Nihilism, serotonin, and sacrament

Only in 2017 could a conservative mag run a thoughtful Burning Man decompression essay—that it’s The American Conservative is no surprise.

Robert Mariani’s lead claim—Burning Man staves off nihilism, if only temporarily—is a biting jab that happy-go-lucky San Franciscans would do well to take. He highlights all the usual pros and cons of the Burn with an older, conservative audience in mind—and in a few cases does it quite tenderly.

But to the point of how effective Burning Man is at staving off nihilism, he misses one huge factor.

While you’d think the high churchies at TAC (I say this affectionately) would be the first to acknowledge the power of sacrament, Mariani completely leaves the Playa’s serotonergic host out of his account. This is like talking about The Beatles without mentioning that their entire post-1964 oeuvre was directly shaped by psychedelic molecules. Which serious people do all the time.

Ritual, community, aesthetics, and alcoholic drink all have the bittersweet effect of staving off nihilism until they leave the bloodstream—moving the needle incrementally, at best. Psychedelics are a different story. Not a panacea, but a reliable, indelible means of getting enchanted. Of allowing meaning itself to get up in your face.

Psychedelics (and their cousins, empathogen/entactogens) are the sacrament that animates much of Burning Man’s post-post-modern, transparently “made-up” ritual and spirituality.

Except that unlike wafers and sweet wine, psychedelics are neurochemically guaranteed to get you somewhere. Where you take it from there is largely up to you.

This is not to say I’ve found the cure for secular, post-postmodern nihilism. But I’m less pessimistic than Mariani.

The work of restoring meaning and duende for this age—in the form of what David Chapman calls “the fluid mode“—starts on the level of the brain’s serotonin system, something everyone has. By some crazy grace, we have the tools to probe it.

The Kinks > Bollywood > The Black Eyed Peas

It’s a well-documented fact that The Black Eyed Peas’ 2005 earworm “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” is based on the swinging 70s Bollywood schlager “Aye Naujawan Hai Sab Kuchh Yahan“.

But did Kalyanji—Anandji, the duo that composed “Aye Naujawan”, get their signature hook (the part of “Don’t Phunk” that goes Don’t you worry about a thing, baby) from The Kinks’ “Victoria” (1969)?

Skip to 1:42—Land of hope and gloria (terrible lyric, and an odd refrain for such a driving song).

Do you hear it?

Just a stray thought. I’d never heard “Victoria” before.

Metaphysical musings from the Playa

Suffice to say that under qualia formalism both the feelings of oneness and separateness come from the properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of one’s experience. In particular, the topology of such an object (and its orientability) may determine the degree to which one feels a self-other barrier. This is highly speculative, of course.

Analogous to the planetary habitable zone (neither too close to a star and thus burning nor too far and thus freezing), there might be a psychologically tolerable range for how much you believe in universal oneness. That is, it’s best to feel neither completely merged nor completely separate. Close enough that one can relate to others and not feel separate, but not so close that one’s existence feels redundant and cosmic loneliness sets in. Incidentally, this seems to be roughly the place at which Burners see themselves relative to other humans.

This from Qualia Computing, a true powerhouse of Whitmanic dynamism.

Complexity and the magical thinking boom

As societies became literate (and then hyperliterate), “as if” thinking jumped out of its box, and useful fictions proliferated. Only the old forms of “as if” thinking, the shameful remnants of an ignorant past that we think of as “magical thinking,” were tabooed.

Magical thinking “confuses” the relationship between symbol and referent, between mind and world. Our modern world, to confuse matters even more, is mostly made of minds. As societies became literate (and then hyperliterate), “as if” thinking jumped out of its box, and useful fictions proliferated. Only the old forms of “as if” thinking, the shameful remnants of an ignorant past that we think of as “magical thinking,” were tabooed.

This from Sarah Perry at Ribbonfarm.

Rules for “taking the wheel”

1. Leave irony and cynicism at the door.
2. Allow for maximum human enquiry.
3. Exit as first priority.
4. Rhizomatic conservatism.
5. Don’t be pathetic.

This from Meta-Nomad—a site with which I’m unfamiliar, but which I’ll need to start following. Sincerity and (meta)system-building are underrated these days.

 

The Litvak-Galitzianer divide: confirmed by genetics

Writing about something I haven’t covered at Whitmanic yet: the intersection of population genetics and history. If you know me, you know this is one of my favorite niche passions—and what a time to be passionate about it! We’re already at the point when pretty much all cultural and linguistic mysteries with population-level implications can be resolved with the help of genomic tools.

As my friend Razib Khan has lamented, despite the boom in published research and cumulative knowledge in this exciting, interdisciplinary space, very few people have joined him in blogging its discoveries.

Sometimes this means that an amateur like me will pick up on connections that no one in either a) the research field or b) semi-popular writing has pointed out. In these occasional cases, I’m going to do my best to communicate what I notice.

It happened a few months ago in the realm of Ashkenazi Jewish population genetics—one of those topics that’s been done to death, and yet still almost never done right.

I won’t rehash discourse or facts, but one new consensus opinion among people familiar with this field is that Ashkenazi Jews do not genetically differ along geographical lines. That is, as groups, German Jews, Polish Jews, Lithuanian Jews, Ukrainian Jews, etc., are not genetically distinguishable from one another.

This somewhat defies intuition: Ashkenazi Jews have been migrating out of their urheimat in Germany for at least 700-800 years, and there’s reason to believe that Eastern European Jews have other, minor sources of ancestry—both Jewish and non-Jewish.

But in fact, there’s good evidence from both Behar et al 2013 (“No evidence from genome-wide data of a Khazar origin of Ashkenazi Jews”) and samples provided by commenters on Anthrogenica that suggests that German Jews are on average distinct from Eastern European Jews—notable for their relative lack of Eastern European ancestry, which causes them to fall somewhere between European Sephardim and Italian Jews on one hand, and Eastern Ashkenazim on the other.

