Thursday, December 31, 2009

Review of 2009

Before I make my predictions for 2010, let me review the ones I made for 2009:

The Neanderthal genome will be fully sequenced. There will be no evidence of interbreeding with modern humans (although proponents of the multiregional model will remain unconvinced). By comparing this genome with ours, we may reconstruct the genome of archaic humans who lived almost a million years ago and who were ancestral to Neanderthals and modern humans.

The Neanderthal genome was not fully sequenced this year. Because much of the reconstructed DNA turned out to be contamination from modern humans, the researchers had to start over. So far, there is no sign of Neanderthal admixture in the modern European genome, including the European variant of the microcephalin gene (which some had thought to have been of Neanderthal origin).

Meanwhile, work will begin on sequencing the genome of early modern humans (10,000 – 40,000 years ago). This project should ultimately prove to be more interesting by showing us how much modern humans have evolved during their relatively short existence. We will probably find out that John Hawks erred on the low side in concluding that natural selection had changed 7% of the human genome over the past 40,000 years.

The work has begun, at least for European populations, but it’s raising more questions than answers. The big question is the fate of the hunter-gatherers who inhabited Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic Europe. Were they ancestral to present-day Europeans? Or were they replaced by a farming population from the Middle East? To date, the data indicate little genetic continuity between late hunter-gatherers and early farmers. On the other hand, the same data show little continuity between early farmers and present-day Europeans.

Perhaps founder effects are muddling the picture. Whenever some hunter-gatherers adopted agriculture, they and their descendants probably expanded considerably at the expense of neighboring groups. Early farmers would thus come from a very unrepresentative sample of late hunter-gatherers. The transition may have been just as bumpy between early farmers and later populations. Thus, the lack of genetic continuity could be more apparent than real.

In any case, paleo-geneticists should be looking not only at junk DNA but also at genes that have real-world effects. When did ancestral Europeans come to look the way they do now? Was it a gradual process that began when modern humans arrived in Europe some 35,000 years ago? Or did it happen rapidly?

We should also examine genes that regulate growth of brain tissue (like the aforementioned microcephalin variant). How intelligent were Europeans 30,000 years ago, 15,000 years ago, 5,000 years ago?

With the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, much will appear in 2009 about Charles Darwin and his life. We already know how he came up with his theory of evolution (Darwin salted away almost everything he wrote), although a few questions remain unanswered. What would he have done if he had lived longer? What did he have in mind for future projects?

Nothing really new has turned up. In 2009, historians questioned the view that Darwin deliberately held back his theory for two decades out of fear of a religious backlash. In fact, he was more afraid of not being taken seriously. He wished to build up his academic reputation before tackling the issue of evolution:

To use the modern jargon, he had to have the papers on the table to prove his worth. … Evolutionary ideas had emerged sensationally in the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), which could be pooh-poohed by the orthodox scientists of the day as a mishmash of half-baked ideas from the pen of a pseudo-scientist (it was subsequently revealed as the work of the antiquarian and publisher Robert Chambers). Darwin would not want to be taken lightly or dismissed as a mountebank: he was evidently a realist when it came to his career. (Fortey, 2009)

The Second Great Depression will not begin in 2009. In any case, what scares me is not the prospect of a sudden drop in the standard of living. Rather, it’s that of a gradual decline to almost half its current value. That scenario is scarier and likelier. And it’s probably already started. For the past fifteen years, median wages have stagnated despite decent economic growth. What will happen when growth stays in the 0-2% range?

The current recession is drawing to a close, but this should be no cause for self-congratulation. The coming decade will likely bring us stagflation, i.e., declining incomes and rising prices, especially for the basics of life (food, housing, oil, and most other commodities).

The cause? Globalization. The playing field is being leveled, and we’re competing more and more with the rest of the world for the basics of life. With free circulation of capital, goods, and labor—and that seems to be where our elites wish to go—incomes everywhere will tend to gravitate to the same level. There will still be income disparity within each country, perhaps even more (as in Latin America), but the average income level will be similar around the world, except for those countries that opt out of the globalist project.

Things might not be so bad for us if the world’s resources could be increased indefinitely. Our incomes could then stagnate while everyone else catches up (unlikely, though, since much of the world lacks the necessary social capital and political stability). In any case, even that scenario seems unrealistic. Demand is starting to outstrip supply for a number of key commodities, and not just oil. This is what the Club of Rome predicted back in 1972 in its report The Limits to Growth. Unfortunately, this pessimism seemed to be proven wrong when commodity prices fell into a long-term slump after the 1982 recession.

I suspect that warnings about peak oil are going unheeded now because similar warnings were made over thirty years ago. Just more of the same doom and gloom. Or so many think.


Endersby, J. (2009). Creative designs? How Darwin's Origin caused the Victorian crisis of faith, and other myths, TLS 7.3.16.

Fortey, R.A. (2009). How Darwin evolved, TLS 6.1.1.


Tod said...

On a level playing field everybody in China is going to gain, but in the West only a few will benefit.

China's growth depends on the US continuing to play by the rules of globalization, but when the US see where they are going relative to China they will try and pull the plug on China's growth.

Ben10 said...

Happy new year anyway.

Peter Frost said...


It will be difficult for the US to pull the plug. For one thing, China holds much of the US debt. For another, the US no longer has the means to strike out on its own. Its manufacturing base has been largely outsourced.


And a happy new year to you and to everyone else who drops by here!!