a split into two demes (0 and 1) of equal size (50,000 females each with no migration between demes) around 360 generations ago (~9,000 years ago or the last time we observe an ancestor common to modern and ancient lineages in hg A2; black triangle in Fig. 3B), and a constant population size for both (‘geographically’) isolated demes. Ancient lineages were exclusively sampled from deme 1 by converting radiocarbon or archeological dates into number of generations. To account for an extinction of ancient lineages as a consequence of the contact with European colonizers, we modeled a drastic population decline from 50,000 to 1 female (virtually extinct) for deme 1 between 20 generations ago (~1500 AD) and to the present day (time 0). In contrast, we assumed an exponential growth for deme 0 to 100,000 females over the last 20 generations to account for the present-day mitochondrial diversity. ”

They posit two distinct kind of Indians: those that left fossil DNA, and those that left descendants. Good Indians, and bad Indians.

Now it makes sense that lowland types suffered more than people in the Andean or Mexican highlands: they faced African diseases like falciparum malaria and yellow fever as well as the huge array of Eurasian diseases. And the Spanish had their own problems with altitude in the Andean highlands.

But this is nuts! or at any rate amazing. It suggests that in large areas, Amerindians went extinct, and were later replaced by different Amerindians from other places (plus Spaniards and Portuguese), not too closely related. That’s not incredibly far from what happened in the Caribbean, maybe: we know the local Indians disappeared rapidly there (although even there, they are a significant maternal component in existing populations). And there are indications that at least some of the hunter-gatherer tribes of the Amazon might be new to the neighborhood.. And maybe densely populated areas were hit hardest by the new infectious diseases, with a few of the Amerindian equivalent of hillbillies surviving…

And maybe there is undersampling of existing populations. But it sure sounds weird.

“Our ancient samples were principally derived from large population centers along the western coast of South America, which experienced high extinction rates following European colonization. Historic accounts have reported that the population decline was more rapid and intense in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast of Peru than in other areas such as the Mesoamerican plateau or the Andean highlands (7).

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Not Yet

Ron Unz has talked about how labile national IQ is, and how Mexican Americans are all going to be watching reruns of Don Adams and Barbara Feldon real soon now.

Here are the National Merit Semifinalists out of the Albuquerque Public School System for the past three years. FYI, the population of the school system is 67% Hispanic.


from Albuquerque High: Joel Frazier, Nik Hildebrandt and Tobias Oliver;

From the Early College Academy: Masha Ford;

From Eldorado High: Andrew Johns, Jake Lesher, and Elizabeth Rivenbark;

From La Cueva High: Steven Aque, Naomi Brandt, Hyesun Choi, Deanna Garcia, Madison Hazard, Emily Hong, Priyanka Jain, Daniel Kavelman, Amy Lee, Insun Yoon, Randy Zhang, and Hanna Zumwalt;

From Manzano High: Karl Eickhoff;

From Volcano Vista:– Jacob Pankratz.


Albuquerque High: Ivan Aidun, Francesca Jarrett, Sarah Mellin and Adam Wood;

From Del Norte High: Talon Cox;

From Eldorado High: Erica Holswade and Suzanne White;

From La Cueva High: Nicole Chapdelaine, Priyanka Chellappa, Eli Echt-Wilson, Serena Fang, Jonathan Haase, Julia Nakhleh, John O’Brien, Justin Porter, Sarah Salinger-Mullen, Samuel Zhu and Albert Zuo;

From Manzano High: James Donnelly;

From Sandia High: Paige Nielson, Amy Swahlan and Ryan Taylor;

From Valley High: Cole Burge.


Del Norte High: Cochran, Roderick D.

Eldorado High: Anderson, Nicholas W.; Depoy, Jessica M.; Erikson, James W.; Hinojos, Jacob A.; Niver, Anastasia J.; Qaseem, Yaqoob; and Schmittle, Christopher A.

Homeschool: Hughes, Sage E.

La Cueva High: Anderson, Kelley K.; Anthony, Ashley N.; Dai, Shelley M.; Kelly, Maria; Lee, Christy T.; Pedersen, Ryan R.; and Yan, Phillip W.

Manzano High: Chael, Nathan S.

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Medicine as a pseudoscience

I’ve mentioned before that Western medicine was, on the whole, useless for more than two thousand years after Hippocrates. A malignant pseudoscience, really, worse then useless. I’ve seen some suggest that I must be wrong, that medicine can’t have been that bad – but it was. Name your syndrome – the odds are very high that they couldn’t do anything for it. Worse yet, they’d try anyhow. It wasn’t just knowing nothing: they knew things that weren’t so. Sheesh, I didn’t think Harvard went that far back….

The idea that venesection was a good thing, or at least not so bad, on the grounds that one in a few hundred people have hemochromatosis (in Northern Europe) reminds me of the people who don’t wear a seatbelt, since it would keep them from being thrown out of their convertible into a waiting haystack, complete with nubile farmer’s daughter. Daughters. It could happen. But it’s not the way to bet.

