Saturday, April 28, 2012

Vitamin D metabolism and northern native peoples

Early winter afternoon in Tromso, Norway (source). There is little or no solar UV for vitamin D synthesis at high northern latitudes. Humans have had to adapt accordingly.

I’ve published another article on vitamin D metabolism and northern Native peoples. It’s actually a reply to a letter criticizing my initial article.

A few extracts:

We know that natural selection can alter the way the human body synthesises, transports and uses this vitamin. We also know that the relevant selection pressures (from solar UV and skin color) vary from one human population to the next. So it is not necessarily unhealthy for a population to have low blood levels of vitamin D. The underlying metabolism may simply be different.

[…] This has been especially true at high northern latitudes, where solar UV is too weak for synthesis in the skin. An alternative is to consume fatty ocean fish, but this food source was formerly available only in coastal regions. The interior of Alaska and northern Canada had few natural sources of vitamin D.

Over time, northern Natives should have adapted to this situation through natural selection. And they had time: some 15,000 years in Arctic North America and longer still if we include their remote ancestors in Beringia and northern Eurasia. Natural selection also had many possible ways to make their bodies less dependent on vitamin D: receptors that bind this molecule more strongly; greater storage in the body and better transport in the bloodstream to target tissues; increased uptake of calcium and phosphorus through alternate metabolic pathways, etc. Indeed, the Inuit show high uptake of calcium despite low levels of vitamin D.

Comments are welcome.


Frost, P. (2012). Reply to W.B. Grant ‘Re: Vitamin D deficiency among northern Native Peoples’International Journal of Circumpolar Health,71, 18435 - DOI: 10.3402/ijch.v71i0.18435

Saturday, April 21, 2012

East Asia at the crossroads

Is Japan dying? (Source: PBT Consulting)

Today, East Asia is widely acclaimed for decade upon decade of economic success. Yet this success rests on a very fragile foundation—an aging population with the world’s lowest fertility. This situation is viewed with surprising indifference by East Asians and Westerners alike. As with so many other things, we prefer to see tomorrow through yesterday’s eyes.

Yet tomorrow is already here. Outside the big cities, East Asia looks more and more like an old folks home. This is especially so in Japan, where the median age is now 45. But populations are also graying throughout South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and most of China.

Nature abhors a vacuum. There will be pressures from within and without to open the doors to mass immigration—all the more so because of the mounting influence of globalist thinking. To date, most of East Asia has resisted these pressures, probably because national identity is still relatively strong and the elites understand the consequences.

But the elites are changing. They’re following the same trend towards post-nationalism and globalism that is occurring in the West. As they identify less and less with their respective nation states, they’ll follow more and more their own interests—and those interests won’t be the same as those of the mass of the population.

Just as globalization redistributes wealth from higher-wage countries to lower-wage countries, it also redistributes wealth from the workers to the owners of capital. If your money comes from your own work in your own country, you’ll benefit much less than someone whose income has a more global reach. In fact, you’ll be a net loser.

So, as East Asia’s elites lose national consciousness, they’re going to feel more and more encumbered by their nation states. And they’re going to act on their feelings. This is already happening in South Korea, and Taiwan will probably follow suit. It’s probably no coincidence that both countries have strong political, cultural, and ideological links with the United States.

What about the rest of East Asia? National consciousness seems to be strongest in China and, especially, North Korea. Ironically, both countries once saw themselves as proponents of internationalism. Yet, by submitting everything to State control, they unwittingly created a very conservative culture. Today, national feeling is better preserved in the former Communist bloc than in the West, as are many other traditional life ways.

In China, the decline of Marxist-Leninism has left a vacuum that is being filled in part by Western post-nationalism and in part by a resurgence of national feeling. The second trend seems to have grown stronger in recent years. One reason is that the elites are increasingly wary of the West, especially the United States. The other reason is that China can now produce its own high-quality movies, TV programs, and popular entertainment. This locally based cultural production gives a larger place to nationalistic and historical themes than is the case with cultural products imported from the West.

East Asia is thus being pulled in opposite directions by two irreconcilable ideologies. On the one hand, an elite-driven globalism is increasingly hostile to the nation state and even to the very existence of nations. On the other, an anti-globalist reaction is developing to defend the demographic status quo. There seems to be little room for compromise.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The next East Asian domino

McDonald’s in Taipei. By the 1990s, Taiwan had already become a “post-nation” (source)

East Asia has long been bucking the trend toward globalization. Its countries have become major players in the global marketplace, while jealously guarding their cultural specificity and national character.

