Saturday, February 28, 2015

Epic Genetics

Lineage, nobility, destiny in the Shahnameh

Traditionally, people have had great respect for genetics. Traits run in families, and every culture has had its class system of assortive mating that segregated the nobility from the other classes down the line to peasants. The modern world is unusual in its insistence on equality and democracy, which arose when the old nobility system had so absurdly overreached its original justification (if indeed there was any) and put such mediocre people at the head of affairs that the whole thing naturally collapsed. Now we value diversity and, to put it in genetic terms, hybrid vigor over pure blood lines. Echos still resound at the Westminster Kennel club, but for humans, purity seems out.

As recently as in the novels of Marcel Proust, the importance of lineage is paramount, as endless pages go by of the narrator besotting himself over the faded charms of count this, baron that, or princesse whatever. The class system has had a long, lingering death in Europe. Here in the US, we are re-inventing class relations on a business model, which is a thinly veiled feudalism with lords of the manor in suits, whose most successful exemplars shine forth in all their condescension in the foundational funding announcements on NPR, not to mention running the political system by buying all that "free" speech.

But at least they don't (to my knowledge) have harems of women to flood the next generation with. Bill Gates has not (yet) devised a way to clone himself into shrink-wrapped copies with which to win the genetic race for the future.

But the rulers of old certainly did. I have been reading the Shahnameh, which is the lengthy epic of Persia, recounting the reigns of its Kings from the mythical to the Muslim conquest. The themes of linage are a constant refrain, telling how handsome, strong, wise, and just each prince and king in turn is. How beautiful and modest the women in his harem. One infant is even sent down the Tigris in a box and raised by humble peasants, only, Harry Potter-like, to instinctively take up fighting, horse riding, and other knightly pursuits in defiance of his guardian and in clear sign of his royal lineage.

It really is one of our oldest and most perennial themes- the Cindarella or foundling-prince in the rough, not only recognized eventually by merit, but documented to have royal blood all along. But obviously, the actual differences are typically vanishingly small, when education and culture are accounted for. But we focus and thrive on minor differences, defining (and "othering") tribal groups in arbitrary ways, and judging each other with the greatest subtlety in the race for status and mates. The fiercest battles are typically of brother against brother; French and German, Russian and Ukrainian, Jewish and Arab, and so on.

What did all this harem-keeping and status seeking accomplish, anyhow? Well, beauty was one object, duly attained, I think. Each nationality has its distinctive look of nobility, from Japan to England. But in terms of temperament, I think much less was accomplished, indeed negative results were attained. The most successful leaders were typically mad with ambition, so we have ended up with a lot of Shakesperean plots and palace intrigue at the head of affairs. No wonder the good king was such a rare and precious find! Power may corrupt, but assortive mating can corrupt as well, when the standards for selection are so contrary to what societies most need. And when taken to extremes of inbreeding, as in Egypt and Europe, the results have been disastrous on any level one cares to consider.

Thus the madness for lineage accomplished far more in terms of public relations than it ever did in genetics. The PR value of the Shahnameh was inestimable, training generations of Iranians in the celebrity culture of their day and thus stabilizing the feudal hierarchy / patriarchy. While the overall competition for status and success has probably been an engine for beneficial genetic selection, its manifestation at the very top of the hierarchy is another story entirely.



  • On Ashkenazi genetics.
  • Those damn Anglo-Saxons.
  • ... became the arch capitalists of modernity.
  • What you inherit is luck anyhow.
  • Religion- an ongoing problem. Just because something gives you meaning doesn't mean that it is right.
  • A lot of uncomfortable dancing around texts of terror, and not facing up to them at all.
  • Integrated fiscal / monetary policy just makes sense.
  • What does education do to you?
  • No austerity over there ... China to be the new world hub.
  • Then I dreamed about god.
  • Only in banking ... bonus handed out for criminal activity, prompts use of "transparent" tax havens.
  • Inequality due to cronyism and rent collection, not from education, productivity, or justice. " ... all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance."
  • Bob Cringely on the jobs shortage and the STEM non-shortage. But he doesn't wade into macroeconomics. "Same for the banking and mortgage crisis of 2008 where the bankers took more and more until the host they were sucking dry — the American homeowner — could no longer both pay and survive. Tony Soprano was smarter than the bankers."
  • Things just keep getting worse for active stock pickers and personal wealth parasites.
  • Staying at optimal growth and prosperity is hard.

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