December 2014

Wade, Nicholas. A Troublesome Inheritance. New York: Penguin Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-59420-446-3.
Geographically isolated populations of a species (unable to interbreed with others of their kind) will be subject to natural selection based upon their environment. If that environment differs from that of other members of the species, the isolated population will begin to diverge genetically, as genetic endowments which favour survival and more offspring are selected for. If the isolated population is sufficiently small, the mechanism of genetic drift may cause a specific genetic variant to become almost universal or absent in that population. If this process is repeated for a sufficiently long time, isolated populations may diverge to such a degree they can no longer interbreed, and therefore become distinct species.

None of this is controversial when discussing other species, but in some circles to suggest that these mechanisms apply to humans is the deepest heresy. This well-researched book examines the evidence, much from molecular biology which has become available only in recent years, for the diversification of the human species into distinct populations, or “races” if you like, after its emergence from its birthplace in Africa. In this book the author argues that human evolution has been “recent, copious, and regional” and presents the genetic evidence to support this view.

A few basic facts should be noted at the outset. All humans are members of a single species, and all can interbreed. Humans, as a species, have an extremely low genetic diversity compared to most other animal species: this suggests that our ancestors went through a genetic “bottleneck” where the population was reduced to a very small number, causing the variation observed in other species to be lost through genetic drift. You might expect different human populations to carry different genes, but this is not the case—all humans have essentially the same set of genes. Variation among humans is mostly a result of individuals carrying different alleles (variants) of a gene. For example, eye colour in humans is entirely inherited: a baby's eye colour is determined completely by the alleles of various genes inherited from the mother and father. You might think that variation among human populations is then a question of their carrying different alleles of genes, but that too is an oversimplification. Human genetic variation is, in most cases, a matter of the frequency of alleles among the population.

This means that almost any generalisation about the characteristics of individual members of human populations with different evolutionary histories is ungrounded in fact. The variation among individuals within populations is generally much greater than that of populations as a whole. Discrimination based upon an individual's genetic heritage is not just abhorrent morally but scientifically unjustified.

Based upon these now well-established facts, some have argued that “race does not exist” or is a “social construct”. While this view may be motivated by a well-intentioned desire to eliminate discrimination, it is increasingly at variance with genetic evidence documenting the history of human populations.

Around 200,000 years ago, modern humans emerged in Africa. They spent more than three quarters of their history in that continent, spreading to different niches within it and developing a genetic diversity which today is greater than that of all humans in the rest of the world. Around 50,000 years before the present, by the genetic evidence, a small band of hunter-gatherers left Africa for the lands to the north. Then, some 30,000 years ago the descendants of these bands who migrated to the east and west largely ceased to interbreed and separated into what we now call the Caucasian and East Asian populations. These have remained the main three groups within the human species. Subsequent migrations and isolations have created other populations such as Australian and American aborigines, but their differentiation from the three main races is less distinct. Subsequent migrations, conquest, and intermarriage have blurred the distinctions between these groups, but the fact is that almost any child, shown a picture of a person of European, African, or East Asian ancestry can almost always effortlessly and correctly identify their area of origin. University professors, not so much: it takes an intellectual to deny the evidence of one's own eyes.

As these largely separated populations adapted to their new homes, selection operated upon their genomes. In the ancestral human population children lost the ability to digest lactose, the sugar in milk, after being weaned from their mothers' milk. But in populations which domesticated cattle and developed dairy farming, parents who passed on an allele which would allow their children to drink cow's milk their entire life would have more surviving offspring and, in a remarkably short time on the evolutionary scale, lifetime lactose tolerance became the norm in these areas. Among populations which never raised cattle or used them only for meat, lifetime lactose tolerance remains rare today.

Humans in Africa originally lived close to the equator and had dark skin to protect them from the ultraviolet radiation of the Sun. As human bands occupied northern latitudes in Europe and Asia, dark skin would prevent them from being able to synthesise sufficient Vitamin D from the wan, oblique sunlight of northern winters. These populations were under selection pressure for alleles of genes which gave them lighter skin, but interestingly Europeans and East Asians developed completely different genetic means to lighten their skin. The selection pressure was the same, but evolution blundered into two distinct pathways to meet the need.

Can genetic heritage affect behaviour? There's evidence it can. Humans carry a gene called MAO-A, which breaks down neurotransmitters that affect the transmission of signals within the brain. Experiments in animals have provided evidence that under-production of MAO-A increases aggression and humans with lower levels of MAO-A are found to be more likely to commit violent crime. MAO-A production is regulated by a short sequence of DNA adjacent to the gene: humans may have anywhere from two to five copies of the promoter; the more you have, the more the MAO-A, and hence the mellower you're likely to be. Well, actually, people with three to five copies are indistinguishable, but those with only two (2R) show higher rates of delinquency. Among men of African ancestry, 5.5% carry the 2R variant, while 0.1% of Caucasian males and 0.00067% of East Asian men do. Make of this what you will.