But East Asia is now getting with the program. South Korea in particular has embraced the view that all factors of production, including its own people, should submit to the logic of globalization. Although the inflow of migrant labor is supposed to be a response to economic growth, there seems to be little relationship between the two. South Korea has actually had slower economic growth since the Asian crisis of the late 1990s, and yet these same years have seen a steady rise in immigration.

As Kang (2010) notes:

Economic growth in South Korea demanded a change to the solid mono-ethnic labour market, previously exclusive of other races. Migrant workers replaced departing Koreans at small and middle-sized factories, receiving low wages and doing intensive labour, mostly coming as “industrial trainees” at the beginning. But from around 1997, the so-called Asian economic crisis has left them in terrible conditions, being categorized as illegal and undocumented, without any official countermeasures from the Korean government. They were frequently arrested and deported from then. Nevertheless the number of foreign residents is increasing every year, except for 1998 […]

None of this should be surprising. In a global marketplace, there is a strong incentive to cut the cost of labor, either by outsourcing production or by insourcing workers. This two-way process will continue until wage rates are more or less the same throughout the world. So it doesn’t matter how low the wages are in labor-importing countries. What matters is whether the wages are even lower in labor-exporting countries. Such is the logic of globalization.

South Korea’s example is now being followed by another East Asian country—Taiwan. Here too, history seems to have paved the way for globalization. Before 1945, the Taiwanese were citizens of the Japanese Empire, even though most were culturally Chinese. They were thus already thinking of citizenship in ‘propositional’ terms, i.e., as adherence to a particular political system. This tendency was reinforced when the Chinese civil war ended and Taiwan became a place of refuge for the defeated Nationalists. Taiwanese identity thus became constructed in ideological terms … in opposition to the Communists on the mainland.

At the same time, Taiwan took in large numbers of refugees from different parts of Mainland China with different dialects and traditions of their own—an estimated 1 to 1.5 million. This experience would help prepare the Taiwanese for the current wave of non-Chinese immigrants:

Even before the advent of transnational capitalism, there has been steady influx of “outsiders” into postwar Taiwanese society, if one not only includes the gradual absorption of overseas Chinese (including from Hong Kong) but also the marginal existence of long resident foreigners (many of whom have married local spouses and settled into long term employment). To this, one can add in recent years the massive influx of contract laborers (Filipino maids, Thai construction workers, illegal PRC immigrants, expatriate businessmen and technical experts, etc.) as well as increased numbers of Chinese abroad lured back by super-salary jobs and Chinese youth raised abroad who have “returned” to exploit the growing niche of professional work requiring English language fluency. All have in very different ways contributed to an increasingly diversified and transnational local Taiwanese economy, albeit accommodated within an ongoing stratified system. (Chun, 2001)

Another predisposing factor has been Taiwan’s special relationship with its main protector, the United States. Many of its political and economic leaders are graduates of American colleges and universities. On coming home, they propagate the same discourse that they earlier learned in the U.S.:

Multiculturalism is now “in”. As a term of official discourse, the advent of “multiculturalism” (duoyuan zhuyi) seems to be a recent phenomenon that has culminated with, among other things, the election of the first President from the Taiwan independence minded opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). (Chun, 2001)

School textbooks are being rewritten to emphasize this new perspective:

Narrative of immigration plays a pivotal role in the multiculturalism discourse. In a school textbook entitled 'Understanding Taiwan’, Taiwan enters the stage as such: ‘Taiwan is an immigrant society, from the Stone Age to the present, people coming here across many different times and places. Before the largest number of Han arrived on Taiwan, Aborigines were already here’ (cited by Harrison: 2006: 195). It also teaches students that Taiwan’s history is characterised by a) multiple cultures; b) internationalisation; c) prosperous foreign trade; d) bravery, adventurousness, and endurance (Cheng, 2008)

The above predisposing factors have thus allowed a deeper penetration of globalist thinking than in, say, Japan. Nonetheless, globalism is gaining dominance throughout the world. It is perhaps an inevitable stage of capitalism where the business community has freed itself from the nation state and pursues solely its own self-interest:

