Fluidity of Perceived Speciation

There is a Princeton article that discusses a study on speciation. Some researchers observed a single finch that became isolated from its own species. The island it ended up on, though, had several other species of finch. So, it crossed the species divide to mate with one of the other populations.

That alone questions the very meaning of species. It was neither genetics nor behavior that kept these breeding populations separate. It was simply geographic distance. Eliminate that geographic factor and hybridization quickly follows. The researchers argue that this hybridization represents a new species. But their observations are over a short period of time. There is no reason to assume that further hybridization won’t occur, causing this population to slowly assimilate back into the original local population, the genetic variance lessening over time (as with populations of homo sapiens that hybridized with other homonids such as neanderthals).

All this proves is that our present definition of ‘species’ isn’t always particularly scientific, in being useful for careful understanding. Of course, it’s not hard to create a separate breeding population. But if separate breeding populations don’t have much genetic difference and can easily interbreed, then how is calling them separate species meaningful in any possible sense of that word? Well, it isn’t meaningful.

This study showed that sub-populations can become isolated for periods of times. What it doesn’t show is that this isolation will be long-lasting, as it isn’t entirely known what caused the separation of the breeding populations in the first place. For example, we don’t know to what extent the altered bird songs are related to genetics versus epigenetics, microbiome, environmental shifts, learned behavior, etc. The original lost and isolated finch carried with it much more than the genetics of its species. It would be unscientific to conclude much from such limited info and observations.

The original cause(s) might change again. In that case, the temporary sub-population would lose the traits, in this case birdsong, that have separated it. That probably happens all the time, temporary changes within populations and occasional hybridized populations appearing only to disappear again. But it’s probably rare that these changes become permanent so as to develop into genuinely separate species, in the meaningful sense of being genetically and behaviorally distinct to a large enough degree.

Also, the researches didn’t eliminate the possible explanation of what in humans would be called culture. Consider mountain lions. Different mountain lion populations will only hunt certain prey species. This isn’t genetically determined behavior. Rather, specific hunting techniques are taught from mother to cub. But this could create separate breeding populations for, in some cases, they might hunt in different areas where the various prey are concentrated. Even so, this hasn’t separated the mountain lion populations into different species. They remain genetically the same.

Sure, give it enough time combined with environmental changes, and then speciation might follow. But speciation can’t be determined by behavior alone, even when combined with minor genetic differences. Otherwise, that would mean every human culture on the planet is a separate species. The Irish wold be a separate species from the English. The Germans would be a separate species from the French. The Chinese would be a separate species from the Japanese. Et cetera. This is ludicrous, even though some right-wingers might love this idea and in fact this was an early pre-scientific definition of races as species or sub-species. But as we know, humans have some of the lowest levels of genetic diversity as seen among similar species.

Our notion of species is too simplistic. We have this simplistic view because, as our lives are short and science is young, we only have a snapshot of nature. Supposed species are probably a lot more fluid than the present paradigm allows for. The perceived or imposed boundaries of ‘species’ could constantly be changing with various sub-populations constantly emerging and merging, with environmental niches constantly shifting and coalescing. The idea of static species generally seems unhelpful, except maybe in rare cases where a species becomes isolated over long periods of time (e.g., the ice age snails surviving in a few ice caves in Iowa and Illinois) or else in species that are so perfectly adapted that evolutionary conditions have had little apparent impact (e.g., crocodiles).

We easily forget that modern science hasn’t been studying nature for very long. As I often repeat, our ignorance is vast beyond comprehension, much greater than our present knowledge.

As an amusing related case, some species will have sex with entirely different species. Hybridization isn’t even possible in such situations. It’s not clear why this happens. An example of this is a particular population of monkeys sexually mounting deer and, as they sometimes get grooming and food out of the deal, a fair number of the deer tolerate the behavior. There is no reason to assume these deer-mounting monkeys have evolved into a new species, as compared to nearby populations of monkeys who don’t sexually molest hoofed animals. Wild animals don’t seem to care all that much what modern humans think of them. Abstract categories of species don’t stop them from acting however they so desire. And it hasn’t always stopped humans either, whether between the supposed races within the human species or across the supposed divide of species.

From the lascivious monkey article (linked directly above):

“Finally, the researchers say, this might be a kind of cultural practice. Japanese macaques display different behaviors in different locations — some wash their food, or take hot-spring baths, or play with snowballs.

“Adolescent females grinding on the backs of deer might similarly be a cultural phenomenon. But it has only been observed at Minoo within the past few years.

“The monkey-deer sexual interactions reported in our paper may reflect the early stage development of a new behavioural tradition at Minoo,” Gunst-Leca told The Guardian.

“Alternatively, the paper notes, it could be a “short-lived fad.” Time will tell.”

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Trauma, Embodied and Extended

One of the better books on trauma I’ve seen is by Resmaa Menakem. He is a trauma therapist with a good range of personal and professional experience, which allows him to persuasively combine science with anecdotes. I heard him speak at Prairie Lights bookstore. He was at the end of his book tour and, instead of reading from his book My Grandmother’s Hands, he discussed what inspired it.

He covered his experience working with highly traumatized contract workers on military bases in Afghanistan. And he grounded it with stories about his grandmother. But more interestingly, he mentioned a key scientific study (see note 15 below). Although I had come across it before, I had forgotten about it. Setting up his discussion, he asked the audience, “Have any of you been to Washington, DC and smelled the cherry blossoms?” He described the warm, pleasant aroma. And then he gave the details of the study.

Mice were placed in a special enclosure. It was the perfect environment to fulfill a mouse’s every need and desire. But the wire mesh on the bottom was connected to electrical wires. The researchers would pump in the smell of cherries and then switch on the electricity. The mice jumped, ran around, clambered over each other, and struggled to escape — what any animal, including humans, would do in a similar situation. This was repeated many times, until finally the mice would have this Pavlovian response to cherry smell alone without any electric shock.

That much isn’t surprising. Thousands of studies have demonstrated such behavioralism. Where it gets intriguing is that the mice born to these traumatized mice also responded the same way to the cherry smell, despite never having been shocked. And the same behavior was observed with the generation of mice following that. Traumatic memory to something so specific as a smell became internalized and engrained within the body itself, passed on through genetics (or, to be specific, epigenetics). It became free-floating trauma disconnected from its originating source.

Menakem asked what would another scientist think who came in after the initial part of the study. The new scientist would not have seen the traumatizing shocks, but instead would only observe the strange response to the smell of cherries. Based on this limited perspective, this scientist would conclude that there was something wrong with those mice. From the book, here is how he describes it in human terms:

“Unhealed trauma acts like a rock thrown into a pond; it causes ripples that move outward, affecting many other bodies over time. After months or years, unhealed trauma can appear to become part of someone’s personality. Over even longer periods of time, as it is passed on and gets compounded through other bodies in a household, it can become a family norm. And if it gets transmitted and compounded through multiple families and generations, it can start to look like culture.”

This is a brilliant yet grounded way of explaining trauma. It goes beyond a victimization cycle. The trauma gets passed on, with or without a victimizer to mediate the transmission, although typically this process goes hand in hand with continuing victimization. Trauma isn’t a mere psychological phenomenon manifesting as personal dysfunction. It can become embodied and expressed as a shared experience, forming the background to the lives, relationships, and communities within an entire society — over the centuries, it could solidify into a well-trod habitus and entrenched social order. The personal becomes intergenerational becomes historical.

This helps explain the persistence of societal worldviews and collective patterns, what most often gets vaguely explained as ‘culture’. It’s not just about trauma for anything can be passed on in similar ways, such as neurocognitive memes involving thought, perception, and behavior — and it is plausible that, whether seeming harmful or beneficial, much of this is supported by epigenetic mechanisms in contributing to specific expressions of nature-nurture dynamics. Related to this, Christine Kenneally offers a corroborating perspective (The Invisible History of the Human Race, Kindle Locations 2430-2444):

“It seemed that both families and social institutions matter but that the former is more powerful. The data suggested that a region might develop its own culture of distrust and that it could affect people who moved into that area, even if their ancestors had not been exposed to the historical event that destroyed trust in the first place. But if someone’s ancestors had significant exposure to the slave trade, then even if he moved away from the area where he was born to an area where there was no general culture of mistrust, he was still less likely to be trusting. Indeed, Nunn and Wantchekon found evidence that the inheritance of distrust within a family was twice as powerful as the distrust that is passed down in a community.”

Kenneally doesn’t frame this according to epigenetics. But that would be a highly probable explanation, considering the influence happens mostly along familial lines, potentially implying a biological component. Elsewhere, the author does mention it in passing, using the same mouse study along with a human study (Kindle Locations 4863-4873):

“The lives that our parents and grandparents lived may also affect the way genetic conditions play out in our bodies. One of the central truths of twentieth-century genetics was that the genome is passed on from parents to child unaffected by the parents’ lives. But it has been discovered in the last ten years that there are crucial exceptions to this rule. Epigenetics tells us that events in your grandfather’s life may have tweaked your genes in particular ways. The classic epigenetics study showed that the DNA of certain adults in the Netherlands was irrevocably sculpted by the experience of their grandparents in a 1944 famine. In cases like this a marker that is not itself a gene is inherited and plays out via the genes. More recent studies have shown complex multigenerational effects. In one, mice were exposed to a traumatic event, which was accompanied by a particular odor. The offspring of the mice, and then their offspring, showed a greater reactivity to the odor than mice whose “grandparents” did not experience such conditioning. In 2014 the first ancient epigenome, from a four-thousand-year-old man from Greenland, was published. Shortly after that, drafts of the Neanderthal and Denisovan epigenomes were published. They may open up an entirely new way to compare and contrast our near-relatives and ancestors and to understand the way that they passed down experiences and predispositions. As yet it’s unclear for how many generations these attachments to our genes might be passed down.”