The author argues that just as the introduction of dairy farming tilted the evolutionary landscape in favour of those bearing the allele which allowed them to digest milk into adulthood, the transition of tribal societies to cities, states, and empires in Asia and Europe exerted a selection pressure upon the population which favoured behavioural traits suited to living in such societies. While a tribal society might benefit from producing a substantial population of aggressive warriors, an empire has little need of them: its armies are composed of soldiers, courageous to be sure, who follow orders rather than charging independently into battle. In such a society, the genetic traits which are advantageous in a hunter-gatherer or tribal society will be selected out, as those carrying them will, if not expelled or put to death for misbehaviour, be unable to raise as large a family in these settled societies.

Perhaps, what has been happening over the last five millennia or so is a domestication of the human species. Precisely as humans have bred animals to live with them in close proximity, human societies have selected for humans who are adapted to prosper within them. Those who conform to the social hierarchy, work hard, come up with new ideas but don't disrupt the social structure will have more children and, over time, whatever genetic predispositions there may be for these characteristics (which we don't know today) will become increasingly common in the population. It is intriguing that as humans settled into fixed communities, their skeletons became less robust. This same process of gracilisation is seen in domesticated animals compared to their wild congeners. Certainly there have been as many human generations since the emergence of these complex societies as have sufficed to produce major adaptation in animal species under selective breeding.

Far more speculative and controversial is whether this selection process has been influenced by the nature of the cultures and societies which create the selection pressure. East Asian societies tend to be hierarchical, obedient to authority, and organised on a large scale. European societies, by contrast, are fractious, fissiparous, and prone to bottom-up insurgencies. Is this in part the result of genetic predispositions which have been selected for over millennnia in societies which work that way?

It is assumed by many right-thinking people that all that is needed to bring liberty and prosperity to those regions of the world which haven't yet benefited from them is to create the proper institutions, educate the people, and bootstrap the infrastructure, then stand back and watch them take off. Well, maybe—but the history of colonialism, the mission civilisatrice, and various democracy projects and attempts at nation building over the last two centuries may suggest it isn't that simple. The population of the colonial, conquering, or development-aid-giving power has the benefit of millennia of domestication and adaptation to living in a settled society with division of labour. Its adaptations for tribalism have been largely bred out. Not so in many cases for the people they're there to “help”. Withdraw the colonial administration or occupation troops and before long tribalism will re-assert itself because that's the society for which the people are adapted.

Suggesting things like this is anathema in academia or political discourse. But look at the plain evidence of post-colonial Africa and more recent attempts of nation-building, and couple that with the emerging genetic evidence of variation in human populations and connections to behaviour and you may find yourself thinking forbidden thoughts. This book is an excellent starting point to explore these difficult issues, with numerous citations of recent scientific publications.

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Thorne, Kip. The Science of Interstellar. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. ISBN 978-0-393-35137-8.
Christopher Nolan's 2014 film Interstellar was eagerly awaited by science fiction enthusiasts who, having been sorely disappointed so many times by movies that crossed the line into fantasy by making up entirely implausible things to move the plot along, hoped that this effort would live up to its promise of getting the science (mostly) right and employing scientifically plausible speculation where our present knowledge is incomplete.

The author of the present book is one of the most eminent physicists working in the field of general relativity (Einstein's theory of gravitation) and a pioneer in exploring the exotic strong field regime of the theory, including black holes, wormholes, and gravitational radiation. Prof. Thorne was involved in the project which became Interstellar from its inception, and worked closely with the screenwriters, director, and visual effects team to get the science right. Some of the scenes in the movie, such as the visual appearance of orbiting a rotating black hole, have never been rendered accurately before, and are based upon original work by Thorne in computing light paths through spacetime in its vicinity which will be published as professional papers.

Here, the author recounts the often bumpy story of the movie's genesis and progress over the years from his own, Hollywood-outsider, perspective, how the development of the story presented him, as technical advisor (he is credited as an executive producer), with problem after problem in finding a physically plausible solution, sometimes requiring him to do new physics. Then, Thorne provides a popular account of the exotic physics on which the story is based, including gravitational time dilation, black holes, wormholes, and speculative extra dimensions and “brane” scenarios stemming from string theory. Then he “interprets” the events and visual images in the film, explaining (where possible) how they could be produced by known, plausible, or speculative physics. Of course, this isn't always possible—in some cases the needs of story-telling or the requirement not to completely baffle a non-specialist with bewilderingly complicated and obscure images had to take priority over scientific authenticity, and when this is the case Thorne is forthright in admitting so.

