Book Club: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

chinua
After a request for “some fiction,” the Book Club picked Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

I have not read this book and know nothing about it (I’ve read some other Achebe, but that was a long time ago.) Hopefully it will be good.

After that, I hope to read Freedman’s Legal Systems very Different from Ours. As always, these can be obtained at the library; our discussion of Things Fall Apart should begin in about a month.

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How do you Raise a Genius?

 

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Recommended, of course.

Special Announcement: I have launched a new blog, “Unpaused Books“, for my Homeschooling Corner posts and reviews of children’s literature. (The title is a pun.) I try to keep the posts entertaining, in my usual style.

Back to genius:

“My kid is a genius.”

It feels rather like bragging, doesn’t it? So distasteful. No one likes a braggart. Ultimately, though, someone has to be a genius–or brilliant, gifted, talented–it’s a statistical inevitability.

So let’s compromise. Your kid’s the genius; I’m just a very proud parent with a blog.

So how do you raise a genius? Can you make a kid a genius?

Unfortunately, kids don’t come with instructions. As far as anyone can tell, there’s no reliable way to transform an average person into a genius (the much bally-hooed “growth mindset” might be useful for getting a kid to concentrate for a few minutes, but it has no long-term effects:

A growing number of recent studies are casting doubt on the efficacy of mindset interventions at scale. A large-scale study of 36 schools in the UK, in which either pupils or teachers were given training, found that the impact on pupils directly receiving the intervention did not have statistical significance, and that the pupils whose teachers were trained made no gains at all. Another study featuring a large sample of university applicants in the Czech Republic used a scholastic aptitude test to explore the relationship between mindset and achievement. They found a slightly negative correlation, with researchers claiming that ‘the results show that the strength of the association between academic achievement and mindset might be weaker than previously thought’. A 2012 review for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK of attitudes to education and participation found ‘no clear evidence of association or sequence between pupils’ attitudes in general and educational outcomes, although there were several studies attempting to provide explanations for the link (if it exists)’. In 2018, two meta-analyses in the US found that claims for the growth mindset might have been overstated, and that there was ‘little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students’.).

Of course, there are many ways to turn a genius into a much less intelligent person–such as dropping them on their head.

terman1916fig2iqdistribution
IQ score distribution chart for sample of 905 children tested on 1916 Stanford–Binet Test, from from Terman’s The Measurement of Intelligence

While there is no agreed-upon exact cut-off for genius, it is generally agreed to correlate more or less with the right side of the IQ bell-curve–though exceptions exist. Researchers have studied precocious and gifted children and found that, yes, they tend to turn out to be talented, high-achieving adults:

Terman’s goal was to disprove the then-current belief that gifted children were sickly, socially inept, and not well-rounded. …

Based on data collected in 1921–22, Terman concluded that gifted children suffered no more health problems than normal for their age, save a little more myopia than average. He also found that the children were usually social, were well-adjusted, did better in school, and were even taller than average.[25] A follow-up performed in 1923–1924 found that the children had maintained their high IQs and were still above average overall as a group. …

Well over half of men and women in Terman’s study finished college, compared to 8% of the general population at the time.[31] Some of Terman’s subjects reached great prominence in their fields. Among them were head I Love Lucy writer Jess Oppenheimer,[32] American Psychological Association president and educational psychologist Lee Cronbach,[33] Ancel Keys,[34] and Robert Sears himself.[32] Over fifty men became college and university faculty members.[35] However, the majority of study participants’ lives were more mundane.

The only really useful parenting advice IQ researchers have come up with so far is to make sure your son or daughter has appropriately challenging school work.

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Source

The SMPY data supported the idea of accelerating fast learners by allowing them to skip school grades. In a comparison of children who bypassed a grade with a control group of similarly smart children who didn’t, the grade-skippers were 60% more likely to earn doctorates or patents and more than twice as likely to get a PhD in a STEM field6. …

Skipping grades is not the only option. SMPY researchers say that even modest interventions — for example, access to challenging material such as college-level Advanced Placement courses — have a demonstrable effect.

This advice holds true whether one’s children are “geniuses” or not. All children benefit from activities matched to their abilities, high or low; no one benefits from being bored out of their gourd all day or forced into activities that are too difficult to master. It also applies whether a child’s particular abilities lie in schoolwork or not–some children are amazingly talented at art, sports, or other non-academic skills.

Homeschooling, thankfully, allows you to tailor your child’s education to exactly their needs. This is especially useful for kids who are advanced in one or two academic areas, but not all of them, or who have the understanding necessary for advanced academics, but not the age-related maturity to sit through advanced classes.

