Monday, March 19, 2018

We make the environments we adapt to

Distribution of malaria in Italy, 1944 (Wikicommons). Malaria used to be common in parts of Italy, particularly Sardinia.

Gene-culture coevolution seems to be attracting more interest. According to Google Scholar, this term is appearing in more and more scientific articles:

2010-2017 - 248 mentions per year

2000-2009 - 107 mentions per year

1990-1999 - 22 mentions per year

1980-1989 - 31 mentions per year

I’d like to take some of the credit, but most of it actually goes to John Hawks and the landmark paper he authored in 2007 with Eric Wang, Greg Cochran, Henry Harpending, and Robert Moyzis. That paper, more than any other, changed the way we view the relationship between genetic evolution and cultural evolution in our species.

Rinaldi (2017) provides a good review of this field of research. He starts off with a definition of gene-culture coevolution:

"[All] organisms adapt to their environment, and in humans much of our environment is defined by our culture. Hence, cultural change can actually spur on adaptive evolution in humans", wrote evolutionary biologist Alan Templeton at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, USA. Following this argument, culture, social learning and technology have not replaced biological adaptation. Rather, human evolution is driven by the environmental conditions we created ourselves through culture, a process that has been accelerating since the beginning of agriculture and urban civilization.

Indeed, human genetic evolution sped up more than a hundred-fold some 10,000 years ago, when hunting and gathering gave way to farming, which in turn led to population growth and larger, more complex societies. Our ancestors were no longer adapting to relatively static natural environments but rather to faster-changing cultural ones of their own making. They created new ways of life, which in turn influenced who would survive and who wouldn't (Hawks et al. 2007).

Among other changes, farming exposed humans to new diseases. "Virulent epidemic diseases, including smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, typhus, and cholera, became important causes of mortality after the origin and spread of agriculture" (Hawks et al. 2007). This causation has been amply documented in the case of malaria:

If malaria was contracted by humans in the Pleistocene, it likely would have been in isolated incidences. For example, recent genetic analysis of the glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase gene, some variants of which confer resistance to the infection, confirmed that malaria is a recent selective force in human populations, occurring within the last 10,000 years. Based on the mitochondrial genome of the parasite itself, Joy et al. concluded that though the parasite that causes falciparum malaria originated long ago (perhaps 50,000-100,000 YBP), a sudden increase in the population size of the parasite did not occur until around 10,000 years ago when humans began to practice agriculture.

[...] Livingstone argued that slash-and-burn agriculture in West Africa would have exposed populations to Anopheles gambiae, the mosquito that serves as the vector for Plasmodium falciparum, the cause of malaria. Slash-and-burn agriculture resulted in sedentary populations surrounded by the pools of sunlit water required for propagation of the Anophelese mosquito. (Harper and Armelagos 2010)

Farming changed the adaptive equilibrium between the human body and Plasmodium falciparum. A new equilibrium arose in those human populations that had to coevolve with a high incidence of this parasite. Now, modern health measures are upsetting this equilibrium, and those same populations are falling prey to certain diseases—ironically, because of efforts to fight another disease:

The increase in multiple sclerosis and probably other autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes in Sardinia, Italy, has been linked to the elimination of malaria from the island in the early 1950s. Centuries of exposure to Plasmodium falciparum would have shaped the human immune system to aggressively fight the parasite with a tendency to over-respond to triggering factors even after the disappearance of the parasites. Recent research has indeed identified a number of gene variants involved in malarial resistance and increased risk of multiple sclerosis in Sardinians. (Rinaldi 2017)

Human culture has created new environments of biological adaptation, and these environments differ from one human population to the next because human culture likewise differs from one to the next. Subsequent cultural change will therefore have a greater biological impact on some populations than on others. This is a general principle and is not limited to the above example of malaria.

In my next post, I will explore the biological impacts of another cultural change: the shift from a "thick" to a "thin" social environment. A "thick" social environment is characterized by intense interaction with a relatively small number of people. This interaction is not only recurrent but also predictable because it is constrained and structured by social rules. A "thin" social environment is characterized by interaction with more people on a less frequent basis, and this interaction is less predictable because social relations are less constrained and less structured.

Human cultures fall along a continuum from "thick" social environments, such as exist in small bands of hunter-gatherers, to "thin" social environments, such as exist in large societies where conditions for personal autonomy are optimal. In the latter, people are freer not only to change their networks of social interaction but also to reduce them to the minimum necessary for personal survival.

For several centuries, the West has been expanding personal autonomy by transferring collective authority from personal “bottom-up” structures (family, clan, ethny) to impersonal “top-down” structures (the State). Beginning in the 19th century, we have exported this cultural model to the rest of the world. Have there been adverse effects? And have they been worse in some human populations than in others? Most experts would answer “Yes” to both questions, while adding that the adverse effects are temporary. Once everyone has grown accustomed to being merely individuals, the effects should be pretty much the same everywhere. 

I will argue that some of these adverse effects will be permanent in all human populations. This is because no population has ever fully adapted to a social environment where individualism is at a maximum and where the State has largely replaced traditional “bottom-up” structures. I will also argue that these permanent adverse effects will be worse in some populations than in others.


I've been trying to measure the degree to which my blog is being "deplatformed," i.e., intercepted by blocking software. This search took me to the site Easy Counter, which told me that Evo and Proud is "poorly socialized" and may be "penalized." I also learned something else: on March 13, 2018, my blog was set to expire in 4 months. To date, no one has notified me of this decision, and I would still be unaware if I hadn’t gone to Easy Counter.

As I understand it, this sort of thing happens when a blog is inactive. Blogger is supposed to be free, and I've never had to renew my registration through an annual payment. So I'm asking you for advice. For whatever reason, Google wants to terminate this blog. Should I fight this decision or migrate to another platform? If so, which one would be best? And what is the easiest way to transfer all of my blog posts?


