Saturday, 17 December 2011

2012. A year of turbulence?

Child making Nike shoes (source). Western business now has access to labor under conditions not seen since the days of Charles Dickens.

My predictions from last year:

It won’t be such a bad year. Stock markets will reach record highs and pundits will say we’ve entered a sustained boom. For many people, life will never again be so good as it will be this year.

The main worry will be price rises for many commodities. With a return to even modest rates of economic growth, demand will outstrip supply in several areas. Talk of “peak oil” will be joined by concerns over “peak food” and “peak water.” Serious water shortages will hit the American southwest and southeast.

Well, the stock markets have not reached record highs. And there have been no serious water shortages, largely because of an unusually wet winter.

But food prices have been rising ominously. It was this factor that triggered the “Arab Spring” and is now fueling discontent in Russia. Also, for a lot of people—especially our elites—life has never been so good. We are into an economic recovery, of sorts.

How long will the recovery last? Perhaps another twenty years if it were a normal one. But it isn’t. The last recession was not allowed to finish its job of purging the economy. A lot of corporate flab was spared the axe, and dysfunctional attitudes toward debt are still common, particularly among consumers. In addition, the recovery is heavily dependent on government spending and consumer debt, and there is no indication that the economy is ready to go “cold turkey.” We may need more and more of the same stimulus just to maintain sluggish growth.

This debt crisis comes on top of a looming commodity crisis. Prices for fuel, food, housing, and other basics are being pushed up by the new buying power of Asian consumers and by immigration to North America and Western Europe. Can supply be increased to meet the rising demand? Yes, of course. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine—say the business interests that profit from this spike in demand.

Finally, we are facing a globalization crisis. On the one hand, jobs are being outsourced to lower-wage countries. On the other, lower-wage labor is being insourced. The result? A steady downward leveling of incomes throughout the Western World, except for the very rich. The latter now have access to labor under conditions not seen since the days of Charles Dickens.

The current recovery might nonetheless go on indefinitely. The Japanese, for instance, have kept their economy afloat for the past two decades by piling up massive debt. But they are just one society, and it’s one with a strong sense of social cohesion. In contrast, the Western World is very fractious, as seen by the bickering within the European Union. These social and political divisions will probably abort the recovery long before the possibilities for debt financing and money printing have been completely exhausted. And so much the better.

If I have to make a prediction for 2012, it will be that the recovery will continue—on life support, so to speak—but will run into increasing social turbulence. The ‘Arab spring’ will start to play out in the Western World as the elites begin to lose their legitimacy. This process is already under way in Europe, and we may see a domino effect where change in one country facilitates change in other countries.

My research interests

There have been some developments in my areas of research interest.

Skin color and face recognition

Natural selection tends to hardwire recognition of objects that regularly appear in our visual environment. One such object is the human face. As shown by Zhu et al. (2009) through a twin study, the ability to recognize faces is innate and not learned. This heritability is further shown by the two extremes of prosopagnosics and “super-recognizers.” The former cannot recognize faces better than any other object, whereas the latter have exceptional face recognition ability (Russell, Chatterjee, & Nakayama, in press; Russell, Duchaine, & Nakayama, 2009).

The American psychologist Richard Russell has recently shown that face recognition equally uses face shape and facial skin color:

Shape and pigmentation cues were used in roughly equal measure by people with very good and very bad face recognition ability. […] People who are good at recognizing faces are good at using both shape and pigmentation cues to do so; people who are bad at recognizing faces are bad at using both shape and pigmentation cues to do so (Russell, Chatterjee, & Nakayama, in press).

This mental processing of skin color seems to take place in a lower-level module whose output then feeds into the face-recognition module.

Neural circuits related to face recognition ability must use both shape and pigmentation information about equally. This supports the idea that these circuits represent facial appearance by pooling lower-level patterns of shape and reflectance into combinations that include both types of information (Jiang, et al., 2006). Further, this is consistent with the notion that the location of the Fusiform Face Area is midway along the shape–reflectance gradient in ventral cortex (Cant & Goodale, 2011) because the region integrates these two kinds of cues to visually process faces. (Russell, Chatterjee, & Nakayama, in press)

Dumouchel et al. (2010) have likewise concluded that face shape and “skin properties” are the main clues for face recognition, even more so than the relative distances of facial features from each other.

Why does skin color matter so much for face recognition? Didn’t our ancestors evolve in a context where people interacted only with their own kind or with neighboring groups of similar appearance? Yes, but there was another source of variation in skin color—gender and age. Women and young infants are paler, having less melanin and hemoglobin in their skin. Men, in contrast, are ruddier and browner.

We are thus innately sensitive to differences in skin color, but this sensitivity didn’t evolve in response to ethnic differences. It evolved in response to much smaller gender and age differences (Frost, 2010; Frost, 2011; van den Berghe & Frost, 1986).