Sections are labelled with icons identifying them as “truth”: generally accepted by those working in the field and often with experimental evidence, “educated guess”: a plausible inference from accepted physics, but without experimental evidence and assuming existing laws of physics remain valid in circumstances under which we've never tested them, and “speculation”: wild and wooly stuff (for example quantum gravity or the interior structure of a black hole) which violates no known law of physics, but for which we have no complete and consistent theory and no evidence whatsoever.

This is a clearly written and gorgeously illustrated book which, for those who enjoyed the movie but weren't entirely clear whence some of the stunning images they saw came, will explain the science behind them. The cover of the book has a “SPOILER ALERT” warning potential readers that the ending and major plot details are given away in the text. I will refrain from discussing them here so as not to make this a spoiler in itself. I have not yet seen the movie, and I expect when I do I will enjoy it more for having read the book, since I'll know what to look for in some of the visuals and be less likely to dismiss some of the apparently outrageous occurrences by knowing that there is a physically plausible (albeit extremely speculative and improbable) explanation for them.

For the animations and blackboard images mentioned in the text, the book directs you to a Web site which is so poorly designed and difficult to navigate it took me ten minutes to find them on the first visit. Here is a direct link. In the Kindle edition the index cites page numbers in the print edition which are useless since the electronic edition does not contain real page numbers. There are a few typographical errors and one factual howler: Io is not “Saturn's closest moon”, and Cassini was captured in Saturn orbit by a propulsion burn, not a gravitational slingshot (this does not affect the movie in any way: it's in background material).

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Thor, Brad. Hidden Order. New York: Pocket Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4767-1710-4.
This is the thirteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). Earlier novels have largely been in the mainstream of the “techno-thriller” genre, featuring missions in exotic locations confronting shadowy adversaries bent on inflicting great harm. The present book is a departure from this formula, being largely set in the United States and involving institutions considered pillars of the establishment such as the Federal Reserve System and the Central Intelligence Agency.

A CIA operative “accidentally” runs into a senior intelligence official of the Jordanian government in an airport lounge in Europe, who passes her disturbing evidence that members of a now-disbanded CIA team of which she was a member were involved in destabilising governments now gripped with “Arab Spring” uprisings and next may be setting their sights on Jordan.

Meanwhile, Scot Harvath, just returned from a harrowing mission on the high seas, is taken by his employer, Reed Carlton, to discreetly meet a new client: the Federal Reserve. The Carlton Group is struggling to recover from the devastating blow it took in the previous novel, Black List (August 2014), and its boss is willing to take on unconventional missions and new clients, especially ones “with a license to print their own money”. The chairman of the Federal Reserve has recently and unexpectedly died and the five principal candidates to replace him have all been kidnapped, almost simultaneously, across the United States. These people start turning up dead, in circumstances with symbolism dating back to the American revolution.

Investigation of the Jordanian allegations is shut down by the CIA hierarchy, and has to be pursued through back channels, involving retired people who know how the CIA really works. Evidence emerges of a black program that created weapons of frightful potential which may have gone even blacker and deeper under cover after being officially shut down.

Earlier Brad Thor novels were more along the “U-S-A! U-S-A!” line of most thrillers. Here, the author looks below the surface of highly dubious institutions (“The Federal Reserve is about as federal as Federal Express”) and evil that flourishes in the dark, especially when irrigated with abundant and unaccountable funds. Like many Americans, Scot Harvath knew little about the Federal Reserve other than it had something to do with money. Over the course of his investigations he, and the reader, will learn many disturbing things about its dodgy history and operations, all accurate as best I can determine.

The novel is as much police procedural as thriller, with Harvath teamed with a no-nonsense Boston Police Department detective, processing crime scenes and running down evidence. The story is set in an unspecified near future (the Aerion Supersonic Business Jet is in operation). All is eventually revealed in the end, with a resolution in the final chapter devoutly to be wished, albeit highly unlikely to occur in the cesspool of corruption which is real-world Washington. There is less action and fancy gear than in most Harvath novels, but interesting characters, an intricate mystery, and a good deal of information of which many readers may not be aware.

A short prelude to this novel, Free Fall, is available for free for the Kindle. It provides the background of the mission in progress in which we first encounter Scot Harvath in chapter 2 here. My guess is that this chapter was originally part of the manuscript and was cut for reasons of length and because it spent too much time on a matter peripheral to the main plot. It's interesting to read before you pick up Hidden Order, but if you skip it you'll miss nothing in the main story.