In emphasizing this point, she continues her thought with the comment that (Kindle Locations 4874-4876), “Even given our ability to read hundred of thousands of letters in the DNA of tens of thousands of people, it turns out that— at least for the moment— family history is still a better predictor of many health issues. For example, it is the presence of a BRCA mutation plus a family history of breast cancer that most significantly raises a woman’s risk of the disease.”

Much of that ‘family history’ would be epigenetic or else other biological mechanisms such as stress-induced hormones within the fetal environment of the womb. Also, microbiomes are inherited and have been proven to alter epigenetics, which means the non-human genes of bacteria can alter the expression of human genes (this can be taken a further step back, since presumably bacterial genetics also involve epigenetics). Besides all of this, there is much else that gets passed on by those around us, from viruses to parasites.

Another pathway of transmission would be shared environmental conditions, specifically considering that people tend to share environments to the degree their relationships are close. Those in the same society would have more shared environment than those in other societies, those in the same community moreso than those in other communities in the same society, those in the same neighborhood moreso than those in other neighborhoods in the same community, and those in the same family moreso than those in other families in the same neighborhood. The influence of environments is powerfully demonstrated with the rat park research. And the environmental factors easily remain hidden, even under careful laboratory conditions.

What we inherit is diverse and complex. But inheritance isn’t fatalism. Consider another mouse study involving electric shocks (Genetic ‘switch’ for memories, The Age), showing that the effects of trauma can be epigenetically reversed within the body:

“Both sets of mice were trained to fear a certain cage by giving them a mild electric shock every time they were put inside.
“Mice whose Tet1 gene was disabled learned to associate the cage with the shock, just like the normal mice. However, when the mice were put in the cage without an electric shock, the two groups behaved differently.
“To the scientists’ astonishment, mice with the Tet1 gene did not fear the cage because their memory of being hurt had already been replaced by new information. The mice with the disabled gene, whose memories had not been replaced, were still traumatised by the experience.”

Trauma isn’t a personal failing or weakness. In a sense, it isn’t even personal. It’s a biological coping mechanism, passed on from body to body, across generations and centuries. Trauma is a physical condition, based on a larger context of environmental conditions. And maybe one day we will be able to as easily treat it as any other physical condition. In turn, this could have a profound impact on so much of what has been considered ‘psychological’ and ‘cultural’. There are immense implications for the overlap of personal healthcare and public health.

* * *

My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies
by Resmaa Menakem
Chapter 3 Body to Body, Generation to Generation
pp. 23-34

Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.
Cicero

No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.
Maya Angelou

Most of us think of trauma as something that occurs in an individual body, like a toothache or a broken arm. But trauma also routinely spreads between bodies, like a contagious disease. […]

It’s not hard to see how trauma can spread like a contagion within couples, families, and other close relationships. What we don’t often consider is how trauma can spread from body to body in any relationship.

Trauma also spreads impersonally, of course, and has done so throughout human history. Whenever one group oppresses, victimizes, brutalizes, or marginalizes another, many of the victimized people may suffer trauma, and then pass on that trauma response to their children as standard operating procedure. 13 Children are highly susceptible to this because their young nervous systems are easily overwhelmed by things that older, more experienced nervous systems are able to override. As we have seen, the result is a soul wound or intergenerational trauma. When the trauma continues for generation after generation, it is called historical trauma. Historical trauma has been likened to a bomb going off, over and over again.

When one settled body encounters another, this can create a deeper settling of both bodies. But when one unsettled body encounters another, the unsettledness tends to compound in both bodies. In large groups, this compounding effect can turn a peaceful crowd into an angry mob. The same thing happens in families, especially when multiple family members face painful or stressful situations together. It can also occur more subtly over time, when one person repeatedly passes on their unsettledness to another. In her book Everyday Narcissism, therapist Nancy Van Dyken calls this hazy trauma: trauma that can’t be traced back to a single specific event.

Unhealed trauma acts like a rock thrown into a pond; it causes ripples that move outward, affecting many other bodies over time. After months or years, unhealed trauma can appear to become part of someone’s personality. Over even longer periods of time, as it is passed on and gets compounded through other bodies in a household, it can become a family norm. And if it gets transmitted and compounded through multiple families and generations, it can start to look like culture.

But it isn’t culture. It’s a traumatic retention that has lost its context over time. Though without context, it has not lost its power. Traumatic retentions can have a profound effect on what we do, think, feel, believe, experience, and find meaningful. (We’ll look at some examples shortly.)

What we call out as individual personality flaws, dysfunctional family dynamics, or twisted cultural norms are sometimes manifestations of historical trauma. These traumatic retentions may have served a purpose at one time—provided protection, supported resilience, inspired hope, etc.—but generations later, when adaptations continue to be acted out in situations where they are no longer necessary or helpful, they get defined as dysfunctional behavior on the individual, family, or cultural level.

The transference of trauma isn’t just about how human beings treat each other. Trauma can also be inherited genetically. Recent work in genetics has revealed that trauma can change the expression of the DNA in our cells, and these changes can be passed from parent to child. 14

And it gets weirder. We now have evidence that memories connected to painful events also get passed down from parent to child—and to that child’s child. What’s more, these experiences appear to be held, passed on, and inherited in the body, not just in the thinking brain. 15 Often people experience this as a persistent sense of imminent doom—the trauma ghosting I wrote about earlier.

We are only beginning to understand how these processes work, and there are a lot of details we don’t know yet. Having said that, here is what we do know so far:

  • A fetus growing inside the womb of a traumatized mother may inherit some of that trauma in its DNA expression. This results in the repeated release of stress hormones, which may affect the nervous system of the developing fetus.
  • A man with unhealed trauma in his body may produce sperm with altered DNA expression. These in turn may inhibit the healthy functioning of cells in his children.
  • Trauma can alter the DNA expression of a child or grandchild’s brain, causing a wide range of health and mental health issues, including memory loss, chronic anxiety, muscle weakness, and depression.
  • Some of these effects seem particularly prevalent among African Americans, Jews, and American Indians, three groups who have experienced an enormous amount of historical trauma.

Some scientists theorize this genetic alteration may be a way to protect later generations. Essentially, genetic changes train our descendants’ bodies through heredity rather than behavior. This suggests that what we call genetic defects may actually be ways to increase our descendants’ odds of survival in a potentially dangerous environment, by relaying hormonal information to the fetus in the womb.

The womb is itself an environment: a watery world of sounds, movement, and human biochemicals. Recent research suggests that, during the last trimester of pregnancy, fetuses in the womb can learn and remember just as well as newborns. 16 Part of what they may learn, based on what their mothers go through during pregnancy, is whether the world outside the womb is safe and healthy or dangerous and toxic. […]

Zoë Carpenter sums this up in a simple, stark observation:

Health experts now think that stress throughout the span of a woman’s life can prompt biological changes that affect the health of her future children. Stress can disrupt immune, vascular, metabolic, and endocrine systems, and cause cells to age more quickly. 17 […]

These are the effects of trauma involving specific incidents. But what about the effects of repetitive trauma: unhealed traumas that accumulate over time? The research is now in: the effects on the body from trauma that is persistent (or pervasive, repetitive, or long-held) are significantly negative, sometimes profoundly so. While many studies support this conclusion, 19 the largest and best known is the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES), a large study of 17,000 people 20 conducted over three decades by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the healthcare conglomerate Kaiser Permanente. Published in 2014, ACES clearly links childhood trauma (and other “adverse childhood events” involving abuse or neglect 21) to a wide range of long-term health and social consequences, including illness, disability, social problems, and early death—all of which can get passed down through the generations. The ACE study also demonstrates a strong link between the number of “adverse childhood events” and increased rates of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, chronic lung disease, alcoholism, depression, liver disease, and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as illicit drug use, financial stress, poor academic and work performance, pregnancy in adolescence, and attempted suicide. People who have experienced four or more “adverse events” as children are twice as likely to develop heart disease than people who have experienced none. They are also twice as likely to develop autoimmune diseases, four and a half times as likely to be depressed, ten times as likely to be intravenous drug users, and twelve times as likely to be suicidal. As children, they are thirty-three times as likely to have learning and behavior problems in school.

Pediatrician Nadine Burke-Harris offers the following apt comparison: “If a child is exposed to lead while their brain is developing, it affects the long-term development of their brain . . . It’s the same way when a child is exposed to high doses of stress and trauma while their brain is developing . . . Exposure to trauma is particularly toxic for children.” In other words, there is a biochemical component behind all this.

When people experience repeated trauma, abuse, or high levels of stress for long stretches of time, a variety of stress hormones get secreted into their bloodstreams. In the short term, the purpose of these chemicals is to protect their bodies. But when the levels of these chemicals 22 remain high over time, they can have toxic effects, making a person less healthy, less resilient, and more prone to illness. High levels of one or more of these chemicals can also crowd out other, healthier chemicals—those that encourage trust, intimacy, motivation, and meaning. […]

The results of the ACE study are dramatic. Yet it covered only fifteen years. How much more dramatic might the results be for people who have experienced (or whose ancestors experienced) centuries of enslavement or genocide? 23

Historical trauma, intergenerational trauma, institutionalized trauma (such as white-body supremacy, gender discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, etc.), and personal trauma (including any trauma we inherit from our families genetically, or through the way they treat us, or both) often interact. As these traumas compound each other, or as each new or recent traumatic experience triggers the energy of older experiences, they can create ever-increasing damage to human lives and human bodies.

* * *

Notes:

13 Over time, roles can switch and the oppressed may become the oppressors. They then pass on trauma not only to their children, but also to a new group of victims. 14 This research has led to the creation of a new field of scientific inquiry known as epigenetics, the study of inheritable changes in gene expression. Epigenetics has transformed the way scientists think about genomes. The first study to clearly show that stress can cause inheritable gene defects in humans was published in 2015 by Rachel Yehuda and her colleagues, titled “Holocaust Exposure Induced Intergenerational Effects n FKBP5 Methylation” ( Biological Psychiatry 80, no. 5, September, 2016: 372–80). (Earlier studies identified the same effect in animals.) Yehuda’s study demonstrated that damaged genes in the bodies of Jewish Holocaust survivors—the result of the trauma they suffered under Nazism—were passed on to their children. Later research confirms Yehuda’s conclusions.

