Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A book few will like but cannot refute

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, population genetics, racism, cultural evolution

The suffix "-ism" has taken on a connotation of misuse of power, primarily in the words ageism, sexism, and most particularly, racism. We need a new suffix to denote recognition of differences without making a value judgment. The "feminist revolution" went as far as it could on the fable that male-female differences were negligible. To some extent, women were enabled to enter and succeed in formerly male-only or male-dominated trades and professions. There is still a ways to go. However, today I observe greater sex distinctions than were seen 50 years ago. Sexism in the workplace has diminished but not vanished. Perhaps one day it shall. But, may it never be that we lose, vive la différence!

I'll forego discussing ageism and get right to the point of the book on review: Races exist, not just because of skin color, but as seen in skeletal and soft-tissue anatomy and even in social attitudes. The book is A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History by Nicholas Wade. He is, apparently, not beholden to an academic institution, so he has little to lose by exploring a subject no professional academic dares to touch. He writes, "Social scientists often write as if they believe that culture explains everything and race nothing, and that all cultures are of equal value." (p9)

I have said for many years that I am no racist, but that I am a culturist. I may need to find a new term, because by "culturism" I mean the understanding that some cultures or subcultures are better adapted than others to their social and economic environment. I do not mean that particular cultures are of lower intrinsic value, but I do mean that cultural practices that worked well in one milieu will be detrimental in another. In particular, about half the land area of Earth is dominated by so-called "Western culture", based in technology, entrepreneurship, and high education. Members of a culture that does not highly value education and the rule of law will not thrive in the West, even though they might live quite well in another place.

The social sciences are dominated by the notion that human evolution stopped somewhere between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. Wade has gathered evidence that, as he puts it, "…human evolution has been recent, copious and regional."

  • Recent: Wisdom teeth and lower backs. Articles on the history of wisdom teeth speak in terms of millions of years, but in fact, a jawbone 1,000 years old is more likely to have room for the third molars than most modern jawbones, at least among Europeans. I still have my wisdom teeth, but the proportion of Euro-Americans that need them removed increases with every generation. Further, we are still gradually evolving our ability to get through life without permanent damage to our spines. We are in general more lightly constructed than an ancestor of 5,000 years ago. This is called the "Gracilization" of modern humans. It certainly isn't cultural!
  • Copious: Genome studies. Some 12% of our genes show evidence of evolution in the past millennium, and some in the past few generations. By adulthood every one of us carries 50-100 mutations that did not originate with our parents. About a thousandth of our body is gonadal tissue, so every 10-20 generations a random mutation will be passed on to our offspring. Looked at another way, about one in 10-20 children born carries a mutation from a parent, not found in that parent's parents, and about one child in a few hundred inherits mutations that occurred in both parents. This is an important factor in genetic drift, as these new genetic changes spread through a population.
  • Regional: Reproductive limitations. In spite of strenuous efforts by anti-racists, interracial marriage is still rare. In my circle of friends and acquaintances, I myself and another friend, both of us Caucasian men, are married to Asian women. Another couple is an African-born married to an African-American of mixed ancestry. Everyone else is married strictly within their own race. A low level of intermarriage means that genetic drift moves in different directions in different populations, simply by chance.
Here is the crux of the matter: Do the genetic variations among human populations, so long isolated from one another and not much blended even in this modern, cosmopolitan generation, affect psychology, specifically mental abilities and attitudes? In the past few decades various studies that showed differences between races in IQ were subject to vilification from everyone except a few supremacist crazies. Standard IQ tests such as Stanford-Binet, and the SAT when normed as an IQ test, are normed to Euro-Americans with the average (mean) defined as 100 and a standard deviation (a factor of variation) as 15. On such IQ tests, the group average for Asians is 105-110, and for Africans and African-Americans it is about 90. This makes me wonder, what if a group of scholars in Kenya and Nigeria and other major African countries produced and normed an aptitude test based on their peoples' practices and ways of living? Would it then be the Euros who would score around 90…or lower? Where would Asians score?

Here is where racial origin has a practical effect. The IQ tests used in the West measure one's ability to handle Western technological concepts and, to a certain extent, social concepts. There is a subculture in America called "poor white trash", which denigrates "extra" education beyond "the three R's". These are the kids that beat up and harass the "teacher's pets" and other "nerdy" kids that get good grades. I have seen no IQ results focused on members of this subculture. I'll predict a group IQ in the 80s, if such a study is ever done. Does that mean I think them genetically inferior? No, they do well in a culture in which I would do badly! If they cared to produce a "TQ" test, how would middle-class Euro-Americans score?

Because of the touchy nature of race in America, half of Wade's book explores history and genetics to pin down an appropriate understanding of race in a genetic context. One study to which he refers, by Gregory Clark, shows homicide rates in England from about 1200 AD to the modern era. A Medieval male was 30 times as likely to be murdered as a Renaissance male, and the homicide rate dropped another factor of 10 between 1800 AD and today. News media in Philadelphia decry an "Epidemic of Homicide", citing about 200 yearly murders in a city of 1.5 million. Imagine if the year were 1800 AD and there were 2,000, or in 1300 AD, if there were 40,000-50,000 murders each year! I did not know of this before, and I find it amazing.

These levels of violence all occurred in settled environments, what we'd call "civilization". In purely tribal societies murderous violence is the norm upon meeting a stranger. Such a meeting may result in an immediate fight to the death, but if the two men speak dialects of a common language, they may first discuss their relatives, to determine if they are related and thus not obligated to kill each other. In tribal cultures that still exist, homicide rates are in the 10% range! It is hard for a young man to grow old enough to raise children.