That all said, gifted children are still children, and all children need time to play, relax, and have fun. They’re smart–not robots.

What is “Society”?

In Sociobiology, E. O. Wilson defines a “population” as a group that (more or less) inter-breeds freely, while a “society” is a group that communicates. Out in nature, the borders of a society and a population are usually the same, but not always.

Modern communication has created a new, interesting human phenomenon–our “societies” no longer match our “populations.”

Two hundred years ago, news traveled only as fast as a horse (or a ship,) cameras didn’t exist, and newspapers/books were expensive. By necessity, people got most of their information from the other people around them. One hundred yeas ago, the telegraph had sped up communication, but photography was expensive, movies had barely been invented, and information still traveled slowly. News from the front lines during WWI arrived home well after the battles occurred–probably contributing significantly to the delay in realizing that military strategies were failing horrifically.

Today, the internet/TV/cheap printing/movies/etc are knitting nations into conversational blocks limited only by language (and even that is a small barrier, given the automation of pretty effective translation), but still separated by national borders. It’s fairly normal now to converse daily with people from three or four different countries, but never actually meet them. 

This is really new, really different, and kind of weird.

Since we can all talk to each other, people are increasingly, it seems, treating each other as one big society, despite the fact that we hail from different cultures and live under different governments. What happens in one country or to one group of people reverberates across the world. An American comforts a friend in Malaysia who is sick to her stomach because of a shooting in New Zealand. Both agree that the shooting actually had nothing to do with a popular Swedish YouTuber, despite the shooter enjoining his viewers (while livestreaming the event) to “subscribe to Pewdiepie.” Everything is, somehow, the fault of the American president, or maybe we should go back further, and blame the British colonists.

It’s been a rough day for a lot of people.

Such big “societies” are unwieldy. Many of us dislike each other. We certainly can’t control each other (not without extreme tactics), and no one likes feeling blamed for someone else’s actions. Yet we all want each other to behave better, to improve. How to improve is a tough question.

We also want to be treated well by each other, but how often do we encounter people who are simply awful?

The same forces that knit us together also split us apart–and what it means to be a society but not a population remains to be seen.

What Happens to a Nation Defeated?

 

Rank Race Per capita income (2015 US$)
1 Asian 34,399[1]
2 White 32,910[1]
3 Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander 21,168[1]
4 Black or African American 20,277[1]
5 American Indian and Alaska Native 18,085[1]
6 Some other race 16,580[1]

From Wikipedia, List of US ethnic groups by per capita income.

No matter how you do the math, Native Americans are one of America’s poorest groups. (Indian Americans, by contrast, are one of our richest groups.) According to USA Today, America’s second poorest county is Alaska’s Kusilvak Census Area, which is 92.5% Native American (the poorest, in Alabama, is majority black.) The third poorest county is Apache County, Arizona, where 73% of the population is Native American, (though this list is a little weird because apparently they are only looking at the poorest counties per state).

DqWIx3JU4AA-lE4Wikipedia organizes its list differently, with Zieback County, home of the Cheyenne Indian reservation, coming in 6th. Buffalo and Oglala counties come in 13th and 14th, respectively.

Studies of inter-generational mobility tell a similar story–while the struggles of blacks and Appalachians are well known, Native American reservations stand out in their quiet poverty.

Meanwhile, SAT and ACT scores for Native Americans have been plummeting for the past eight years, which does not bode well for the next generation’s job prospects.

Meanwhile…

prevalence-of-ami-samhsa

On average, Native Americans suffer from mental illness at the same rates as women, and significantly higher rates than African Americans (who are similarly poor and probably have better access to mental health diagnostic services, since they tend to live in cities.) Only mixed-race people are suffering more.

Of course, a high percent of this statistic might be alcohol abuse.

According to the APA [pdf]:

Relative to the US as a whole, AI/ANs:
• Are more likely to live in poverty: more than twice as many AI/ANs live in poverty than total US population (26% vs 12%)
• Have a lower life expectancies: life expectancy among AI/ANs is 6 years lower than the U.S. average; infant mortality is higher than the US population
• Have twice the rate of violent victimization twice that of African Americans and more than 2 ½ times that of whites.
• Die at significantly higher rates from tuberculosis, diabetes, and unintentional injuries and die from alcohol‐related causes 6 times the national average. …

• AI/ANs experience serious psychological distress 1.5 times more than the general population.
• The most significant mental health concerns today are the high prevalence of depression, substance use disorders, suicide, and anxiety (including PTSD).
• AI/ANs experience PTSD more than twice as often as the general population.  Although overall suicide rates among AI/ANs are similar to whites, there are significant differences among certain age groups…

suicidebyrace
The suicide data supports the mental illness data, suggesting that the low rates of mental illness among Asians, blacks, and Hispanics is not due to cultural norms of not seeking mental healthcare (unless not seeking avoiding mental healthcare is protective against suicide.)