15 A landmark study demonstrating this effect in mice was published in 2014 by Kerry Ressler and Brian Dias (“Parental Olfactory Experience Influences Behavior and Neural Structure in Subsequent Generations,” Nature Neuroscience 17: 89–96). Ressler and Dias put male mice in a small chamber, then occasionally exposed them to the scent of acetophenone (which smells like cherries)—and, simultaneously, to small electric shocks. Eventually the mice associated the scent with pain; they would shudder whenever they were exposed to the smell, even after the shocks were discontinued. The children of those mice were born with a fear of the smell of acetophenone. So were their grandchildren. As of this writing, no one has completed a similar study on humans, both for ethical reasons and because we take a lot longer than mice to produce a new generation.

16 A good, if very brief, overview of these studies appeared in Science: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2013/08/babies-learn-recognize-words-womb .

17 This quote is from an eye-opening article in The Nation, “What’s Killing America’s Black Infants?”: https://www.thenation.com/article/whats-killing-americas-black-infants . Carpenter also notes that in the United States, Black infants die at a rate that’s over twice as high as for white infants. In some cities, the disparity is much worse: in Washington, DC, the infant mortality rate in Ward 8, which is over 93 percent Black, is ten times the rate in Ward 3, which is well-to-do and mostly white. […]

19 See, for example: “Early Trauma and Inflammation” ( Psychosomatic Medicine 74, no. 2, February/March 2012: 146–52); “Chronic Stress, Glucocorticoid Receptor Resistance, Inflammation, and Disease Risk” ( Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 16, April 17, 2012: 5995–99); and “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Risk Factors for Age-Related Disease: Depression, Inflammation, and Clustering of Metabolic Risk Markers” ( Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 163, no. 12, December 2009: 1135–43).

20 Of the people studied, 74.8 percent were white; 4.5 percent were African American; 54 percent were female; and 46 percent were male.

21 The ten “adverse childhood events” are divorced or separated parents; physical abuse; physical neglect; emotional abuse; emotional neglect; sexual abuse; domestic violence that the child witnessed; substance abuse in the household; mental illness in the household; and a family member in prison.

22 These chemicals are cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. They are secreted by the adrenal gland.

23 Please don’t imagine that we African Americans claim to have cornered the market on adverse childhood experiences. In fact, in his brilliant book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), white Appalachian J. D. Vance cites the ACE study in reference to himself, his sister Lindsay, and “my corner of the demographic world”: working-class Americans. As Vance notes, “Four in every ten working-class people had faced multiple instances of childhood trauma. If you want to deeply understand the hearts, psyches, and bodies of many Americans today, you can do no better than to read both Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).

* * *

What white bodies did to Black bodies they did to other white bodies first.
Janice Barbee

* * *

From Genetic Literacy Project:

Childhood trauma: The kids are not alright and part of the explanation may be linked to epigenetics
Your DNA may have been altered by childhood stress and traumas
Childhood trauma leaves mark on DNA of some victims
Is the genetic imprint of traumatic experiences passed on to our children?
Do parents pass down trauma to their children?
Was trauma from Holocaust passed on to children of survivors?
Holocaust survivors studied to determine if trauma-induced mental illness can be inherited
Epigenetics, pregnancy and the Holocaust: How trauma can shape future generations
Epigenetic inheritance: Holocaust survivors passed genetic marks of trauma to children
How epigenetics, our gut microbiome and the environment interact to change our lives
Skin microbiomes differ largely between cultures, more diverse sampling is needed
Cities have unique microbiome ‘fingerprint,’ study finds
Your microbiome isn’t just in you: It’s all around you
Microbes, like genes, pass from one generation to next
Microbiome profile highlights diet, upbringing and birth
Baby’s microbiome may come from mom’s mouth via placenta

State and Non-State Violence Compared

There is a certain kind of academic that simultaneously interests me and infuriates me. Jared Diamond, in The World Until Yesterday, is an example of this. He is knowledgeable guy and is able to communicate that knowledge in a coherent way. He makes many worthy observations and can be insightful. But there is also naivete that at times shows up in his writing. I get the sense that occasionally his conclusions preceded the evidence he shares. Also, he’ll point out the problems with the evidence and then, ignoring what he admitted, will treat that evidence as strongly supporting his biased preconceptions.

Despite my enjoyment of Diamond’s book, I was disappointed specifically in his discussion of violence and war (much of the rest of the book, though, is worthy and I recommend it). Among the intellectual elite, it seems fashionable right now to describe modern civilization as peaceful — that is fashionable among the main beneficiaries of modern civilization, not so much fashionable according to those who bear the brunt of the costs.

In Chapter 4, he asks, “Did traditional warfare increase, decrease, or remain unchanged upon European contact?” That is a good question. And as he makes clear, “This is not a straightforward question to decide, because if one believes that contact does affect the intensity of traditional warfare, then one will automatically distrust any account of it by an outside observer as having been influenced by the observer and not representing the pristine condition.” But he never answers the question. He simply assumes that that the evidence proves what he appears to have already believed.

I’m not saying he doesn’t take significant effort to make a case. He goes on to say, “However, the mass of archaeological evidence and oral accounts of war before European contact discussed above makes it far-fetched to maintain that people were traditionally peaceful until those evil Europeans arrived and messed things up.” The archaeological and oral evidence, like the anthropological evidence, is diverse. For example, in northern Europe, there is no evidence of large-scale warfare before the end of the Bronze Age when multiple collapsing civilizations created waves of refugees and marauders.

All the evidence shows us is that some non-state societies have been violent and others non-violent, no different than in comparing state societies. But we must admit, as Diamond does briefly, that contact and the rippling influences of contact across wide regions can lead to greater violence along with other alterations in the patterns of traditional culture and lifestyle. Before contact ever happens, most non-state societies have already been influenced by trade, disease, environmental destruction, invasive species, refugees, etc. That pre-contact indirect influences can last for generations or centuries prior to final contact, especially with non-state societies that were more secluded. And those secluded populations are the most likely to be studied as supposedly representative of uncontacted conditions.

We should be honest in admitting our vast ignorance. The problem is that, if Diamond fully admitted this, he would have little to write about on such topics or it would be a boring book with all of the endless qualifications (I personally like scholarly books filled with qualifications, but most people don’t). He is in the business of popular science and so speculation is the name of the game he is playing. Some of his speculations might not hold up to much scrutiny, not that the average reader will offer much scrutiny.

He continues to claim that, “the evidence of traditional warfare, whether based on direct observation or oral histories or archaeological evidence, is so overwhelming.” And so asks, “why is there still any debate about its importance?” What a silly question. We simply don’t know. He could be right, just as easily as he could be wrong. Speculations are dime a dozen. The same evidence can and regularly is made to conform to and confirm endless hypotheses that are mostly non-falsifiable. We don’t know and probably will never know. It’s like trying to use chimpanzees as a comparison for human nature, even though chimpanzees have for a long time been in a conflict zone with human encroachment, poaching, civil war, habitat loss, and ecosystem destabilization. No one knows what chimpanzees were like pre-contact. But we do know that bonobos that live across a major river in a less violent area express less violent behavior. Maybe there is a connection, not that Diamond is as likely to mention these kinds of details.

I do give him credit, though. He knows he is on shaky ground. In pointing out the problems he previously discussed, he writes that, “One reason is the real difficulties, which we have discussed, in evaluating traditional warfare under pre-contact or early-contact conditions. Warriors quickly discern that visiting anthropologists disapprove of war, and the warriors tend not to take anthropologists along on raids or allow them to photograph battles undisturbed: the filming opportunities available to the Harvard Peabody Expedition among the Dani were unique. Another reason is that the short-term effects of European contact on tribal war can work in either direction and have to be evaluated case by case with an open mind.” In between the lines, Jared Diamond makes clear that he can’t really know much of anything about earlier non-state warfare.

Even as he mentions some archaeological sites showing evidence of mass violence, he doesn’t clarify that these sites are a small percentage of archaeological sites, most of which don’t show mass violence. It’s not as if anyone is arguing mass violence never happened prior to civilization. The Noble Savage myth is not widely supported these days and so there is no point in his propping it up as a straw man to knock down.

From my perspective, it goes back to what comparisons one wishes to make. Non-state societies may or may not be more violent per capita. But that doesn’t change the reality that state societies cause more harm, as a total number. Consider one specific example of state warfare. The United States has been continuously at war since it was founded, which is to say not a year has gone by without war (against both state and non-state societies), and most of that has been wars of aggression. The US military, CIA covert operations, economic sanctions, etc surely has killed at least hundreds of millions of people in my lifetime — probably more people killed than all non-states combined throughout human existence.

Here is the real difference in violence between non-states and states. State violence is more hierarchically controlled and targeted in its destruction. Non-state societies, on the other hand, tend to spread the violence across entire populations. When a tribe goes to war, often the whole tribe is involved. So state societies are different in that usually only the poor and minorities, the oppressed and disadvantaged experience the harm. If you look at the specifically harmed populations in state societies, the mortality rate is probably higher than seen in non-state societies. The essential point is that this violence is concentrated and hidden.

Immensely larger numbers of people are the victims of modern state violence, overt violence and slow violence. But the academics who write about it never have to personally experience or directly observe these conditions of horror, suffering, and despair. Modern civilization is less violent for the liberal class, of which academics are members. That doesn’t say much about the rest of the global population. The permanent underclass lives in constant violence within their communities and from state governments, which leads to a different view on the matter.

