Welcome to EvX’s book club. Today we’re discussing Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy, Introduction.
I’ve been discussing the robot economy for years (though not necessarily via the blog.) What happens when robots take over most of the productive jobs? Most humans were once involved in directly producing the necessities of human life–food, clothing, and shelter, but mostly food. Today, machines have eliminated most food and garment production jobs. One tractor easily plows many more acres in a day than a horse or mule team did in the 1800s, allowing one man to produce as much food as dozens (or hundreds) once did.
What happened to those ex-farmers? Most of us are employed in new professions that didn’t exist (eg, computer specialist) or barely existed (health care), but there are always those who can’t find employment–and unemployment isn’t evenly distributed.
Since 1948, the overall employment rate has rarely exceeded 7.5%; the rate for whites has been slightly lower. By contrast, the black unemployment rate has rarely dipped below 10% (since 1972, the best data I have.) The black unemployment rate has only gone below 7.5 three times–for one month in 1999, one month in 2000, and since mid-2017. 6.6% in April, 2018 is the all-time low for black unemployment. (The white record, 3.0%, was set in the ’60s.)
(As Auerswald points out, “unemployment” was a virtually unknown concept in the Medieval economy, where social station automatically dictated most people’s jobs for life.)
Now I know the books are cooked and “unemployment” figures are kept artificially low by shunting many of the unemployed into the ranks of the officially “disabled,” who aren’t counted in the statistics, but no matter how you count the numbers, blacks struggle to find jobs at the same rates as whites–a problem they didn’t face in the pre-industrial, agricultural economy (though that economy caused suffering in its own way.)
A quick glance at measures of black and white educational attainment explains most of the employment gap–blacks graduate from school at lower rates, are less likely to earn a college degree, and overall have worse SAT/ACT scores. In an increasingly “post-industrial,” knowledge-based economy where most unskilled labor can be performed by robots, what happens to unskilled humans?
What happens when all of the McDonald’s employees have been replaced by robots and computers? When even the advice given by lawyers and accountants can be more cheaply delivered by an app on your smartphone? What if society, eventually, doesn’t need humans to perform most jobs?
Will most people simply be unemployed, ruled over by the robot-owning elite and the lucky few who program the robots? Will new forms of work we haven’t even begun to dream of emerge? Will we adopt some form of universal basic income, or descend into neo-feudalism? Will we have a permanent underclass of people with no hope of success in the current economy, either despairing at their inability to live successful lives or living slothfully off the efforts of others?
Here lies the crux of Auerswald’s thesis. He provides four possible arguments for how the “advance of code” (ie, the accumulation of technological knowledge and innovation,) could turn out for humans.
The Rifkin View:
The power of code is growing at an exponential rate.
Code nearly perfectly substitutes for human capabilities.
Therefore the (relative) power of human capabilities is shrinking at an exponential rate.
If so, we should be deeply worried.
The Kurzweil View:
The power of code is growing at an exponential rate.
Code nearly perfectly complements human capabilities.
Therefore the (absolute) power of human capabilities is growing at an exponential rate.
If so, we may look forward to the cyborg singularity
The Auerswald View:
The power of code is growing at an exponential rate [at least we all agree on something.]
Code only partially substitutes for human capabilities.
Therefore the (relative) power of human capabilities is shrinking at an exponential rate in those categories of work that can be performed by computers, but not in others.
In other words, where Kurzweil talks about an impeding code-induced Singularity, the reality looks much more like one code-induced bifurcation–the division of labor between humans and machines–after another.
The answer to the question, “Is there anything that humans can do better than digital computers?” turns out to be fairly simple: humans are better at being human.
1. Creating and improving code is a key part of what we human beings do. It’s how we invent the future by building on the past.
2. The evolution of the economy is driven by the advance of code. Understanding this advance is therefore fundamental to economics, and to much of human history.
3. When we create and advance code we don’t just invent new toys, we produce new forms of meaning, new experiences, and new ways of making our way in the world.
Looks like Dean Faust is stepping down and Lawrence Bacow is stepping up. Bacow has an S.B. in economics from MIT, a J.D. from Harvard Law, and an M.P.P. and Ph.D. from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
I don’t know much about Bacow, but I’m sure I’ll learn once he takes over writing Faust’s column in Harvard Magazine. Overall he looks like a “safe” (ie dull) choice. His work at Tufts involved a expanding financial aid (Harvard already has extremely good financial aid, so there’s not much to do there) and diversity initiatives.
Harvard has a couple of other newcomers. Economist Bridget Terry Long will be the new dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Long’s CV is long (no pun intended) and filled with the sorts of awards and commiittee memberships appropriate to an Ivy League striver, like the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Long’s research focuses on getting more poor and dumb (excuse me, unprepared) students into college. I don’t have time to review her entire corpus, but I read her most recent paper, “Does Remediation Work for All Students? How the Effects of Postsecondary Remedial and Developmental Courses Vary by Level of Academic Preparation.” (Co-author: Angela Boatman.) The paper is fine, if rather oddly written (by my standards.)
[Results: placing borderline low-performing students into first-level remedial classes in the University of Tennessee system may be worse than just letting them try their best in regular courses; but really dumb kids actually do benefit from remedial courses. Obvious Conclusions that I didn’t see directly stated: Cut-off score for inclusion in remedial classes in U of Tenn system is too high.]
Long’s research looks fine; I don’t think it’s bad to look at whether a remedial program is actually helping students or whether a financial aid program is working (aside from my conviction that students who can’t do college-level work don’t belong in college.) It’s not exactly groundbreaking work, though. Harvard has plenty of folks like Reich and Pinker who are paving new intellectual (and technical ground); Long’s research seems underewhelming by comparison.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin has been tapped to lead the Radcliffe Institute. From Harvard Mag’s article about her:
Brown-Nagin, who holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and a Ph.D. in history from Duke, is best known for her contributions to the history of the civil-rights movement. Her 2011 book Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement won the Bancroft Prize for U.S. history, and is widely regarded as a definitive text on the legal and social history of civil rights in the United States. Her current book project explores the life of Constance Baker Motley, an African-American lawyer, judge, and politician who was an attorney in Brown v. Board of Education. …
Brown-Nagin is a sophisticated, nuanced thinker on the significance of diversity and representation in democratic institutions. In a recent Columbia Law Review article titled “Identity Matters: The Case of Judge Constance Baker Motley,” she wrote:
“Motley did endorse greater representation of women and racial minorities in the judiciary. Her argument for diversity on the bench did not turn on the view that women and people of color have a different voice or would reach different or better decisions than white men. Motley advocated judicial diversity because, she believed, inclusion reinforced democracy. By affirming openness and fairness, the mere presence of women and racial-minority judges built confidence in government. …”
Radcliffe is a women’s college that Harvard officially absorbed in 1999; the Radcliffe Institute came with it. According to Wikipedia:
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard shares transformative ideas across the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. The Institute comprises three programs:
The Radcliffe Institute Fellowship Program annually supports the work of 50 artists and scholars, with an acceptance rate of around 5 percent each year.