Back in the good old days, Charles II, age 53, had a fit one Sunday evening, while fondling two of his mistresses.

Monday they bled him (cupping and scarifying) of eight ounces of blood. Followed by an antimony emetic, vitriol in peony water, purgative pills, and a clyster. Followed by another clyster after two hours. Then syrup of blackthorn, more antimony, and rock salt. Next, more laxatives, white hellebore root up the nostrils. Powdered cowslip flowers. More purgatives. Then Spanish Fly. They shaved his head and stuck blistering plasters all over it, plastered the soles of his feet with tar and pigeon-dung, then said good-night.

Tuesday. ten more ounces of blood, a gargle of elm in syrup of mallow, and a julep of black cherry, peony, crushed pearls, and white sugar candy.

Wednesday. Things looked good:: only senna pods infused in spring water, along with white wine and nutmeg.

Thursday. More fits. They gave him a spirituous draft made from the skull of a man who had died a violent death. Peruvian bark, repeatedly, interspersed with more human skull. Didn’t work.

Friday. The king was worse. He tells them not to let poor Nelly starve. They try the Oriental Bezoar Stone, and more bleeding. Dies at noon.

Most people didn’t suffer this kind of problem with doctors, since they never saw one. Charles had six. Now Bach and Handel saw the same eye surgeon, John Taylor – who blinded both of them. Not everyone can put that on his resume!

You may wonder how medicine continued to exist, if it had a negative effect, on the whole. There’s always the placebo effect – at least there would be, if it existed. Any real placebo effect is very small: I’d guess exactly zero. But there is regression to the mean. You see the doctor when you’re feeling worse than average – and afterwards, if he doesn’t kill you outright, you’re likely to feel better. Which would have happened whether you’d seen him or not, but they didn’t often do RCTs back in the day – I think James Lind was the first (1747).

Back in the late 19th century, Christian Scientists did better than others when sick, because they didn’t believe in medicine. For reasons I think mistaken, because Mary Baker Eddy rejected the reality of the entire material world, but hey, it worked. Parenthetically, what triggered all that New Age nonsense in 19th century New England? Hash?

This did not change until fairly recently. Sometime in the early 20th medicine, clinical medicine, what doctors do, hit break-even. Now we can’t do without it. I wonder if there are, or will be, other examples of such a pile of crap turning (mostly) into a real science.

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the Maxim gun

Now and then I contemplate the possible outcomes if the United States got really, really angry, say at jihadists, if they went too far and struck a nerve. Crazed fury. Jihadists seem to think that enraging the western powers is strategically sensible, but they might be wrong. I’m not talking about little things like the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan: no, I mean really angry. You should picture Uncle Sam turning green and bursting out of his Uncle Sam suit (fortunately he wears highly stretchable purple undies).

There’s the old reliable, nuclear weapons. There wouldn’t be a lot left of the Arab world, especially when you consider little tactical enhancers like blowing up the Aswan Dam, or nuking a nuclear reactor. You could simply drop enough medium-life-time radioactive dust to make a region uninhabitable for months, or years, or decades,  making the Haj pretty difficult.

Even semi-conventional war could become lot more intense: we haven’t done fire raids lately, but we still can (B52s can carry a huge payload). It’s hard to make laser weapons work for most purposes (atmospheric transmission) – but it’s easy to make ones that blind. We’re working on smart bullets: right now you have to fire thousands per hit, but that’s going to change.

Nerve gas? effective.

Germ warfare? Amazing things are now possible: we could probably tailor agents to hit particular ethnic groups (there is always leakage: I’m not saying that we wouldn’t get our hair mussed.) . They could kill – swiftly, or agonizingly slowly, They might trigger Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease: not just for cannibals, anymore. You might see agents that cause insanity, or sterility, or damn-foolishness(hmmmmm). Once CRISPR goes to war, you would see agents that cause germ-line genetic changes – nasty changes with built-in genetic drive that spread to the whole population.

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Federal University

College costs – real costs, in constant dollars – are about 2.5 times higher than they were were in 1965. And a higher fraction of those costs are dumped on the students, which means that it’s easy to graduate with a buttload of debt, which is particularly serious if your degree is not economically valuable, which is all too common. Since a high fraction of even those degrees that do get you hired are still useless, in terms of increasing factor productivity, this is a big burden on society as a whole.

If, as a pilot program, an example, the government set up a new university, mindlessly copying a decent state school from that golden era, like Berkeley or Wisconsin (or maybe from a bit earlier, since we probably want to avoid riots too), I doubt if it would cost a lot more. All those extra administrative personnel? Just don’t hire them. We could manage this by making the project top secret (actually, special access) – that lets you violate a lot of the useless bureaucratic rules, rather like being Uber.

Some things might cost more. If you want a medical school, you have to pay the professors competitive salaries (and MDs make much more than they did back in those days). But then, we could used taped lectures, online courses, etc.

It probably wouldn’t work for long, since politicians would be irresistibly temped to add on useless crap, like preferential admission for Skoptys, or whatever they’re called nowadays.

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