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Robinson, Peter. How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003. ISBN 978-0-06-052400-5.
In 1982, the author, a recent graduate of Dartmouth College who had spent two years studying at Oxford, then remained in England to write a novel, re-assessed his career prospects and concluded that, based upon experience, novelist did not rank high among them. He sent letters to everybody he thought might provide him leads on job opportunities. Only William F. Buckley replied, suggesting that Robinson contact his son, Christopher, then chief speechwriter for Vice President George H. W. Bush, who might know of some openings for speechwriters. Hoping at most for a few pointers, the author flew to Washington to meet Buckley, who was planning to leave the White House, creating a vacancy in the Vice President's speechwriting shop. After a whirlwind of interviews, Robinson found himself, in his mid-twenties, having never written a speech before in his life, at work in the Old Executive Office Building, tasked with putting words into the mouth of the Vice President of the United States.

After a year and a half writing for Bush, two of the President's speechwriters quit at the same time. Forced to find replacements on short notice, the head of the office recruited the author to write for Reagan: “He hired me because I was already in the building.” From then through 1988, he wrote speeches for Reagan, some momentous (Reagan's June 1987 speech at the Brandenburg gate, where Robinson's phrase, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, uttered by Reagan against vehement objections from the State Department and some of his senior advisers, was a pivotal moment in the ending of the Cold War), but also many more for less epochal events such as visits of Boy Scouts to the White House, ceremonies honouring athletes, and the dozens of other circumstances where the President was called upon to “say a few words”. And because the media were quick to pounce on any misstatement by the President, even the most routine remarks had to be meticulously fact-checked by a team of researchers. For every grand turn of phrase in a high profile speech, there were many moments spent staring at the blank screen of a word processor as the deadline for some inconsequential event loomed ever closer and wondering, “How am I supposed to get twenty minutes out of that?“.

But this is not just a book about the life of a White House speechwriter (although there is plenty of insight to be had on that topic). Its goal is to collect and transmit the wisdom that a young man, in his first job, learned by observing Ronald Reagan masterfully doing the job to which he had aspired since entering politics in the 1960s. Reagan was such a straightforward and unaffected person that many underestimated him. For example, compared to the hard-driving types toiling from dawn to dusk who populate many White House positions, Reagan never seemed to work very hard. He would rise at his accustomed hour, work for five to eight hours at his presidential duties, exercise, have dinner, review papers, and get to bed on time. Some interpreted this as his being lazy, but Robinson's fellow speechwriter, Clark Judge, remarked “He never confuses inputs with output. … Who cares how many hours a day a President puts in? It's what a President accomplishes that matters.”

These are lessons aplenty here, all illustrated with anecdotes from the Reagan White House: the distinction between luck and the results from persistence in the face of adversity seen in retrospect; the unreasonable effectiveness and inherent dignity of doing one's job, whatever it be, well; viewing life not as background scenery but rather an arena in which one can act, changing not just the outcome but the circumstances one encounters; the power of words, especially those sincerely believed and founded in comprehensible, time-proven concepts; scepticism toward the pronouncements of “experts” whose oracle-like proclamations make sense only to other experts—if it doesn't make sense to an intelligent person with some grounding in the basics, it probably doesn't make sense period; the importance of marriage, and how the Reagans complemented one another in facing the challenges and stress of the office; the centrality of faith, tempered by a belief in free will and the importance of the individual; how both true believers and pragmatists, despite how often they despise one another, are both essential to actually getting things done; and that what ultimately matters is what you make of whatever situation in which you find yourself.

These are all profound lessons to take on board, especially in the drinking from a firehose environment of the Executive Office of the President, and in one's twenties. But this is not a dour self-help book: it is an insightful, beautifully written, and often laugh-out-loud funny account of how these insights were gleaned on the job, by observing Reagan at work and how he and his administration got things done, often against fierce political and media opposition. This is one of those books that I wish I could travel back in time and hand a copy to my twenty-year-old self—it would have saved a great deal of time and anguish, even for a person like me who has no interest whatsoever in politics. Fundamentally, it's about getting things done, and that's universally applicable.

People matter. Individuals matter. Long before Ronald Reagan was a radio broadcaster, actor, or politician, he worked summers as a lifeguard. Between 1927 and 1932, he personally saved 77 people from drowning. “There were seventy-seven people walking around northern Illinois who wouldn't have been there if it hadn't been for Reagan—and Reagan knew it.” It is not just a few exceptional people who change the world for the better, but all of those who do their jobs and overcome the challenges with which life presents them. Learning this can change anybody's life.

More recently, Mr. Robinson is the host of Uncommon Knowledge and co-founder of Ricochet.com.

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