Friday, July 25, 2014

BOOK NOTE: 10 Notes on “A Troublesome Inheritance” by Nicholas Wade (and on D’Souza and more)

1. I could never hate capitalism the way Don DeLillo and David Cronenberg do, judging by the terrible film Cosmopolis (which had a budget of $20 million and made only $800,000 at the box office, so I suppose capitalism got the last laugh). It features sparkly vampire Robert Pattinson as a sociopathic CEO riding his limo slowly across a city full of anti-capitalist rioters and sexy women who give lectures about the dangers of high finance.

However, I can hate TimeWarner Cable (and fear the possible results of its merger with Comcast) after having my Internet service go out without explanation a few times only to find out later that that was supposed to prompt me to seek an upgrade from them. (That’s the main reason this entry on racism is a day later than I planned.) Maybe it’s not so much the capitalists or anti-capitalists we should be listening to as the Luddites, lest we end up in what one columnist calls “The Tech Utopia Nobody Wants.”

But, all right, I admit I still wouldn’t want to go back to life in the second (or earlier) millennium despite current aggravations. In this century, I live like a character from the last book I blogged about, the postmodern sci-fi tale Sewer, Gas & Electric, whereas in the twentieth century I actually worked at a sewage treatment plant for a summer. That wasn’t so bad, really, but the present is better. I will remain cautiously optimistic.

But will people of all stripes -- and hues -- benefit from society’s inexorable advance?

2. The activists cheering Texas’s retention of affirmative action at UT Austin (in a fairly narrow federal appeals court decision) worry that they will not, but it is perfectly reasonable, whether one supports or rejects affirmative action, to ask what the impediments actually are. There’s no denying the long history of institutionalized racism (I have never done so), but are we permanently forbidden to wonder if there are other factors? How much does the bigotry matter? Would everything perfectly even out in its absence? Does that matter for policy purposes?

There’s virtually no wading into such questions without being condemned as a monster, no matter how well intentioned you are. I think modern liberalism’s getting worse, not better, in this regard, with social media feeding the glee that the worst among us take in flying into instant outrage the moment any taboo topic is touched upon -- no matter what is actually being said on that topic. The rapidly-mounting willingness of the more left-leaning media outlets (such as Salon) to pounce on anything they can take wildly out of context certainly doesn’t help.

Given the feeding-frenzy-like outrage reactions lately, you might be shocked to discover, for instance, that Sen. Rand Paul’s comments to Rachel Maddow about his mixed feelings on the 1964 Civil Rights Act were actually perfectly coherent and highly articulate the first time, even before he spent a few penitent days trying to contextualize and update them more carefully.

Noting that the Act had several parts, he said he supports the government having to compensate or accommodate previously-oppressed groups but doesn’t want that same government regulating private property -- and later added that even the regulation of private property was an appropriate remedy at the time for past abuses but shouldn’t continue indefinitely. I agree, and Maddow can smirk all she likes, but it’ll still be a coherent position -- not to mention, I’d argue, the correct one.

(An interesting side question is whether Rand Paul’s later, ongoing push for the restoration of voting rights to felons is simply a matter of principle, an attempt to “compensate” for possibly irking black voters with his comments to Maddow, or a calculation that voting ex-prisoners just might heavily reward a presidential candidate who called for ending the drug war. Forgive me for not assuming everyone is guided by pure principle in these matters, but I also wonder if the New York Times would become a bit less vocal than it has been in advocating this policy change if it concluded those re-enfranchised felons might vote for Paul in 2016 instead of a Democrat...)

3. Far from being on the verge of takeover by the Klan or neo-Nazis, mainstream culture in America today is so far left (complete with frequent, strategically-shifting, passive-aggressive, p.c. declarations of changes in the rules of acceptable language) that one now routinely sees embarrassing online scuffles like a recent one (visible in the image nearby) in which a leftist insisted whites cannot be the targets of racism because “racism” can only be engaged in by the dominant ethnic group, to which one skeptical commenter replied that they should resume the argument when the leftist’s definition of “racism” gets into the dictionary.