At present, two research teams have the means and motivation to pursue this line of research: Richard Russell’s team at Gettysburg College and Frédéric Gosselin’s team at the Université de Montréal. We’ll probably see more findings by both teams over the next year.

The puzzle of European hair and eye colors

European populations have an unusually broad palette of hair and eye colors. This diversity doesn’t have a common genetic cause. It is due to a proliferation of alleles at two separate genes: MC1R for hair color and OCA2 for eye color. This proliferation did not come about through relaxation of selection for dark skin as ancestral Europeans moved into higher latitudes. Most of the new alleles have little or no affect on skin color, and in any case the timeframe is too narrow for this evolutionary scenario.

A likelier cause is sexual selection, which favors bright or novel colors that catch the attention of potential mates. If sexual selection is strong enough, a polymorphism of color variants may develop. A new color appears through mutation and, depending on its brightness or novelty, steadily rises in frequency until it is as common as the established color. Over time, these variants will increase in number. Humans have the potential for this kind of frequency-dependent sexual selection, e.g., darker-haired women are sexually preferred to the extent that they are less common. Such selection is consistent with the high number of alleles for hair color and eye color in European populations, the high ratio of nonsynonymous to synonymous variants among these alleles, and the relatively short time over which this hair and eye color diversity developed.

Sexual selection occurs when too many of one sex must compete for too few of the other. Among early modern humans, such imbalances resulted from (1) polygyny (to the degree that women could provide for themselves and their children without male assistance) and/or (2) higher mortality among men than among women (to the degree that men covered longer distances while hunting or changing camp). Wherever the polygyny rate was low and male mortality high, the result was strong sexual selection of women. Such selection was particularly strong on continental steppe-tundra, where men had to provide almost all of the food by hunting migratory game animals over long distances. Although this type of environment is now fragmentary, it covered until 10,000 years ago a much larger territory that matches the current range of European hair and eye color diversity (Frost, 2006).

This hypothesis would predict some degree of sex linkage among European alleles for hair and eye color, since the sexual selection was acting on women. Over time, there would have arisen alleles that produce non-black hair and non-brown eyes more so in women than in men, and these alleles would have gradually replaced their non-sex-linked counterparts. This process should not have gone very far, though, because of the narrow timeframe.

This prediction is borne out by a twin study on the genetics of hair color. Shekar et al. (2008) found that the women had lighter hair on average than the men and a higher proportion of red hair. Hair color was also more diverse in the women than in the men:

Females had, on average, lighter hair, on the A650t scale, than males.

[…] The correlation within brother–sister twin pairs was significantly lower than the correlation within brother–brother and sister–sister dizygotic twin pairs (P ≈ 0.01). This suggests that there may be qualitative differences in the genetic influences on the A650t index between sexes.

[…] Additive genetic influences explain 55% and 58% of variation in the A650t index within females and males, respectively. The additive genetic influence on the A650t index in males was, predominantly, qualitatively different from those that influence the index in females.

[…] Females had, on average, redder hair (P < 0.00001) and greater variation in R index scores (P _ 0.001) than males.

The sexual selection hypothesis would also predict that this evolutionary change took place over a relatively short time, specifically the last ice age 25,000 to 10,000 years ago and well after the entry of modern humans into Europe some 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. Is this prediction supported by evidence?

At present, no one is trying to date the diversification of European hair and eye colors.
The closest research effort would be the work by Norton and Hammer (2007) showing that Europeans became white-skinned long after their entry into Europe. Heather Norton is now trying to get a firm date on this phenotypic change.


Dupuis-Roy, N., I. Fortin, D. Fiset, and F. Gosselin. (2009). Uncovering gender discrimination cues in a realistic setting. Journal of Vision, 9(2), 10, 1–8., doi:10.1167/9.2.10.

Frost (2011). Hue and luminosity of human skin: a visual cue for gender recognition and other mental tasks, Human Ethology Bulletin, 26(2), 25-34.

Frost, P. (2010). Femmes claires, hommes foncés. Les racines oubliées du colorisme, Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval.

Frost, P. (2006). European hair and eye color - A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 85-103

Norton, H.L. & M.F. Hammer (2007) Sequence variation in the pigmentation candidate gene SLC24A5 and evidence for independent evolution of light skin in European and East Asian populations, Program of the 77th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, p. 179.

Russell, R., G. Chatterjee, and K. Nakayama. (In press) Developmental prosopagnosia and super-recognition: no special role for surface reflectance processing. Neuropsychologia

Russell, R., B. Duchaine, and K. Nakayama. (2009). Super-recognizers: People with extraordinary face recognition ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16(2), 252-257.

Shekar, S.N., D.L. Duffy, T. Frudakis, G.W. Montgomery, M.R. James, R.A. Sturm, & N.G. Martin (2008). Spectrophotometric methods for quantifying pigmentation in human hair—Influence of MC1R genotype and environment, Photochemistry and Photobiology, 84, 719–726.