Foreign labor in general is not a new phenomenon to global capitalism, which was in fact responsible for orchestrating the first major waves of ethnic migration in human history. However, the role of foreign labor has clearly been transformed by the current phase of transnational capitalism, characterized by disorganized flows of capital and labor, borderless economies and the withering away of nationalist protectionism of various sorts, not to mention the most recent evolution of supra-national economic zones, such as EEC and NAFTA. (Chun, 2001)

Yet East Asia is one region where we may see pushback. At first thought, this prospect seems unlikely. The local political and economic elites have converted massively to globalism. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be any possible ideology of opposition—other than communism, which is widely discredited even in Mainland China. To a large extent, this is what we see elsewhere: globalism has co-opted the entire political spectrum from the left to the right.

Chun (2001) nonetheless predicts that a movement of opposition will develop in Taiwan, ironically out of multicultural discourse, specifically its indigenist component. Although indigenism has primarily served to defend the native Austronesian tribes of eastern Taiwan, it is now also being used to portray the Taiwanese as an indigenous nation, in opposition to the People’s Republic of China. At a time when the PRC has embraced the global market economy, the Taiwanese political leadership is turning towards indigenist rhetoric as the sole remaining means of legitimizing their country’s existence.

According to Chun (2001), Taiwan was already showing all the signs of a “post-nation” by the 1990s: social atomization, disinterest in cultural and kinship affiliation, emergence of the market as the main organizing principle of society, etc. Multicultural/indigenist discourse can do nothing to push Taiwan farther in that direction, but it can do much to reawaken national consciousness. “At a deeper level, both (cosmopolitan) "transnationalism" and (indigenous) "multiculturalism" are in my opinion largely incompatible and mask an imminent future crisis” (Chun, 2001).

Globalism today enjoys a predominance in East Asia that is both monolithic and superficial. Although it has a stronger hold on the elites and on the general population than in the West, this adherence has no deep roots in the underlying culture. In the West, by contrast, globalism has been grafted onto a pre-existing tradition that is much more compatible. There is notably Christianity and its commitment to mission work throughout the world. There is also the emotional heritage of imperialism and colonialism. Although the West lost its colonies more than a half-century ago, many Westerners still feel connected to them and responsible for them.

This cultural substrate is largely, if not wholly, absent in East Asia. When, and if, pushback begins there, resistance will likely collapse after initially strong resistance.


Cheng, I. (2008). Immigrants and National Identity of Taiwan: A Preliminary Study on Multiculturalism Practice

Chun, A. (2001). The coming crisis of multiculturalism in “transnational” Taiwan, New Cultural Formations in an Era of Transnational Globalization, Academia Sinica, Taiwan, Oct 6-7, 2001

Kang, S.W. (2010). Multicultural education and the rights to education of migrant children in South Korea, Educational Review, 62(3), 287-300.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Reflections on the revolution in South Korea

Cartoon lampooning the traffic in mail-order brides (source). About 40% of married men in rural South Korea have wives of foreign origin.

Until recently, South Korea had no ethnic minorities. Nor did it have a history of being a colonial power. While slavery did exist, the slaves were not from elsewhere.

Today, however, the country is in the throes of demographic change. In the late 1980s, it began to open its borders to immigrants, initially diaspora Koreans from Manchuria, Uzbekistan, and other sources. Since the mid-1990s, the zone of recruitment has been extended to the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and even countries as far afield as Nigeria (Kim, 2004).

How much has immigration changed South Korea? In 2010, foreigners officially made up 2.6% of the population, and this proportion is set to reach 9.2% by 2050 (Park, 2011; Yoon et al., 2008). Like all statistics, these figures should be viewed with caution. For instance, a third of all foreigners may be diaspora Koreans, whose cultural impact is much less than that of other immigrants.

On the other hand, the official statistics greatly understate the impact of immigration in at least three ways. First, the term ‘foreigner’ doesn’t mean ‘foreign-born.’ It refers only to those residents who haven’t received South Korean citizenship yet. When a foreigner becomes a citizen, he or she disappears from the statistics and is deemed to be sociologically the same as any other Korean. No statistics are kept on ethnic origin.