4. Into this danger zone boldly wades Nicholas Wade, a British science reporter for the New York Times and others, with his book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. If you doubt his courage (despite that courage being slightly easier to summon in overwhelmingly lily-white England), note for instance that a Scientific American blogger appears to have been fired merely for giving the book a positive review and later blogging similarly Darwinian comments about the occasional insight to be found among the so-called “PUA” writers on dating and relations between the sexes.

Wade is making no policy recommendations, rendering no moral judgments, and slinging no insults, though. He is simply trying to describe human history without unscientifically disregarding either its cultural elements or its biological elements. He contends that even some of the most controversial evolutionary psychology writers have self-censored and attempted to dismiss the possible implications of humanity having three major, partially genetically-distinct subsets (very roughly speaking, Africans, Indo-Europeans, and East Asians, albeit with countless blends and footnotes and special cases between them).

We don’t know how much biology matters in the observed differences between the civilizations, he argues, but it would presumptuous and unscientific to assume (even dogmatically assert) that it cannot matter at all. He very carefully and repeatedly condemns any assertion of “superiority” or differential rights as monstrous, dangerous, and implicated in some of the most horrible chapters in human history.

However, he also observes how quickly dog breeds can be created, how quickly our own proto-human and chimp relatives could drift apart from each other genetically and behaviorally -- and mentions almost in passing that while the average Ashkenazi Jewish IQ is, if we are not simply to dismiss IQ tests altogether, apparently about 112, while the average Subsaharan African IQ is apparently 67.

Is it just culture? Even better from an egalitarian optimist’s perspective, is it just a product of short-term policies people can change (possibly something as comparatively simple as nutrition instead of economics, even)? Maybe. We can’t say so with certainty, though, not if we care about facts more than a priori, dogmatic political assertions. And I’m not so sure we still do care about facts (take the feminist aversion to biological explanations for differential behavior between the sexes -- or the rapidly growing pro-transgender sentiment that we shouldn’t even assume children are likely male or female until they make up their own minds on that issue sometime in early adulthood, if ever, despite only about an estimated .3% of the population being transgender).

I should hasten to add (or should I really have to?) that despite the left’s tendency to assume the right loves racism, the idea of biology creating significant, long-lasting differences in the tone of different societies is as troubling (if not more so) for an individualist philosophy like my own libertarianism, born in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, as it is for egalitarian liberalism (I’ve met more than one black libertarian who would like to abolish the whole concept of race, for instance). It’s troubling as well for most modern formulations of standards-raising conservatism.

In the end, all those factions can reasonably stick to the same policy recommendations they’ve been making even if biology proves a major reason for ethnic differences, but the left’s strident insistence that those differences are pure products of irrational bigotry may begin to wear thin (not that this would ever, by contrast, make hatred or collectivist appeals to racial identity more attractive to me -- the goal is to avoid being an idiot, whether left-wing or right-wing).

Unfortunately for all sides -- though without me for a moment pretending this is sufficient reason to dismiss the whole topic -- Wade admits to having no quantifiable answers to the obvious question of how much biology matters relative to purely-contingent cultural history, arguably rendering the whole long arc of parallel biological and historical story-telling in the book pointless (or at least not juicy enough perhaps to warrant your time -- but then, it’s only 250 pages long).

When you consider how quickly those dog and ape breeds can drift apart, though -- and hear of some evidence that a detectable increase in Jewish IQ may have occurred just within the past millennium -- the fact that the three major races have been semi-distinct for about 30,000 years, very roughly speaking about a quarter of the time there’ve been human beings, we have to at least be open to the possibility that biology will prove an important part of the story.

Anything else would be intellectually dishonest. And, hey, you don’t see me denying that stats suggest most serial killers are white males. That might be biological, too. This is not a game of one-upmanship. It’s a search for the truth, begun roughly with Darwin and quite understandably derailed for decades by the horrors of twentieth-century eugenics. But it’s not as if every attempt to apply genetics to human social interactions was done by fiends.