The Academic Ventures program is for collaborative research projects and hosts lectures and conferences.
Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are reading A. F. R. Wollaston’s Pygmies and Papuans, published in 1912. Wollaston’s primary purpose in traveling to Papua New Guinea was to study the birds (as was Jared Diamond’s,) but he decided to also write about the people he met.
One of the parts of this book I found most amusing was Wollaston’s struggle to learn the language of the local Mimika Papuans:
“It has been stated in the previous chapters that the natives told us this or that, and that we asked them for information about one thing or another. From this the reader must not conclude that we acquired a very complete knowledge of the native language, for that, unfortunately, was not the case, and even at the end of the fifteen months that we spent in their country we were not able to converse with them. Lieutenant Cramer and I compiled a vocabulary of nearly three hundred words, and we talked a good deal with the people, but we never reached the position of being able to exchange ideas on any single subject. …
“It is unfortunate that there is no common language along the S. coast, nor even a language with words common to all the dialects in use. We were visited on one occasion by the Dutch Assistant Resident from Fak-fak; the native interpreter who came with him, and who knew all the native dialects of the Fak-fak district, could not understand one word of the Mimika language. On another occasion some natives from Mimika were taken down by steamer to Merauke, the Government post in S.W. New Guinea, not far from the boundary of British Papua, and there they found the language of the natives quite unintelligible to them.
“So we found ourselves confronted with the task of learning a language with neither grammar, dictionary nor interpreter. This may not seem to be an insuperable difficulty, nor is it perhaps where Europeans and educated people are concerned, but with Papuans it is a very different problem. The first thing to do—and very few of them would even grasp the idea—is to make them understand that you wish to learn their words. You may point at an object and look intelligent and expectant, but they are slow to take your meaning, and they soon tire of giving information. The facial expression, which amongst us conveys even to a deaf man an interrogation, means nothing to them, nor has the sideways shake of the head a negative meaning to Papuans.”
“In trying to learn a new language of this kind most people (I imagine) would begin, as we did, with the numerals. But our researches in this direction did not take us very far, for we made the interesting discovery that they have words for one and two only; ínakwa (one), jamaní (two). This is not to say that they cannot reckon beyond two, for they can, by using the fingers and thumbs, and beginning always with the thumb of the right hand, reckon with tolerable accuracy up to ten. For numbers above ten they use the toes, never, so far as we observed, two or three toes, but always all the toes together to indicate a large but uncertain number. Sometimes they opened and closed the fingers of both hands two or three times and uttered the word takirí, which appeared to mean “many.” They did not, as some people do, use the word which means “hand” to indicate five or a quantity of about that number.”
EvX: For more on societies with very few words for numbers, see Caleb Everet’s Numbers and the Making of Us. It is interesting to note what a wide variety of numerical systems exist in the world–not only systems that employ unfamiliar bases like five, 20, 60, or twelve, or linguistic systems with a triplet form (just as we have a plural), but also systems in which numbers are highly constrained, like that of the Mimiko, who have only the numerals for one and two (plus use of their hands and toes,) or more extremely, like the Piraha, who have no numbers at all.
“With patience we learnt a great number of substantives, the names of animals, the parts of the body, the various possessions of the natives and so forth, and with more difficulty we learnt some of the active verbs. But when we came to abstract ideas, our researches ceased abruptly for lack of the question words, who, how, where, when, etc.; these we were never able to learn, and it is impossible to act them.
“Thus we were never able to find out what they thought of various things; we could point to the moon and be told its name, but we were never able to say, “What is the moon?” We learnt the names of lightning and thunder, but we never knew who they thought produced them. We could not find out where their stone axes came from, nor how old they were, nor who made them; and a hundred other questions, which we should have liked to put, remained unanswered.”
An Amusing Mistake
“Even the apparently simple matter of enquiring the names of places is not so easy as one would think. When the first party went up the Mimika to Parimau they pointed to the huts and asked what the village was called; the answer given was “Tupué,” meaning I believe, the name of the family who lived in the huts pointed at. For several months we called the place Tupué, and the name appeared in various disguises in the English newspapers.
When I was at Parimau in July, it occurred to me to doubt the name of Tupué, which we never heard the natives use, so I questioned a man elaborately. Pointing in the direction of Wakatimi, I said in his language: “Many houses, Wakatimi,” and he nodded assent; then pointing in the direction of another village that we had visited I said: “Many houses, Imah,” to which he agreed; then I said. “Many houses,” and pointed towards Parimau. This performance was repeated three times before he understood my intention and supplied the word “Parimau,” and then he shouted the whole story across the river to the people in the village who received it with shouts of laughter, and well they might. It was as if a foreigner, who had been living for six months in a place which he was accustomed to call Smith, enquired again one day what its name was and found that it was London. …
“The skin of the Mimika native is a very dark brown, almost rusty black, but a dark colour without any of the gloss seen in the skin of the African negro. Not infrequently we saw men of a lighter, nearly yellow, colour, and in the Wakatimi district there were three pure albinos, a man, a woman and a child. The man and woman were covered with blotches of a pinkish pigment and were peculiarly disagreeable to look at, the child, a sucking infant, and the offspring of black parents, was as white as any European baby, and was called, out of compliment to us, “Tuana.”
“The hair is black and thick and frizzly; it never, or seldom grows long, so you do not see the ornamental coiffures characteristic of the natives of some other parts of the island … The hair of young children is often quite fair, but it becomes dark as they grow up; some of the adults have the custom, common in other places, of dyeing the hair yellow with lime. …
“Tattooing, in the proper sense of the term, is unknown to the Mimika Papuans, but a great number of them practise cicatrisation or scarring. The usual places for these markings are the buttocks and the outer side of the upper (usually the left) arm. …
“The average height of men measured at Wakatimi and Parimau is 5 feet 6 inches. … Such a height is small compared with that of many races, but the first impression you get of the Papuans is that they are tall, for they hold themselves well, and all naked people look taller than those who go clothed. Their legs are thin and rather meagre, due in a great measure to the large proportion of their lives that is spent in canoes, but they walk with a good swinging gait and cover the ground easily.”
“Beyond question, the happiest time in the lives of the Papuans is their childhood, when they are free to play from morning to night and need not take part in the ceaseless search for food, which occupies so much of the time of their elders. As infants they are carried on the backs of their mothers and very often of their fathers, secured by a wide strap of bark cloth, the ends of which are tied across the carrier’s chest. It is very seldom that you hear them cry and they appear to give very little trouble; their mothers are very careful of the cleanliness of the infants. Very early in life they begin to walk and almost as soon they learn to swim. In fine weather they often spend the greater part of the day in the river and it is a very pretty sight to see a crowd of little Papuans playing together in the water. … They very soon become powerful swimmers, and I remember one day seeing a small boy, who cannot have been more than eight years old, swim across a river in tremendous flood, while the party of men who were with him had to seek a place where they could safely swim across half a mile lower down.
