On overlapping bell curves and the irony of being an outsider

Suppose you have a population–we’ll call it PopA. PopA can be just about any group of people–farmers, classical music lovers, Ukrainians, women, etc. In any population, you’re going to get a range of traits (unless you’ve selected your population in some exact way). Farmers, for example, vary in the sizes and productivity of their farms; women vary in height and weight. Variation in many (though not all) traits can be modeled with a bell curve:

2014-10-03-blogbellcurve

Take height: some people are very short, and some are very tall, but most cluster near their group’s average.

Where we have two (or more) groups, they must vary on the distribution of some trait/s. (Otherwise they would not be separate groups.) For example, the group of classical music lovers tends to listen to more classical music than the group of rap music lovers (who, in turn, tend to listen to more rap music.) Women, on average, are shorter than men. But few groups are absolutely distinct–there are some classical music lovers who also listen to some rap music, and rap fans who listen to a few classical compositions, just as there are men and women who are the same height.

We can figure ut something else from thi graph: men lie about their heights
Men and women arranged by height

Picture 9

A graph of male and female heights

In America, the biggest groups people tend to be aware of (or act like they are aware of) are gender and race:

Picture 10

Asians, whites, Hispanics, and blacks.

You can pick just about any trait to label this graph. We’ll use introversion/extraversion. Introverts are on the left; extroverts are on the right.

“Normal” people–that is average ones–tend to have, by definition, a lot of traits in common with the other people in their group. These folks fit in comfortably. For our example, a normal member of Group A, while more introverted than the national average, is perfectly at home among most other members of Group A. A normal member of Group C, while more extroverted than the national average, is perfectly happy among other members of Group C.

Picture 6

To be explicit: normies have it pretty good. They are constantly surrounded by people who are just like themselves. Outliers, by contrast, tend to be alone (and are often ostracized, bullied, or otherwise attacked by more normal people.)

The thing about traits is that they tend to cluster. People from Pakistan, for example, tend to be Muslim, speak Urdu + a second language, and have brown skin. People with a specific mutation of the EDAR gene–found primarily in east Asians–have thicker hair, more sweat glands, smaller breasts, and differently shaped teeth than people without it. People who like country music are more likely to be pro-life than people who like techno. Women tend to like handbags, diets, and babies, while men tend to like sports and cars.

If traits didn’t cluster, we wouldn’t have groups.

One of the results of this is that normal people on one bell curve probably won’t get along all that well with normal people on another bell curve. To use a somewhat simpler graph:

Picture 5 copy

Normies A, B, and C get along well with normal people from their own groups, but tend not to get along all that well with normal people from other groups. Normie A, for example, is a perfectly normal introvert from group A, and finds most people from groups B and C way too extraverted and regards interacting with them as quite unpleasant. Normie C is a perfectly normal extravert from Group C, and finds most people from groups A and B way too introverted. Normie B thinks there are some perfectly reasonable members of Groups A and C, but that most As and Cs are extremists, and that both sides need to be more like B.

But this is not generally a problem, as normies can just hang out with other people from their own group, who tend to be like themselves.

Let’s talk about outliers:

Picture 5 copy2

Our outliers are, by definition, far from average. Our extremely extraverted member of Group A is simply way too extraverted for other As, and our introverted member of Group C doesn’t get on well with the average C at all. But our extraverted A gets on just fine with normal members of Group C, and our introverted C gets on fine with normal members of Group A.

Obviously my graphs have been rather arbitrarily chosen (actually, chosen for their ability to show up well on the screen rather than their accurate portrayal of the ethnic breakdown of introversion/extraversion.) It is easy to imagine traits that vary in all sorts of interesting ways between groups, depending on the shapes of their relative bell curves. Despite the limitations of my visuals, I hope the overall idea, however, is clear.

Anyway, this was all inspired by conversations/observations I was reading the other day on the kinds of people who enter into interracial marriages. No, I wasn’t reading Stormfront; these were perfectly mainstream-to-leftist people who probably approve of interracial marriage. For example, I have read several complaints from Asian women who say that they get a lot of attention from really creepy guys who have some kind of weird Asian fetish. (And here I just assumed that guys like Asian women because Asian women are less obese.) Another post, written by the (grown) child of an interracial couple, asserted that his dad had married interracially because he was too socially incompetent to attract a woman of his own race.

Harsh, but from the normie perspective, people who get along well with members of other races may in fact be outliers from their own, and are thus considered “socially incompetent.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, anecdotal observation of white women who marry black men suggests that they, too, are not “average,” but instead have a lot in common, personality-wise, with black men. They tend also to have more limited social opportunities due to poverty. (This should be a caution, by the way, for people trying to model the effects of racial admixture: admixture is unlikely to come from a random sample of the population, but to have been selected in some way.)

I feel like repeating here that even though normal people are harsh on outliers, does not automatically mean that being an outlier is morally reprehensible. Highly intelligent people and criminals are both outliers; very short and very tall people are outliers. Blind people and homosexuals are outliers. Outliers can be good, bad, or totally neutral. They’re just not normal, and normal people think that being normal is morally good, because they’re normal, and people default to thinking that they and people like them are good.

As I noted back in the post about adoption, 61% of whites say they’re okay with intermarriage, but only about 2% of them have mixed or other-race children, including step and adopted kids. Given the number of minorities in the country + random chance, about half of the whites who say they’re okay with intermarriage ought to have a mixed-race family–30% of whites, not 2%. Breaking it down by liberal vs. conservative doesn’t help–2% of conservative whites live in mixed-race families, vs. 2.4% of liberal whites, which is really not much of a difference to crow about.