In fact, it’s striking how many of the founding figures
of evolutionary biology, statistics, sociology, and classical-liberal economics but also, yes, eugenics had some personal connection to each other, several of them mentioned in Wade’s careful retelling of this intellectual history, warts and all. (Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton co-founded modern statistics but also eugenics. Darwin took the term “survival of the fittest” from oft-vilified libertarian writer Herbert Spencer. And Karl Marx asked permission at one point to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin but was turned down.) Liberalism can enforce an understandable time-out on the topic, given its associations, but it can’t erase human evolution or scientific investigation of it altogether.

That said, I must affirm again that virtually none of us want to go back to the days of, say, the original Buck Rogers sci-fi novellas nearly a century ago -- one of the most racist chapters in mainstream sci-fi history -- in which Buck was explicitly defending the white race, with its natural inclination to love individualism and democracy, against the collectivist (and in the end, it turns out, partly extraterrestrial) Asiatic horde (echoed by imitator Flash Gordon in the form of the villain Ming the Merciless). Given the alarming popularity of eugenics ideas (and some laws) across the political spectrum and around the world circa the 1920s, it looks like little better than dumb luck that something like the Holocaust didn’t occur in the U.S. or England instead of Germany.

And yet there may be at least some biological component to differential ethnic temperaments, including propensity for violence. Even the most horrible history of falsehoods does not make the most vexing of truths go away, doubly cruel as that may seem.

5. At almost exactly the same time that news was made by scientists arguing that there is a genetic case for regarding Jews as a distinct race, we were reminded by the uproar over the Israel/Hamas conflict that being seen as a distinct race is not always helpful. You know darn well that despite the inevitable claims by people like the angry owners of the Cupcake Crew truck in NYC, for instance, when they condemned “Zionist pigs” on their Twitter feed recently (h/t the other David Friedman), they probably did so with an animus born of seeing a group as biologically separate as opposed to merely politically at odds. “Zionist” obviously works as a racial epithet in certain contexts while pretending to be a purely ideological label.

(And this is true, I think, regardless of where one comes down on that geographical clash, just as Wade’s observations largely hold true no matter what policy conclusions one might draw.)

6. The forces arrayed against rational discussion of biological factors in behavioral differences are significant. As Wade notes, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man was long taken to be the final word on the foolishness of pseudo-scientific race theories, but Gould has not only been proven to be overly dismissive, it turns out that even the differential skull measurements he so famously mocked were closer to being accurate than the (more equal) ones Gould touted.

Wade is not interested in ranking entire races hierarchically but might well face opposition even to his claim that subtle behavioral traits like trust of outsiders or cliqueishness (with its sometimes dangerous and stunting political/social manifestation, tribalism) might be correlated with alleles known to vary in their frequency between ethnic groups. Little differences can have big aggregate consequences over tens of millennia -- perhaps.

Unfortunately, Wade leaves us not knowing just how much it all matters. Precisely when he appears to be raising cases that appear to test his implicit thesis -- such as the radical difference in levels of prosperity between North and South Korea (seemingly a very, very strong case for the conventional libertarian view that economic policy is paramount) -- he somehow comes away reaffirming the importance of genes, merely by assuring us that if and when North Korean policy changes, we can likely trust its people will flourish. I agree -- but then how much does this genetics business matter, again? Wade notes that IQ appears to have risen 17 points in East Germany circa the 1980s as its economy improved, so (as he acknowledges repeatedly) even that which is influenced by genes is not set in stone.

Wade likewise devotes admirably-detailed tens of pages to recounting the differing histories of the handful of major civilizations -- but if we don’t know the degree to which genes made the difference, what argumentative work are examples of Middle Eastern tribalism, Chinese hierarchy, or English individualism really doing? It’d already be eye-opening enough for people who, through youth or ignorance, were unaware of the degree to which civilizational styles have differed -- but if our cultural histories differ, we don’t have the test cases for the importance of genes that Wade seems to want. Ideally, what’s called for is identical cultural circumstances in which to observe differing genetic makeups.