These are sad statistics.

The APA tries to blame high rates of mental health problems among the Indians on historical oppression–as though African Americans didn’t also suffer historical oppression. Historical oppression tends to be a terrible explanation for anything.

If you’re worried about the APA’s methods, here’s another study, of Native American women who were seen by primary care doctors in Albuquerque, NM. The study found lifetime prevalence of many disorders at alarmingly high rates:

Alcohol abuse: 28.2%
Mood disorder: 48%
PTSD: 33.3%
Anxiety disorders: 63%

(Note: the rates of disorders currently suffered, rather than over one’s lifetime, are lower.)

This study seems like it is trying hard to get high numbers (or people who are already being seen by doctors may have more mental health problems than average,) but there are enough other studies showing high mental illness rates for Native Americans that it probably isn’t that far off.

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Comancheria, prior to 1850

Slate Star Codex has an interesting review of a book on the Comanche, Empire of the Summer Moon:

Empire of the Summer Moon was a book about the Comanche Indians. They were not very advanced by “civilized” standards. … They just rode around on horses hunting buffalo and starting wars. But they were really, really good at it. …

These raids were probably the most disturbing part of the book. On the one hand, okay, the white people were trying to steal the Comanches’ land and they had every right to be angry. On the other hand, the way the Comanches expressed that anger was to occasionally ride in, find a white village or farm or homestead, surround it, and then spend hours or days torturing everyone they found there in the most horrific possible ways before killing the men and enslaving the women and children. …

And throughout the book’s description of these events, there was one constant:

All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization. All the Indians who joined white civilization hated it and did everything they could to go back to their previous tribal lives.

There was much to like about tribal life. The men had no jobs except to occasionally hunt some buffalo and if they felt courageous to go to war. The women did have jobs like cooking and preparing buffalo, but they still seemed to be getting off easy compared to the white pioneer women or, for that matter, women today. The whole culture was nomadic, basically riding horses wherever they wanted through the vast open plains without any property or buildings or walls. And everyone was amazingly good at what they did …

Scott quotes a couple of other commentators who noted the same thing. including a paper by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture:

“By the close of the colonial period, very few if any Indians had been transformed into civilized Englishmen. Most of the Indians who were educated by the English – some contemporaries thought all of them – returned to Indian society at the first opportunity to resume their Indian identities. Ont he other hand, large numbers of Englishmen had chosen to become Indians – by running away from colonial society to join Indian society, by not trying to escape after being captured, or by electing to remain with their Indian captors when treaties of peace periodically afforded them the opportunity to return home.”

And Benjamin Franklin:

“When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived a while with them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”

It’s a really interesting post and you should read the whole thing.

Now I know that idealizing the “noble savage” is a well-known and obvious failure mode. But I was struck by this and by the descriptions of white-Comanche interactions in the book. Whites who met Comanches would almost universally rave about how imposing and noble and healthy and self-collected and alive they seemed; there aren’t too many records of what the Comanches thought of white people, but the few there are suggest they basically viewed us as pathetic and stunted and defective.

What does it mean to live the good life? To be healthy and happy? Does it require riding around on horseback and torturing people? Do lower levels of civilizational complexity offer people more day-to-day freedom (you can’t get fired from a job of cattle-raiding just because you stayed out too late drinking and woke up late the next morning, after all)?

Or is there something else going on?

Cahokia Aerial_HRoe_2015
An illustration of the Cahokia Mounds Site in Illinois.

I doubt the Comanche were nomadic, horse-riding hunters before whites showed up in North America, if only because there were no horses back then. Many of the iconic, nomadic Plains Indian tribes began as farmers in the towns and proto-cities of the Mississippian mound builder cultures, eg, Cahokia. These communities raised corn, squash, and beans, built monumental architecture, and were largely wiped out by a combination of disease and newly nomadic guys on horseback between their discovery by the Spaniards and the arrival of the English/Americans. Many of the survivors also acquired horses and adopted a mobile lifestyle.

