The latest (somewhat random) collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.
Who needs democracy when you have data?
Christina Larson, MIT Technology Review,
20 August 2018
In 1955, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published a short story about an experiment in ‘electronic democracy,’ in which a single citizen, selected to represent an entire population, responded to questions generated by a computer named Multivac. The machine took this data and calculated the results of an election that therefore never needed to happen. Asimov’s story was set in Bloomington, Indiana, but today an approximation of Multivac is being built in China.
For any authoritarian regime, ‘there is a basic problem for the center of figuring out what’s going on at lower levels and across society,’ says Deborah Seligsohn, a political scientist and China expert at Villanova University in Philadelphia. How do you effectively govern a country that’s home to one in five people on the planet, with an increasingly complex economy and society, if you don’t allow public debate, civil activism, and electoral feedback? How do you gather enough information to actually make decisions? And how does a government that doesn’t invite its citizens to participate still engender trust and bend public behavior without putting police on every doorstep?
Hu Jintao, China’s leader from 2002 to 2012, had attempted to solve these problems by permitting a modest democratic thaw, allowing avenues for grievances to reach the ruling class. His successor, Xi Jinping, has reversed that trend. Instead, his strategy for understanding and responding to what is going on in a nation of 1.4 billion relies on a combination of surveillance, AI, and big data to monitor people’s lives and behavior in minute detail.
It helps that a tumultuous couple of years in the world’s democracies have made the Chinese political elite feel increasingly justified in shutting out voters. Developments such as Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, the rise of far-right parties across Europe, and Rodrigo Duterte’s reign of terror in the Philippines underscore what many critics see as the problems inherent in democracy, especially populism, instability, and precariously personalized leadership.
Since becoming general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, Xi has laid out a raft of ambitious plans for the country, many of them rooted in technology—including a goal to become the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. Xi has called for ‘cyber sovereignty’ to enhance censorship and assert full control over the domestic internet. In May, he told a meeting of the Chinese Academy of Sciences that technology was the key to achieving ‘the great goal of building a socialist and modernized nation.’ In January, when he addressed the nation on television, the bookshelves on either side of him contained both classic titles such as Das Kapital and a few new additions, including two books about artificial intelligence: Pedro Domingos’s The Master Algorithm and Brett King’s Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane.
Read the full article in the MIT Technology Review.
How have we let scientific study become hate speech?
Meghan Murphy, UnHerd, 5 September 2018
The growing trend in young people suddenly deciding they are ‘in the wrong body’ and must ‘transition’ to the opposite sex is alarming. It means that more and more kids are being sent down a path of drastic body and life changes. The consequences of getting this wrong could not be more serious. Study after study has shown that a majority of youth who claim to have gender dysphoria do not continue to experience this in adulthood. Yet the puberty blockers and the hormone treatments given to ‘trans kids’ eventually lead to permanent sterilisation. And yet as the trend takes hold, the attempts to shut down public debate also grow stronger – which is just as alarming.
Last month, Brown University assistant professor Lisa Littman published a paper looking at this ‘rapid-onset gender dysphoria’ in adolescents and young adults. Through surveying the parents of these teens, she found that this sudden onset of ‘gender dysphoria’ was taking place in peer groups in which one or more friends became gender dysphoric at the same time. In other words, this seemed to be kids following trends.
From the 256 surveys Littman collected, she found that a large majority of these youths were female (82.8%), and 41% had identified as non-heterosexual prior to identifying as transgender. Almost two thirds had also been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder or neurodevelopmental disability before they claimed to have gender dysphoria.
One might deduce, based on this evidence, that these (mainly) girls were not, in fact, transgender, but lesbians and/or struggling with other mental health issues beyond gender dysphoria. And crucially, that these factors should be explored before leaping to start ‘transitioning’ — a process that eventually involves a lifetime of hormone treatments and a series of complicated surgeries.
These facts, though, have been deemed unspeakable. Those who dare question the concept of gender identity itself — that is that one can have, say, a male body, but be truly a woman ‘on the inside’ — are treated as blasphemers and bigots, viciously harassed, attacked, and even fired from their place of work.
Read the full article in UnHerd.
How Myanmar punished two reporters
for uncovering an atrocity
John Chalmers, Reuters, 3 September 2018
On April 10, in a move that acknowledged the truth of the Reuters report on the Inn Din massacre, the army announced that seven soldiers had been sentenced to ‘10 years in prison with hard labor in a remote area’ for participating in the killings.
Ten days later, the state’s case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo appeared to suffer a setback when the court heard the reporters’ version of events – astonishingly, from a prosecution witness. They had in fact been arrested as they left a restaurant still holding in their hands documents they had just been given by police officers as part of a plan to ensnare them, said Captain Moe Yan Naing of the paramilitary 8th Security Police Battalion.
Before the reporters were arrested, Wa Lone had interviewed several members of Battalion 8 about the army crackdown in Rakhine. At least three police officers told him that the unit supported military operations there.
Moe Yan Naing testified that he was interviewed by Wa Lone in November, and had himself been under arrest since the night of Dec. 12. Earlier that day, he said, he had been taken to Battalion 8’s headquarters on the northern edges of Yangon. When he arrived, he said, he found himself among a group of several policemen who were believed to have given interviews to Wa Lone. They were interrogated about their interactions with the Reuters reporter.
Moe Yan Naing told the court that police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko, who led an internal probe into what the reporters had been told, ordered an officer to arrange a meeting with Wa Lone that night and hand over ‘secret documents from Battalion 8.’
Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko gave the documents to a police lance corporal ‘and told him to give them to Wa Lone,’ Moe Yan Naing testified. When Wa Lone left the restaurant, the general continued, the local police were to ‘entrap him and arrest him,’ according to Moe Yan Naing. He told the court he witnessed Tin Ko Ko giving these orders.
‘Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko told the police members, ‘If you don’t get Wa Lone, you will go to jail’,’ Moe Yan Naing said.
Read the full article in Reuters.
Beware rich people who say they want to change the world
Anand Giridharadas, New York Times, 24 August 2018
‘Change the world’ has long been the cry of the oppressed. But in recent years world-changing has been co-opted by the rich and the powerful.
‘Change the world. Improve lives. Invent something new,’ McKinsey & Company’s recruiting materials say. ‘Sit back, relax, and change the world,’ tweets the World Economic Forum, host of the Davos conference. ‘Let’s raise the capital that builds the things that change the world,’ a Morgan Stanley ad says. Walmart, recruiting a software engineer, seeks an ‘eagerness to change the world.’ Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook says, ‘The best thing to do now, if you want to change the world, is to start a company.’