It’s not Wade’s fault that history never quite provides those cases, but it’s his fault the book doesn’t (or at least not often). He notes the great increase in English prosperity around the time of the Industrial Revolution, for instance, but instead of concluding that this is a strong case for policy mattering most, he notes far subtler evidence that the genetic composition of the English changed at that time -- and then clings to that as a major explanatory force even while pooh-poohing vast moral and legal changes. Similarly, he describes the rigorous filter process in bureaucratic imperial China that made the studious and obedient more likely to pass on their genes. That might well have great biological-behavioral consequences, he hypothesizes. OK, yeah, it might -- so...did it? He admits we don’t know.

Time and again, as well, he constructs arguments along the lines of “This change was so vast, it must have been rooted in genes” without giving us reason to think he has a metric by which to measure the immense importance of policy changes. I am reminded, oddly enough, of some libertarian arguments about the importance of the Federal Reserve (and continual devaluation of currency) to income inequality: I can see why it might in principle be the most important factor, but I’d see that more clearly if someone would actually quantify the effect for me.

7. It would be best, obviously, if scientists who happen to be liberals, not conservatives or libertarians, attempted the quantification of genes’ significance in these social matters, though they probably won’t. Any attempt by anyone remotely connected to the right to do it will of course be happily seized upon by media leftists as the dawn of an incipient Fourth Reich. The machinery for such smears gets more efficient by the day -- I may have doomed my presidential run in 2028 just by blogging about it all, for all I know.

And please don’t contest the comparatively simple and more obvious point that the media are biased in favor of liberalism on this and other matters. Take Obama’s motorcade blocking a pregnant woman’s access to a hospital this week. Not his idea, I’m sure, but imagine the field day -- and the talk of a “War on Women” or even “white privilege” -- if the politician in question had been, say, Romney. And if you doubt there would have been a difference, recall how many times you heard about the evil Romney placing his dog in a cage on a car roof, or having a list of female candidates in a set of binders, neither nearly as great an offense, presumably, as blocking access to a hospital (and in this case I don’t mean by destroying individual health insurance plans).

8. Speaking of media: Dinesh D’Souza’s latest attempt to right the scales of media justice by producing a conservative polemic isn’t that bad.

His documentary America is definitely a bit low-budget-feeling and aimed at grade school or high school (or maybe failing colleges these days), but for a polemicist D’Souza does a very fair and lengthy job of describing arguments against the U.S. from Howard Zinn and others, devoting almost as much time to their cases -- including the legacies of imperialism and racism -- as to his own counter-arguments.

Among several historical reenactments, he also uses Alexis De Tocqueville to provide an appreciative outsider’s gaze somewhat similar to D’Souza’s own Indian immigrant perspective. Tocqueville, having come from a society reshaped by the French revolutionaries from the top down, was repeatedly struck by the American Revolution’s legacy of fostering change and opportunity in a decentralized way, through individualism and voluntary civil society institutions (you thought I’d forgotten this is the “Month of (R)evolucion” on, but in truth it all fits together, and there is still Mo(R)e next week).

9. The most “useful” part of the D’Souza film for anyone already attentive to politics (as opposed to the average citizens -- or maybe average Glenn Beck fans – D’Souza’s aiming for), and the most partisan part, is the end bit about both Obama and Hillary being influenced by 60s radical organizer Saul Alinsky. D’Souza provides us with 60s footage of the real Alinsky in which he sounds so tough, scary, smart, and effective, I was mainly left wanting to see a whole documentary on Alinsky.

He seemed quite the bespectacled-but-with-sleeves-rolled-up, mid-century badass, like Al Shanker in his prime. And Alinsky was mentored by, of all people, Chicago top mobster Frank Nitti, Al Capone’s former second-in-command, which I had not known. Beware the Chicago mob, America’s latest slow-motion revolution.

10. As for whether America is still the best way to organize a society, regardless of its delightful or disastrous ethnic composition, I will just say this: There is only one major nation on Earth that does not use the metric system, and it landed a man on the Moon.

(I will take no further questions at this time about whether private space travel would be superior, whether NASA uses the metric system, or whether I watched SyFy Channel’s documentary Aliens on the Moon -- but I will promise we turn our attention on this blog next week to space as I read the sci-fi novel The Cassini Division, about a biotech-forged future in which humanity truly divides into separate races, in a way that would make your mildly-different overseas cousin’s head spin.)

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