GAMES OF THE CHILDREN
“There are a number of games too that they play on dry land: they play the universal game of lying in wait for your enemy and suddenly pouncing out on him; they have great battles in which they are armed with miniature bows and arrows, and reed stems take the place of spears, and shrill yells make up for the lack of bloodshed. …
“Generally speaking, one would say that the society of the Mimika Papuans is a group of small families. It cannot by any means be described as a socialistic community; with one exception there is no sign of community of property, but it is rather a case of every man for himself, or (more accurately) of every family for itself. A canoe belongs to the family of the man who made it; the coconut trees, which grow here and there along the lower Mimika, do not belong to the community but to individuals, presumably the men or some of the men who planted them. … The exception mentioned is seen when game is brought in by the hunters; the meat, as I observed on several occasions, is distributed to every house in the village. …
“From the description of them which has been given in this and the two preceding chapters it will be seen that the conditions of life of the Papuans are as primitive as those of any people now living in the world. There are very few other places, where you can find a people who neither make nor possess any metal and who have no knowledge of pottery. The only vessels that they have for holding water are scraped-out coconuts and simple pieces of bamboo. Water boiling they had never seen before we came among them. Their implements and weapons are, as I have shown, of the most primitive kind, and their ornaments are of the rudest possible description.
“Cultivation of the soil is only practised by the people of one or two villages, and even then it produces but a very small proportion of their food, so it follows that most of their time and energies are devoted to procuring the necessaries of life.
STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE
“The struggle for existence is keen enough, the birth-rate is low and the rate of infant mortality is, I believe, very high. Nor do diseases spare them; syphilis is exceedingly prevalent, and was probably introduced by Chinese and Malay traders to the West end of the island, whence it has spread along the coast. Tuberculosis is happily absent, but two natives of Wakatimi were suffering from what appeared to be certainly leprosy. Skin diseases, notably tinea imbricata, are very common; and almost every person appears to suffer occasionally from fever of one sort or another.
“But in spite of all these drawbacks the Papuans of the Mimika are not such a very miserable people. They are strong, those of them that survive the ordeals of infancy and sickness; they have food in plenty to eat, if they choose to exert themselves sufficiently to obtain it; they have their amusements, songs and dances; and the manner of their lives is suited to the conditions of the country in which they live. It is this last consideration which ought ultimately to determine their fate: they live in a wretchedly poor country which is constantly liable to devastating floods, and their habit of wandering from one place to another, where food may be obtained, is the only way of life suitable to the physical and climatic conditions of the country.
The case against “civilizing”
“Any attempt to “civilise” them must inevitably destroy their primitive independence, and if it succeeded in establishing the people in settled communities it would reduce them at many seasons to absolute starvation. We were visited once by the Director of the Sacred Heart Mission at Toeal, which has done admirable work amongst the natives of the Ké Islands and at one or two places in New Guinea itself. When he had seen the people and the nature of the country and had been told something of their habits, he decided that the Mimika was not, at present at all events, a proper field for missionary enterprise. Setting aside all other considerations, one dares to hope that such an interesting people may for a long time be left undisturbed; they do no harm to their neighbours and the effects on them of civilising influences would be at the best uncertain.”
Welcome to EvX’s Book Club. Today we begin our exciting tour of Philip E. Auerswald’s The Code Eoconomy: A Forty-Thousand-Year History. with the introduction, Technology = Recipes, and Chapter one, Jobs: Divide and Coordinate if we get that far.
I’m not sure exactly how to run a book club, so just grab some coffee and let’s dive right in.
First, let’s note that Auerswald doesn’t mean code in the narrow sense of “commands fed into a computer” but in a much broader sense of all encoded processes humans have come up with. His go-to example is the cooking recipe.
The Code Economy describes the evolution of human productive activity from simplicity to complexity over the span of more than 40,000 years. I call this evolutionary process the advance of code.
I find the cooking example a bit cutesy, but otherwise it gets the job done.
How… have we humans managed to get where we are today despite our abundant failings, including wars, famine, and a demonstrably meager capacity for society-wide planning and coordination? … by developing productive activities that evolve into regular routines and standardized platforms–which is to say that we have survived, and thrived, by creating and advancing code.
There’s so much in this book that almost every sentence bears discussion. First, as I’ve noted before, social organization appears to be a spontaneous emergent feature of every human group. Without even really meaning to, humans just naturally seem compelled organize themselves. One day you’re hanging out with your friends, riding motorcycles, living like an outlaw, and the next thing you know you’re using the formal legal system to sue a toy store for infringement of your intellectual property.
At the same time, our ability to organize society at the national level is completely lacking. As one of my professors once put it, “God must hate communists, because every time a country goes communist, an “act of god” occurs and everyone dies.”
It’s a mystery why God hates communists so much, but hate ’em He does. Massive-scale social engineering is a total fail and we’ll still be suffering the results for a long time.
This creates a kind of conflict, because people can look at the small-scale organizing they do, and they look at large-scale disorganization, and struggle to understand why the small stuff can’t simply be scaled up.
And yet… society still kind of works. I can go to the grocery store and be reasonably certain that by some magical process, fresh produce has made its way from fields in California to the shelf in front of me. By some magical process, I can wave a piece of plastic around and use it to exchange enough other, unseen goods to pay for my groceries. I can climb into a car I didn’t build and cruise down a network of streets and intersections, reasonably confident that everyone else driving their own two-ton behemoth at 60 miles an hour a few feet away from me has internalized the same rules necessary for not crashing into me. Most of the time. And I can go to the gas station and pour a miracle liquid into my car and the whole system works, whether or not I have any clue how all of the parts manage to come together and do so.
The result is a miracle. Modern society is a miracle. If you don’t believe me, try using an outhouse for a few months. Try carrying all of your drinking water by hand from the local stream and chopping down all of the wood you need to boil it to make it potable. Try fighting off parasites, smallpox, or malaria without medicine or vaccinations. For all my complaints (and I know I complain a lot,) I love civilization. I love not worrying about cholera, crop failure, or dying from cavities. I love air conditioning, refrigerators, and flush toilets. I love books and the internet and domesticated strawberries. All of these are things I didn’t create and can’t take credit for, but get to enjoy nonetheless. I have been blessed.
But at the same time, “civilization” isn’t equally distributed. Millions (billions?) of the world’s peoples don’t have toilets, electricity, refrigerators, or even a decent road from their village to the next.
Auerswald is a passionate champion of code. His answer to unemployment problems is probably “learn to code,” but in such a broad, metaphorical way that encompasses so many human activities that we can probably forgive him for it. One thing he doesn’t examine is why code takes off in some places but not others. Why is civilization more complex in Hong Kong than in Somalia? Why does France boast more Fields Medalists than the DRC?
In our next book (Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration,) we’ll discuss whether specific structures like legal and tax codes can affect how well societies grow and thrive (spoiler alert: they do, just see communism,) and of course you are already familiar with the Jared Diamond environmentalist theory that folks in some parts of the world just had better natural resources to work than in other parts (also true, at least in some cases. I’m not expecting some great industry to get up and running on its own in the arctic.)
But laying these concerns aside, there are obviously other broad factors at work. A map of GDP per capita looks an awful lot like a map of average IQs, with obvious caveats about the accidentally oil-rich Saudis and economically depressed ex-communists.