At first, you think: Rich people making a difference — so generous! Until you consider that America might not be in the fix it’s in had we not fallen for the kind of change these winners have been selling: fake change.
Fake change isn’t evil; it’s milquetoast. It is change the powerful can tolerate. It’s the shoes or socks or tote bag you bought which promised to change the world. It’s that one awesome charter school — not equally funded public schools for all. It is Lean In Circles to empower women — not universal preschool. It is impact investing — not the closing of the carried-interest loophole.
Of course, world-changing initiatives funded by the winners of market capitalism do heal the sick, enrich the poor and save lives. But even as they give back, American elites generally seek to maintain the system that causes many of the problems they try to fix — and their helpfulness is part of how they pull it off. Thus their do-gooding is an accomplice to greater, if more invisible, harm.
What their ‘change’ leaves undisturbed is our winners-take-all economy, which siphons the gains from progress upward. The average pretax income of America’s top 1 percent has more than tripled since 1980, and that of the top 0.001 percent has risen more than sevenfold, even as the average income of the bottom half of Americans stagnated around $16,000, adjusted for inflation, according to a paper by the economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
How AI could kill off democracy
Jamie Bartlett, New Statesman, 15 August 2018
The wider question is what sort of political system will be best suited to the age of smart machines. For the last 200 years there has been a conveniently self-reinforcing cycle: individual freedom was good for the economy, and that economy produced more well-off people who valued freedom. But what if that link was weakened? What if economic growth in the future no longer depended on individual freedom and entrepreneurial spirit, but on capital and intellectual ownership of the smart machines that drove research, productivity and entrepreneurship?
There is no indication that a centrally planned, state-controlled economy can’t thrive in this new age. It might even be better than complicated, rights-obsessed democracies. The last few years suggest digital technology thrives perfectly well under monopolistic conditions: the bigger a company is, the more data and computing power it gets, and the more efficient it becomes; the more efficient it becomes, the more data and computing power it gets, in a self-perpetuating loop.
Similarly, Chinese firms enjoy access to huge amounts of data because of the size of the country’s population, with relatively few restraints on how that data can be used. There aren’t pesky privacy or data protection laws to slow them down, such as the new GDPR rules in Europe. Unlike Google, the Chinese tech conglomerate Alibaba has no internal ethics division.
This, incidentally, is why – for all the chest-beating in the US Senate over Facebook’s data-harvesting – excessively onerous regulation of tech companies probably won’t come to America. It is too afraid of falling behind. Both China and Russia have made it clear they want to lead the world in AI, and both are pouring billions of dollars into it. Vladimir Putin himself has said that whoever leads in AI will lead the world, and has compared Russia’s spending to the ‘State Commission for the Electrification of Russia’, which was Lenin’s 1920 prototype for the Soviet five-year plans.
Chinese companies have already enjoyed some major breakthroughs, mostly unreported by Western media (for example, Alibaba beating Microsoft by one day to supposedly better-than-human performance in speech recognition earlier this year). China could soon become the world leader in AI, which would also mean it could shape the future of the technology and the limits on how it is used.
For many decades, liberal democracies with strong individual freedoms have been the best at providing the things that most people care about: wealth, individual liberty, democratic accountability and stability. The emergence of smart machines and big data means this might not always be the case.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
The new socialists
Corey Robins, New York Times, 24 August 2018
Socialism means different things to different people. For some, it conjures the Soviet Union and the gulag; for others, Scandinavia and guaranteed income. But neither is the true vision of socialism. What the socialist seeks is freedom.
Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear ‘the market’ and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss. Terrified of getting on his bad side, we bow and scrape, flatter and flirt, or worse — just to get that raise or make sure we don’t get fired.
The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.
Listen to today’s socialists, and you’ll hear less the language of poverty than of power. Mr. Sanders invokes the 1 percent. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez speaks to and for the ‘working class’ — not ‘working people’ or ‘working families,’ homey phrases meant to soften and soothe. The 1 percent and the working class are not economic descriptors. They’re political accusations. They split society in two, declaring one side the illegitimate ruler of the other; one side the taker of the other’s freedom, power and promise.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Populism isn’t the problem
Jason Frank, Boston Review, 15 August 2018
The point, however, is not to resolve the semantic ambiguity of populism by appealing to the authority of original meanings. Instead, while taking orientation from that history, we should examine how the charge of populism operates in contemporary political debates, especially the dangers to democracy it brings to light and those it conceals.
By focusing on populism as the primary source of democratic decline, the economic and political developments that have most profoundly undermined democratic institutions and the meaning of democratic citizenship over the past forty years are obscured. Worse, populism has become the name given willy-nilly to all movements challenging these developments on behalf of a recovered sense of collective authority and political control, whether articulated from a racist and xenophobic right or a radically egalitarian left. Authoritarian attempts to centralize and expand the state’s executive power and wield it against ‘enemies of the people’—however defined by Trump, Erdoğan, Orbán, and others—should never be equated with the radically democratic institutional experimentalism of Podemos or the Farmers’ Alliance. More attention should be paid to how ‘the people’ is envisioned by these different movements, and how they propose popular power to be democratically enacted.
Designating populism as the term that best encapsulates the political dangers authoritarianism poses to democratic politics in so many parts of the world today has the additional and unfortunate consequence of suggesting that widespread resistance to these movements should not itself be populist, should not claim the mantle of ‘we the people’ and engage in an antagonistic politics of who we are and what kind of collective power we should wield. This political movement need not recover and rally around the term populism—democratic socialism is also enjoying a new day in the sun—but it should openly recognize that a return to ‘politics as usual’ may be insufficient to confront the full extent of the dangers democracies currently face. Defenders of democracy cannot surrender the authority of the people without undermining the very goal they claim to be fighting for.
Read the full article in the Boston Review.
Katrina Forrester, Harper’s, September 2018
The struggle of what to uncover and what to conceal is ongoing, but today it has less to do with the press or the school board than with the corporations of the internet age. Even they have precedents. It is not new for the private to be a realm of profiteering, or for corporations to be parasitic on our privacy. Facebook, Google, and others have taken over the data-gathering functions of advertising and credit agencies, monetizing our lives just as insurance and marketing companies once did. They just do it on a scale that far surpasses earlier efforts.