Harper, K. and G. Armelagos. (2010). The changing disease-scape in the third epidemiological transition, Int J Environ Res Public Health. 7(2): 675-697.

Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending, and R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 104: 20753-20758.

Rinaldi, A. (2017). We're on a road to nowhere. Culture and adaptation to the environment are driving human evolution, but the destination of this journey is unpredictable, EMBO reports 18: 2094-2100 


Sean said...

I have been flipping through Daniel Dennett's books. According to Dennett memes are symbionts and as such can be parasites, commensals, or mutualists (enhancing the fitness of both host and guest). He also says "in the domain of memes, the ultimate beneficiary, the beneficiary in terms of which the final cost-benefit calculations must apply is: the meme itself, not its carriers"

Sorry this is a bit unclear as to meaning, but do you think culturally ideas competing for transmission (the ideas of Christianity spread by celebrate clergy for example) constitute evolution in which memes are making use of humans, a form of gene-culture co-evolution favouring more intelligent people, or something else?

I don't have any info on the technical or other merits of the various alternatives, but off the top of my head I think the work moving your website would entail (it'd be much more than you'd think at the begining, rely on it) would be a not very productive use of your time, energy and peace of mind (especially as every problem might be thought to have an ulterior motive). Explain you were inactive for a while, giving the dates, and emphasize that you now are back with a post a week. Well worth a try IMO.

Sean said...

Enlightenment values such as Steven Pinker talks about, would those spreading and disfavouring violent types qualify as gene culture evolution?

Peter Frost said...


Memes can spread faster than genes, so memetic evolution can take place independently of genetic evolution ... up to a point. All too often, the software ends up trashing the hardware. For instance, Duvalier was fearful of anyone who seemed smarter than himself, and such individuals often ended up dying or fleeing the country. This sort of paranoia helped Duvalierism to thrive, but at a terrible cost. Even today, Haiti hasn't recovered from the loss of human capital during those years. Similarly, Khrushchev survived Stalin's purges by talking like a simple peasant, and Eisenhower rose to the position of president thanks to his "Aw shucks" persona. In general, ideology hasn't been very kind to smart individuals.

My problem with Google might be an innocent mistake, i.e., never put down to malice what can be attributed to stupidity. On the other hand, I began blogging again last September, whereas the decision to shut down this blog was made a week ago. So I'll mull over my choices for a few more days.

Enlightenment thinkers were sharply divided on the issue of capital punishment. In any case, violent predispositions were removed from the gene pool not only by capital punishment but also by discrimination against violent individuals and by extrajudicial executions. It was really Christianity, in conjunction with the State, that turned popular culture against personal violence, and this change in cultural attitude helped to ratchet up and up the use of capital punishment.

Luke Lea said...

"Rather, human evolution is driven by the environmental conditions we created ourselves through culture, a process that has been accelerating since the beginning of agriculture and urban civilization."

I deal with that sneakily in this paper here:

Wanda said...

Hi, Peter,
I would be cautious about believing what Easy Counter said about your blog being set to expire. Were you notified by Blogger? Have you contacted them and had this information verified?
I have a Blogger blog that I haven't posted an entry to since 2010 and don't link to anywhere. I just checked and it is still up, although all the Photobucket-hosted photos are gone, but that's another issue.
But to be safe you could post mirror copies of your blog to and any number of other blog-hosting sites. It's very easy to do and doesn't take long. Each site provides instructions that are easy to follow. I've done it several times, mostly just out of curiosity to see how the various sites operated. I'd still keep your Blogger blog, though, because why not?
Steve Sailer's Blogger blog is still up and he is far more controversial than you are. You might ask him if he has had any problems with Blogger.
"Poorly socialized" and "penalized" are SEO jargon, and refer to using, or failing to use, social media such as Twitter and Facebook to improve your search ranking.

Peter Frost said...


We confuse wealth with the cultural endowment that makes the creation of wealth possible. Look at the European countries that had colonial empires, and look at those that never had such empires or only briefly. Spain and Portugal were colonizing powers for the longest time of all European nations. Today, they are among the poorer nations of Europe. What did Spain gain from all of the wealth plundered from the Aztecs and Incas? What did Portugal gain from its long involvement in the slave trade? Plunder and exploitation are a curse not only for those who are plundered and exploited but also for those who plunder and exploit.

"a single penny invested at interest 2000 years ago would have grown to the size of a very large capital fortune today."

No, you would have lost that fortune during the Dark Ages. No banks were continuously in operation during that time period.


No, Blogger hasn't notified me. How exactly does one contact Blogger? All I've found is the Blogger Help Forum. Yes, I know many people with inactive blogs, and nothing has happened to their blogs.

Sean said...

Really clever tech ect people who meet at work or in higher education marrying each other seems to be a thing that would have a big impact on the genetic stratification of intellect. Current blue collar populism in the West as a response ?

Anonymous said...

Peter, I recommend you phase out the use of the "Dark Ages" as a term. It's out of favor with the majority of historians now.

Peter Frost said...

The term is appropriate for the Early Middle Ages, particularly the period of societal and demographic collapse. I wasn't using it for the entire Middle Ages.

Anonymous said...

The reason people get blacklisted is because they appear to be the voice of authority or reason, also coming across as nonpolitical and objective, whilst making comments close to the knuckle as far as politics goes. Peter Singer and Taleb are examples of victims. Debates are set up so both sides are controlled, meaning they share common assumptions and terms. They really don't like it when you call bullshit on those common grounds.

Anonymous said...

BTW host in Russia, China, Cuba... somewhere more sympathetic, or at leased not biased toward unsympathy.