The Long Divergence

I just finished The Long Divergence, by Timur Kuran, which tries to explain the Middle East’s economic backwardness. It’s a path-dependence argument: mistakes were made, and one thing led to another.

His thesis is that particular features of local culture and Islamic law inhibited modernization. He argues that these factors inhibited the development of complex sub-state organizations, in particular the modern business corporation. He blames factors that tended to disperse wealth: the egalitarian Islamic inheritance system and polygyny. Today they wouldn’t matter to a corporation, but in the past they interfered with concentration of assets that would have been useful in establishing larger-scale concerns. He thinks that the Quranic ban on interest was mostly an irritant, routinely evaded, but it didn’t help.

He talks about the mysterious trend in which non-Muslim minorities became ever wealthier and more influential over the past couple of centuries, even though they were supposed to be second-class citizens. Trade was dominated by religious minorities (Greeks, Armenians, and sometimes Jews), as well as new sectors of the economy like insurance and finance. Also in new industries: “In major cities, water,gas, electricity, telephone, tram, and subway services were founded mostly through foreign capital, and the managerial staff was overwhelmingly non-Muslim.”

Around the same time commercial treaties with Western nations were becoming more and more disadvantageous to Moslem countries. Relatively so: Westernization itself had many benefits, and the Moslem world in this period certainly didn’t show any sign of internally generated progress. Any more than it does today.

To recap, Kuran thinks that features of Islamic culture led to organizational stagnation, while Europe was developing advanced economic institutions. On the other hand, even Saudi Arabia has banks nowadays, but the Saudis don’t show any particular entrepreneurial flair, to put it mildly. The institutions and customs Kuran blames have been superseded (mostly), but backwardness persists. Kuran wonders: ” Might this book have overlooked certain deeper causes of backwardness?” Good question.

Do I find his thesis convincing? No. The Middle East fell behind in everything, not just organizational complexity. I don’t think it’s all because they failed to create their own Fuggers or East India Company. Look at this timeline of science and engineering in the Islamic world: everything stops several hundred years ago.

Kuran’s book does a decent job of describing Islamic stagnation – part of it, anyhow – but it doesn’t explain it.

I guess it’s up to me. One more to add to the list.

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Majors, II

I talked about what people major in earlier, but this is useful, I think. I’m revving up for some posts about education.

A question: I’d like to hear some thoughts about which degrees are worthless. Define you terms. For example< I can imagine degrees that teach you to do things that are useful but somehow out of fashion, useless but highly in demand, useful to you but worse than useless to society as a whole, etc.

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There’s a new report out on ancient DNA results from Alaska.

It seems that the individual they studied (from about 11k years ago) is from a group of Beringians that never migrated south of the glaciers. Willerslev says: ” It’s basically a relict population of an ancestral group which was common to all Native Americans”.

The kid was equally related to the two main groups of Amerindians, north and south. Some tribes in North America, like the Algonquins, are in the northern groups, while some North American Amerindians and all those in Central and South America fall into the southern group

You may be wondering about Aleuts, Eskimos, and Athabascans/Na-Dene speakers, particularly if you just read Carl Zimmer’s article in the NYTimes. Don’t. They’re from later migrations -a separate story. Let’s keep it as simple as possible.

Here’s Willerslev’s model:

From their data and analysis, the researchers think that the northern and southern branches of the Amerindians split around 15k years ago in a region south of eastern Beringia – already past the ice.

One very important point, naturally mentioned in none of the press accounts, is what they didn’t see: the Alaskan kid didn’t have any of the Australo-Melanesian, Andamanese-like component that exists in Amazonian Indians today. The Clovis-complex Anzick-1 skeleton from Montana, about 12.6k years old, was a member of the southern Amerindian branch – but it didn’t have any Andamanese-like component either.

So we’re saying that a Beringian population, pretty close to the common ancestors of the Northern and Southern Amerindians branches, didn’t have the Andaman-like admixture.