For Igo, what is new is our lack of control. She isn’t always explicit about how this came about. She is often more interested to show how different ideas of privacy have operated in ordinary life than to explain why they changed over time. But her book can nevertheless help us better understand our own debates over privacy today. Take the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which this May began to regulate the way in which data is collected and used. The GDPR is not concerned with who owns the data but with transparency and positive consent, which organizations that collect or use data now must obtain from individuals. It seeks to empower individuals and constrain the behavior of both private and public bodies by imposing on them new obligations and giving EU citizens new digital rights. In light of Igo’s account, we can see that these ideas are characteristic of the way concerns about privacy have been expressed since the 1970s. Policies to protect privacy appeal to a language of transparency, individual consent, and rights. But they rarely try to disperse the ownership of our data—by breaking the power of monopolies that collect it, or by placing its use under democratic control through public oversight.
Why not? Igo downplays one answer, which is that our vision of how to protect the private has been shaped by the political process of privatization, the selling-off of public assets and the takeover of public services—from welfare, education, and health to incarceration—by private contractors. This has eroded Americans’ trust in public institutions while increasing regard for the private. The state, once a ‘beneficent’ security provider, is now seen as a bureaucratic ‘invader.’ Igo views this trend as in part a result of a ‘consumer-driven quest’ for more privacy, epitomized by the construction of gated communities and white middle-class Americans’ abandonment of parks and town squares for health clubs, malls, and private schools. But such a focus risks underestimating the role that the idea of privacy itself played in this transformation—and the role it plays in politics in general. Business interests, Republicans, and neoliberal policymakers have touted the market as the guarantor of the private realm and attacked the welfare state in privacy’s name. They have promised not only efficiency but personal choice, empowerment, individual freedom, and control. Just as the appeal to privacy allowed for the continued valorization of the patriarchal family, it has also provided cover for the erosion of the public.
Yet control over our private lives requires a degree of collective control of our institutions that privatization makes difficult. Today, the kinds of privacy that are available to us have narrowed: the personal spaces in which we conduct our relations are not public but the privatized realm of the ‘social’ corporations, where our information is used for purposes that are not our own—the domains of Facebook, Twitter, the news feeds over which we have little control. The only political agent that can break the power of the corporations—the democratic state acting in our name—has been devalued and is no longer seen as trustworthy or able to protect our privacy.
Read the full article in Harper’s.
Why we believe in magic
Philip Pullman, Guardian, 1 September 2018
The universe of magic is a large place. It contains phenomena ranging from simple good luck charms to complicated systems of belief and practice such as astrology and alchemy, and it comes to us from prehistory, and from every part of the world, and it still flourishes today. The variety of ideas and objects it contains is almost limitless; the one thing they have in common is that rationalism would scoff at all of them as absurd, outdated, meaningless superstitions that aren’t worth wasting time on.
But rationalism doesn’t make the magical universe go away. Possibly because I earn my living as a writer of fiction, and possibly because it’s just the sensible thing to do, I like to pay attention to everything I come across, including things that evoke the uncanny or the mysterious. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me). My attitude to magical things is very much like that attributed to the great physicist Niels Bohr. Asked about the horseshoe that used to hang over the door to his laboratory, he’s claimed to have said that he didn’t believe it worked but he’d been told that it worked whether he believed in it or not. When it comes to belief in lucky charms, or rings engraved with the names of angels, or talismans with magic squares, it’s impossible to defend it and absurd to attack it on rational grounds because it’s not the kind of material on which reason operates. Reason is the wrong tool. Trying to understand superstition rationally is like trying to pick up something made of wood by using a magnet.
I have plenty of superstitions, which are my own and no one else’s (I don’t believe that anyone else would feel more able to write a novel, for example, if they used the only kind of pen and paper that works for me) but one of the interesting things about Spellbound, the Ashmolean exhibition, is that it illustrates beliefs that many people in many places and during many centuries have held in common. Belief in witches, for one thing, is more or less worldwide. In Christian countries it reached a pitch of hysterical panic between the 15th and the late 18th centuries, at a time when tensions between Protestant and Catholic powers were at their highest, and when the medieval world of faith was being challenged by the new thinking of the Enlightenment. Among other things, it was a systematic exercise of cruelty and horror: during this period, writes Malcolm Gaskill in the exhibition catalogue, ‘there were around 10,000 trials for witchcraft in continental Europe, the British Isles and North American colonies’.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
China is treating Islam like a mental illness
Sigal Samuel, The Atlantic, 28 August 2018
One million Muslims are being held right now in Chinese internment camps, according to estimates cited by the UN and U.S. officials. Former inmates—most of whom are Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority—have told reporters that over the course of an indoctrination process lasting several months, they were forced to renounce Islam, criticize their own Islamic beliefs and those of fellow inmates, and recite Communist Party propaganda songs for hours each day. There are media reports of inmates being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, which are forbidden to Muslims, as well as reports of torture and death.
The sheer scale of the internment camp system, which according to The Wall Street Journal has doubled in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region just within the last year, is mindboggling. The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China describes it as ‘the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.’ Beijing began by targeting Uighur extremists, but now even benign manifestations of Muslim identity—like growing a long beard—can get a Uighur sent to a camp, the Journal noted. Earlier this month, when a UN panel confronted a senior Chinese official about the camps, he said there are ‘no such things as reeducation centers,’ even though government documents refer to the facilities that way. Instead, he claimed they’re just vocational schools for criminals.
China has been selling a very different narrative to its own population. Although the authorities frequently describe the internment camps as schools, they also liken them to another type of institution: hospitals. Here’s an excerpt from an official Communist Party audio recording, which was transmitted last year to Uighurs via WeChat, a social-media platform, and which was transcribed and translated by Radio Free Asia:
Members of the public who have been chosen for reeducation have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient. … The religious extremist ideology is a type of poisonous medicine, which confuses the mind of the people. … If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumor.
‘Religious belief is seen as a pathology’ in China, explained James Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University, adding that Beijing often claims religion fuels extremism and separatism. ‘So now they’re calling reeducation camps ‘hospitals’ meant to cure thinking. It’s like an inoculation, a search-and-destroy medical procedure that they want to apply to the whole Uighur population, to kill the germs of extremism. But it’s not just giving someone a shot—it’s locking them up for months in bad conditions.’
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
Can we choose our own identity?