To emphasize this bias, one could further note what Jared Diamond ignores or partly reports. In the section where he discusses violence, he briefly mentions the Piraha. He could have pointed out that they are a non-violent non-state society. They have no known history of warfare, capital punishment, abuse, homicide, or suicide — at least none has been observed or discovered through interviews. Does he write about this evidence that contradicts his views? Of course not. Instead, lacking any evidence of violence, he speculates about violence. Here is the passage from Chapter 2 (pp. 93-94):

“Among still another small group, Brazil’s Piraha Indians (Plate 11), social pressure to behave by the society’s norms and to settle disputes is applied by graded ostracism. That begins with excluding someone from food-sharing for a day, then for several days, then making the person live some distance away in the forest, deprived of normal trade and social exchanges. The most severe Piraha sanction is complete ostracism. For instance, a Piraha teen-ager named Tukaaga killed an Apurina Indian named Joaquim living nearby, and thereby exposed the Piraha to the risk of a retaliatory attack. Tukaaga was then forced to live apart from all other Piraha villages, and within a month he died under mysterious circumstances, supposedly of catching a cold, but possibly instead murdered by other Piraha who felt endangered by Tukaaga’s deed.”

Why did he add that unfounded speculation at the end? The only evidence he has is that their methods of social conformity are non-violent. Someone is simply ostracized. But that doesn’t fit his beliefs. So he assumes there must be some hidden violence that has never been discovered after generations of observers having lived among them. Even the earliest account of contact from centuries ago, as far as I know, indicates absolutely no evidence of violence. It makes one wonder how many more examples he ignores, dismisses, or twists to fit his preconceptions.

This reminds me of Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameral societies. He noted that these Bronze Age societies were non-authoritarian, despite having high levels of social conformity. There is no evidence of these societies having written laws, courts, police forces, formal systems of punishment, and standing armies. Like non-state tribal societies, when they went to war, the whole population sometimes was mobilized. Bicameral societies were smaller, mostly city-states, and so still had elements of tribalism. But the point is that the enculturation process itself was powerful enough to enforce order without violence. That was only within a society, as war still happened between societies, although it was limited and usually only involved neighboring societies. I don’t think there is evidence of continual warfare. Yet when conflict erupted, it could lead to total war.

It’s hard to compare either tribes or ancient city-states to modern nation-states. Their social orders and how they maintained them are far different. And the violence involved is of a vastly disparate scale. Besides, I wouldn’t take the past half century of relative peace in the Western world as being representative of modern civilization. In this new century, we might see billions of deaths from all combined forms of violence. And the centuries earlier were some of the bloodiest and destructive ever recorded. Imperialism and colonialism, along with the legacy systems of neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism, have caused and contributed to the genocide or cultural destruction of probably hundreds of thousands of societies worldwide, in most cases with all evidence of their existence having disappeared. This wholesale massacre has led to a dearth of societies left remaining with which to make comparisons. The survivors living in isolated niches may not be representative of the societal diversity that once existed.

Anyway, the variance of violence and war casualty rates likely is greater in comparing societies of the same kind than in comparing societies of different kinds. As the nearby bonobos are more peaceful than chimpanzees, the Piraha are more peaceful than the Yanomami who live in the same region — as Canada is more peaceful than the US. That might be important to explain and a lot more interesting. But this more incisive analysis wouldn’t fit Western propaganda, specifically the neo-imperial narrative of Pax Americana. From Pax Hispanica to Pax Britannica to Pax Americana, quite possibly billions of combatants have died in wars and billions more of innocents as casualties. That is neither a small percentage nor a small total number, if anyone is genuinely concerned about body counts.

* * *

Rebutting Jared Diamond’s Savage Portrait
by Paul Sillitoe & Mako John Kuwimb, iMediaEthics

Why Does Jared Diamond Make Anthropologists So Mad?
by Barbara J. King, NPR

In a beautifully written piece for The Guardian, Wade Davis says that Diamond’s “shallowness” is what “drives anthropologists to distraction.” For Davis, geographer Diamond doesn’t grasp that “cultures reside in the realm of ideas, and are not simply or exclusively the consequences of climatic and environmental imperatives.”

Rex Golub at Savage Minds slams the book for “a profound lack of thought about what it would mean to study human diversity and how to make sense of cultural phenomena.” In a fit of vexed humor, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for anthropological research tweeted Golub’s post along with this comment: “@savageminds once again does the yeoman’s work of exploring Jared Diamond’s new book so the rest of us don’t have to.”

This biting response isn’t new; see Jason Antrosio’s post from last year in which he calls Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel a “one-note riff,” even “academic porn” that should not be taught in introductory anthropology courses.

Now, in no way do I want to be the anthropologist who defends Diamond because she just doesn’t “get” what worries all the cool-kid anthropologists about his work. I’ve learned from their concerns; I’m not dismissing them.

In point of fact, I was startled at this passage on the jacket of The World Until Yesterday: “While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgably wide, we can glimpse most of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies that still exist or were recently in existence.” This statement turns small-scale societies into living fossils, the human equivalent of ancient insects hardened in amber. That’s nonsense, of course.

Lest we think to blame a publicist (rather than the author) for that lapse, consider the text itself. Near the start, Diamond offers a chronology: until about 11,000 years ago, all people lived off the land, without farming or domesticated animals. Only around 5,400 years ago did the first state emerge, with its dense population, labor specialization and power hierarchy. Then Diamond fatally overlays that past onto the present: “Traditional societies retain features of how all of our ancestors lived for tens of thousands of years, until virtually yesterday.” Ugh.

Another problem, one I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, bothers me just as much. When Diamond urges his WEIRD readers to learn from the lifeways of people in small-scale societies, he concludes: “We ourselves are the only ones who created our new lifestyles, so it’s completely in our power to change them.” Can he really be so unaware of the privilege that allows him to assert — or think — such a thing? Too many people living lives of poverty within industrialized nations do not have it “completely in their power” to change their lives, to say the least.

Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict (1934) wins Jared Diamond (2012)
by Jason Antrosio, Living Anthropologically

Compare to Jared Diamond. Diamond has of course acquired some fame for arguing against biological determinism, and his Race Without Color was once a staple for challenging simplistic tales of biological race. But by the 1990s, Diamond simply echoes perceived liberal wisdom. Benedict and Weltfish’s Races of Mankind was banned by the Army as Communist propaganda, and Weltfish faced persecution from McCarthyism (Micaela di Leonardo, Exotics at Home 1998:196,224; see also this Jon Marks comment on Gene Weltfish). Boas and Benedict swam against the current of the time, when backlash could be brutal. In contrast, Diamond’s claims on race and IQ have mostly been anecdotal. They have never been taken seriously by those who call themselves “race realists” (see Jared Diamond won’t beat Mitt Romney). Diamond has never responded scientifically to the re-assertion of race from sources like “A Family Tree in Every Gene,” and he helped propagate a medical myth about racial differences in hypertension.

And, of course, although Guns, Germs, and Steel has been falsely branded as environmental or geographical determinism, there is no doubt that Diamond leans heavily on agriculture and geography as explanatory causes for differential success. […]

Compare again Jared Diamond. Diamond has accused anthropologists of falsely romanticizing others, but by subtitling his book What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies, Diamond engages in more than just politically-correct euphemism. When most people think of a “traditional society,” they are thinking of agrarian peasant societies or artisan handicrafts. Diamond, however, is referring mainly to what we might term tribal societies, or hunters and gatherers with some horticulture. Curiously, for Diamond the dividing line between the yesterday of traditional and the today of the presumably modern was somewhere around 5,000-6,000 years ago (see The Colbert Report). As John McCreery points out:

Why, I must ask, is the category “traditional societies” limited to groups like Inuit, Amazonian Indians, San people and Melanesians, when the brute fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people who have lived in “traditional” societies have been peasants living in traditional agricultural civilizations over the past several thousand years since the first cities appeared in places like the valleys of the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, the Ganges, the Yellow River, etc.? Talk about a big blind spot.

Benedict draws on the work of others, like Reo Fortune in Dobu and Franz Boas with the Kwakiutl. Her own ethnographic experience was limited. But unlike Diamond, Benedict was working through the best ethnographic work available. Diamond, in contrast, splays us with a story from Allan Holmberg, which then gets into the New York Times, courtesy of David Brooks. Compare bestselling author Charles Mann on “Holmberg’s Mistake” (the first chapter of his 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus):

The wandering people Holmberg traveled with in the forest had been hiding from their abusers. At some risk to himself, Holmberg tried to help them, but he never fully grasped that the people he saw as remnants from the Paleolithic Age were actually the persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture. It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving. (Mann 2005:10)

As for Diamond’s approach to comparing different groups: “Despite claims that Diamond’s book demonstrates incredible erudition what we see in this prologue is a profound lack of thought about what it would mean to study human diversity and how to make sense of cultural phenomenon” (Alex Golub, How can we explain human variation?).

Finally there is the must-read review Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ Is Completely Wrong by Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International:

Diamond adds his voice to a very influential sector of American academia which is, naively or not, striving to bring back out-of-date caricatures of tribal peoples. These erudite and polymath academics claim scientific proof for their damaging theories and political views (as did respected eugenicists once). In my own, humbler, opinion, and experience, this is both completely wrong–both factually and morally–and extremely dangerous. The principal cause of the destruction of tribal peoples is the imposition of nation states. This does not save them; it kills them.