The Northern branch doesn’t seem to have it today.

Only some members of the Southern branch have it today: the earliest known sample from the southern population doesn’t have it.

Therefore the Southern branch (some of them) very likely picked it up after they left Beringia, also after they split with the northern branch. Which means it was already there before the Amerindians came down from Beringia. Probably in Brazil.

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Glorious Bastards

A while ago I mentioned Neil Turok’s search for the African Einstein, which doesn’t seem to have had much success. I’ve thought of a more efficient search strategy that should be fairly easy to execute.

Search for Feynman’s bastards (and by this point, their children). It should be easy enough, with modern DNA technology. While we’re at it we might look for the unofficial offspring of other people of high accomplishment. People like Svante Pääbo. Hopefully smarter than Svante.

I know that paternal uncertainty is generally low, but winning a Nobel may make a difference.

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Against creeping Pinkerization

I want to see a appropriately scholarly article in Nature arguing against Pinker’s reduction-in-violence thesis by citing voluminous crime statistics from Cabot Cove and Badger’s Drift.

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There is a qualitative difference between being XY and X0 (Turner’s syndrome). Being XY, a guy, is the physical embodiment of an evolutionary strategy: a certain genetic pattern that has a way of making more copies of itself. It’s a complex strategy, but that’s what it is. X0 people are sterile: they don’t generate more X0 individuals. Not every XY individual succeeds in reproducing, any more than every maple seed starts a new maple tree – but on average, it works. An X0 individual is the result of noise, errors in meiosis: Turner’s syndrome isn’t a strategy. In the same way, someone with Down’s syndrome isn’t Nature’s way of producing more people with Down’s syndrome.

Parenthetically, being a guy that tries to reproduce is a strategy. Actually reproducing is a successful outcome of that strategy. Similarly, being an alpha dude in a polygynous species like elephant seals is not a strategy: trying to be an alpha dude is the strategy. I see people confuse those two things all the time.

In eusocial species, like ants and bees and naked mole-rats, evolutionary strategies include individuals that seldom or never reproduce – worker and soldier castes. They still contribute to the reproduction of close relatives. Are humans eusocial? Obviously not.

A leper is an example of someone that’s been heavily influenced by the reproductive strategy of some other species.

Natural selection tends to make physical embodiments of a successful reproductive strategy common. So stuff like Down’s syndrome, Turner’s syndrome, androgen insensitivity, etc, are all rare. Successful evolutionary strategies usually involve actually getting things done: so there is a tendency for natural selection to develop and optimize various useful abilities, like walking and talking and thinking. All part of the strategy. Many non-strategies [like Downs or Fragile X] mess up those abilities

How many such strategies are there in humans? At least two, XX and XY. Guys and dolls. Are there are any others? Logically, there could be. For example, some species have two or more male morphs, embodying different strategies. Most male salmon go to sea, try to survive and get big, eventually coming back to freshwater to spawn. But some [jack salmon] become sexually mature when younger, after a shorter time at sea. They’re smaller, but less likely to get eaten by sharks.

Is there any evidence for alternate evolutionary strategies in humans, other than just male and female? Not really, so far. For example, schizophrenia looks more like noise, sand in the gears. Not much of the schiz genetic variance shows up in GWAS samples: it looks like it’s mostly driven by rare variants – genetic load. There may actually be some truth to the notion that happy families are all alike.

So, is sex a spectrum in humans? No: obviously not. Two basic strategies, plus errors.

Why would a geneticist be unable to make the distinction between an evolutionary strategy and an error of development (i.e. caused by replication errors or pathogens)? Well, the average geneticist doesn’t know much evolutionary biology. And being embedded in a university, the current replacement for old-fashioned booby hatches, he’s subject to pressures that reward him for saying stupid things. and of course some people are pre-adapted to saying stupid things.