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Guardian, 31 August 2018
Identities, for the people who have them, are not inert facts; they are living guides. Women and men dress the way they do in part because they’re women and men. Given that we connect these labels with our behaviour, it’s natural to expect other people to do the same. And that means we’re going to have to tell other people not just which labels they can claim, but what they must do if they are to fit our labels. So identities don’t just affect our own behaviour; they help determine how we treat other people.
At the same time, all the ascription conditions here are contested. Are you a trans woman if you haven’t transitioned? Is someone with seven European great-grandparents and one African one truly black? Would a Daughter of the American Revolution who renounced her American citizenship still be an American? So are the associated norms of behaviour: is a reform Jew less Jewish than an orthodox one? Is an effeminate man less of a man? Because identity, in the sense we typically use it these days, is a social category – something shared with vast numbers of other people – everything is up for negotiation and nothing is determined by individual fiat. In this sense, identity is at once loose and tight.
To say that the borders are contested is also to say that they are policed. Boys who default from gender norms of behaviour are deemed ‘sissies’; girls are ‘tomboys’. Some old-guard radical feminists, such as Ti-Grace Atkinson, Marge Piercy and Faith Ringgold, have suggested that trans women aren’t really women. Black authenticity, too, is a perennial battleground. Here’s Pusha T on Drake, in a recent, widely publicised rap beef: ‘Confused, always felt you weren’t Black enough / Afraid to grow it ’cause your ’fro wouldn’t nap enough.’ Latinos sometimes hurl the insult ‘coconut’ at other Latinos who ‘act white’, suggesting that deep down they’re not Latino at all.
So, in a liberal spirit, we could wonder: why not ditch the guards and adopt an open-border policy? Why not agree that people are whatever they say they are? We could follow the lead of Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland:
‘I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,’ Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’’ ‘But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,’ Alice objected. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
By the logic of Humpty Dumpty, everyone should be able to assume whatever identity they choose. There’s glory for you.
Or maybe not. Like all the words in our language, the identity labels we use are a common possession. Were everybody to follow Humpty Dumpty’s example, we simply couldn’t understand one another. If Toni Morrison isn’t a black woman, the term isn’t doing any work. The ability to apply identity labels in a broadly consistent way is what allows us to use them to tell people who someone is, and so, in particular, to tell others who we are ourselves. It’s because there’s some agreement about menswear that ‘man’ is a useful label when you’re shopping. And labelling ourselves only helps others if it can guide expectations about what we will think, or feel, or do. ‘Lesbian’ isn’t much use if you’re looking for a partner on Bumble unless it signifies a woman who might be open to sex with another woman.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Examining the state of German identity
Sebastian Hammelehle, Spiegel Online, 29 August 2018
The German term Leitkultur, or leading culture, is a word that people in the leftist camp generally sneer at. It’s one they see as standing for all they thought they had overcome since 1968 — for the old German virtues that leftist politician Oskar Lafontaine once said were well-suited for running a concentration camp. The years 1933, 1945 and 1968 are all inexorably linked to one another by a tension that cannot be dissolved. Those who speak of a return of right-wing thinking must also address 1968, the year in which students broke with the old leading culture and pushed through a new one — even if it isn’t, of course, called a leading culture. Their fundamental position had always been that everything that stood for the right-wing was taboo. With Angela Merkel, this idea has become fully manifested. Indeed, one could say that it wasn’t with the government of SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer that the 1968 generation finally reached its goal of social hegemony, but only with Merkel. And yet every hegemony also breeds contradictions.
Munich sociologist Armin Nassehi published an intelligent book in the spring about the student revolt and its cultural aftermath: ‘Did 1968 Actually Happen? A Search for Clues.’ Among other conclusions he draws in the book is that both constant moralization and the triumphant rise of pop culture, two elements that arose out of the 1968 movement, at some point melded with each other. And because the epitome of pop culture is posturing, that link ultimately resulted in moral posturing. Moral posturing that dominates today’s discourse.
So, who are we as Germans?
If you lay the snapshots taken by Timur Vermes, Ahmad Mansour, Thilo Sarrazin and Armin Nassehi side by side, these disparate images of the current mood ultimately result in decisive and complementary images of an unsettled country in which some fear the Nazis and others fear the immigrants. A country in which the political camps often talk about each other but rarely to each other. A country in which one reacts to changes by repeating old beliefs even more resolutely.
A country in which political communication has become posturing: the moral posturing of the left and the nationalist posturing of the right. Both offer ideological security in times of upheaval. But they do little more than that.
Read the full article in Spiegel Online.
The man who tried to catalog humanity
John Hawks, Medium, 2 September 2018
Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, known simply as ‘Luca’ to generations of human geneticists, died this week at age 96. More than any other human geneticist, Cavalli-Sforza believed in the potential of genes and culture together to trace humanity’s origins. In the course of his work, he pioneered new ideas and models that brought together these two distinct areas of science.
Like most scientists, many of his ideas would turn out to be wrong in the details. But his work helped form the foundation of our current knowledge of human genome variation across the world.
In 1991, Cavalli-Sforza wrote an essay for Scientific American that explained the course of his life’s work to that point. He recollected a time as a young man when he worked in the Cambridge laboratory of Ronald A. Fisher, one of the founders of modern evolutionary theory.
‘I started thinking about a project so ambitious it seemed almost crazy: the reconstruction of where human populations originated and the paths by which they spread throughout the world.’
From his start working with microbes this idea was quite a massive leap. But he chose a lucky moment to enter the field of human genetics. During the 1950s, the nascent field was starving for data on how human variation connected to inheritance. New approaches were about to provide such data, along with new opportunities to understand the evolution of recent populations.
Anthropologists understood human variation by looking at traits like the shape of the skull. Such traits could be examined with complicated math, but geneticists needed simpler systems to start to unlock how human genes might vary. Some of the earliest-known examples of Mendelian inheritance were genetic disorders, and while these were very important, they were also very rare, meaning that they could not be broadly informative about normal human variation.
But a handful of traits, many of them invisible variations like blood types, likewise showed a Mendelian inheritance pattern. Postwar geneticists developed ways to test people for these traits, making it feasible to sample distant populations, at first by typing blood or carrying out simple tests like the ability to taste the bitter chemical phenylthiocarbamide, and later with electrophoresis of proteins in the laboratory.
These variations became known as ‘classical markers’. All of them obeyed Mendel’s laws of inheritance, making it possible for geneticists to use mathematics to understand how their frequencies might change over time. Geneticists traveled to the four corners of the globe, gradually building maps of the frequencies of blood types and other classical markers. No one really knew how old the blood groups were, or how long ago the differences between human populations might have arisen. But they could see big differences: Some populations had almost no type B blood, for example, while other populations had quite a lot of it. Until the 1980s, classical markers would remain the state of the art evidence of human genetic variation.