Taschereau-Dumouchel, V., B. Rossion, P.G. Schyns, and F. Gosselin. (2010). Interattribute Distances do not Represent the Identity of Real World Faces, Front Psychol, 1, 159.

van den Berghe, P. L. & P. Frost. (1986). Skin color preference, sexual dimorphism, and sexual selection: A case of gene-culture co-evolution? Ethnic and Racial Studies, 9, 87-113.

Zhu, Q., Y. Song, S. Hu, X. Li, M. Tian, Z. Zhen, Q. Dong, N. Kanwisher, and J. Liu. (2009). Heritability of the specific cognitive ability of face perception, Current Biology, 20, 137-142.


Sean said...

"In contrast, the Western World is very fractious, as seen by the bickering within the European Union. These social and political divisions will probably abort the recovery long before the possibilities for debt financing and money printing have been completely exhausted. And so much the better."

International aid is part of the USA's pursuit of a global strategy. America has long required northern Europe to lend to bad risks (eg Germany to continue shore up the economies of southern Europe). Whether Germany is going to continue to do as they're told is anybody's guess. The EU single currency functions as a export promoter for German manufacturers and is backed by the elite and their political cats paws. Ordinary Germans, who are the ones paying for the strategy, do not have much influence on their country's policies as far as I can see.

Illusion (Scroll down about 60%)

"In the normal photograph of Humphrey Bogart (left), the actor appears to be looking to his left, but in the photo negative (right) he appears to be looking in the opposite direction. Yet Bogart's face does not look backward; only the eyes are reversed. Why? The answer is that we have specialized modules in our brain that determine gaze direction by comparing the dark parts of the eyes (the irises and pupils) with the whites. When the face is negative, the whites and irises appear to swap position. Our knowledge that irises are light rather than dark in a negative does not change our perception of this illusion"

Is this a secondary reason why a light colored iris will attract and hold attention? If it is more difficult to determine the direction of the gaze of a light eyed person then the viewer's attention may be on it for longer .

sykes.1 said...

You have missed the real economic trend. Outsourcing is a minor part of Western (or at least American) job loss. The big job killer is automation. Over the last 20-30 years, American INDUSTRIAL/MANUFACTURING output has tripled, but employment in the sector has only doubled. American remains the largest manufacturing economy in the world. America's manufacturing economy is larger than Germany's whole economy.

Every manufacturing economy is losing jobs due to automation, including China's.

Manufacturing is undergoing the same transition agriculture did a century ago. In the US, agricultural employment is less than 2% of the work force. In a few decades, manufacturing employment will approach those levels.

Manufacturing output will increase.

Anonymous said...

I saw a black man on a street corner in Silicon Valley today begging for money.

His placard (piece of cardboard) asked whether or not the cheap labor and the gegaws were worth it.

Said something was the tip of the iceberg.

Perhaps he too reads Evo and Proud.

Anonymous said...

Every manufacturing economy is losing jobs due to automation, including China's.

Manufacturing is undergoing the same transition agriculture did a century ago. In the US, agricultural employment is less than 2% of the work force. In a few decades, manufacturing employment will approach those levels.

And of course, those who lose their jobs will move into the service industries, won't they?

Anonymous said...

Finally, we are facing a globalization crisis. On the one hand, jobs are being outsourced to lower-wage countries. On the other, lower-wage labor is being insourced. The result? A steady downward leveling of incomes throughout the Western World, except for the very rich. The latter now have access to labor under conditions not seen since the days of Charles Dickens.

Today’s globalization is much like the Enclosure movement in England from the 16th through 18th centuries. The enclosers carved out the land for themselves, displacing labor from the land and its traditional means of support, and herding it into the cities. Although today’s globalization is bringing manufactures to many developing countries, and also goes hand in hand with a great rural exodus to huge overgrown cities, it is in many ways a relapse back into pre-capitalist economic forms.

Industry throughout the world has been taken over by the financial sector. What the global corporations want from these countries is not primarily their labor. What global investors want is the land, along with other natural resources such as mineral rights, and natural monopolies, that is, public utilities. They want the railroads and airline systems now in place, created largely by governments running deeply into foreign debt.

Global investors want the telephone and communications monopolies, the TV stations – and the electromagnetic spectrum that goes with it – electrical power monopolies, oil and gas. They want the monopoly rights possessed by these industries, to buy it at distress prices, and then to privatize labor’s social security savings to bid up prices for shares in these companies.

Most of all, they want the land and real estate. Even in highly industrialized economies such as the United States and Japan, it is the land that is the largest asset. And the most valuable land is urban land – the value of urban real estate in New York City alone exceeds the depreciated value of all the industrial machinery and equipment in the United States.