Many of the Indians around Albuquerque, New Mexico, were also farmers who built rather famous towns, the Pueblos, and never turned to nomadic horse-raiding. So regardless of what made people happy in 17 or 1800, I don’t think it’s anything so simple as “Native Americans aren’t adapted to cities but they are adapted to riding horses.”

Of course the Indians have lost their traditional ways of life, whether nomadic or settled, depriving them of traditional ways of achieving status, happiness, etc., but this is equally true of blacks and Hispanics (who tend to be part Indian, albeit from different tribes than the ones in the US,) yet they have much lower rates of mental illness.

I suspect the cause has more to do with lack of opportunities in rural areas and alcohol abuse really messing up not just the people who drink, but everyone who loves them and depends on them.

Quick note on jobs and education

So this whole Yang Gang phenomenon is shaping up to be quite amusing. So far I’ve seen Yang supported by little old liberal grandmas and alt-right memers. I’d better start up some posts on modern monetary theory.

In the meanwhile, just some quick thoughts on how we need to restructure our thinking about education:

The entire education => jobs model has got to change. Not in format–much of the way things are physically taught in the classroom is fine–but in how we think about the process (and thus fund it).

People have the idea that education is 1. Job training and 2. Ends when you graduate.

#2 is important: it implies that education ENDS, and since it ends, you can afford to shell out an enormous quantity of cash for it. But this is increasingly misguided, as many laid-off journalists recently discovered.

The difficulty is that humans are producing knowledge and innovation at an exponential rate, so whatever was an adequate amount of knowledge to begin in a field 20 years ago is no longer adequate–and in the meanwhile, technology has likely radically altered the field, often beyond recognition.

Modern education must be ongoing, because fields/tech/knowledge are shifting too quickly for a single college degree to equip you for 45 years of work.

Is there any point to a degree (or other form of certification)? Yes. It can still function to allow a person into a work community. It just shouldn’t be seen as the end of education, and thus should not cost nearly as much as it does.

Modern education should proceed in bursts. After a short training period, you begin to work, to see if you are a good fit for the particular community (profession) you’ve chosen, or need to transfer to a different community and learn there. Better to figure this out before you spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a degree. Job, pay, education–all need to be unified, small bits, throughout your life.

 

So what do you think about the Yang Gang?

When we become our own worst enemies

In times of danger, tribes merge; in times of peace, they split.

From Scientific Reports, De novo origins of multicellularity in response to predation:

Here we show that de novo origins of simple multicellularity can evolve in response to predation. We subjected outcrossed populations of the unicellular green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii to selection by the filter-feeding predator Paramecium tetraurelia. Two of five experimental populations evolved multicellular structures not observed in unselected control populations within ~750 asexual generations. Considerable variation exists in the evolved multicellular life cycles, with both cell number and propagule size varying among isolates. Survival assays show that evolved multicellular traits provide effective protection against predation. These results support the hypothesis that selection imposed by predators may have played a role in some origins of multicellularity.

If we evolve multicellularity in response to predation, then the inverse–a loss of multicellularity, a splitting apart, can happen when predation is removed. 

The Democrats have faced a bit of controversy lately over the comments of Ilhan Omar (for the non-Americans in the audience, Ilhan Omar is a recently elected representative of Somali Muslim origins.) As Politico reports: 

Then, after being seated on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Omar was lampooned for a 2012 tweet in which she wrote during an Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”  

Omar then made an idiotic non apology — “she claimed ignorance of the anti-Semitic trope that conceives of Jewish hypnosis.” 

Whether Omar knew it is a trope or not is irrelevant to the question of whether or not Omar was saying something anti-semitic–and even that is not necessarily grounds for an apology, because people apologize when they actually feel contrite about something. Omar most likely doesn’t.

Muslims have their interests; Jews have different interests. The existence of Israel is a big deal for Jews–it helps ensure that nasty incidents like the Holocaust don’t repeat. The existence of Israel is also a big deal for Palestinians, many of whom, I assume, would be living in the area if Jews weren’t. 

Conflicts over land are nothing new in human history, and it doesn’t require a degree in astrophysics to realize that sometimes groups have conflicting interests. Americans of the non-Jewish or Muslim variety also have their own interests (many desire, for example, that Israel continue existing for their own religious reasons–not hypnosis.) 