Read the full article on Medium.
Representation is more than skin color
Bianca Vivion Brooks, New York Times, 27 August 2018
When I think of all the ‘black art’ being ushered in by this new era, I feel conflicted. As a black person, I enjoy seeing artists whose careers are finally being given due praise and whose voices are at last being amplified. However, a question arises of what it means to be truly represented. Is it enough to look like the artist if you do not recognize yourself in the art?
When the film ‘Black Panther’ was released in theaters, it was regarded as a historic moment for black representation in the comic book world. During the premiere weekend and for months after, my social media feeds were flooded with family members, colleagues and strangers affirming the importance of the film. ‘I saw myself in this film,’ many of them claimed.
When I finally saw the film, I did not recognize much of myself in it. Sure, I saw my old neighborhood in Oakland, Calif. I saw black people who looked like me, dressed like me and spoke like me. However, the film did not reflect my experience as a black American, my relationship to slavery or my interactions with other members of the African diaspora. I walked away feeling wholly unrepresented.
My father argued that I was ‘ungrateful,’ and that the film was ‘historic’ for black people, as it demanded Hollywood finally recognize the value of black talent. He asserted that this was a watershed moment in how ‘our’ stories would be told, ones in which black people were allotted dignity and dimensionality. I shrugged in acquiescence, but in reality I knew the film was not my story. In fact, it was no one’s story. The film is wholly fiction. There is no Wakanda, no place on the African continent where slavery, colonialism or occupation did not occur, and no diasporic war between continental Africans and black people abroad. It was simply a story, told using black actors and black historical references.
And yet there is nothing simple about it. Representation is such a complicated issue because on the surface it presents itself as a politically correct, objective good for all of society. For those being represented, it plays to a collective sense of pride and personal vanity. It feels good to see ourselves and know that people in our communities are being paid to craft their own narratives. Representation also presents the opportunity for other communities, which might have otherwise stereotyped or discriminated against us, to see our humanity and acknowledge our worth in the art we produce.
However, while representation may be a praiseworthy standard for creative industries, it cannot be the benchmark against which we measure good art. Good art must do more than reflect our own images back at us. It must move us to a place beyond our obsession with identity, sense of tribalism and fear of others.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Europe is making its migration problem worse
Loren B Landau, Caroline Wanjiku Kihato & Hannah Postel,
Foreign Affairs, 5 September 2018
In addition, the EU is seeking to externalize its border by pushing it southward: recent EU agreements have included calls to explore ‘regional disembarkation platforms’—centers in North Africa where migrants are processed before those who are deemed eligible for a visa or asylum are relocated to Europe. Yet the platforms remain a proposal, as some European parliamentarians, various human rights groups, and several African states have refused to support their establishment.
Even EU aid programs labeled as developmental tend to have a strong security component. Take, for example, the tens of millions of euros being sent to cities such as Agadez in central Niger, long a hub for smugglers and migrants en route to Europe. Although ostensibly intended to help the region’s poor by creating jobs in migrant transit areas, the plan for Niger is far more elaborate. By supporting law enforcement to close routes across the Sahara, it effectively bisects the country into north and south, putting a heavily militarized border across an invisible line that was previously permeable and largely unregulated. Europe is trying similar strategies in Mali and elsewhere by investing in both local development and coercive structures in a two-pronged attempt to hold people in place. Yet if the United States’ experience in trying to stem the flow of migrants to its southern border is anything to go on, enhanced border controls can only do so much to prevent people from moving. In fact, they often generate increasingly elaborate mechanisms to subvert such controls. And rather than weakening smuggler networks, the EU’s strategy of outsourcing its border control appears to strengthen them. Libya’s detention centers, where migrants are often bought and sold as slaves, are the most notorious example, but similar trends have emerged in Sudan and Niger, with state and state-like authorities forming profitable smuggling networks and partnerships.
The EU-backed militarization of North Africa and the Sahel through patrols, deportations, and surveillance is not only costly, but enormously harmful to Europe’s global reputation and self-image as a region committed to human rights and the rule of law. Moreover, the EU has promoted speed and dexterity at the expense of accountability: because its Trust Fund for Africa is paid for through emergency mechanisms, almost none of these funds are subject to oversight by the European Parliament. Some politicians and civil society actors have called for increased democratic control, but given the sense of political urgency and the glacial pace of democratic decision-making at the EU-level, their calls will likely go unheeded. Meanwhile, the EU’s strategy of outsourcing its border control is making the bloc vulnerable to blackmail by authoritarian leaders: Libyan authorities are unhappy with the deal they have received, and have refused to ‘tak[e] in more illegal migrants.’Meanwhile, both Kenya and Tanzania have threatened to close large refugee camps and disperse migrants. Statements by Kenyan officials suggest that they may seek to replicate the model of the EU-Turkey deal and secure large amounts of funding from Western countries in exchange for limiting the flow of people to Europe.
Read the full article in Foreign Affairs.
Greece was never bailed out –
it remains locked in an EU debtor’s prison
Yanis Varoufakis, Observer, 26 August 2018
A more careful reading of the facts points to a different reality. In the very week that a devastated Greece entered another 42 years of harsh austerity and deeper debt bondage (2018-2060), how can the end of austerity and Greece’s regained financial independence be presented as fact? Instead, last week should be cited in our universities’ media schools and economics departments as an example of how consent can be built internationally around a preposterous lie.
But let’s begin by defining our terms. What is a bailout and why is Greece’s version exceptional and never-ending? Following the banking debacle in 2008, almost every government bailed out the banks. In the UK and US, governments famously gave the green light to, respectively, the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve to print mountains of public money to refloat the banks. Additionally, the UK and US governments borrowed large sums to further aid the failing banks while their central banks financed much of those debts.
On the European continent, a far worse drama was unfolding due to the EU’s odd decision, back in 1998, to create monetary union featuring a European Central Bank without a state to support it politically and 19 governments responsible for salvaging their banks in times of financial tumult, but without a central bank to aid them. Why this anomalous arrangement? Because the German condition for swapping the deutschmark for the euro was a total ban on any central bank financing of banks or governments – Italian or Greek, say.