Wade follows Clark and others to describe four factors that enable Western society with its large cities: trust (leading to nonviolence), literacy, thrift, and patience. He explores to what extent these have a genetic basis. Certain enzymes and hormones they produce can greatly affect trust and the propensity to violence, for example. The trust-demoting and violence-promoting version of the underlying genes are found with greater frequency among violent offenders in prisons, and also among those few members of tribal cultures that have been studied. There is the famous "marshmallow test" that determines the level of self-control young children have: They are promised more marshmallows in 15 minutes if they can let one marshmallow sit untouched in their presence while left alone. Follow-up studies show that the kids who wait for the bigger treat do better in school and in their occupations in later life.

Where would the opposite tendency be a benefit? In a starvation economy such as the one described by Malthus in the early 1800s, that so influenced Charles Darwin as he pondered natural selection. When times are good, small differences in many traits make little difference. But when the grain runs out before the next harvest, very small differences in endurance mean that some will live and some will die, and the tiny differences that allowed survival will be amplified in the next generation(s). In such an environment, characteristic of much of humanity prior to the Industrial Revolution (and still the rule in much of the "developing world"), deferring gratification may kill you. The fact that high levels of deferred gratification are possible indicates a genetic shift in just 200-300 years, at least in the West.

Are genes destiny? The visible differences among the five major races (Caucasian, African, East Asian, Australian, and Native American) are not caused by single genes "for" skin color, for example. Each characteristic is underlain by several to several tens of genes, and a small difference in all of them is needed to make skin a radically different color or shape the skull in a way an anatomist can recognize. Greater or lesser levels of trust also result from multiple genes. So too do at least some of the social attitudes that hold Western democracies together.

The increasing prevalence of foreign adoptions by American couples is setting up a natural experiment. The U.S. spent about a trillion dollars to drive certain tribal groups out of power in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tried to install Western-style democracies. Such nation-building efforts were wasted. Will children born of Iraqi or Afghan parents, adopted and raised in America, understand the institutions of our Republic, and thrive here? A few days ago I met two Kurdish men who now live in America, and run a small limousine service. I wonder how Kurdish-born Americans would do in a company like Sears or DuPont or Chase Bank? These men came here as adults. Would young Kurds brought here as infants and raised here have the same propensity to run a small company rather than work for a boss? Is it possible that they simply cannot understand a non-Tribal economy and polity?

That is the tough point for people to swallow. Our brains are part of our bodies. If our bodies are evolving, so also are our brains, meaning that the way we think is an evolutionary product. Culture cannot go beyond the thoughts that the brain finds possible. By further analogy: I happen to think mathematically. Most people don't. Thus I thrived as a computer programmer, a scarce profession. This is not some fluke: one of my brothers has worked as a programmer for NASA, and another is a mechanical engineer, requiring formidable computer skills. Both our parents had engineering skills. All us boys can think mathematically. Most people can't. The book raises the question, what social thoughts can various people think, or not?

Genes are not destiny, but certain combinations of many genes may open some doors and, if not shut others outright, at least hold them half-closed such that extra effort is required to pass through. Ask all the white guys who have fought Mike Tyson or George Foreman, and a string of other black heavyweight boxers, if there isn't something special about certain kinds of big black guys!

Then we find those perennial super-achievers, the Jews. One person in 500 is Jewish. In the first decade of this Century, one in 3 Nobel Prize winners is Jewish. How can this be? Is the newborn brain truly a blank slate? Other cultural groups have hectoring mothers, and strongly push their kids' education. Tiger Mothers come to mind, but how many Tiger Cubs have Nobel Prizes? There is a clue in the Bible: God demanded universal literacy of the people of Israel. They were to read the Torah to their children daily, and raise the children to read it to their offspring. No other people on earth came close to full literacy prior to about 200 years ago. This had to have affected the genetic makeup of the Jews, particularly in those genes that make literacy easier. As Wade points out, Jewish kids who couldn't make the grade tended to leave for Gentile cultures where their literacy was still advantageous, making them bigger frogs in little ponds. Over millennia, this focused scholarship abilities into the remaining Jewish population.

One can not escape a crucial conclusion: "Rich countries have non-tribal, trust-based economies and favorable institutions [principally that even rulers are subject to law —my note]. Poor countries are those that have not fully escaped from tribalism and labor under extractive institutions that reflect their limited radius of trust." (p 196) The "escape" of the West from tribalism was not foreordained. A fortuitous rise in population coincided with great increases in productivity due to the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, beginning about 300 years ago. Europe including England already had a long history of settled life, though it was sidelined by feudalism for hundreds of years, yet at the same time this fostered a culture of rule-keeping, which I consider an amalgam of the self-control-mediated traits above (principally patience and trust).

To definitively prove the genetic contribution to such trends would take generations, if indeed such studies are ever undertaken—they would be violently opposed by the liberal establishment. I find it strange that the atheistic, amoral establishment agrees wholeheartedly with most Evangelical Christian leaders who proclaim that human evolution is not going on. They differ only in whether they believe it occurred in the distant past. No matter. The migrations of humanity that began 50-70,000 years ago led to five mutually isolated populations. Prior to the Age of Exploration that began a mere 500 years ago, each developed institutions that bear certain resemblances, but also striking differences. European Caucasians, by the luck of the draw, had the right mental equipment to take advantage of a shift in climate and a series of technical breakthroughs. In spite of centuries of trade between Caucasians and Asians, European technology is readily adopted by Chinese and others in the East, yet they add to it only slightly. Perhaps this is the cause of the intense efforts by the Chinese government to hack into Western computer systems and steal industrial secrets.

Humans continue to evolve, including our brains. Perhaps it will take a really pervasive spate of intermarriage to produce the non-racial species that sociologists fantasize already exists.

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