[…] Indeed, Jared Diamond has been praised for his writing, for making science popular and palatable. Others have been less convinced. As David Brooks reviews:

Diamond’s knowledge and insights are still awesome, but alas, that vividness rarely comes across on the page. . . . Diamond’s writing is curiously impersonal. We rarely get to hear the people in traditional societies speak for themselves. We don’t get to meet any in depth. We don’t get to know what their stories are, what the contents of their religions are, how they conceive of individual selfhood or what they think of us. In this book, geographic and environmental features play a much more important role in shaping life than anything an individual person thinks or feels. The people Diamond describes seem immersed in the collective. We generally don’t see them exercising much individual agency. (Tribal Lessons; of course, Brooks may be smarting from reviews that called his book The Dumbest Story Ever Told)

[…] In many ways, Ruth Benedict does exactly what Wade Davis wanted Jared Diamond to do–rather than providing a how-to manual of “tips we can learn,” to really investigate the existence of other possibilities:

The voices of traditional societies ultimately matter because they can still remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual and ecological space. This is not to suggest naively that we abandon everything and attempt to mimic the ways of non-industrial societies, or that any culture be asked to forfeit its right to benefit from the genius of technology. It is rather to draw inspiration and comfort from the fact that the path we have taken is not the only one available, that our destiny therefore is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. By their very existence the diverse cultures of the world bear witness to the folly of those who say that we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet. (Wade Davis review of Jared Diamond; and perhaps one of the best contemporary versions of this project is Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World)

[…] This history reveals the major theme missing from both Benedict’s Patterns of Culture and especially missing from Diamond–an anthropology of interconnection. That as Eric Wolf described in Europe and the People Without History peoples once called primitive–now perhaps more politely termed tribal or traditional–were part of a co-production with Western colonialism. This connection and co-production had already been in process long before anthropologists arrived on the scene. Put differently, could the Dobuan reputation for being infernally nasty savages have anything to do with the white recruiters of indentured labour, which Benedict mentions (1934:130) but then ignores? Could the revving up of the Kwakiutl potlatch and megalomaniac gamuts have anything to do with the fur trade?

The Collapse Of Jared Diamond
by Louis Proyect, Swans Commentary

In general, the approach of the authors is to put the ostensible collapse into historical context, something that is utterly lacking in Diamond’s treatment. One of the more impressive record-correcting exercises is Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo’s Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of “Ecocide” on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). In Collapse, Diamond judged Easter Island as one of the more egregious examples of “ecocide” in human history, a product of the folly of the island’s rulers whose decision to construct huge statues led to deforestation and collapse. By chopping down huge palm trees that were used to transport the stones used in statue construction, the islanders were effectively sealing their doom. Not only did the settlers chop down trees, they hunted the native fauna to extinction. The net result was a loss of habitat that led to a steep population decline.

Diamond was not the first observer to call attention to deforestation on Easter Island. In 1786, a French explorer named La Pérouse also attributed the loss of habitat to the “imprudence of their ancestors for their present unfortunate situation.”

Referring to research about Easter Island by scientists equipped with the latest technologies, the authors maintain that the deforestation had nothing to do with transporting statues. Instead, it was an accident of nature related to the arrival of rats in the canoes of the earliest settlers. Given the lack of native predators, the rats had a field day and consumed the palm nuts until the trees were no longer reproducing themselves at a sustainable rate. The settlers also chopped down trees to make a space for agriculture, but the idea that giant statues had anything to do with the island’s collapse is as much of a fiction as Diamond’s New Yorker article.

Unfortunately, Diamond is much more interested in ecocide than genocide. If people interested him half as much as palm trees, he might have said a word or two about the precipitous decline in population that occurred after the island was discovered by Europeans in 1722. Indeed, despite deforestation there is evidence that the island’s population grew between 1250 and 1650, the period when deforestation was taking place — leaving aside the question of its cause. As was the case when Europeans arrived in the New World, a native population was unable to resist diseases such as smallpox and died in massive numbers. Of course, Diamond would approach such a disaster with his customary Olympian detachment and write it off as an accident of history.

While all the articles pretty much follow the narrowly circumscribed path as the one on Easter Island, there is one that adopts the Grand Narrative that Jared Diamond has made a specialty of and beats him at his own game. I am referring to the final article, Sustainable Survival by J.R. McNeill, who describes himself in a footnote thusly: “Unlike most historians, I have no real geographic specialization and prefer — like Jared Diamond — to hunt for large patterns in the human past.”

And one of those “large patterns” ignored by Diamond is colonialism. The greatest flaw in Collapse is that it does not bother to look at the impact of one country on another. By treating countries in isolation from one another, it becomes much easier to turn the “losers” into examples of individual failing. So when Haiti is victimized throughout the 19th century for having the temerity to break with slavery, this hardly enters into Diamond’s moral calculus.

Compassion Sets Humans Apart
by Penny Spikins, Sapiens

There are, perhaps surprisingly, only two known cases of likely interpersonal violence in the archaic species most closely related to us, Neanderthals. That’s out of a total of about 30 near-complete skeletons and 300 partial Neanderthal finds. One—a young adult living in what is now St. Césaire, France, some 36,000 years ago—had the front of his or her skull bashed in. The other, a Neanderthal found in Shanidar Cave in present-day Iraq, was stabbed in the ribs between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago, perhaps by a projectile point shot by a modern human.

The earliest possible evidence of what might be considered warfare or feuding doesn’t show up until some 13,000 years ago at a cemetery in the Nile Valley called Jebel Sahaba, where many of the roughly 60 Homo sapiens individuals appear to have died a violent death.

Evidence of human care, on the other hand, goes back at least 1.5 million years—to long before humans were anatomically modern. A Homo ergaster female from Koobi Fora in Kenya, dated to about 1.6 million years ago, survived several weeks despite a toxic overaccumulation of vitamin A. She must have been given food and water, and protected from predators, to live long enough for this disease to leave a record in her bones.

Such evidence becomes even more notable by half a million years ago. At Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones), a site in Spain occupied by ancestors of Neanderthals, three of 28 individuals found in one pit had severe pathology—a girl with a deformed head, a man who was deaf, and an elderly man with a damaged pelvis—but they all lived for long periods of time despite their conditions, indicating that they were cared for. At the same site in Shanidar where a Neanderthal was found stabbed, researchers discovered another skeleton who was blind in one eye and had a withered arm and leg as well as hearing loss, which would have made it extremely hard or impossible to forage for food and survive. His bones show he survived for 15 to 20 years after injury.

At a site in modern-day Vietnam called Man Bac, which dates to around 3,500 years ago, a man with almost complete paralysis and frail bones was looked after by others for over a decade; he must have received care that would be difficult to provide even today.

All of these acts of caring lasted for weeks, months, or years, as opposed to a single moment of violence.

Violence, Okinawa, and the ‘Pax Americana’
by John W. Dower, The Asia-Pacific Journal

In American academic circles, several influential recent books argue that violence declined significantly during the Cold War, and even more precipitously after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. This reinforces what supporters of US strategic policy including Japan’s conservative leaders always have claimed. Since World War II, they contend, the militarized Pax Americana, including nuclear deterrence, has ensured the decline of global violence.

I see the unfolding of the postwar decades through a darker lens.

No one can say with any certainty how many people were killed in World War II. Apart from the United States, catastrophe and chaos prevailed in almost every country caught in the war. Beyond this, even today criteria for identifying and quantifying war-related deaths vary greatly. Thus, World War II mortality estimates range from an implausible low of 50 million military and civilian fatalities worldwide to as many as 80 million. The Soviet Union, followed by China, suffered by far the greatest number of these deaths.

Only when this slaughter is taken as a baseline does it make sense to argue that the decades since World War II have been relatively non-violent.

The misleading euphemism of a “Cold War” extending from 1945 to 1991 helps reinforce the decline-of-violence argument. These decades were “cold” only to the extent that, unlike World War II, no armed conflict took place pitting the major powers directly against one another. Apart from this, these were years of mayhem and terror of every imaginable sort, including genocides, civil wars, tribal and ethnic conflicts, attempts by major powers to suppress anti-colonial wars of liberation, and mass deaths deriving from domestic political policies (as in China and the Soviet Union).

In pro-American propaganda, Washington’s strategic and diplomatic policies during these turbulent years and continuing to the present day have been devoted to preserving peace, defending freedom and the rule of law, promoting democratic values, and ensuring the security of its friends and allies.

What this benign picture ignores is the grievous harm as well as plain folly of much postwar US policy. This extends to engaging in atrocious war conduct, initiating never-ending arms races, supporting illiberal authoritarian regimes, and contributing to instability and humanitarian crises in many part of the world.

Such destructive behavior was taken to new levels in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by nineteen Islamist hijackers. America’s heavy-handed military response has contributed immeasurably to the proliferation of global terrorist organizations, the destabilization of the Greater Middle East, and a flood of refugees and internally displaced persons unprecedented since World War II.

Afghanistan and Iraq, invaded following September 11, remain shattered and in turmoil. Neighboring countries are wracked with terror and insurrection. In 2016, the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the US military engaged in bombing and air strikes in no less than seven countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria). At the same time, elite US “special forces” conducted largely clandestine operations in an astonishing total of around 140 countries–amounting to almost three-quarters of all the nations in the world.

Overarching all this, like a giant cage, is America’s empire of overseas military bases. The historical core of these bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea dates back to after World War II and the Korean War (1950-1953), but the cage as a whole spans the globe and is constantly being expanded or contracted. The long-established bases tend to be huge. Newer installations are sometimes small and ephemeral. (The latter are known as “lily pad” facilities, and now exist in around 40 countries.) The total number of US bases presently is around 800.

Okinawa has exemplified important features of this vast militarized domain since its beginnings in 1945. Current plans to relocate US facilities to new sites like Henoko, or to expand to remote islands like Yonaguni, Ishigaki, and Miyako in collaboration with Japanese Self Defense Forces, reflect the constant presence but ever changing contours of the imperium. […]

These military failures are illuminating. They remind us that with but a few exceptions (most notably the short Gulf War against Iraq in 1991), the postwar US military has never enjoyed the sort of overwhelming victory it experienced in World War II. The “war on terror” that followed September 11 and has dragged on to the present day is not unusual apart from its seemingly endless duration. On the contrary, it conforms to this larger pattern of postwar US military miscalculation and failure.

These failures also tell us a great deal about America’s infatuation with brute force, and the double standards that accompany this. In both wars, victory proved elusive in spite of the fact that the United States unleashed devastation from the air greater than anything ever seen before, short of using nuclear weapons.