So, when in 2009 the French and German banks proved even more insolvent than those of Wall Street or the City, there was no central bank with the legal authority, or backed by the political will, to save them. Thus, in 2009, even Germany’s Chancellor Merkel panicked when told that her government had to inject, overnight, €406bn of taxpayers’ money into the German banks.
Alas, it was not enough. A few months later, Mrs Merkel’s aides informed her that, just like the German banks, the over-indebted Greek state was finding it impossible to roll over its debt. Had it declared its bankruptcy, Italy, Ireland, Spain and Portugal would follow suit, with the result that Berlin and Paris would have faced a fresh bailout of their banks greater than €1tn. At that point, it was decided that the Greek government could not be allowed to tell the truth, that is, confess to its bankruptcy.
To maintain the lie, insolvent Athens was given, under the smokescreen of ‘solidarity with the Greeks’, the largest loan in human history, to be passed on immediately to the German and French banks. To pacify angry German parliamentarians, that gargantuan loan was given on condition of brutal austerity for the Greek people, placing them in a permanent great depression.
To get a feel for the devastation that ensued, imagine what would have happened in the UK if RBS, Lloyds and the other City banks had been rescued without the help of the Bank of England and solely via foreign loans to the exchequer. All granted on the condition that UK wages would be reduced by 40%, pensions by 45%, the minimum wage by 30%, NHS spending by 32%. The UK would now be the wasteland of Europe, just as Greece is today.
Read the full article in the Observer.
The untold story of NotPetya,
the most devastating cyberattack in history
Andy Greenberg, Wired, 22 August 2018
On the edge of the trendy Podil neighborhood in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, coffee shops and parks abruptly evaporate, replaced by a grim industrial landscape. Under a highway overpass, across some trash-strewn railroad tracks, and through a concrete gate stands the four-story headquarters of Linkos Group, a small, family-run Ukrainian software business.
Up three flights of stairs in that building is a server room, where a rack of pizza-box-sized computers is connected by a tangle of wires and marked with handwritten, numbered labels. On a normal day, these servers push out routine updates—bug fixes, security patches, new features—to a piece of accounting software called M.E.Doc, which is more or less Ukraine’s equivalent of TurboTax or Quicken. It’s used by nearly anyone who files taxes or does business in the country.
But for a moment in 2017, those machines served as ground zero for the most devastating cyberattack since the invention of the internet—an attack that began, at least, as an assault on one nation by another.
For the past four and a half years, Ukraine has been locked in a grinding, undeclared war with Russia that has killed more than 10,000 Ukrainians and displaced millions more. The conflict has also seen Ukraine become a scorched-earth testing ground for Russian cyberwar tactics. In 2015 and 2016, while the Kremlin-linked hackers known as Fancy Bear were busy breaking into the US Democratic National Committee’s servers, another group of agents known as Sandworm was hacking into dozens of Ukrainian governmental organizations and companies. They penetrated the networks of victims ranging from media outlets to railway firms, detonating logic bombs that destroyed terabytes of data. The attacks followed a sadistic seasonal cadence. In the winters of both years, the saboteurs capped off their destructive sprees by causing widespread power outages—the first confirmed blackouts induced by hackers.
But those attacks still weren’t Sandworm’s grand finale. In the spring of 2017, unbeknownst to anyone at Linkos Group, Russian military hackers hijacked the company’s update servers to allow them a hidden back door into the thousands of PCs around the country and the world that have M.E.Doc installed. Then, in June 2017, the saboteurs used that back door to release a piece of malware called NotPetya, their most vicious cyberweapon yet.
Read the full article in Wired.
What we need from social media
is transparency, not apologies
Jamie Susskind, New Statesman, 6 September 2018
In ancient Athens, it’s said, citizens deliberated together publicly and in the same place. Debates were raucous, but there were certain rules and conventions known to all. It was forbidden, for instance, to attend in disguise. Only one person was supposed to speak at a time. No one had more speaking rights than others.
Nowadays, political speech increasingly takes place not in physical spaces, but on private online platforms owned and moderated by tech firms. Dorsey yesterday described Twitter as a ’digital public square’. As he accepted, tech firms’ algorithms now determine the audience for everything that is said on their platforms, promoting and demoting contributions according to their timing, relevance, popularity, or other criteria. Tech firms also dictate the form of what may be said – for instance, that a tweet may only be 280 characters. And as Jones found out, they even determine the content of what may be said, banning speech deemed to breach their guidelines.
It’s as if the Athenian forum has been parcelled up and sold off in private auction. In place of a single public forum, we now have multiple private debating clubs, each with their own rules and standards. (Twitter, for instance, chose not to exclude Jones.)
It’s obviously necessary for platforms to impose basic rules of conduct on users. And it’s also fine in principle for them to use algorithms, which try to improve the quality of debate. But participants ought to be told the rules. Given the importance of public deliberation to democracy, we shouldn’t have to rely on after-the-event admissions by the likes of Mr Dorsey – and before him, Mr Zuckerberg in relation to fake news, foreign meddling, and hate speech on Facebook – that things have gone badly wrong. As with any form of power, those subject to it should not have to rely entirely on the good faith of those in charge.
Dorsey, for instance, says that ’impartiality’ and ’objective criteria’ are at the heart of Twitter’s algorithm. Great. But there is no easy way for the public to verify whether these principles are actually reflected in Twitter’s algorithms (and as Dorsey accepted yesterday, mistakes happen).
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
Britain’s shared spaces are vanishing,
leaving us a nation of cliques
John Harris, Guardian, 4 September 2018
In our towns, villages and suburbs, they are now such a common sight as to be mundane: boarded-up pubs, awaiting conversion to some new use or forlornly falling into dereliction. The current rate of closure is put at 18 a week. In rural areas, shuttered hostelries represent something particularly tragic: with churches reduced to silent visitor attractions and shops long since gone, they embody the demise of precious local assets in places where maintaining community life is an ongoing struggle.
Blame for the demise of pubs tends to focus on the 2007 smoking ban, impossible business rates and beer duty, the ocean of cheap alcohol sold by the big supermarkets, and younger people’s dwindling interest in booze and its associated rituals. Even if it ignores the ways in which many pubs have changed, the enduring idea that they are essentially male environments must also be part of any explanation. But there is also a clear sense of something every bit as fundamental: the decline of shared spaces, and the way we seem to be splintering into ever-smaller social niches. Many local businesses and institutions that depend on attracting a wide range of people are fading away. Worse still, the local and national politicians who might intervene often seem either not to care or to be making a bad situation even worse.