Auerswald believes that the past 40,000 years of code have not been disasters for the human race, but rather a cascade of successes, as each new invention and expansion to our repertoir of “recipes” or “codes” has enabled a whole host of new developments. For example, the development of copper tools didn’t just put flint knappers out of business, it also opened up whole new industries because you can make more varieties of tools out of copper than flint. Now we had copper miners, copper smelters (a new profession), copper workers. Copper tools could be sharpened and, unlike stone, resharpened, making copper tools more durable. Artists made jewelry; spools of copper wires became trade goods, traveling long distances and stimulating the prehistoric “economy.” New code bequeaths complexity and even more code, not mass flint-knapper unemployment.
Likewise, the increase in reliable food supply created by farming didn’t create mass hunter-gatherer unemployment, but stimulated the growth of cities and differentiation of humans into even more professions, like weavers, cobblers, haberdashers, writers, wheelwrights, and mathematicians.
It’s a hopeful view, and I appreciate it in these anxious times.
But it’s very easy to say that the advent of copper or bronze or agriculture was a success because we are descended from the people who succeeded. We’re not descended from the hunter-gatherers who got displaced or wiped out by agriculturalists. In recent cases where hunter-gatherer or herding societies were brought into the agriculturalist fold, the process has been rather painful.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People, about the Bushmen of the Kalahari, might overplay the romance and downplay the violence, but the epilogue’s description of how the arrival of “civilization” resulted in the deaths and degradation of the Bushmen brought tears to my eyes. First they died of dehydration because new fences erected to protect “private property” cut them off from the only water. No longer free to pursue the lives they had lived for centuries, they were moved onto what are essentially reservations and taught to farm and herd. Alcoholism and violence became rampant.
Among the book’s many characters was a man who had lost most of his leg to snakebite. He suffered terribly as his leg rotted away, cared for by his wife and family who brought him food. Eventually, with help, he healed and obtained a pair of crutches, learned to walk again, and resumed hunting: providing for his family.
And then in “civilization” he was murdered by one of his fellow Bushmen.
It’s a sad story and there are no easy answers. Bushman life is hard. Most people, when given the choice, seem to pick civilization. But usually we aren’t given a choice. The Bushmen weren’t. Neither were factory workers who saw their jobs automated and outsourced. Some Bushmen will adapt and thrive. Nelson Mandela was part Bushman, and he did quite well for himself. But many will suffer.
What to do about the suffering of those left behind–those who cannot cope with change, who do not have the mental or physical capacity to “learn to code” or otherwise adapt remains an unanswered question. Humanity might move on without them, ignoring their suffering because we find them undeserving of compassion–or we might get bogged down trying to save them all. Perhaps we can find a third route: sympathy for the unfortunate without encouraging obsolete behavior?
In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson wonders why the systems (“code”) that supports our society appears to be degenerating. I have a crude but answer: people are getting stupider. It takes a certain amount of intelligence to run a piece of code. Even a simple task like transcribing numbers is better performed by a smarter person than a dumber person, who is more likely to accidentally write down the wrong number. Human systems are built and executed by humans, and if the humans in them are less intelligent than the ones who made them, then they will do a bad job of running the systems.
Unfortunately for those of us over in civilization, dysgenics is a real thing:
Whether you blame IQ itself or the number of years smart people spend in school, dumb people have more kids (especially the parents of the Baby Boomers.) Epigone here only looks at white data (I believe Jayman has the black data and it’s just as bad, if not worse.)
Of course we can debate about the Flynn effect and all that, but I suspect there two competing things going on: First, a rising 50’s economic tide lifted all boats, making everyone healthier and thus smarter and better at taking IQ tests and making babies, and second, declining infant mortality since the late 1800s and possibly the Welfare state made it easier for the children of the poorest and least capable parents to survive.
The effects of these two trends probably cancel out at first, but after a while you run out of Flynn effect (maybe) and then the other starts to show up. Eventually you get Greece: once the shining light of Civilization, now defaulting on its loans.
Well, we have made it a page in!
What do you think of the book? Have you finished it yet? What do you think of the way Auersbach conceptualizes of “code” and its basis as the building block of pretty much all human activity? Do you think Auersbach is essentially correct to be hopeful about our increasingly code-driven future, or should we beware of the tradeoffs to individual autonomy and freedom inherent in becoming a glorified colony of ants?
In general, there are two main emphases for my interests in epigenetics: the scientific side, and the political/philosophical aspects. These are necessarily related to each other in many different ways (e.g., the political and philosophical aspects would not exist without the scientific work being done in epigenetics, just as politics has had a substantial influence on the development of the science—again, a major focus of my book), but they can also be quite disconnected from each other in different contexts (e.g., political uses can be made of the science which ignore important findings or critical assumptions).
He points out that there is in fact a fair amount of legislation criminalizing drug use during pregnancy:
… just after I read this comment someone posted an extensive thread on my Twitter feed loaded with references on just this issue of ‘crack babies,’ and particularly about the differences in framing and policy narratives due to politically salient issues such as race (here: http://bit.ly/2KQHWFh). I also did a quick Google search on “criminalization of drug use during pregnancy” (http://bit.ly/2wrpvE4), which came up with 31,900,000 results about all the different ways that this kind of thing is actually a substantial focus of public policy and government action. …
An interesting subject in its own right, but I shan’t quote the whole post; you can read it on Robison’s blog.
For those of you following along, here is my response:
Disclaimer: a friend of mine was a crack baby. She’s a lovely person, but is constantly in pain. I don’t want people to end up like her, but I’m glad she exists. My first impulse is that someone who would do such a horrible thing to a baby deserves to be punished, but would this kind of legislation simply encouraged her (biological) mother to have an abortion? My friend is not suicidal; she wants to be alive, even if life is difficult.
In general, such legislation strikes me as misguided. Getting the police involved is highly punitive (what are the effects on a developing fetus of being arrested and involuntarily committed?) and has a major negative effect on people’s ability to do the kind of productive behaviors that are associated with getting off drugs, like hold down a job or have stable housing.
We can look at the gov’t’s history with public health programs. Some turned out better than others. Prohibition went quite badly. Everything “Opioid Epidemic” looks like it’s spiraling out of control. On the other hand, regulation on cigarette advertising has probably been beneficial; I suppose the jury is still out on the long-term effects of marijuana deregulation in some states.
Gov’t nutrition policy was probably good when it gave people food stamps but quite bad when it promoted trans fats (based on nutrition “research” that was not nearly as sound as people thought it was–which should be a sobering lesson about the urge to let politicians make public policy off what they think the science says.)
Not that my opinions count for much, but I think programs that promote healthy behaviors would be more effective and beneficial in the long run.
But let’s look at another example. Drug use is generally limited to individual behavior, often of very poor or otherwise marginalized people. What about mining disasters, toxic waste spills, wars, etc? Perhaps the guilty parties should be made to pay–but mining companies already routinely declare bankruptcy to avoid paying for their mistakes–I doubt this behavior is going to change. Any legislation in this direction, while well-intended, seems likely to be ineffective at best.