More research is needed to shore this up, but no one should be surprised.

What I haven’t heard people suggest, though, is the possibility of population structure among Eastern Ashkenazim. But a few months ago, I found it.

Let’s back up for context. In March, Ancestry rolled out “Genetic Communities”, a feature that makes use of information about DNA testers’ geographical origins and assigns them to ethno-geographical clusters of distantly related people. To my surprise, unlike component-based features employed by other DNA testing companies, “Genetic Communities” wasn’t totally uninformative for Ashkenazi Jews.

In fact, it revealed a hidden population structure that matches known patterns in Eastern European Jewish cultural and linguistic geography.

People familiar with Yiddish culture have surely heard yarns about “Litvaks” and “Galitzianers”—two subgroups of Eastern European Jewry set apart by geography, cuisine, dialect, and supposedly, temperament.

“Litvaks”, you might have guessed, are Lithuanian Jews—a well-defined group with a well-attested Yiddish dialect, with roots in Greater Lithuania, a territory encompassing modern Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and the northeastern corner of Poland.

“Galitzianers” are Jews from Galicia, the portion of southeastern Poland and western Ukraine ruled up until World War I by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, there’s no such thing as “Galitzianer Yiddish”, nor was Galicia a sovereign, well-defined cultural-political realm like Greater Lithuania. Instead, Galitizianers spoke either “Polish Yiddish”, a dialect common to Jews from most parts of Poland (save for its northeastern corner) or its very close cousin “Ukrainian Yiddish”, spoken in Western Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania.

Once we’ve dispensed with the mythology of Galicia (the part of Poland-Ukraine that happened to have the highest concentration of Jews in the early modern period), we can see that the main cultural divide among Eastern European Jews actually fell along a well-known non-Jewish boundary—the internal border within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between Greater Poland (which included core Ukraine) and Greater Lithuania (which included all of Belarus).

Back to genetics. In Ancestry’s published research, it identified three very closely related, but distinct, clusters of Ashkenazi Jews. One was much smaller than the other two, and exhibited no particular geographical pattern. As for the two major clusters, take a look for yourself.

Ancestry calls this one “Jews in the Russian Empire”:

And this one’s “Jews in Central Europe”:

The fact that each is divided into 3 subgroups is beside the point for now. What’s notable is that the distribution of the first cluster corresponds almost perfectly to “Litvak territory” i.e. Greater Lithuania, whereas the second cluster comprises all Eastern Ashkenazi territories other than Greater Lithuania—including the former Austro-Hungarian territories of Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria, as well as Greater Romania (Romania and Moldova, whose Jewish populations, I recently learned, were mostly supplied by 18th-19th century migrations from Galicia and the Ukrainian region of Podolia).

So population structure among Eastern Ashkenazim (perhaps among all Ashkenazim, given the assignment of German Jews to the second cluster) falls along the lines of Litvak vs. non-Litvak. For a better illustration of the correspondence, and the cohesiveness of the Litvak concept, I refer you to two maps from Dovid Katz’s exceptional Atlas of Northeastern Yiddish.

The first is of Litvak cultural territory, which, you’ll notice, includes the northeastern corner of Poland and some border regions of northern Ukraine.

The second is of Litvak linguistic territory, which, you’ll notice, adds to the picture a swath running all the way down to the Black Sea through Ukraine’s midsection, supposedly the result of late settlement patterns.

Having studied those maps, let’s revisit Ancestry’s map of Litvak genetic territory:

The match is uncanny. The only real difference is that the “Litvak cluster” seems to spill over to include most of northeastern and north-central Poland (or rather, almost the entire north of historical Poland), as well as the entirety of northern and central Ukraine.

But: if you’ll take a look once again at the map of the non-Litvak cluster, you’ll notice that it also covers these very areas—which would suggest an overlap of the two population networks in these two regions. In the case of northeastern Poland in particular, this is interesting—the “Litvak cluster” predominance extends much farther west than someone would’ve guessed based on cultural and linguistic data. Perhaps this points to an origin of the Litvak population in northern Poland and an expansion into Greater Lithuania (in addition, all three Litvak sub-clusters extend into northeastern Poland).

As for historical explanations, I’m not familiar enough with the literature on Yiddish dialectology or medieval Ashkenazi migration patterns to offer a hypothesis. All that seems clear is that Litvaks (defined broadly), among all Central/Eastern Europeans Jews, have a distinct population history. I’d be curious to know if anyone can offer support for this.

Note: I would guess that the majority of present-day Ashkenazi Jews in America, Israel, and other parts have ancestors from multiple Eastern European Jewish cultural sub-regions. This means that individual-level PCA-based support for this cluster-driven analysis might be impossible.

Two more excellent psychedelic links

They keep coming—we might have to start a digest/newsletter.

At Quillette, The Case for Psychedelics, which has two psychologists making the case for use on many fronts. This endorsement—not a puff piece or a hedged, tired feature about the psychedelic revival—is a big step. Happy to see it run at Quillette, an up-and-coming home for sanity and freethinking.

And at The Scientist, Decoding The Tripping Brain is a well-linked article summarizing the state of researchers’ understanding of how psychedelics fit into our wider understanding of serotonin psychopharmacology, and how their effects are made manifest on the network level.

Most semi-scientific coverage has focused on psychedelics’ molecular level of action, because this is what was established during the first era of psychedelic research. Understanding the role of psychedelics, and serotonergic compounds more generally, in modulating the activity of the default mode network, and its interaction with the salience network, provides a crucial link between the neurotransmitter level and person-level, describable effects.