Pubs are not the only example. In 2005, the UK was reckoned to have 3,144 nightclubs, a figure which had fallen to 1,733 a decade later (in the London borough of Hackney, the Labour council has come up with an infantilising new policy whereby new premises will be up against a ‘core’ assumption that bars and clubs should shut by 11pm on weekdays and midnight at weekends). The music industry lobby group UK Music reckons that, since 2008, we have lost 35% of our music venues. In many cities it feels like every available building will sooner or later be turned into luxury flats, a byword for turning inward and setting oneself apart.
If our era has a pre-eminent gathering space, in both its chain and independent forms, it is surely the modern cafe – where most people seem to be hunched over their laptops, transfixed by their phones, or huddled with friends and oblivious to everyone else. This is the opposite of the places where the best kind of chaotic, unexpected experiences can happen and you might end up falling into conversations with complete strangers.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
‘This is just the beginning’:
Using DNA and genealogy to crack years-old cold cases
Kate Snow & Jon Schuppe, NBC News, 18 July 2018
While Moore and Parabon have welcomed the attention, GEDmatch has not. The site is the hobby of Curtis Rogers, 80, a court-appointed guardian for elderly people who got into genealogy to connect with people who share his last name. He created GEDmatch in 2010 after seeing the power of autosomal DNA searches to link people, and had a computer expert write a program to make that easier. That function — free for most users — lets researchers explore their ancestry deeper than any one of the consumer DNA sites can.
‘I’m not totally comfortable with GEDmatch being used to catch violent criminals, but I doubt it would be possible to prevent it,’ Rogers said in an email. ‘I feel it is important to make sure all our users are educated to the possible uses of GEDmatch so they can make up their own minds.’
‘So far,’ he added, ‘the reaction has been overwhelmingly in favor of the use of GEDmatch by law enforcement.’
Critics — including privacy advocates and civil rights lawyers — say they worry about law enforcement’s use of GEDmatch because there’s no legal oversight, and it carries the risk of mistaken identifications. Moore and Parabon point out that the information they provide to police is not the final word; detectives must confirm that they have the right person through more traditional DNA matching.
One thing not in contention, though, is that the power of Parabon and Moore’s method is only growing, with 40 current active cases in the United States and Canada and more in the queue. Americans continue to submit their DNA to the genealogy websites and share their profiles on GEDmatch. Parabon is improving its algorithms to make searches easier.
‘This is just the beginning,’ Armentrout said.
Read the full article on NBC News.
Mum’s a Neanderthal, dad’s a Denisovan:
First discovery of an ancient-human hybrid
Matthew Warren, Nature, 22 August 2018
A female who died around 90,000 years ago was half Neanderthal and half Denisovan, according to genome analysis of a bone discovered in a Siberian cave. This is the first time scientists have identified an ancient individual whose parents belonged to distinct human groups. The findings were published on 22 August in Nature1.
‘To find a first-generation person of mixed ancestry from these groups is absolutely extraordinary,’ says population geneticist Pontus Skoglund at the Francis Crick Institute in London. ‘It’s really great science coupled with a little bit of luck.’
The team, led by palaeogeneticists Viviane Slon and Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, conducted the genome analysis on a single bone fragment recovered from Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Russia. This cave lends its name to the ‘Denisovans’, a group of extinct humans first identified on the basis of DNA sequences from the tip of a finger bone discovered there in 2008. The Altai region, and the cave specifically, were also home to Neanderthals.
Given the patterns of genetic variation in ancient and modern humans, scientists already knew that Denisovans and Neanderthals must have bred with each other — and with Homo sapiens. But no one had previously found the first-generation offspring from such pairings, and Pääbo says that he questioned the data when his colleagues first shared them. ‘I thought they must have screwed up something.’ Before the discovery of the Neanderthal–Denisovan individual, whom the team has affectionately named Denny, the best evidence for so close an association was found in the DNA of a Homo sapiens specimen who had a Neanderthal ancestor within the previous 4–6 generations.
Read the full article in Nature.
Sheila Sundar, Guernica, 28 August 2018
In 1941, when he was ten years old, my uncle Narayan dropped a lit match into the charcoal chute that stemmed from the wall of his Karachi home, and set it aflame. The act mimicked a Hindu ritual he had participated in on visits to his native Tamil Nadu village, in which a lamp would be lit on open ground in front of the temple deity, allowing worshippers to carry home a light from the flame for their evening prayers. In this way the fire was always multiplying while always maintaining its shape. Before lighting the fire in Karachi, Narayan didn’t know that a single match could engulf and consume in the way that it did, climbing up the wall of the house and reducing the clapboards of the family bungalow to ash. The fire seemed to charge toward his face while smoke enveloped him from the back. He remembered, in the moments before two servants ran outside and extinguished the flames with a pot of water, the feeling of two threats converging at his throat, as though choking him into nonexistence.
Then, in 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese, beginning the dissolution of British colonial rule. Japan had defeated British troops in Burma and were pushing their way towards the northeast of India. Over the winter, the British ranks swelled in Karachi as troops traveled to Burma to block the Japanese invasion.
‘Are they protecting us?’ Narayan asked his father. Raghavan was a civil servant, the Examiner of Local Fund Accounts, and one of the few people in Karachi who could articulate the government’s plans and assess their motives.
‘They’re protecting what’s theirs,’ his father responded. When Narayan listened to that description of the events he could hear a sound of choking, as though his father didn’t know from which threat to run.
Narayan recalled an afternoon weeks before, in Saddar Town, when he had stood at the periphery of a crowd of British soldiers while a man, surrounded by spectators, unleashed a mongoose and a cobra. The animals lashed at each other and the force of their rage pushed the gasping crowd back. Narayan had seen this fight before, and was drawn less to the bloody display than to the opportunity to study the British in close proximity. His presence there compromised his father’s values, and he was ashamed for sanctioning the brutality of the animals’ battle and the imposing presence of the British. The troops were captivated by the struggle, leaning their lanky bodies closer for a glimpse. Eventually, the battle ended as it always did, the snake’s corpse coiled at the man’s feet.
The soldiers pressed against each other, hands on their comrades’ shoulders, eyes on the battle bloodying the slab of cement in front of them. Through a space in between the two men’s elbows, Narayan saw that the mongoose had returned to its cage. He wondered how well the man had trained the cobra so he himself would not be struck, how unquestioningly the animal must have trusted its captor.