This usually comes as a surprise even to people who are knowledgeable about the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan in World War II. The total tonnage of bombs dropped on Korea was four times greater than the tonnage dropped on Japan in the US air raids of 1945, and destroyed most of North Korea’s major cities and thousands of its villages. The tonnage dropped on the three countries of Indochina was forty times greater than the tonnage dropped on Japan. The death tolls in both Korea and Indochina ran into the millions.

Here is where double standards enter the picture.

This routine US targeting of civilian populations between the 1940s and early 1970s amounted to state-sanctioned terror bombing aimed at destroying enemy morale. Although such frank labeling can be found in internal documents, it usually has been taboo in pro-American public commentary. After September 11, in any case, these precedents were thoroughly scrubbed from memory.

“Terror bombing” has been redefined to now mean attacks by “non-state actors” motivated primarily by Islamist fundamentalism. “Civilized” nations and cultures, the story goes, do not engage in such atrocious behavior. […]

Nuclear weapons were removed from Okinawa after 1972, and the former US and Soviet nuclear arsenals have been substantially reduced since the collapse of the USSR. Nonetheless, today’s US and Russian arsenals are still capable of destroying the world many times over, and US nuclear strategy still explicitly targets a considerable range of potential adversaries. (In 2001, under President George W. Bush, these included China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Libya.)

Nuclear proliferation has spread to nine nations, and over forty other countries including Japan remain what experts call “nuclear capable states.” When Barack Obama became president in 2009, there were high hopes he might lead the way to eliminating nuclear weapons entirely. Instead, before leaving office his administration adopted an alarming policy of “nuclear modernization” that can only stimulate other nuclear nations to follow suit.

There are dynamics at work here that go beyond rational responses to perceived threats. Where the United States is concerned, obsession with absolute military supremacy is inherent in the DNA of the postwar state. After the Cold War ended, US strategic planners sometimes referred to this as the necessity of maintaining “technological asymmetry.” Beginning in the mid 1990s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff reformulated their mission as maintaining “full spectrum dominance.”

This envisioned domination now extends beyond the traditional domains of land, sea, and air power, the Joint Chiefs emphasized, to include space and cyberspace as well.

 

The Violent Narcissism of Small Differences

There are “many features of… warfare that turn out to be shared with wars in many other traditional societies… Those shared features include the following ones… So-called tribal warfare is often or usually actually intra-tribal, between groups speaking the same language and sharing the same culture, rather than inter-tribal. Despite that cultural similarity or identity between the antagonists, one’s enemies are sometimes demonized as subhuman.” (Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday, p. 120)

That isn’t something I’ve heard before. I’m surprised it isn’t a point brought up more often. It entirely undermines the case for racism being biological and instinctual. This intra-tribal warfare involves people who are extremely similar — in terms of ethnicity/culture, linguistics, lifestyle, diet, health, genetics, etc (and one would presume also in terms of epigenetics and microbiome). They are more similar to one another than is the rather diverse population of white Americans. Yet these basically identical tribal bands are able to not just see each other as different but even as subhuman, not that ‘subhuman’ has a scientific meaning in this context. It gives credence to Freud’s theory of the narcissism of small differences.

In modern nation-states, we forget how abnormal is every aspect of our society. Based on unrepresentative WEIRD research, we’ve come to some strange conclusions about human nature. Looking at the anthropological record demonstrates how far off from reality is our modern understanding. We think of warfare as only or primarily occurring between nation-states and we think of nation-states in ethno-racial terms. The world wars were fought with rhetoric declaring the other side to be of a different race or not fully human. That happened between the English and Germans who today are thought of as being so similar, what we now think of as white Westerners. But perceived differences has never had much to do with objective reality.

We should also put violence in perspective. We obsess over some violence while ignoring other violence. Most killings happen within societies, not between societies (unless your one of the populations historically targeted by Western imperialism). And most killings happen within specific demographics, not between demographics. For example, most American whites are killed by American whites, not by foreign terrorists or American blacks. About terrorism, most of it is committed by Americans against Americans; in fact, often whites against whites.

Race is as much a rationalization of violence than it is a cause. Westerners wanted to steal land and resources, to exploit populations. So, they invented racial ideology to justify it. But this basic tendency toward justification of violence is nothing new. As Jared Diamond describes, even groups that are essentially the same will use othering language in order to psychologically distance themselves. Otherwise, it would be harder to kill people. But creating perceived differences is quite simple (as shown numerous times: Jane Elliott’s eye color experiment, Rebecca Bigler’s shirt color experiment, Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment, etc).

Race is a social construct and a rather recent invention at that — for certain, it didn’t exist in the ancient world. There is nothing in human nature that demonstrates an instinct for racism. Rather, what humans are talented at is seeing differences and turning them into categories. This could be as simple as where one lives, such as two tribal bands or two neighborhood gangs fighting. Or it could be based on what clothes are worn and, when people are too similar, they will create artificial differences such as gang colors. But once we’ve created these differences, our minds treat them as essential. We need to learn to step back from our learned biases.

Black Global Ruling Elite

One of my favorite activities is reversing arguments, in order to make a point. It is using the structure of an argument to contradict someone’s claim or to demonstrate the fundamental irrationality of their worldview. Also, sometimes it can just be an act of playful silliness, a game of rhetoric. Either way, it requires imagination to take an argument in an unexpected direction.

To be able to reverse an argument, you have to first understand the argument. This requires getting into someone else’s head and seeing the world from their perspective. You need to know your enemy. I’ve long made it a habit to explore other ideologies and interact with those advocating them. It usually ends in frustration, but I come out the other side with an intimate knowledge of what makes others tick.

The opposing group I spent the most time with was HBD crowd (human biodiversity). HBDers are filled with many reactionaries, specifically race realists and genetic determinists. The thing about reactionaries is that they love to co-opt rhetoric and tactics from the political left. HBD theory was originated by someone, Jonathan Marks, making arguments against race realism and genetic determinism. The brilliance of the reactionaries was to do exactly what I’m talking about — they reversed the arguments.

But as chamelion-like faceless men, reactionaries use this strategy to hide their intentions behind deceptive rhetoric. No HBDer is ever going to admit the anti-reactionary origins of human biodiversity ( just like right-libertarians won’t acknowledge the origins of libertarianism as a left-wing ideology in the European workers movement). The talent of reactionaries is in pretending that what they stole was always theirs. They take their games of deception quite seriously. Their trolling is a way of life.

“There’s only one thing we can do to thwart the plot of these albino shape-shifting lizard BITCHES!” Their arguments need to be turned back the other way again. Or else turn them inside out to the point of absurdity. Let us call it introducing novelty. I’ve done this with previous posts about slavery and eugenics. The point I made is that, by using HBD-style arguments, we should actually expect American blacks to be a superior race.

This is for a couple of reasons. For centuries in America, the most violent, rebellious, and criminal blacks were eugenically removed from the breeding population, by way of being killed or imprisoned — and so, according to HBD, the genetics of violence, rebelliousness, criminality, etc should have decreased along with all of the related genetically-determined behavior. Also, since the colonial era, successful and supposedly superior upper class whites were impregnating their slaves, servants, and any other blacks they desired which should have infused their superior genetics into the American black population. Yet, contradicting these obvious conclusions, HBDers argue the exact opposite.

Let me clarify one point. African-Americans are a genetically constrained demographic, their ancestors having mostly come from one area of Africa. And the centuries of semi-eugenics theoretically would have narrowed those genetics down further, even in terms of the narrow selection of white genetics that was introduced. But these population pressures didn’t exist among other African descendants. Particularly in Africa itself, the complete opposite is the case.

Africa has more genetic and phenotypic diversity than the rest of the world combined. Former slave populations that came from more various regions of Africa should also embody this greater genetic diversity. The global black population in general, in and outside Africa, is even more diverse than the African population alone. As such we should expect that the global black population will show the greatest variance of all traits.

This came to mind because of the following comment:

“Having a less oppressive environment increases variance in many phenotypes. The IQ variance of (less-oppressed) whites is greater than (more-oppressed) blacks despite less genetic diversity. Since women are on average more oppressed (i.e. outcasted more for a given deviance from the norms and given norms that take more effort to conform to) their traits would be narrower.”

The data doesn’t perfectly follow this pattern, in that there are exceptions. Among certain sub-population in oppressed populations, there sometimes is greater IQ variance. There are explanations for why this is the case, specifically the theory that females have a greater biological capacity for dealing with stressful conditions (e.g., oppression). But for the moment, let’s ignore that complication.

The point is that, according to genetic determinism, the low genetic diversity of whites should express as low IQ gaps, no matter the environmental differences. It shouldn’t matter that, for example, in the US the white population is split between socioeconomic extremes — as the majority of poor Americans are white and the majority of rich Americans are white. But if genetic determinism is false (i.e., more powerful influences being involved: environment, epigenetics, microbiome, etc), the expected result would be lower average IQ with lower class whites and higher average IQ with higher class whites — the actual pattern that is found.

Going by the data, we are forced to conclude that genetic determinism isn’t a compelling theory, at least according to broad racial explanations. Some HBDers would counter that the different socioeconomic populations of whites are also different genetic sub-populations. But the problem is that this isn’t supported by the lack of genetic variance found across white populations.

That isn’t what mainly interested me, though. I was more thinking about what this means for the global black population, far beyond a single trait. Let us assume that genetic determinism and race realism is true, for the sake of argument.

Since the African continent has more genetic diversity than the rest of the world combined, the global black population (or rather populations) that originated in Africa should have the greatest variation of all traits, not just IQ. They should have the greatest variance of athleticism to lethargy, pacifism to violence, law-abiding to criminality, wealth to poverty, global superpowers to failed states, etc.

We should disproportionately find those of African ancestry at every extreme across the world. Compared to all other populations, they would have the largest numbers of individuals in both the elite and the underclass. That means that a disproportionate number of political and corporate leaders would be black, if there was a functioning meritocracy of the Social Darwinian variety.