Of course the gov’t itself has certain obligations. What about the children of the men marched into atomic bomb blasts, or exposed to agent orange? (eg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWSMoE3A5DI) But the gov’t has so far been really bad about paying up for the damage it caused directly, much less the claims of the children of those hurt, so I’m not holding my breath on this. [“I got tortured in a Nazi POW camp and all I got for it was an accusation of going AWOL.”]
There seems also a risk of discounting people’s present abilities based on epigenetic claims. Right now the left likes to claim things like “Native Americans suffer epigenetic trauma that makes them do badly in school and continue the cycle of violence,” but it is easy to see how this can morph into “Native Americans are helplessly destined to be dumb and violent.”
I think the Left wants epigenetics to be a “get out of genetics free” card, but in the process they’re replicating genetic determinism, just at a different point in the organism. They’re going to be very disappointed if the results of their advocacy are the police arresting poor black women because they couldn’t afford prenatal vitamins.
The question of what exactly the Founding Fathers (and common man) thought in 1776 is fascinating, but not necessarily relevant to current policies. Those Americans believed a wide variety of things, from Puritans (predestination) to Southern aristocrats (slavery) to affable Quakers. I suspect equality was not so much a philosophical position for the average man so much as a practical one–the man who survived by his wits in the wilderness, clearing the land, building his farm, etc., far from the civilizing and protective umbrella of the cities, was a law unto himself, enforced by violence or not at all. In essence, man was free not because he had read Locke, but because he had a gun and would shot anyone who said otherwise.
Regardless, no matter how, erm, clean your genome is, you don’t get from genes to Lockeian blank slates. You still have genes, some good, some bad.
Most people (even libs) acknowledge a combination of “nature and nurture” in shaping the individual. It’s only at the extremes that people start wholesale denying that genetic differences exist (“Women only do worse than men at sports because they’ve internalized norms of feminity that make them lose;” “Dog breeds are identical in temperament; any differences in behavior are entirely due to training,”) but there is always pressure on moderates not to contradict the extremes; not to mention a fear among libs that any acknowledgement of genetic differences between people or groups will embolden the conservatives.
Modern liberalism cannot be saved so long as it rests on incorrect factual statements about the world. Sooner or later the results are either mass suffering (eg, the Soviet Union) or mass discrediting of the idea and the rise of a new one.
>”We already have ways of describing and discussing inheritance of behaviors from environmental exposures (e.g., psychology),”
Unfortunately, much of psychology is terribly broken. Priming, stereotype threat, implicit bias, Freudianism… they’re all either nonsense or have failed to replicate. The most reliable results, imo, are drug-related. Prozac works pretty well for depression; lithium works for bi-polar; risperidone lets schizophrenics lead relatively normal lives. Any drug can be abused or mis-prescribed, but the results with some of the most effective psychiatric drugs are really quite amazing. Psychology, by contrast, is at best talking with people about their problems, giving them a supportive space to vent and think things through.
In the end, I suppose my thoughts summarize to caution. It is easy to over-estimate how much we know and toss together legislation that ends up having unexpected effects. There might be some areas where better knowledge of epigenetic effects can lead to superior policy making (various dietary/nutrition supplementation programs like the promotion of folic acid for expectant mothers, fluoridated water, iodized salt, etc., have already IMO caused great improvement in public health.)
I hope people can be on the lookout for ways to improve life, rather than merely punish.
I have yet to find any “science kits” that actually teach science–most are just science-themed toys. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t expect your kid to re-derive the principles of chemistry via a baking soda volcano.
Smaller kids aren’t ready for the kind of thinking required for actual scientific research, but they can still learn plenty of science the mundane way: by reading. So here are some of our favorite science books/activities:
We did geology over the winter, centered around Rocks, Rivers, and the Changing Earth. It’s a lovely book (reading level about second grade?) with instructions for many simple experiments (eg, put rocks, sand, water in a glass jar and carefully shake/swirl to observe the effects of different water speeds on riverbanks) and handily complements any nature walks, rock collecting trip, or expeditions to the seashore.
WARNING: This book was published before plate tectonics became widely accepted and so has a confused chapter or two on how mountains form. SKIP THIS CHAPTER.
We also tried making polished stones in a rock tumbler (verdict: not worth the cost.)
I like to read this with a globe and children’s atlas at hand, so I can easily demonstrate things like latitude and longitude, distances, and different map projections.
With spring’s arrival we also began a study of plants and insects.
If you’ve never started your own plants from seed, any common crop seeds sold at the store–beans, peas, corn, squash, and most flowers–will sprout quickly and easily. If you want to keep your plants indoors, I recommend you get a bag of dirt at the garden center. This dirt is supposed to be “clean”; the dirt found outside in your yard is full of bugs that you probably weren’t intending on studying in your living room.
Speaking of bugs, we bought the “raise your own ladybugs” and butterflies kits, but I don’t recommend these as real caterpillars are nowhere near as cute and interesting as the very hungry one in the story. I think you’re better off just collecting ladybugs in the wild and reading about them at home.
Super Science: Matter Matters is a fabulous pop-up/lift-the-flap book about chemistry. We were very lucky to receive this as a birthday gift. (Birthday hint: the homeschooling families in your life would always like more books.) The book is a little fragile, so not appropriate for younger children who might pull too hard on the tabs, but great for everyone else.
Welcome to Anthropology Friday. Today we are reading A. F. R. Wollaston’s Pygmies and Papuans, published in 1912. Wollaston’s primary purpose in traveling to Papua New Guinea was to study the birds (as was Jared Diamond’s,) but he decided to also write about the people he met.
But enough about A.F.R; on with PNG (though first we’ll be stopping in Java):
“During the month of December, while stores were being accumulated, and the steamer was being prepared for our use, we had leisure to visit, and in the case of some of us to revisit, some of the most interesting places in Java. …
“Some idea of the progress which has been made may be learnt from the fact that, whereas at the beginning of the last century the population numbered about four millions, there are to-day nearly ten times that number. Wherever you go you see excellent roads, clean, and well-ordered villages and a swarming peasant population, quiet and industrious and apparently contented with their lot.