The left’s coalition requires different groups to work together (to ally) in their own self-interest, which works if they have bigger enemies to fear. It doesn’t work if they are strong enough to stand on their own feet (or if someone is too dumb to recognize the value of teamwork.) The ideological justification for allying is “intersectionality,” a term which has been bastardized well beyond its original meaning, but is now used to mean “all forms of oppression are really the same thing, so if you oppose one oppression, you must oppose them all.” So if you are against wife beating, you must also be vegan; if you are opposed to the police shooting unarmed black men, you must also be in favor of hijabs. “Interlocking systems of oppression” work to identify a single enemy, a necessary component for unifying people into something like a voting block or a military. 

And it works as long as there actually is a single enemy. 

It falls apart when you don’t have a single enemy, which is of course the world as it actually stands, because lots of groups have different interests and would like each other’s stuff. There isn’t actually anything magically special about cis-hetero-white-Christian-omnivorous-etc-men that makes them any more or less the oppressors of others. Over in Africa, Africans get oppressed by their fellow Africans. In Islamic countries, chickens get eaten by Muslims. In China, Christianity isn’t even remotely significant. 

In a related story, some British schools have recently seen their pro-LGBT curricula attacked by Muslim parents, who are, despite intersectionalist theory, actually pretty anti-homosexuality.

There is no real way to decide between these two points of view. The vast, vast majority of Muslims believe that homosexuality is a sin, and a school that goes out of its way to teach something counter to that is obviously running up against the students’ and parents’ right to their beliefs. Yet gay people also believe, with equal fervor, that homosexuality is morally respectable and they have a right to advocate on their own behalf and have a perfectly sensible desire to reach out to gay Muslims. 

The difficulty with victory is you don’t need your allies anymore; like the US and the USSR at the end of WWII, victorious allies are apt to turn on each other, fighting for what remains of the spoils. This is true of everyone, not just the left–it is just more interesting when it happens on the left because I’ve been pointing out that this would happen for years. 

Of course, some people react to this and say, “clearly the solution to our group splitting apart is to split our group apart; once our group is split, we will all have the same interests and no one will ever fight, just as children never fight with their siblings–hey knock it off in there STOP PUNCHING YOUR BROTHER you have to SHARE THAT TOY–“

Lack of predation => splitting doesn’t just stop at any particular level. 

297px-world_population_v3-svgThe other difficulty with splitting is that we live in a shrinking world. Up until the 1950s, the entire world had fewer than 3 billion people; today we have more than twice that many, and we’re still growing. Our cities are bigger, communities are expanding, transportation is better and faster, and more people have the money necessary to move to new places. More people than ever before are on the internet, watching TV, or otherwise interacting. 

Devour, get devoured, or make something new?

Feel Something

My Name is Ruin, by Gary Numan

Me: In my zone, listening to music
Husband: Look at this dumb shit someone said on the internet
Me: What? Brains?

So far, everything I have listened to on this album is excellent.

By the way, Mongolia still isn’t sorry–The Hu, Yuve Yuve Yu

Mongolia is going to fuck your shit up and take your women, apparently.

Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit

Guys, I have discovered the point of music. It’s sex.

Alice in Chains: Them Bones

In retrospect, I guess it’s not a surprise that a lot grunge musicians died of drugs or suicide.

Smashing Pumpkins: Bullet with Butterfly Wings

As long as you can still scream, you can still feel.

I don’t know if we can scream anymore.

Placebo–literally, “I please”–Sucker Love:

Their lead singer is a good example of a male playing up his effeminate qualities in order to get laid.
Husband: You can’t just say that without explanation.
Me: Have you seen the lead singer? I guarantee he gets tons of sex.
Husband: Is he gay?
Me: Whatever he’s into, he gets plenty of it.

There’s a lesson here for effeminate men thinking “Hey, would it be easier for me if I became a girl?”

No. It wouldn’t. Be you. Own who you are and find the people who are attracted to you.

AFI: Miss Murder

Gary Numan aside, it seems like the music scene has changed in fundamental ways over the past few decades. I don’t think there is anyone in the business today whose suicide would affect teens like Kurt Cobain’s, just because there is no one that widely loved. It’s not that society is more divided (though perhaps it is); we just don’t listen to music like we used to.

Of course popular music is still around, and still of varying (usually low) quality.

To hazard a guess, if music is really about reproducing, then the change in music is related to the decline in birth rates. A typical modern human mating ritual involves going to a club, listening to a band or some very loud recorded music, getting drunk, and meeting someone you’d like to have sex with. These clubs also provide a place for new bands to get started. But if fewer people go out, clubs close, people meet fewer other people, people are lonelier, birth rates drop, and new bands have a harder time getting noticed, and the industry changes.

On a final note:

This is why certain traits persist in the population.