The greater genetic variance would lead to the genetically superior blacks disproportionately rising to the upper echelons of global wealth and power. The transnational plutocracy, therefore, should be dominated by blacks. We should see the largest gaps within the global black population and not between blacks and whites, since the genetic distance between black populations is greater than the genetic difference between particular black populations and non-black populations.

Based on the principles of human biodiversity, that means principled HBDers should support greater representation of blacks at all levels of global society. I can’t wait to hear this new insight spread throughout the HBD blogosphere. Then HBDers will become the strongest social justice warriors in the civil rights movement. Based on the evidence, how could HBDers do anything less?

Well, maybe there is one other possible conclusion. As good reactionaries, the paranoid worldview could be recruited. Accordingly, it could be assumed that the genetically superior sub-population of black ruling elite is so advanced that they’ve hidden their wealth and power, pulling the strings behind the scenes. Maybe there is Black cabal working in secret with the Jewish cabal in controlling the world. It’s this Black-Jewish covert power structure that has promoted the idea of an inferior black race to hide the true source of power. We could take this argument even further. The black sub-population might be the ultimate master race with Jews acting as their minions in running the Jew-owned banks and media as front groups.

It’s starting to make sense. I think there might be something to all of this genetic determinism and race realism. It really does explain everything. And it is so amazingly scientific.

Is the Tide Starting to Turn on Genetics and Culture?

Here is an alt-righter struggling with scientific understanding:

When I first came upon the argument that “culture is a racial construct” last year, I was pretty horrified. I saw this as a re-gurgitated Nazi talking point that was clearly unfactual.

But like other longtime taboo topics such as HBD, eugenics, and White identity, I’ve seen this theory pop up over the past year in some shocking places. First, a scientific magazine revealed that orcas genetics’ are affected by culture and vice versa. Then, I started seeing normies discuss this talking point in comment sections in the Wall Street Journal and even NY Times.

Finally, a liberal academic has thrown himself into the discussion. Bret Weinsten, a Jewish Leftist who most people here know as the targeted professor of the Marxist insanity at Evergreen University, posted this tweet yesterday: “Sex is biological. Gender is cultural. Culture is biological,” and then this one today: “Culture is as adaptive, evolutionary and biological as genes. You’re unlikely to accept it. But if you did you’d see people with 10X clarity.”

This is a pretty remarkable assertion coming from someone like Bret Weinstein. I wonder if the dam will eventually break and rather than being seen as incredibly taboo, this theory will be commonly accepted. If so, it’s probably the best talking point you have for America to prioritize its demographics.

What is so shocking?

This line of thought, taken broadly, has been developing and taking hold in the mainstream for more than a century. Social constructionism was popularized and spread by the anthropologist Franz Boaz. I don’t think this guy grasps what this theory means nor its implications. That “culture is a racial construct” goes hand in hand with race being a cultural construct, which is to say we understand the world and our own humanity through the lens of ideology, in the sense used by Louis Althusser. As applied to the ideology of pseudo-scientific race realism and gender realism, claims of linear determinism of singular and isolated causal factors are meaningless because research has shown that all aspects are intertwined factors in how we develop and who we become.

Bret Weinstein makes three assertions: “Sex is biological. Gender is cultural. Culture is biological.” I don’t know what is his ideological position. But he sounds like a genetic determinist, although this is not clear since he also claims that his assertions have nothing to do with group selection (a standard reductionist approach). Anyway, to make these statements accurate, other statements would need to be added — such as that, biology is epigenetics, epigenetics is environment, and environment is culture. We’d have to throw in other things as well, from biome to linguistic relativism. To interpret Weinstein generously and not taking his use of ‘is’ too literally: Many things are many other things or rather closely related, if by that we mean that multiple factors can’t be reduced to one another in that they influence each other in multiple directions and through multiple pathways.

Recent research has taken this even further in showing that neither sex nor gender is binary (1, 2, 3, 4, & 5), as genetics and its relationship to environment, epigenetics, and culture is more complex than was previously realized. It’s far from uncommon for people to carry genetics of both sexes, even multiple DNA. It has to do with diverse interlinking and overlapping causal relationships. We aren’t all that certain at this point what ultimately determines the precise process of conditions, factors, and influences in how and why any given gene expresses or not and how and why it expresses in a particular way. Most of the genetics in human DNA is entirely unknown in its purpose or maybe lack of purpose, although the Junk DNA theory has become highly contested. And most genetics in the human body is non-human: bacteria, viruses, symbiotes, and parasites. The point is that, scientifically speaking, causation is a lot harder to prove than many would like to admit.

The second claim by Weinstein is even more interesting: “Culture is as adaptive, evolutionary and biological as genes.” That easily could be interpreted in alignment with Richard Dawkins theory of memetics. That argument is that there are cultural elements that act and spread similarly to genes, like a virus replicating. With the growing research on epigenetics, microbiome, parasites, and such, the mechanisms for such a thing become more plausible. We are treading in unexplored territory when we combine memetics not just with culture but also with extended mind and extended phenotype. Linguistic relativism, for example, has proven that cultural influences can operate through non-biological causes — in that bilingual individuals with the same genetics will think, perceive, and act differently depending on which language they are using. Yes, culture is adaptive, whether or not in the way Weinstein believes.

The problems in this area only occur when one demands a reductionist conclusion. The simplistic thinking of reductionism appeals to the limits of the human mind. But reality has no compulsion to comform to the human mind. Reality is irreducible. And so we need a scientific understanding that deals with, rather than dismisses, complexity. Indeed, the tide is turning.

Fasting and Feasting.

Someone shared with me a paper on fasting, Intermittent Fasting and Human Metabolic Health (with 11 authors and so I won’t list them). It’s the first time I’ve seen the research discussed in detail. It’s worth a perusal. Here is the conclusion:

“This overview suggests that intermittent fasting regimens may be a promising approach to lose weight and improve metabolic health for people who can tolerate intervals of not eating, or eating very little, for certain hours of the day or days of the week. If proven to be efficacious, these eating regimens may offer promising nonpharmacologic approaches to improving health at the population level with multiple public health benefits.”

I’ve done fasting off and on over the years. I used to do it on a semi-regular basis, just pick a random day and not eat. But I stopped fasting for a number of years, no particular reason. I decided to start fasting again. I’ve been not eating at all in the first part of my day and usually only later have a single meal (or rather an eating period). Besides that, I’ve also been entirely fasting one day a week.

I don’t find fasting all that difficult. It’s been good, actually. I feel better when I’m not constantly eating. And there is no doubt that calorie restriction limits weight gain and can help you lose weight, along with potentially having a healthy influence other aspects of biological functioning (from circadian rhythm to microbiota). I’ve lost some weight and have done so while not starving myself. The one meal I eat a day is still often a relatively larger meal, even if I stretch it out over an hour or so. Slow eating seems to be a useful method, rather than stuffing oneself quickly as most Americans do. Fasting followed by slow eating is a good combination.

Fasting helps me feel less hungry. I’m more likely to eat a lot, if I start eating early and snack all day. Avoiding breakfast, in particular, keeps my hunger down even later on when I do finally eat. This is particularly true if I exercise in the morning. Exercising on an empty stomach gets my metabolism going and oddly makes me less hungry for the rest of the day. That is true for any kind of physical activity, but I find aerobic exercise is most optimal.

Plus, aerobic exercise improves my mood, which is important for reasons of depression. And I know from experience that depression is closely connected to overeating, especially junk food. The whole sugar-serotonin cycle is addictive. I’m sure my blood sugar levels are stay more even throughout the day when I’m following a healthier regimen. When blood sugar levels drop, the immediate experience is craving food. That is what goes away with regular fasting, the cravings that can make it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Constantly shifting blood sugar levels and serotonin levels causes fluctuating moods and energy levels. It’s rather problematic.

It’s a matter of finding balance. I still eat foods that I enjoy. I’m just more careful about the specifics. I like the taste of sweetness. So, I use a lot of stevia to sweeten drinks. And the sugar I consume tends to come in the form of daily intake of cultured foods (usually kefir or yogurt), but some fruit as well, mostly apples — rather than from soda pop and candy. That was an important change for me, as I used to be a junk food junky. Fasting is a helpful part of this process, especially in resetting one’s metabolism and habits.

It’s taken me years of experimentation to get to this point. I’ve come to the conclusion that fasting is a key part of what works for me.

There Is No Useless Knowledge

We moderns like to think that knowledge seeking, as a widespread attitude and activity, is a modern invention. It’s typically considered that prior to recent history societies didn’t put much priority on gaining and passing on information. After all, formal education was rare until these past centuries.

In ancient Greece, the Sophists were the first professional teachers and they were teaching useful knowledge, not knowledge for knowledge’s sake. That was one of Socrate’s complaints about them — as a wealthy slaveholding aristocrat with a lot of time on his hands, Socrates found himself drawn toward what others deemed as the useless activities of questioning and doubting, just because he could. It wouldn’t be until the Enlightenment Age (and to a greater extent after industrialization) that larger numbers of people would have the luxury to become preoccupied with the seemingly useless.

Of course, what is useful and useless is in the eyes of the beholder. The very idea of useless knowledge is rather modern. And it is an interesting topic, such as what is useful in the short term vs the long term (see: Abraham Flexner, Nuccio Ordine, and Robert Dikgraaf). But maybe the conceptual frame of useless knowledge is misleading. It is easy to assume that supposedly ‘primitive’ people had little use for knowledge as such, beyond what was immediately applicable such as practical skills. Yet many tribal societies maintained and categorized enormous amounts of info about the world around them, even though it served no obvious and immediate purpose.

It appears the love of knowledge is an ancient human trait. Humans are naturally curious and enjoy learning. As modern Westerners, our failure to recognize this in other societies may not indicate any genuine lack in those societies. Any society able to maintain some basic level of stability over centuries will accrue vast knowledge and will find ways to organize it for purposes of transmitting it from one generation to the next, be it oral mnemonics or writing systems. Humans keep knowledge because it has been advantageous to do so, in that it has helped the species survive and societies to prosper.