Second, the official statistics exclude Korean-born children of foreigners. This group is far from negligible, especially in the case of mail-order brides from southeast Asia and elsewhere:

In 2010, 10 percent of married couples were interracial, an increase from four percent in 2000, according to Statistics Korea. The prevalence of interracial couples is dramatically higher in rural areas. About 40 percent of married couples in Korean rural areas are interracial couples; it is projected that biracial children will represent about 50 percent of rural children in 2020 (Park, 2011).

These children are most often born to mothers from countries with higher fertility, and such countries also differ more from Korea in terms of culture, religion, and ethnic makeup.

Third, the official statistics exclude illegal immigrants, who are estimated to make up half the total immigration intake (Moon, 2010).

So how much is immigration changing South Korea? There is no exact answer, but an exact one may be unnecessary. When American-style open borders combine with East Asian fertility (1.2 children per woman in 2010), the future is a foregone conclusion.

How will this future play out? Will South Korea avoid the problems of ethnic conflict and discrimination that other countries have experienced? There are already growing concerns. Lim (2010) deplores the high dropout rate among biracial children and suggests they “face a future as the country’s permanent, racialized underclass” (Lim, 2011).

Poor academic performance does seem to be a problem among Korean children with at least one foreign-born parent. The cause is widely said to be social exclusion.

Because their mothers have difficulty in speaking and writing Korean, these children may be making slow progress in language development in comparison to the Korean children. They then are also likely to be seen as having learning difficulties and as being less adapted to school life with friends due to such delayed development in language and cultural understanding in the home (Sul, G.-S. Han, and J.-R. Lee 2003; Oh 2005; Cho 2006). As a consequence, the children confront difficulties at school, often being viewed as learning-disabled. (Kang, 2010)

The kind of “learning-deficiency” treatment leads them to drop out of school and discourages their enrolment at higher levels of schooling. The drop-out rate among mixed-blood youths is estimated at 9.4% in elementary schools and 17.5% at the secondary level, compared with less than 3% among ordinary Korean youths (Docuinfor 2004). These youngsters may be alienated from mainstream society, feeling prejudice and discrimination, and frustration about the lack of positive future prospects. (Kang, 2010)

In short, it is argued that these children fare worse in school because they improperly learn the Korean language at home. This in turn leads to poor social skills and rejection by peers.

If the above explanation is correct, these children should do worse in subjects that demand much social interaction and language use. Conversely, they should do better in subjects that require abstract skills, like mathematics, or memorization of names and dates, like social studies. This is, in fact, the pattern we see among children of East Asian immigrants in North America.

But this is not really the pattern we see among children born in South Korea to non-Korean mothers:

Their favourite subjects are music/painting/physical education (42.6%), while they dislike math (38.1%), social studies (19.2%) and Korean (12.7%) (Kang, 2010).

The learning deficit seems to be strongest in those subjects that require the most abstraction and memorization. These learning skills, however, are the pillars of Korean education.

It will thus not be enough to mandate social inclusion. The educational system itself will have to change:

Traditional forms of education which reflect little more than “cramming” knowledge or fact are inadequate and counterproductive for children with different cultural needs (Kang, 2010).

Should “cramming” be abandoned in the new Korea? It depends on the kind of new Korea one wants. Keep in mind that the country has few natural resources. Its most important resource is its people, specifically a workforce that can “cram” knowledge. To the extent that it loses this resource, it will become poorer—and probably less interesting for immigrants.


Kang, S.W. (2010). Multicultural education and the rights to education of migrant children in South Korea, Educational Review, 62(3), 287-300

Kim, W-B. (2004). Migration of foreign workers into South Korea: from periphery to semi-periphery in the global labor market, Asian Survey, 44, 316-335.

Lim, F.J. (2011). Korea’s multicultural future? New Leaders Forum

Moon, S. (2010). Multicultural and Global Citizenship in the Transnational Age: The Case of South Korea, International Journal of Multicultural Education, 12, 1-15.

Park, S. (2011). Korean Multiculturalism and the Marriage Squeeze, Contexts, 10, 64-65.

Yoon, I-J.,Y-H. Song, & Y-J. Bae. (2008). South Koreans' Attitudes toward Foreigners, Minorities and Multiculturalism, Paper prepared for presentation at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Boston, MA from August 1-4, 2008.