Global investors do not necessarily want to bring development to the developing countries. Their objective and historical role is not to create new capital. What they want is the capital that already is in place.

gayle said...

I just want Obama OUT!

Peter Frost said...


In theory, the European Union could continue, just as the Japanese economy has managed to continue. The political reality, however, is that the EU is destined to collapse. Even the elites are losing faith in the EU.

Your point about iris color is interesting.


Automation, in itself, does not reduce a country's wealth per capita. The cost savings are either passed on to consumers or invested in new lines of products.

With globalization, however, developed countries undergo a reduction in their wealth per capita. On the one hand, wealth creation is transferred to lower-wage countries. On the other, labor is imported from lower-wage countries to expand the pool of workers and consumers.

You might argue, of course, that automation facilitates globalization. Yet the opposite is what we actually see. When agri-business imports farm workers, it's under less pressure to introduce automated harvesting methods. In the U.S., elder care is heavily dependent on foreign labor. In Japan, robots are being put to use.


There is no economic law that says service industries cannot pay decent wages. If they didn't have access to cheap labor, they would have to pay the going rate. Or go under. That's the way our economy is supposed to work.


The common denominator is that the business community wants access to wealth creation under conditions that would be impossible (and often illegal) in the developed world. What's good for General Motors is not necessarily good for the USA. There is a divergence of interests.


Be careful about what you wish for. You just might get it!


If Romney is chosen, he'll probably beat Obama. If Gingrich is chosen, the election will be too close to call.

Frankly I don't care who wins. Romney, Gingrich, and Obama differ more in image than in substance. It's not just that they face the same hordes of lobbyists. There's also the indirect lobbying of those who manufacture the ideological environment and set the limits of acceptable discourse. That kind of lobbying is far more insidious.

It's not for nothing that the business community invests in think tanks and buys up influence in academia and the media.

Ben10 said...

You give the context, but not the tiny butterfly's movement that will shape the future. This of course, is unpredictible from using reason alone.
The Mayan set 2012 as the end of the present cycle, the nordic myths have Ragnarok, christianity has the Revelation, Chef Seatle gave a quasi prophetic discourse (below).... what about the northern Inuits, anything their chamans predict?

"...A few more moons, a few more winters, and not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain to mourn over the graves of a people once more powerful and hopeful than yours. But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see. ..."

Sean said...

Perceived direction of gaze from eyes with dark vs. light irises. "The direction of monocular gaze from eyes that differ in the darkness of their irises is perceived differently, and, within the blue irises, small differences in pupil centration made surprisingly large differences in the perceived directions of gaze."

Stephen said...

I think Ron Paul has a good chance of becoming US president and this is something I would support. While all the media try to ignore him he is leading the primaries and if he can win the primaries he can win the election.

There are other ways fair colors could of been selected. In the late Neolithic early bronze age there were allot of stone circles constructed which suggests a powerful solar cult. With hair the color of golden sun rays and eyes as blue as the sky it is possible blondes made up this priestly cast thus gaining access to plenty of food, wives and concubines rapidly spreading there genes across Europe.

Peter Frost said...


There is much controversy over Chief Seattle's speech. See the Wikipedia account.

As far as I know, traditional Inuit have no notion of "end time" (e.g., apocalypse, gotterdammerung, ragnarok, etc.). This is a notion that develops in agricultural societies, which seem to go through cycles of growth, decay, and destruction. This cycle is partly ecological in origin (overgrazing, salination, soil erosion, and/or soil exhaustion) and partly cultural/genetic (pacification and domestication leading to inability to resist barbarian outsiders).

An Inuit woman born on November 5, 1877 made the following predictions. The last one seems to be a reference to a cure for AIDS:

"I saw the orca, my brother the killer whale, when he came to me in a dream."

"The orca says when the Pacific waters are at their coldest, when the winter sun shines like water, a mountain that men call The Mammoth will explode and hurl smoke and flame miles into the sky."

"The mountains will bloom with fire, by and by, but very soon, before the winter snows melt and the orcas go back to the open sea."

"A doctor with a foreign name will use plants like the 'Forget-Me-Not' to make cures for many diseases. Cancer and the flu will never kill people again. The wasting disease that first struck at man who love other men will be cured at last."


I never could understand why traditional conservatives love Ron Paul. Why not support Michelle Bachmann? If I'm missing something, please educate me.

Reader said...

My guess is Michele Bachmann and others could be characterized as NEO-conservatives as opposed to traditional conservatives. Neo-conservatism is relatively new in American politics.

Sean said...

Paul wouldn't attack Iran. The foreign policy establishment is inexorably moving toward an attack.
(Steven Walt HERE and HERE).
Romney's foreign policy team includes David Wurmser. Even if Obama gets re-elected the attack on Iran will likely come. It'll be a massive sustained airstrike, not an invasion.