Is Spring Cleaning an Instinct?

9e30041a93246ed05739ef863ec12415
The Mole spring cleaning in the Wind in the Willows

For the past three days, I have been seized with a passion for cleaning and organizing the house that my husband describes as “a little scary.” So far I’ve found a missing hairbrush, the video camera, (it was in a lunchbox under some papers under some toys), and the floor; reorganized the bedroom, built a mini-chest of drawers out of cardboard, and returned my mother’s plates–and I’m not even pregnant.

A mere week ago, my limbs hurt whenever I moved. I wasn’t sad or depressed, but it simply felt like pushing boulders every time I needed to walk over to the kitchen.

I woke up this morning with high spirits, sore arms from carrying laundry and a question: is spring cleaning an instinct?

You don’t hear much about fall cleaning or winter cleaning. No one bothers with night cleaning or rainy day cleaning. Only Spring receives special mention for its burst of cleaning.

Over on Bustle, Rachel Krantz links a sudden urge to clean to the menstrual cycle:

… science says there is actually a hormonal reason for all this: when you’re PMSing, you are often overcome by an urge to clean house — literally and figuratively.

Why? The answer lies in the way estrogen and progesterone levels affect your brain. Before our periods, our estrogen levels drop — causing serotonin levels to drop right along with it. …

But the drops in estrogen and serotonin aren’t the only things that spur the desire to clean up. Before your period, your progesterone levels also drop, which combines the impulse to clean with an instinct to “nest.” We see this tendency manifest itself more dramatically in pregnant women, who in their later months of pregnancy have low progesterone levels — which often lead them to go into a frenzy of cleaning house and nesting in order to prepare for the baby.

The PMS-related drop in progesterone is a less-intense version of the same phenomenon. 

The Window Genie blog reflects on the effects of long winter days on melatonin, which makes us sleepy:

Well, it’s no myth; winter causes us to be inherently less active and motivated. That’s right; your brain creates melatonin when there is less sunlight on cold dreary days, making you sleepy! Come spring, Mother Nature provides us a natural energy boost by giving us warmer weather and extra sunlight. The dreary days of snow are (hopefully) over and our natural instinct is to explore and interact with others. Although it may seem like a western tradition, cultures from all over the world have been spring cleaning for thousands of years.

Hopefully I can use this newfound energy to write more, because my posting has been deficient of late.

Window Genie (which I suspect is really a window-cleaning service) also notes that spring-cleaning is a cross-cultural phenomenon. I was just commenting on this myself, in a flurry of dish-washing. Do the Jews not clean thoroughly before Passover? Don’t they go through the house, removing all of the bits of old bread, vacuuming and sweeping and dusting to get out even the slightest bit of crumbs or stray yeast? Some even purchase a special feather and spoon kit to dust up the last few crumbs from the corners of the cupboards, then burn them. Burning seems a bit extreme, yet enjoyable–your cleaning is thoroughly done when you’ve burned the last of it.

I would be surprised if “spring cleaning” exists in places that effectively don’t have spring because their weather is warm all-year-long. Likely they have some other traditions, like “Dry season dusting” or “annual migration.” (I find moving an especially effective way to motivate oneself to throw out excess belongings.)

It’s no secret that sales of cleaning and organizing products ramp up in spring, but the claim that our seasonal affection for washing is merely “cultural” is highly suspect–mere “culture” is an extremely ineffective way of getting me to do the laundry.

The claim that Spring Cleaning started in ancient Iran is even more nonsensical. This is simply mistaking the presence of written records in one place and not another for evidence that a tradition is older there. There is no cultural connection between modern American housewives vacuuming their carpets and ancient Iranian cleaning habits.

I do wish people wouldn’t say such idiotic things; I certainly didn’t work through dinner last night because of a love of Zoroaster. It is far more likely that I and the Persians–and millions of other people–simply find ourselves motivated by the same instincts, For we are both humans, and humans, like all higher animals, make and arrange our shelters to suit our needs and convenience. The spider has her web, the snake his hole, the bee her hive. Chimps build nests and humans, even in the warmest of climates, build homes.

These homes must be kept clean, occasionally refreshed and rid of dust and disease-bearing parasites.

Like the circle of the seasons, let us end with the beginning, from The Wind in the Willows:

The Mole had been working very hard all morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “Oh blow!” and also “Hang spring cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling to him…

 

 

What does “Heritable” mean? 

“Heritable” (or “heritability”) has a specific and unfortunately non-obvious definition in genetics.

