Science sheds light on population history and living standards

by Omar Ali

In a sense, all modern historiography includes the attempt to find objective facts rather than relying on folklore and opinion. To varying extents, a scientific mindset is part of the intellectual tookit of all modern people and while no person can be entirely rational and no judgment is as perfectly evidence-based as the idealized models would imply, there is a trend towards greater objectivity and a willingness (at least in principle) to change one’s mind if new facts come to light. There is an assumption among liberals (I self-identify as liberal and spend most of my time with others who do the same) that modern liberals are more “science-minded” than conservatives (the so-called “fact-based community”). Whether this is really true has been challenged but I will assume that liberals DO prefer a scientific approach to history and will touch on two examples where science brings objective information to bear upon history. One is genetics, which has transformed our knowledge of the origins and relationships of different human populations. The other is height and what average height can tell us about different populations.

ScreenHunter_02 Apr. 25 22.21 First, to genetics; a few days ago, blogger Razib Khan wrote a blog post about the population genetics of India and what those genetics can tell us about the origins and composition of the people of India. If you have not read that post, you should definitely do so; it is a superb and user friendly (and not overly detailed) example of how recent advances in genetics are radically transforming our view of human populations and their recent and distant history. In some cases, the facts being uncovered are not entirely new or surprising, but in all cases, they provide a level of scientific certainty to debates that previously lacked such certitude. Read another one of his posts (and other related articles) for examples of more detailed and finer scale analysis of the genetic data. These posts focus on India, but similar information (and in some cases, much more detailed information) is available about other populations and all of it is worth reading.

I am not going to spend more time on genetics, since I think Razib and his friends cover this area better than I ever could and I will be happy if you go to those links and start exploring on your own. But genetics is not the only way in which scientific knowledge can impact our view of history.

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And Another ‘Thing’ : Sci-Fi Truths and Nature’s Errors

by Daniel Rourke

In my last 3quarksdaily article I considered the ability of science-fiction – and the impossible objects it contains – to highlight the gap between us and ‘The Thing Itself’ (the fundamental reality underlying all phenomena). In this follow-up I ask whether the way these fictional ‘Things’ determine their continued existence – by copying, cloning or imitation – can teach us about our conception of nature.

Seth Brundle: What’s there to take? The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don’t have to worry about contagion anymore… I know what the disease wants.

Ronnie: What does the disease want?

Seth Brundle: It wants to… turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.

Ronnie: Turned into what?

Seth Brundle: Whaddaya think? A fly. Am I becoming a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly? No, I’m becoming something that never existed before. I’m becoming… Brundlefly. Don’t you think that’s worth a Nobel Prize or two?

The Fly, 1986

In David Cronenberg’s movie The Fly (1986) we watch through slotted fingers as the body of Seth Brundle is horrifically transformed. Piece by piece Seth becomes Brundlefly: a genetic monster, fused together in a teleportation experiment gone awry. In one tele-pod steps Seth, accompanied by an unwelcome house-fly; from the other pod emerges a single Thing born of their two genetic identities. The computer algorithm designed to deconstruct and reconstruct biology as pure matter cannot distinguish between one entity and another. The parable, as Cronenberg draws it, is simple: if all the world is code then ‘all the world’ is all there is.

Vincent Price in 'The Fly', 1958Science fiction is full of liminal beings. Creatures caught in the phase between animal and human, between alien and Earthly, between the material and the spirit. Flowing directly from the patterns of myth Brundlefly is a modern day Minotaur: a manifestation of our deep yearning to coalesce with natural forces we can’t understand. The searing passions of the bull, its towering stature, are fused in the figure of the Minotaur with those of man. The resultant creature is too fearsome for this world, too Earthly to exist in the other, and so is forced to wander through a labyrinth hovering impossibly between the two. Perhaps Brundlefly’s labyrinth is the computer algorithm winding its path through his genetic code. As a liminal being, Brundlefly is capable of understanding both worlds from a sacred position, between realities. His goal is reached, but at a cost too great for an Earthly being to understand. Seth the scientist sacrifices himself and there is no Ariadne’s thread to lead him back.

In her book on monsters, aliens and Others Elaine L. Graham reminds us of the thresholds these ‘Things’ linger on:

“[H]uman imagination, by giving birth to fantastic, monstrous and alien figures, has… always eschewed the fiction of fixed species. Hybrids and monsters are the vehicles through which it is possible to understand the fabricated character of all things, by virtue of the boundaries they cross and the limits they unsettle.”

Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human

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