What may appear useless in the present may prove to be useful in the future. Ultimately, there is no useless knowledge. Even knowledge for knowledge’s sake has its uses.

* * *

Ancient Memory

“First came the temple, then the city.”

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 2947-2953

It would be naïve to limit the consideration of animal and plant knowledge to that which is essential for survival, or even that which is merely useful. All humans store knowledge for its own sake. In fact, Lévi-Strauss writes: ‘The thirst for objective knowledge is one of the most neglected aspects of the thought of people we call “primitive”’ (1966, p. 3). He goes on to give a range of examples of biological knowledge from non-literate cultures and concludes that ‘animals and plants are not known as a result of their usefulness; they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known’. This aspect of ‘native’ science, Lévi-Strauss argues, ‘meet intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs’ (1966, p. 9).

The Memory Code
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 94-109

Orality, I soon discovered, was about making knowledge memorable. It was about using song, story, dance and mythology to help retain vast stores of factual information when the culture had no recourse to writing. It was the first step to understanding how they could remember so much stuff. The definition of ‘stuff’ was growing rapidly to include not only the animal knowledge I was researching, but also the names and uses of plants; resource access and land management; laws and ethics; geology and astronomy; genealogies, to ensure they knew their rights and relatives; navigation, to ensure they could travel long distances when there were no roads or maps; ideas about where they had come from; and, of course, what they believed. Indigenous cultures memorised everything on which their survival—physically and culturally—depended.

Kindle Locations 215-231

At the most obvious level, there is a need to know all the plants and animals in a tribal territory, often encompassing many different environments. If I mention hunter-gatherers, I conjure up the image of a hunter chasing a crocodile, kangaroo, mammoth or buffalo, but the vast majority of the creatures with which indigenous people interact are fish, small reptiles and, critically, invertebrates; there are thousands of insects, spiders, scorpions, worms, crustaceans and other little creatures in every landscape. It is necessary to know which ones can be eaten, which can be used for other products and which must be avoided. Every environment houses animals that bite, sting or maul, and some are deadly.

As Indigenous Australian Eileen McDinny of the Yanyuwa people of the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia’s Northern Territory explained: ‘Everything got a song, no matter how little, it’s in the song—name of plant, birds, animal, country, people, everything got a song.’2

The North American Navajo, for example, named and classified over 700 species of insect for zoologists a few decades ago, recording names, sounds, behaviour and habitats in myths, songs and dry sand paintings.3 Only one is eaten (the cicada) while some are bothersome (lice, gnats, mosquitoes, sheep ticks, flies). The vast majority of the 700 insects, the Navajo elders told the scientists, are classified because the Navajo love to categorise. And that study only included insects. All people, literate and non-literate, possess curiosity, intellect and a love of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. But beyond simply identifying the species, a knowledge of animals and plants is often important because of what they indicate about seasonal cycles, and they often feature in stories that contain lessons about human ethics and behaviour.

Despite being active in natural history groups, I know no one today who could identify all the insects they may encounter even with a guide book, let alone all animal species. Yet, that is common practice among indigenous people.

Kindle Locations 1011-1018

It is not just their domestic products that are critical to the Pueblo way of life. The Pueblo retain a detailed understanding of numerous mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, spiders and insects in mythology, which is relayed through ritual. The stories help elders recall accurately how to use migratory birds as calendrical indicators, the optimum timing of hunting and fishing expeditions, how to ensure that sufficient breeding stock of non-domesticated species are left in the wild, how snake venom is stored in the snake and the impact when it is injected into humans. One Tewa ethnozoological study from the beginning of the twentieth century included details of molluscs and corals that were not found in Tewa territory. Seventeen long-extinct bird species were described while the insect list included many unknown to science at that time. Curiosity and the desire for knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a human trait, not a Western one.

What is inheritance?

The original meaning of a gene was simply a heritable unit. This was long before the discovery of DNA. The theory was based on phenotype, i.e., observable characteristics. What they didn’t know and what still doesn’t often get acknowledged is that much gets inherited from parents, especially from the mother. This includes everything from epigenetics to microbiome, the former determining which genes express and how they express while the latter consists of the majority of genetics in the human body. The fetus will also inherit health conditions from the mother, such as malnutrition and stress, viruses and parasites — all of those surely having epigenetic effects and microbiome changes that could get passed on for generations.

Even more interestingly, DNA itself gets passed on in diverse ways. Viruses will snip out sections of DNA and then put them into the DNA of new hosts. Mothers, including surrogate mothers, can gain DNA from the fetuses they carry. And then those mothers can pass that DNA to any fetus she carries after that, which could cause a fetus to have DNA from two fathers. Fetuses can also absorb the DNA from fraternal twins or even entirely absorb the other fetus, forming what is called a chimera. Bone marrow transplantees also become chimeras because they inherit the stem cells for blood cells from the donor, along with inheriting epigentics from the donor. These chimeras could pass this on during a transplantee’s pregnancy.

We hardly know what all that might mean. There is no single heritable unit that by itself does anything. That is not the direct source of causation. A gene only acts as part of DNA within a specific cell and all of that within the entire biological system existing within specific environmental conditions. The most important causal factors are various. What is in DNA only matters to the degree it is expressed, but what determines its expression will also determine how it expresses. Evelyn Keller Fox writes that, “the causal interactions between DNA, proteins, and trait development are so entangled, so dynamic, and so dependent on context that the very question of what genes do no longer makes much sense. Indeed, biologists are no longer confident that it is possible to provide an unambiguous answer to the question of what a gene is. The particulate gene is a concept that has become increasingly ambiguous and unstable, and some scientists have begun to argue that the concept has outlived its productive prime” (The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture, p. 50). Gene expression as seen in phenotype is determined by a complex system of overlapping factors. Talk of genes doesn’t help us much, if at all. And heritability rates tells us absolutely nothing about the details, such as distinguishing what exactly is a gene as a heritable unit and causal factor, much less differentiating that from everything else. As Fox further explains:

“It is true that many authors continue to refer to genes, but I suspect that this is largely due to the lack of a better terminology. In any case, continuing reference to “genes” does not obscure the fact that the early notion of clearly identifiable, particulate units of inheritance— which not only can be associated with particular traits, but also serve as agents whose actions produce those traits— has become hopelessly confounded by what we have learned about the intricacies of genetic processes. Furthermore, recent experimental focus has shifted away from the structural composition of DNA to the variety of sequences on DNA that can be made available for (or blocked from) transcription— in other words, the focus is now on gene expression. Finally, and relatedly, it has become evident that nucleotide sequences are used not only to provide transcripts for protein synthesis, but also for multilevel systems of regulation at the level of transcription, translation, and posttranslational dynamics. None of this need impede our ability to correlate differences in sequence with phenotypic differences, but it does give us a picture of such an immensely complex causal dynamic between DNA, RNA, and protein molecules as to definitely put to rest all hopes of a simple parsing of causal factors. Because of this, today’s biologists are far less likely than their predecessors were to attribute causal agency either to genes or to DNA itself— recognizing that, however crucial the role of DNA in development and evolution, by itself, DNA doesn’t do anything. It does not make a trait; it does not even encode a program for development. Rather, it is more accurate to think of DNA as a standing resource on which a cell can draw for survival and reproduction, a resource it can deploy in many different ways, a resource so rich as to enable the cell to respond to its changing environment with immense subtlety and variety. As a resource, DNA is indispensable; it can even be said to be a primary resource. But a cell’s DNA is always and necessarily embedded in an immensely complex and entangled system of interacting resources that are, collectively, what give rise to the development of traits. Not surprisingly, the causal dynamics of the process by which development unfolds are also complex and entangled, involving causal influences that extend upward, downward, and sideways.” (pp. 50-52)

Even something seemingly as simple as gender is far from simple. Claire Ainsworth has a fascinating piece, Sex redefined (nature.com), where she describes the new understanding that has developed. She writes that, “Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions — known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) — often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl.”

This isn’t all that rare considering that, “Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD.” And, “What’s more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. Gender should be one of the most obvious areas to prove genetic determinism, if it could be proven. But clearly there is more going on here. The inheritance and expression of traits is a messy process. And we are barely scratching the surface. I haven’t seen any research that explores how epigenetics, microbiome, etc could influence gender or similar developmental results.

Too Much Success

It’s amazing the abilities some species have. But that brings up a question. If they are such an advantage, why doesn’t every species have equally amazing abilities? This particularly comes to mind with perceptual abilities.

Human senses are fairly mediocre. We can’t sense much of the world that many other species can. We make up for it with opposable thumbs and cognitive development. Just imagine how much more bad ass humans would be if we could see like a hawk, hear like an owl, and smell like a wolf.

Maybe there is no evolutionary advantage to having the best possible abilities in all ways. It might actually be a disadvantage, both for the species and for the ecosystem or even biosphere. Any given species being too successful might throw off the balance between species. Evolution isn’t only seeking the survival of species but also the survival of complex relationships between species.

Consider one of the earliest microbes, cyanobacteria. They were so successful that it led to what is called the Great Oxygenation Event. Most other microbes at the time were anaerobic and oxygen was toxic to them. It caused earth’s first mass extinction. Even the cyanobacteria didn’t benefit, as there numbers also precipitously dropped.

Too much success can be a dangerous thing, for all involved. This is a lesson of evolution. It’s the success of the entire system of species that matters, not the success of a single species. The survival of the fittest species is secondary to the survival of the fittest ecosystem and biosphere. As Phil Plait put it (Poisoned Planet):

“It’s an interesting tale, don’t you think? The dominant form of life on Earth, spread to the far reaches of the globe, blissfully and blithely pumping out vast amounts of pollution, changing the environment on a planetary scale, sealing their fate. They wouldn’t have been able to stop even if they knew what they were doing, even if they had been warned far, far in advance of the effects they were creating.

“If this is a cautionary tale, if there is some moral you can take away from this, you are free to extract it for yourself. If you do, perhaps you can act on it. One can hope that in this climate, change is always possible.”