The word sounds like a synonym for “inheritable,” rather like your grandmother’s collection of musical clocks. Musical clocks are inheritable; fruit, since it rots, is not very inheritable.

This is not what “heritable” means.

“Heritability,” in genetics, is a measure of the percent of phenotypic variation within a population that can be attributed to genetics.

Let me clarify that in normal speak. “Phenotype” is something you can actually see about an organism, like how tall it is or the nest it builds. “Phenotypic variation” means things like “variation in height” or “variation in nest size.”

Let’s suppose we have two varieties of corn: a giant strain and a dwarf strain. If we plant them in a 100% even field with the same nutrients, water, sunlight, etc at every point in the field, then close to 100% of the variation in the resulting corn plants is genetic (some is just random chance, of course.)

In this population, then, height is nearly 100% heritable.

Let’s repeat the experiment, but this time, we sow our corn in an irregular field. Some patches have good soil; some have bad. Some spots are too dry or too wet. Some are sunny; others shaded. Etc.

Here it gets interesting, because aside from a bit of random chance in the distribution of seeds and environmental response, in most areas of the irregular field, our “tall” corn is still taller than the “short” corn. In the shady areas, both varieties don’t get enough sun, but the tall corn still grows taller. In the nutrient-poor areas, both varieties don’t get enough nutrients, but the tall still grows taller. But when we compare all of the corn all over the field, dwarf corn grown in the best areas grows taller than giant corn grown in the worst areas.

Our analysis of the irregular field leads us to conclude that water, sunlight, nutrients, and genes are all important in determining how tall corn gets.

Height in the irregular field is still heritable–genes are still important–but it is not 100% heritable, because other stuff is important, too.

What does it mean to be 10, 40, or 80% heritable?

If height is 10% heritable, then most of the variety in height you see is due to non-genetic factors, like nutrition. Genes still have an effect–people with tall genes will still, on average, be taller–but environmental effects really dominate–perhaps some people who should have been tall are severely malnourished.

In modern, first world countries, height is about 80% heritable–that is, since most people in first world countries get plenty of food and don’t catch infections that stunt their growth, most of the variation we see is genetic. In some third world countries, however, the heritability of height drops to 65%. These are places where many people do not get the nutrients they need to achieve their full genetic potential.

How do you achieve 0% heritability?

A trait is 0% heritable not if you can’t inherit it, but if genetics explains none of the variation in the sample. Suppose we seeded an irregular field entirely with identical, cloned corn. The height of the resulting corn would would vary from area to area depending on nutrients, sunlight, water, etc. Since the original seeds were 100% genetically identical, all of the variation is environmental. Genes are, of course, important to height–if the relevant genes disappeared from the corn, it would stop growing–but they explain none of the variation in this population.

The heritability of a trait decreases, therefore, as genetic uniformity increases or the environment becomes more unequal. Heritability increases as genetics become more varied or the environment becomes more equal. 

Note that the genes involved do not need to code directly for the trait being measured. The taller people in a population, for example, might have lactase persistence genes, which let them extract more calories from the milk they drink than their neighbors. Or they might be thieves who steal food from their neighbors.

I remember a case where investigators were trying to discover why most of the boys at an orphanage had developed pellagra, then a mystery disease, but some hadn’t. It turns out that the boys who hadn’t developed it were sneaking into the kitchen at night and stealing food.

Pellagra is a nutritional deficiency caused by lack of niacin, aka B3. Poor Southerners used to come down with it from eating diets composed solely of (un-nixtamalized) corn for months on end.

The ultimate cause of pellagra is environmental–lack of niacin–but who comes down with pellagra is at least partially determined by genes, because genes influence your likelihood of eating nothing but corn for 6 months straight. Sociopaths who steal the occasional ham, for example, won’t get pellagra, but sociopaths who get caught and sent to badly run prisons, however, increase their odds of getting it. In general, smart people who work hard and earn lots of money significantly decrease their chance of getting it, but smart black people enslaved against their will are more likely to get it. So pellagra is heritable–even though it is ultimately a nutritional deficiency.

What’s the point of heritability?

If you’re breeding corn (or cattle,) it helps to know whether, given good conditions, you can hope to change a trait. Traits with low heritability even under good conditions simply can’t be affected very much by breeding, while traits with high heritability can.

In humans, heritability helps us seek out the ultimate causes of diseases. On a social level, it can help measure how fair a society is, or whether the things we are doing to try to make society better are actually working.