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The Prince

MBS, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and effective ruler of the country, has been a busy, busy boy. He tried to drive our frackers out of business by flooding the market with oil, but it turned out that Saudi Arabia would go broke first. That may be, in part, what’s motivating some of his recent capers.

He has a vision [weed is more potent that it used to be] of a future in which the Saudi economy has diversified away from oil, relying more on sectors like tech and entertainment. Sure: And I’m a Chinese jet pilot. If the Saudis had to make a living from their talents (and more sand than Pismo Beach), they’d be as poor as mosque mice.. Something like Jordanians – probably worse, because the Saudis have picked up a ton of expensive bad habits.

He’s running an original foreign policy. Intervened in Syria and Yemen – losing. Kidnapped the pro-Saudi Prime Minister of Lebanon. Picked a fight with Qatar. Angling for a war with Iran: The beginning of every war is like opening a door into a dark room – what could possibly go wrong?

The high point has been his purge of many of the richest and most influential members of the Saudi royal family. The claim is that he’s trying to take back much of the elite’s ill-gotten gains. Perhaps he’s been listening to Alicia Munnell. This has meant torturing the Swiss bank account numbers out of various fat thieves. It’s possible that the Saudi financial [ and oil?] reserves are in worse trouble than officially admitted: MBS may be trying to steal some cash to keep the show on the road.

Torture, arbitrary arrest, confiscation, kidnapping, warmongering: Naturally, Tom Friedman thinks this is great. A true Arab Spring!

It seems to me that MBS is in need of some good advice. There is an obvious source: let us look at what a few relevant chapters have to say.

Chapter 2, Concerning Hereditary Principalities:

MBS is the hereditary monarch (soon): his position is (was?) inherently pretty secure, and all the purge crap is unnecessary. ” I say at once there are fewer difficulties in holding hereditary states, and those long accustomed to the family of their prince, than new ones; for it is sufficient only not to transgress the customs of his ancestors, and to deal prudently with circumstances as they arise, for a prince of average powers to maintain himself in his state, ”


Torturing billionaires and seizing 70% of their assets is never a smart course. ” one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.


Power was fairly widely distributed (among the AL Saud, and the religious establishment) until the other day. There is no tradition of absolute obedience to a single, all-powerful Sultan or King of Kings. Which means that rebellion due to perceived slights ( like torture and confiscation pf wealth ) is conceivable. ” The examples of these two governments in our time are the Turk and the King of France. The entire monarchy of the Turk is governed by one lord, the others are his servants; and, dividing his kingdom into sanjaks, he sends there different administrators, and shifts and changes them as he chooses. But the King of France is placed in the midst of an ancient body of lords, acknowledged by their own subjects, and beloved by them; they have their own prerogatives, nor can the king take these away except at his peril.”


MBS is inheriting a kingdom, but if he really is determined to transform its economy and ruling structure; it’s as more as if he’s trying to found a new regime. Like Gorbachev. ” It must be considered there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” Risky. And the problem is, his goal is not just difficult, but unattainable. The human capital just isn’t there.


Some sources have claimed that MBS has been using Blackwater-type Western mercenaries to kidnap & torture the local fat thieves. ” I say, therefore that the arms by which a prince defends his possessions are either his own, or else mercenaries, or auxiliaries, or mixed. The mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous, and if anyone supports his state by the arms of mercenaries, he will never stand firm or sure”

Another insoluble problem: the Saudi armed forces suck, and everybody knows it. Means that the state is fragile. “The chief foundations of all states, whether new, old, or mixed, are good laws and good arms. And as there cannot be be good laws where there are not good arms, and where there are good arms there must be good laws”


Again, it’s a mistake to wildly piss off powerful guys without entirely destroying their power. Being loved is nice but you definitely need to avoid being hated. “men more easily forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. Then also pretexts for seizing property are never wanting, and one who begins to live by rapine will always find some reason for taking the goods of others”. Not a secret: nobody will want to risk much capital in Saudi Arabia for a generation or so, after which people forget.

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