Notes From All Over 04/08/2018 (WEIRD Catholics, Chinese Intimidation Tactics, and Human Genetics)

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.


“The Origins of WEIRD Psychology”
Jonathan Schulz, Duman Barahmi-Rad, Jonathan Beauchamp, and Joseph Henrich. PsyArXiv. 2 July 2018.

Recent research not only confirms the existence of substantial psychological variation around the globe but also highlights the peculiarity of populations that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD). We propose that much of this variation arose as people psychologically adapted to differing kin-based institutions—the set of social norms governing descent, marriage, residence and related domains. We further propose that part of the variation in these institutions arose historically from the Catholic Church’s marriage and family policies, which contributed to the dissolution of Europe’s traditional kin-based institutions, leading eventually to the predominance of nuclear families and impersonal institutions. By combining data on 20 psychological outcomes with historical measures of both kinship and Church exposure, we find support for these ideas in a comprehensive array of analyses across countries, among European regions and between individuals with different cultural backgrounds.

I have a hard time containing my praise for this paper. It is long–almost 100 when the bibliography is added on–but it is one of though most thorough and compelling pieces of historical social science I have read. The statistical tools Schulz et. al. use are as simple as they come, but these fellows found so many independent ways to measure the things they are interested in (differences in both psychology and family structure of global populations) that it is very, very difficult to pick apart their argument. This is a model of clever social science research design.

 It is also one answer to a set of questions that have been dodging political economists, historians, and comparative sociologists for the last two decades. I do not think this study closes the book on the question of “Why the West over the Rest?,” but any new research in the field will be required to deal with Schultz et. al.’s results.

“When Rio Tinto Met China’s Iron Hand”
Kit Chellel. Franz Wild. David Stringer. Bloomberg. 12 July 2018.

How should a company respond when Chinese policemen have thrown your executives in jail and Chinese hackers have stolen $1 billion from your coffers? Like this, I suppose:

Albanese and another Rio executive met in London with Chinese ambassador Fu Ying. “You embarrassed China and China’s people in front of the world,” Fu told them, according to two people familiar with the conversation. But she offered them a way forward, however vague: Show the people of China Rio Tinto’s human side, and build a more cooperative relationship.

“Can We Please Have Science Without the Science Journals?”
Pascal Boyer. Cognition and Culture. 27 June 2018.

Related: David Cyranoski, “Top Chinese University to Consider Social Media Posts in Researcher Evaluations,” Nature (18 October 2017).


Trump Diary: Cortisol Politics.”

David Auerbach. Waggish. 8 July 2018.

Opposition to Trump personally has become the unifying thread. Standard Republican policies are far more terrifying under the auspices of Trump than they otherwise would be. 

Even more remarkable than Trump’s grip on his supporters is his hold on his opponents. I lived through the terror and paranoia following September 11, 2001, and I swore to myself never to fall into such a mental trap again. In this country, such mass hysteria hasn’t happened again among the left until now, and social media has amplified it tenfold. Compared to the ravages of the Iraq War, the human consequences of the Trump administration have been comparatively small so far. 

There is much ink and breath spilled on why Trump has already exceeded Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld’s worst excesses. He hasn’t. The Global War on Terror, and the Iraq War in particular, have had far-reaching and deeper consequences than anything Trump has yet achieved. This could change in a day: nuking North Korea or rounding up immigrants en masse could immediately propel Trump into the front ranks of tyrants. But the opposition’s inability to gauge threats, reacting to everything from the North Korea “summit” (a joke, mostly) to ICE abuses (terrible) to Anthony Kennedy’s retirement (lousy, but far from the worst of our problems) with identical (or indistinguishable) levels of fear and doomsaying. 

…Trump’s charisma exacerbates what I call Cortisol Politics, the basing of politics on the lowest instinctive fight-or-flight reactions of the brain. Trump has caused everything to seem like an emergency. Much of the right already felt this way thanks to the efforts of Rush, Hannity, and Fox over the last 20 years. Now the left feels that way too.

“Why Identity Politics Benefits the Right More than the Left”
Sheri Burman. The Guardian. 14 July 2018.

…Perhaps because straightforward bigotry has declined precipitously while more subtle, complex resentments remain, understanding how intolerance shapes politics requires examining not just beliefs, but also the relationship between beliefs and the environments people find themselves in. This distinction has important implications for how we interpret and address contemporary social and political problems. 

Rather than being directly translated into behavior, psychologists tell us beliefs can remain latent until “triggered”. In a fascinating study, Karen Stenner shows in The Authoritarian Dynamic that while some individuals have “predispositions” towards intolerance, these predispositions require an external stimulus to be transformed into actions. Or, as another scholar puts it: “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group … But when they perceive no such threat, their behavior is not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button. 

What pushes that button, Stenner and others find, is group-based threats.


Spy For Us — Or Never Speak To Your Family Again

Megha Rajagopalan.  BuzzFeed News. 9 July 2018.

Related: Charles Rollet, “In China’s Far West, Companies Cash in on Surveilance Program that Targets Muslims,Foreign Policy (13 June 2018).