For example, people would love to find a way to make children smarter. From Baby Einstein to HeadStart, people have tried all sorts of things to raise IQ. But beyond making sure that everyone has enough to eat, no nutrient deficiencies, and some kind of education, few of these interventions seem to make much difference.

Here people usually throw in a clarification about the difference between “shared” and “non-shared” environment. Shared environment is stuff you share with other members of your population, like the house your family lives in or the school you and your classmates attend. Non-shared is basically “random stuff,” like the time you caught meningitis but your twin didn’t.

Like anything controversial, people of course argue about the methodology and mathematics of these studies. They also argue about proximate and ultimate causes, and get caught up matters of cultural variation. For example, is wearing glasses heritable? Some would say that it can’t be, because how can you inherit a gene that somehow codes for possessing a newly invented (on the scale of human evolutionary history) object?

But this is basically a fallacy that stems from mixing up proximate and ultimate causes. Obviously there is no gene that makes a pair of glasses grow out of your head, nor one that makes you feel compelled to go and buy them. It is also obvious that not all human populations throughout history have had glasses. But within a population that does have glasses, the chances of you wearing glasses is strongly predicted by whether or not you are nearsighted, and nearsightedness is a remarkable 91% heritable. 

Of course, some nearsighted people opt to wear contact lenses, which lowers the heritability estimate for glasses, but the signal is still pretty darn strong, since almost no one who doesn’t have vision difficulties wears glasses.

If we expand our sample population to include people who lived before the invention of eyeglasses, or who live in countries where most people are too poor to afford glasses, then our heritability estimate will drop quite a bit. You can’t buy glasses if they don’t exist, after all, no matter how bad your eyesight it. But the fact that glasses themselves are a recent artifact of particular human cultures does not change the fact that, within those populations, wearing glasses is heritable.

“Heritability” does not depend on whether there is (or we know of ) any direct mechanism for a gene to code for the thing under study. It is only a statistical measure of genetic variation that correlates with the visible variation we’re looking at in a population.

I hope this helps.

Everyone’s using “social construct” wrong

Well.

Dr. Seers is close.

A “social construct”–in the context of groups of people–is just a stereotype. We’ll call it an “idealized version.” We learn this idealized version by interacting with many individual instances of a particular type of thing and learning to predict its typical behaviors and characteristics.

Suppose I asked you to draw a picture of a man and woman. Go ahead, if you want; then you can compare it to the draw-a-man test.

Out in reality, there are about 7 billion men and women; there is no way you drew someone who looks like all of them. Chances are you drew the man somewhat taller than the woman, even though in reality, there are millions of men and women who are the same height. You might have even drawn hair on the figures–long hair for the woman, short for the man–and some typical clothing, even though you know there are many men with long hair and women with short.

In other words, you drew an idealized version of the pair in order to make it clear to someone else what, exactly, you were drawing.

Our idealized pictures work because they are true on average. The average woman is shorter than the average man, so we draw the woman shorter than the man–even though we know perfectly well that short men exist.

Once an ideal exists, people (it seems) start using artificial means to try to achieve it (like wearing makeup,) which shifts the average, which in turn prompts people to take more extreme measures to meet that ideal.

This may lead to run-away beauty or masculinity trends that look completely absurd from the outside, like foot binding, adult circumcision rituals, or peacocks’ tails. Or breasts–goodness knows why we have them while not nursing.

Our idealized images work less well for people far from the average, or who don’t want to do the activities society has determined are necessary to meet the ideal.

Here’s an interesting survey of whether people (in this case, whites) consider themselves masculine or feminine, broken down by political orientation.

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“In General, would you describe yourself as…”

The same trend holds for women–conservative women are much more likely to consider themselves to be very feminine than liberal women. Of course, ideology has an effect on people’s views, but the opposite is probably also true–people who don’t feel like they meet gender ideals are more likely to think those ideals are problematic, while people who do meet them are more likely to think they are perfectly sensible.

And this sort of thinking applies to all sorts of groups–not just men and women. Conservatives probably see themselves as better encapsulating the ideal of their race, religion, nationality (not just American conservatives, but conservatives of all stripes,) while liberals are probably more likely to see themselves as further from these ideals. The chief exceptions are groups where membership is already pre-determined as liberal, like vegetarians.

esquireThis may also account for the tendency people have, especially of late, to fight over certain representations. An idealized representation of “Americans” may default to white, since whites are still the majority in this country, but our growing population of non-whites would also like to be represented. This leads to pushback against what would be otherwise uncontroversial depictions (and the people who fit the ideal are not likely to appreciate someone else trying to change it on them.)