“There are between thirty and forty volcanoes in the island, many of them active, and the soil is extraordinarily rich and productive, three crops in the rice districts being harvested in rather less than two years. So fertile is the land that in many places the steepest slopes of the hills have been brought under cultivation by an ingenious system of terracing and irrigation in such a way that the higher valleys present the appearance of great amphitheatres rising tier above tier of brilliantly green young rice plants or of drooping yellow heads of ripening grain. …
“One of the features of life in the Dutch East Indies, which first strikes the attention of an English visitor, is the difference in the relation between Europeans and natives from those which usually obtain in British possessions as shown by the enormous number of half-castes. Whilst we were still at Batavia the feast of the Eve of St. Nicholas, which takes the place of our Christmas, occurred. In the evening the entire “white” population indulged in a sort of carnival; the main streets and restaurants were crowded, bands played and carriages laden with parents and their children drove slowly through the throng. The spectacle, a sort of “trooping of the colours,” was a most interesting one to the onlooker, for one saw often in the same family children showing every degree of colour from the fairest Dutch hair and complexion to the darkest Javanese. It is easy to understand how this strong mixture of races has come about, when one learns that Dutchmen who come out to the East Indies, whether as civilian or military officials or as business men, almost invariably stay for ten years without returning to Europe. They become in that time more firmly attached to the country than is the case in colonies where people go home at shorter intervals, and it is not uncommon to meet Dutchmen who have not returned to Holland for thirty or forty years. It is not the custom to send children back to Europe when they reach the school age; there are excellent government schools in all the larger towns, and it often happens that men and women grow up and marry who have never been to Europe in their lives. Thus it can be seen how a large half-caste population is likely to be formed. The half-castes do not, as in British India, form a separate caste, but are regarded as Europeans, and there are many instances of men having more or less of native blood in their veins reaching the highest civilian and military rank.”
Papua New Guinea
“Even among those Papuans who are pure-blooded—in so far as one may use that expression in describing any human race—there are very considerable varieties of appearance, but it is still possible to describe a type to which all of them conform in the more important particulars. The typical Papuan is rather tall and is usually well-built. The legs of the low country people are somewhat meagre, as is usually the case among people who spend much of their time in canoes, whilst those of the hill tribes are well developed. The hands and feet are large. The colour of the skin varies from a dark chocolate colour to a rusty black, but it seems to be never of the shining ebony blackness of the African negro. … Short hard hair is also found frequently on the chest and on the limbs, but on the face it is scanty and frequently altogether absent. …
“It may, however, be said without fear of contradiction that no person, who has had experience of Malays and of Papuans, could believe for a moment that they are anything but two very distinct races of men. The origin of the Papuans is not definitely known, and the existence in different parts of the island of small people, who are possibly of Negrito stock, suggests that the Papuans were not the original inhabitants of New Guinea.”
Wollaston’s boat approaches the island
“The shore was low and featureless, and it was impossible to identify the mouths of the rivers from the very inaccurate chart. It was not safe for the Nias to approach the land closely on account of the shoal water, so Capt. Van Herwerden dropped anchor … and sent the steam launch towards an inlet, where we could see huts, to gather information. … they hailed a canoe which ventured within speaking distance, and by repeating several times “Mimika,” the only word of their language that we knew at that time, learnt that we had overshot our destination by a few miles.
“That canoe, it should be noted, was remarkable on account of two of its crew. One of them held aloft an ancient Union Jack; the other was conspicuously different from the scores of men in the canoes about us, who were all frankly in a bare undress, by wearing an old white cotton jacket fastened by a brass button which was ornamented with the head of Queen Victoria. How the flag and the coat and the button came to that outlandish place will never be known, but it is certain that they must have passed through very many hands before they came there, for certainly no Englishman had ever been there before. …
“We were rather amused, when we came to the first bank of shingle, by the natives who were with us bringing us gifts of stones, as though they were something new and rare: probably they thought that as we came, for all they knew, from the sea, we had never seen such things before.”
An interesting observation on the habits/lifestyle of hunter-gatherers vs farmers:
“After spending a night on a sand bank from which we were very nearly washed away by a sudden flood, we paddled leisurely down the river and came in one day again to Obota. Though the two places are so close together and communication between them is very frequent, the inhabitants of Obota are a much better lot of people than those of Wakatimi. The Obota men, who came up the river with us, worked steadily for several days, a thing we never could persuade the Wakatimi men to do, and, a more striking sign of their superiority, the Obota people cultivate the soil, whereas the Wakatimi people never do anything of the kind.”
“The distribution of tobacco in New Guinea is rather a puzzling question. There are many places on the coast where its use was unknown until quite recently, while at the same time the mountain people, for example, in the Arfak Mountains and on the upper reaches of the Fly and Kaiserin Augusta Rivers, have been accustomed to cultivate it and to barter it with their neighbours in the lowlands. The Tapiro pygmy people, who live in the mountains, cultivate tobacco and exchange it with the Papuans of the upper Mimika who grow none themselves. These facts have led some people to suppose that the tobacco plant is indigenous in New Guinea.
“The people of Obota were rich in worldly possessions, for as we walked through the village we saw two Chinese brass gongs and a large porcelain pot, which they told us came from “Tarete.” It may be that at some time a Malay or Arab trader from Ternate came over to this part of the coast, but it is impossible to know; perhaps the things had been stolen and exchanged from one village to another, from the West end of the island, which is often visited by Ternate traders.”
“As well as coconuts the Mimika people have also bananas, papayas (Carica papaya), water-melons and pumpkins, all of them of a very inferior kind. It cannot be said that they cultivate these fruits; they occasionally get a banana shoot and plant it in the ground by the riverside, where it may or may not grow and produce fruit, but they make no clearings and take very little trouble to ensure the life of the plant. The papayas and the melons and pumpkins are sometimes seen growing about the native dwellings; but they, too, seem to be there more by accident than by any design on the part of the people. At Obota we found a few pineapples, which were probably the descendants of some that were brought to the Mimika by M. Dumas a few years earlier.”
EvX: As we discussed recently, humans likely did not transition directly from pure hunter gathering to pure agriculture within the space of a few years, but rather spent thousands of years developing a wide variety of different cultivation methods. Surely among the earliest was this haphazard variety in which fortuitously sprouted seeds are buried and then left to fend for themselves. Some clever ancient man might also have undertaken to bring water to an already established but thirsty plant.
But there’s a big difference between occasionally planting a seed and full-scale agriculture. The latter requires preparing plots of land, removing weeds, planting, watering, tilling, etc. Even a small garden requires a great deal of regular work.
Hunter-gatherers probably didn’t abandon their mobile lifestyles immediately after planting the first handful seeds they wanted to grow. It seems more likely they continued pursuing other ways of finding food while they waited for the plants to grow; it likely took centuries or millennia for the cultural and mental traits found in fully agricultural societies to develop.
Pediculus humanus humanus (the body louse) is indistinguishable in appearance from Pediculus humanus capitis (the head louse) but will interbreed only under laboratory conditions. In their natural state, they occupy different habitats and do not usually meet. In particular, body lice have evolved to attach their eggs to clothes, whereas head lice attach their eggs to the base of hairs.
So when did the clothes-infesting body louse decide to stop associating with its hair-clinging cousins?
The body louse diverged from the head louse at around 100,000 years ago, hinting at the time of the origin of clothing.
So, did Neanderthals have clothes? Or did they survive winters in ice age Europe by being really hairy?
Behavioral modernity–such as intentional burials and cave painting–is thought to have emerged around 50,000 years ago. Some people push this date back to 80,000 years ago, possibly just before the Out of Africa event (something that made people smarter and better at making tools may have been necessary for OOA to succeed.)
But perhaps we should consider the invention of clothing alongside other technological breakthroughs that made us modern–after all, I don’t think we hairless apes could have had much success at conquering the planet without clothes.