“How E-Commerce is Transforming Rural China”

Fan Jiayang. New Yorker. 23 July 2018.

“Payment due: Pacific islands in the red as debts to China mount”
Charlotte Greenfield and Jonathan Barrett. Reuters. 30 July 2018.

Communist Youth League. Bilibili Video, 17 March 2017.

In case you were wondering what Communist Youth League propaganda looks like in the 21st century… now you know.


The Insight
Razib Khan and Spencer Wells have created an excellent podcast on human genetics they’ve named The Insight. Their topics range from behavioral genetics to the future of genetic technology, but I include the podcast in this category because many of their most interesting episodes have to do with historical and population genetics. Historical genetics is sweeping away many traditional takes on ancient history. These two are a superb guide to this genomic revolution. I recommend the following episodes in particular:

Barbarian Genetics
The Evolutionary Importance of Mothers and Grandmothers
Genetic States of America
The Genetics of China, Han, and Beyond
Paradise Lost

Review of Zhao Dingxin. The Confucian-Legalist State: A New Theory of Chinese History.
Yuri Pines. Early China, vol 39. (2016) pp 311–320.

This is an accurate, but vicious review of Zhao’s book. Writing a social science based account of Chinese history that Pines cannot tear to smithereens would be a very good life-goal.

Material security, life history, and moralistic religions: A cross-cultural examination” 
Benjamin Purzycki, et. al. PLoS ONE vol 13, iss 3. March 2018.

This paper looks like it is the final nail in the “life history” theories of religious behavior (if you don’t know what “life history approaches” mean, read the lit review section of the paper carefully; it is a cogent introduction).

“Behavioural variation in 172 small-scale societies indicates that social learning is the main mode of human adaptation”
Sarah Mathew and Charles Perreault.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol 282, iss 1820. 7 July 2015.

Cultural history has a larger effect than ecology in a majority of the traits in the categories of technology and material culture, marriage and family organization, economic organization, ceremonies and rituals, supernatural beliefs, kinship system, political organization, warfare, settlement patterns and sodalities (figure 2a). Conversely, the effect of ecology is larger than that of cultural history in a majority of the traits related to subsistence. Cultural phylogeny is a stronger predictor than ecology for a majority of the traits in all categories of traits, except for technology and material culture, and subsistence (figure 2b). It is also a stronger predictor than spatial distance for a majority of traits in all categories (figure 2c). Finally, ecology is a stronger predictor than spatial distance for a majority of traits in all categories (figure 2d)…. The results indicate that behaviours can persist over millennia within a cultural lineage. We detected a positive effect of cultural history at every phylogenetic level, including the deepest level, phylum. This is striking, since phylum divides the tribes into two groups, Na-Dene and Amerind, a split that may be as old as 15 000 years.

The results also suggest that groups diverge linguistically more rapidly than they do behaviourally… The importance of Levels 6 and 7 imply that the behavioural repertoire of a tribe is strongly influenced by that of its ancestors that lived hundreds (if not thousands) of years ago. Levels 6 and 7 may represent shared ancestry more than 1000 years ago. For instance, the speakers of Salishan languages share a common ancestor at Level 6 and may have begun to diverge about 3000 years ago…The fact that cultural phylogeny has a stronger effect than spatial distance on the presence of behavioural traits indicates that learning from group members is a more important process than learning from members of other groups.

The Social Dynamics of Sorcery
William Buckner. Traditions of Conflict. 6 July 2018.

See also: William Buckner, “A Tale of Sorcery and Marriage Among the Gebusi,” 9 June 2018.


After Last Year’s Hurricane, Carribean Lizards are Better at Holding on For Dear Life.”
Ed Yong. The Atlantic. 25 July 2018.

This is a dramatic example of evolution in action. Original paper here.


Meet the Navy’s new ‘mothership’ that fights with unmanned drones and vessels
Aqil Haziq Mahmud. Channel News Asia. 6 June 2018.

“The Spy Who Drove Me”
Julia Ioffe. GQ. 24 July 2018.

“Behavioral Consequences of Probabilistic Precision: Experimental Evidence from National Security Professionals” 
Jeffrey Friedman, Jennifer Lerner, & Richard Zeckhauser. International Organization. 2017. pp. 1-24


Pos Shawarma: On Avengers Infinity Wars
Aaron Brody. LA Review of Books. 2 May 2018.

What Makes a Story Wuxia? The Grace of Kings vs. The Black Trillium“”
“Sarah K.” Notes That Do Not Fit. 25 May 2018.

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One Comment

I am in the midst of reading "The Origins of Weird Psychology" and it is as good as you say.

One thing struck me right away. Countries with very high kinship identity seem to have a difficult time forming governments not marked by corruption, as we define it. One of the precepts of American counter-insurgency practice is to establish a relatively corruption free government, which in a place like Afghanistan, given the degree of kinship identity, seems impossible. So, are we basing our counter-insurgency practice on something that is impossible to do in certain places? If so, shouldn't we consider this and figure something different?