‘It’s interesting to them because nobody expects the mongoose to win,’ his father later explained. He boxed Narayan’s ears for going to Saddar Town alone without permission, but was willing to discuss the battle’s outcome and the details of where the soldiers had stood.
‘But the mongoose always wins,’ Narayan said.
‘One day it won’t,’ his father said.
Read the full article in Guernica.
High-profile journals put to reproducibility test
Philip Ball, Nature, 27 August 2018
A reproducibility effort has put high-profile journals under the spotlight by trying to replicate a slew of social-science results. In the work, published on 27 August in Nature Human Behaviour1, researchers attempted to reproduce 21 social-science results reported in Science and Nature between 2010 and 2015 and were able to reproduce 62% of the findings. That’s about twice the rate achieved by an earlier effort2that examined the psychology literature more generally, but the latest result still raises questions about two out of every five papers studied.
Reproducibility of published work has been tested before, but this is the first such effort that focuses on the top journals. ‘Putting the magnifying lens on high-impact journals is very necessary’, says Sarahanne Field, who studies meta-research at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. ‘We assume that the quality of work in such outlets is always top-notch,’ she says — but if it isn’t reproducible, ‘we need to re-evaluate how we see high-impact journals and what they offer.’
The researchers — led by Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who directed a previous effort to replicate 100 psychology studies — also created a ‘prediction market’ in which experts could bet on how reproducible a claim was likely to be. The market generated an overall replication rate very close to that observed in the study.
To go about reproducing the studies, the researchers selected the key finding of each paper and sought to test them using protocols checked (in all cases bar one) by the original authors. They also increased the sample sizes compared with those used in the original studies, on average by a factor of five, to improve the confidence in the outcomes.
The team found a statistically significant effect in the same direction as was observed in the original study, for 13 of the 21 papers. But the strength of the effect was often smaller than what was originally reported: by about 50%, on average.
The claims tested ranged from a link between analytical thinking and religious scepticism to how ‘writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom’.
Nosek says that high-profile findings like these often receive substantial media interest. The study on exam performance4, for example, ‘has a lot of potential implications for stress and coping strategies in high-stakes situations’, he says. But the effect described was one of the findings that the researchers could not replicate.
Read the full article in Nature.
Think everyone died young in ancient societies? Think again
Christine Cave, Aeon, 9 July 2018
You might have seen the cartoon: two cavemen sitting outside their cave knapping stone tools. One says to the other: ‘Something’s just not right – our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past 30.’
This cartoon reflects a very common view of ancient lifespans, but it is based on a myth. People in the past were not all dead by 30. Ancient documents confirm this. In the 24th century BCE, the Egyptian Vizier Ptahhotep wrote verses about the disintegrations of old age. The ancient Greeks classed old age among the divine curses, and their tombstones attest to survival well past 80 years. Ancient artworks and figurines also depict elderly people: stooped, flabby, wrinkled.
This is not the only type of evidence, however. Studies on extant traditional people who live far away from modern medicines and markets, such as Tanzania’s Hadza or Brazil’s Xilixana Yanomami, have demonstrated that the most likely age at death is far higher than most people assume: it’s about 70 years old. One study found that although there are differences in rates of death in various populations and periods, especially with regards to violence, there is a remarkable similarity between the mortality profiles of various traditional peoples.
So it seems that humans evolved with a characteristic lifespan.
Mortality rates in traditional populations are high during infancy, before decreasing sharply to remain constant till about 40 years, then mortality rises to peak at about 70. Most individuals remain healthy and vigorous right through their 60s or beyond, until senescence sets in, which is the physical decline where if one cause fails to kill, another will soon strike the mortal blow.
So what is the source of the myth that those in the past must have died young? One is to do with what we dig up. When ancient human remains are found, archaeologists and biological anthropologists examine the skeletons and attempt to estimate their sex, age and general health. Markers of growth and development, such as tooth eruption, provide relatively accurate age estimates of children. With adults, however, estimates are based on degeneration.
We are all able to instinctively label people as ‘young’, ‘middle-aged’ or ‘old’ based on appearance and the situations in which we encounter them. Similarly, biological anthropologists use the skeleton rather than, say, hair and wrinkles. We term this ‘biological age’ as our judgment is based on the physical (and mental) conditions that we see before us, which relate to the biological realities of that person. These will not always correlate with an accurate calendar age, as people are all, well, different. Their appearance and abilities will be related to their genetics, lifestyle, health, attitudes, activity, diet, wealth and a multitude of other factors. These differences will accumulate as the years increase, meaning that once a person reaches the age of about 40 or 50, the differences are too great to allow any one-size-fits-all accuracy in the determination of the calendar age, whether it is done by eye on a living person or by the peer-preferred method of skeletal ageing. The result of this is that those older than middle age are frequently given an open-ended age estimation, like 40+ or 50+ years, meaning that they could be anywhere between forty and a hundred and four, or thereabouts.
Read the full article in Aeon.
Ubang: The Nigerian village
where men and women speak different languages
BBC News, 23 August 2018
In Ubang, a farming community in southern Nigeria, men and women say they speak different languages. They view this unique difference as ‘a blessing from God’, but as more young people leave for greener pastures and the English language becomes more popular, there are concerns it won’t survive, reports the BBC’s Yemisi Adegoke.
Dressed in a brightly coloured traditional outfit, a red chief’s cap and holding a staff, Chief Oliver Ibang calls over his two young children, eager to demonstrate the different languages.
He holds up a yam and asks his daughter what it is called.
‘It’s “irui”‘, she says, without hesitating.
But in Ubang’s ‘male language’ the word for yam, one of Nigeria’s staple foods, is ‘itong’.
And there are many other examples, such as the word for clothing, which is ‘nki’ for men and ‘ariga’ for women.
It is not clear exactly what proportion of words are different in the two languages and there is no pattern, such as whether the words are commonly used, related or linked to traditional roles for men or women.
‘It’s almost like two different lexicons’, says anthropologist Chi Chi Undie, who has studied the community.
‘There are a lot of words that men and women share in common, then there are others which are totally different depending on your sex. They don’t sound alike, they don’t have the same letters, they are completely different words.’
Read the full article on the BBC News.
The images are, from top down: ‘Security Camera 7’ by Gerard Boersma; Illustration by Kai & Sunny, the Guardian; Book cover of ‘The History and Geography of Human Genes’; Illustration from New Civil Engineer; Photo of bone fragments used for sequencing genome. Credit: Thomas Higham/University of Oxford/Nature.