(On the other hand, other Wikipedia pages give other estimates for the origin of clothing, some even also citing louse studies, so I’m not sure of the 100k YA date, but surely clothes were invented before we went anywhere cold.)
Oddly, though, there appears to have been at least one human group that managed to survive in a cold climate without much in the way of clothes, the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego. In fact, the whole reason the region got named Tierra del Fuego (translation: Land of the fire) is because the nearly-naked locals carried fire with them wherever they went to stay warm.
Only 100-1,600 Yaghans remain; their language is an isolate with only one native speaker, and she’s 89 years old.
Unfortunately, searching for “people with no clothes” does not return any useful information about other groups that might have led similar lifestyles.
Native Americans appear to also carry a strain of head lice that had previously occupied Homo erectus’s hair, suggesting that H.e. and the ancestors of today’s N.A.s once met. Since these lice aren’t found elsewhere, it’s evidence that H. e. might have survived somewhere out there until fairly recently.
“In relation to the research suggesting that popular films might impact viewers’ political attitudes, the increasing importance of selective exposure raises the question: are Americans engaging in political sorting in terms of which films they see?
We did find considerable evidence of sorting on popular films. Republicans were more likely to have seen American Sniper, Passion of the Christ, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldier of Benghazi, God’s Not Dead, and Lone Survivor. Surprisingly, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to have seen War Dogs,
A movie that sounds exactly like it was intended for the Republican audience, how is this surprising? Even if the movie isn’t actually one Republicans would like, it has effectively been marketed to them.
a dark comedic take on weapons dealers in the War on Terror.
Dude, they’re Republicans, not humor-impaired. They can still laugh at human foibles in a setting they enjoy watching movies about. BTW, here’s the summary for War Dogs from IMDb:
“Two friends in their early 20s (Hill and Teller) living in Miami Beach during the Iraq War exploit a little-known government initiative that allows small businesses to bid on U.S. Military contracts. Starting small, they begin raking in big money and are living the high life. But the pair gets in over their heads when they land a 300 million dollar deal to arm the Afghan Military – a deal that puts them in business with some very shady people, not the least of which turns out to be the U.S. Government. Based on true events.”
Nothing here jumps out at me as “Libs are going to love this total pwnage of the government’s contract-awarding system.”
Anyway, back to the study:
In most cases, we found there was less sorting into movies with liberal themes than expected.
This sort of behavior might explain why conservatives (currently) understand the liberal point of view better than liberals understand conservatives’.
However, Democrats were more likely to have seen Precious, a movie that explores themes of poverty in a predominantly African American community, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
I am amused that they felt compelled to explain the plot/appeal of Precious, which was released recently, promoted by Oprah, was nominated for or won tons of awards, and is famous enough that even I know the plot, but felt no need to explain The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was released back in 1975. (By the way, it’s about transvestites and sexual debauchery.)
Interestingly, we also saw evidence of sorting on two movies where we did not expect it. Democrats were more likely to have seen both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Fantastic Beasts and where to Find Them.
How… how do you live in society and study whether people’s movie taste sorts by political affiliation for a living and NOT NOTICE THAT LIBS LOVE HARRY POTTER?
J.K. Rowling took on Donald Trump with her latest tweet heard ’round the world.
After the Republican presidential candidate frontrunner said that all Muslims should be banned from entering America, Harry Potter fans began comparing Trump to Lorde Voldemort, a.k.a. he who must not be named, a.k.a. the most draconian, dastardly villain in all of literature — well at least in Harry Potter’s wizarding world.
But Rowling didn’t agree with the comparison. “How horrible,” Rowling wrote. “Voldemort was nowhere near as bad.”
J. K. Rowling herself hates Trump. Harry Potter fans hate Trump.
At the worldwide Women’s Marches in January, there were plenty of homemade signs that showed Princess Leia as the face of a new resistance, but there were as many Potter ones, such as “Dumbledore’s army”, inspirational quotes from the series and references to Hermione’s role in Harry’s survival. Perhaps these placards had been inspired by an outpouring of affection for the books following the US election in November, as people began to post quotes on Twitter. “Order of the Phoenix, mount up,” wrote Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. There is even a Chrome extension that changes any mention of Donald Trump or his cabinet to the name of a notable Death Eater. Install it, and your browser will instantly refer to Betsy DeVos as Dolores Umbridge, Jeff Sessions as Antonin Dolohov or Rex Tillerson as Draco Malfoy.
I’m going to stop quoting here before I go off on a rant about how Harry Potter isn’t actually about diversity, you idiots, it’s about a genetic elite arguing within itself about whether it should completely wipe out the genetically inferior or merely avoid them at all costs. At no point does anyone suggest that “muggles” is an offensive slur and that the magically different should be allowed into Hogwarts, the magic curriculum should be eliminated because it discriminates against people born without a magical genetic advantage, and that the non-magical need to be fully integrated into Wizarding society.
Oops, there’s the rant.
The question isn’t “Do liberals love Harry Potter?” (Yes, they do, very loudly,) but “Why do liberals think Harry Potter promotes “liberal values” when the books are clearly reactionary meditations on noblesse oblige?”
I’ll let you answer that.
The authors speculate that Fundamentalist Christians don’t like Harry Potter, which is sometimes true but not the biggest factor in HP fandom.
Evidence for sorting was weak on documentaries, even political ones (eg, I own a copy of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth,) but that portion of the study suffered from low N because documentaries aren’t very popular.
In related mysteriously not knowing the field you are studying, Slate Star Codex published the results of their survey on Sexual Harassment Levels by Field, which found that sexual harassment appears to be lower in STEM than in fields like health care or finance.
I’ve been saying this for YEARS, based on my own experiences in heavily male-dominated STEM fields. This is why I stand up and defend the men in my fields: they are among the best.
The why might be due to different cultures in different fields, but cultures are built by people, so the origin is ultimately in the kinds of people who go into STEM vs the kinds of people who go into retail, art, business, or law:
Retail, business, law, etc., all attract aggressive people, and aggressive people are more likely to loudly and aggressively signal sexual interests in others (whether appropriately or inappropriately.)
STEM is full of shy, polite people who worry endlessly about whether they are sexually harassing women just by thinking about them like Scott Aaronson (not to be confused with Scott Alexander,) who was so afraid he might accidentally harass a woman he actually tried to castrate himself.
Hate to say it, but many of the women in STEM just don’t attract as much sexual attention as women in professions where looks are an important factor in getting hired.
Normies have stronger sex drives and higher time preferences than nerds, which leads them to have sex younger, get pregnant more often, catch more STDS, and get into more ill-thought-out sexually aggressive situations
I don’t want to play into the “nerds are asexual” stereotype, because they definitely aren’t, but many normies are sex-crazed maniacs.
Ultimately, is it really any surprise to people that mathematicians don’t sexually harass each other very often?
To be fair to Alexander, I think, deep down inside, he must know that guys like himself aren’t doing a lot of sexual harassment. But he still claims that the results were “surprising.” I guess if you’ve never dealt with humans from outside your own field, but psychology kind of forces you to deal with different kinds of people. Back in Radicalizing the Romanceless, Alexander wrote about a details-slightly-changed-to-protect-the-innocent patient dubbed Henry:
– I had a patient, let’s call him ‘Henry’ for reasons that are to become clear, who came to hospital after being picked up for police for beating up his fifth wife.
So I asked the obvious question: “What happened to your first four wives?”
“Oh,” said the patient, “Domestic violence issues. Two of them left me. One of them I got put in jail, and she’d moved on once I got out. One I just grew tired of.”
“You’ve beaten up all five of your wives?” I asked in disbelief.
“Yeah,” he said, without sounding very apologetic.
“And why, exactly, were you beating your wife this time?” I asked.
“She was yelling at me, because I was cheating on her with one of my exes.”
“With your ex-wife? One of the ones you beat up?”
“So you beat up your wife, she left you, you married someone else, and then she came back and had an affair on the side with you?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” said Henry.
I wish, I wish I wish, that Henry was an isolated case. But he’s interesting more for his anomalously high number of victims than for the particular pattern.
Surprising, perhaps, to people who benefit from promoting the narrative that Stem is some uniquely terrible field.
If epigenetics does introduce scientific novelties to the conventional understanding of biology, then according to the model it also has equally significant ethical and political implications.
What responsibility do I–as an egg-bearing person–have to ensure the health of my children and grandchildren’s epigenenomes? Society affirms my right to smoke cigarettes, even though they may give me cancer down the road–it’s my body and I am allowed to do what I wish with it. But what if my smoking cigarettes today causes cancer in a future, as yet unborn grandchild whom I never meet? What about her right to chose not to be exposed to carcinogens? Who am I to take that from her–and what right has society, the government, or anyone else to tell me what I may or may not do with my own body in the interests of some future people who may never come into existence?
I am summarizing, perhaps badly; you may read the whole post over on Dr. Robison’s blog. (Of course Robison is himself trying to summarize an argument I am sure he lays out in much more detail in his book.)
Here is my hastily written response, in the interest of clear conversational threading:
I’m not sure epigenetics constitutes such a fundamental shift in our understandings of genetics and inheritance as to actually warrant much change in our present policies. For example, you question whether policies should be enacted to restrict a 12 yr old girl’s right to eat what she wishes in defense of her unborn grandchild’s epigenome, but we today don’t even restrict a pregnant woman’s right to drink or smoke. Cocaine is illegal, but last time I checked, women didn’t go to prison for giving birth to crack babies. For that matter, women are allowed to kill unborn babies. I’m not commenting pro or against abortion, just noting that it is legal and most people consider death kind of a big deal. So I don’t think society is about to start outlawing stuff because of its negative effects two generations down the road.
On the other hand, if you look at the data on smoking, rates have definitely been falling ever since the tobacco-cancer link became news. The gov’t didn’t have to outlaw smoking for a lot of women to stop smoking for their children’s health.
But let’s return to the philosophical argument. All men are created equal… or are they? I do not think the Founding Fathers ever meant equality in a genetic sense. They could see with their own eyes that some men were tall and others short, some wise and others foolish, some virtuous and others criminal. They could see see that sons and daughters took after their parents and that a great many people started life in horribly unfair circumstances while others lived in luxury. They could see the cruel unfairness of disease, disability, and early death. Their rejection was not of biological or factual inequalities but of spiritual inequality. They rejected the notion that some men are created special by God to rule over others, and some men are created inferior by God, to be ruled over.
You state, “However, the evidence emerging from epigenetics suggests this is not the case. Instead of individuals of each generation being born with a pristine copy of their biological essence, they are inheriting a genetic endowment riddled with markers of the experiences of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and so on. And these inherited epigenetic markers, as more and more research is showing, are having direct effects on the physical and mental health of individuals from causes not actually experienced by these individuals.”
I think there is a mistake here in regarding genetics as “pristine” in some form. What if my mother is an anxious person, and I, through environmental exposure, grow into a similarly anxious person? What if my mother has a gene for anxiety, and I inherit it? What if I possess a de novo genetic mutation that causes me to be anxious? And what if I suffer a genetic deletion in one of my chromosomes that causes anxiety? How is any of this different, functionally, from some trauma my mother suffered (say, a car accident) causing epigenetic changes that are subsequently passed on to me?
What is pristine about Down’s Syndrome, Williams’, or Klinefelter’s? Or just having the random bad luck to get genes for short, dumb, and ugly?
“For example, research in epigenetics shows that the choices and experiences of individuals in one generation are conditioning the basic nature of individuals of subsequent generations, which indelibly affects how those new individuals will exercise their own rights. ”
It can’t be indelible. For starters, you only inherit half of each parent’s genome–thus half their epigenome. So right there’s a 50% chance you won’t inherit any particular epigenetic marker. By gen two we’re talking 25% chance, and that’s not counting the constant re-writing of our epigenomes. However, I don’t think the policy implications for countries are all that different from our current thinking. We can say, for example, “If we have X level of pollution in the water, then Y number of people will get cancer,” and it’s a public health problem even if we don’t know “they’ll get cancer because of epigenetics.”
So let’s broaden the inquiry a bit. Not how does epigenetics impact classical liberalism (which is behind us, anyway,) but how do genetics, epigenetics, heritability, et at all influence our modern sensibilities? Modern liberalism is built almost as a reaction against former racialist notions of “blood”, with a consequent belief that people are, on average, about genetically equal. This butts up against the realization that some people are gifted and talented from birth, which many people quietly rationalize away while knowing they are being a bit dishonest, perhaps on the grounds that this is tantamount to statistical noise.
But the whole notion of “meritocracy” becomes more problematic if we admit that there’s a large genetic (or accidental, or environmental, or anything outside of free will,) contribution to IQ, educational attainment, mental illness, your chances of getting a good job, how other people treat you (because of attractiveness,) etc. Should a person who is dumb through no fault of their own suffer poverty? Should an ugly person be denied a job or a date? There’s an essential unfairness to it, after all.
But by the same token, what are you going to do about it? Declare that everyone under a certain IQ gets free money? What sort of incentives does that set up for society? And what does it do to someone’s self-image if they are Officially Delcared Stupid?
But this is all focused on the negative. What if we find ways to make people smarter, healthier, stronger? I think we’d take them. Sure, we’d have a few hold-outs who worry about “playing god,” (much as today we have people who worry about vaccines despite the massive health improvements public vaccination campaigns have cause.) But in the end we’d take them. Similarly, in the end, I think most people would try to avoid damaging their descendants’ epigenomes–even if not through direct public policy.
Addendum: while I am skeptical of most claims about epigenetics, eg, people claiming that epigenetic trauma can be transmitted for over a century, there do seem to be some things that cause what we can here characterize as multi-generational epigenetic effects. For example, the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages back in the 70s, not only causes cancer in the women it was given to, but also in their daughters. (It also results in intersex disorders in male fetuses.) In the third generation (that is, the sons daughters of the fetuses that were exposed to DES their mothers took during pregnancy,) there are still effects, like an increased risk of irregular periods. This is not necessarily “epigenetic” but similar enough to include in the conversation.