Being okay with intermarriage is a normative value among whites (and probably other racial groups, too,) but differences in the distribution of personality traits may prevent most normal people from forming a lot of friendships (or romantic relationships) with people from different races. By contrast, outliers may get along better with people of other races. Ironically, this means that people whom normals might characterize as “racist” are likely to actually get along pretty well with people of other (or certain) races.

Hence why Derbyshire, a “white advocate,” is married to an Asian woman.

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The Big Bang Theory is not “My People”: aspies, tribalism, and the development of nerd politics

As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t watch much TV, other than the odd documentary and some children’s programs. So while I’ve heard of The Big Bang Theory, I’ve only actually seen a couple of episodes. An acquaintance recently expressed surprise at this fact, asserting that TBBT depicts “[my] people.”

Curiosity got the better of me, so I attempted to watch some episodes on YouTube. Unfortunately, I could only find highlight reels; curse the zealous and effective enforcement of copyright laws. Regardless, I have watched a couple hours of highlights and read the relevant Wikipedia pages.

And these are not “my people.”

To be fair, I laughed. I’m not going to go on a rant claiming that a popular, successful show that lots of people enjoy is actually bad for reasons particular to my own taste in TV. Neither is this going to be an in-depth deconstruction of the good or bad points of a show I’ve barely seen. I’m content to say that it’s funny and I see what other people like in it.

I just don’t see myself in it.

“My people” is a bit of a fuzzy concept. Certainly plenty of “my people” like video games or comic books or have OCD or autism. But this is not what defines us; this is not what separates us from the rest of you.

If anything, video games, Star Trek, comic books, etc., are the things that connect us to normal people. Video games are immensely popular–Farmville2 had, as of 2013, 40 million regular players, which is about the same as the total number of copies of Super Mario Bros. (1985) sold. Then there’s The Sims, which sold over 125 million copies between 2000 and 2010 and has probably kept on selling.

“The success of The Sims resulted in Guinness World Records awarding the series five world records in the Guinness World Records: Gamer’s Edition 2008. These records include “World’s Biggest-Selling Simulation Series” and “Best Selling PC Game of All Time” for the original The Sims game, which sold 16 million units…” (Wikipedia)

There’s nothing wrong with videogames. I like them; lots of people like them. The same goes for the rest of the list. Are nerds more into Star Wars or Star Trek than the average Joe? I think so, but the vast quantities of Star Wars merchandise available at Target certainly isn’t being driven by my tiny demographic; I own more things (books) on P. A. M. Dirac’s contributions to quantum physics than Star Wars and Star Trek-related things combined.

Maybe TBBT is what “my people” look like from the outside, but it’s not what we look like from the inside.

Let’s start with the clothes:

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This show is set in southern California. It is hot there all the time. They have no winter. WHY ARE THEY WEARING JACKETS AND SWEATERS?

While nerds do occasionally dress nicely–especially for SCA events–most of the time, we wear clothes to cover our fleshy meat sacks. We do not (generally) have colorful, curated wardrobes.  Most of us don’t really think about clothing. I have seen nerds walking in the snow wearing less clothing than these guys are wearing for the simple reason that they were thinking about something else and had not thought to put on clothes.

If Sheldon were really an autistic (or OCD,) quantum physicist with an IQ around 178 or whatever, he’d look more like the guy on the left:

yesss physics yesss
From left to right: Dirac, youngest Nobel prize winner in physics; Nobel laureate Robert A. Millikan; and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Caltech, Calif., May 28, 1935.

(Say what you will, Dirac clearly did not notice that he put on a vest that’s too small for himself this morning.)

Or maybe this guy:

Blatant attempt to cram Niels Bohr into a post
Blatantly cramming Niels Bohr into post

Of course, the modern style of Caltech Physicists is a little less formal–they appear to have ditched the jackets–but still a far cry from curated colors.

But clothes are a triviality. They are not my real objection; they’re just the easiest to express objection.

According to the Wikipedia’s summary of TBBT, the show revolves around the characters’ pop-culture obsessions and failures at dating:

One of the recurring plot lines is the relationship between Leonard and Penny. Leonard becomes attracted to Penny in the pilot episode and his need to do favors for her is a frequent point of humor in the first season. Their first long term relationship begins when Leonard returns from a three-month expedition to the North Pole in the season 3 premiere. However, when Leonard tells Penny that he loves her, she realizes she cannot say it back. Both Leonard and Penny go on to date other people; most notably with Leonard dating Raj’s sister Priya for much of season 4. This relationship is jeopardized when Leonard comes to falsely believe that Raj has slept with Penny, and ultimately ends when Priya sleeps with a former boyfriend in “The Good Guy Fluctuation“.

Penny, who admits to missing Leonard in “The Roommate Transmogrification”, accepts his request to renew their relationship in “The Beta Test Initiation”. After Penny suggests having sex in “The Launch Acceleration”, Leonard breaks the mood by proposing to her. Penny says “no” but does not break up with him. She stops a proposal a second time in “The Tangible Affection Proof”. In the sixth season episode, “The 43 Peculiarity”, Penny finally tells Leonard that she loves him. Although they both feel jealousy when the other receives significant attention from the opposite sex, Penny is secure enough in their relationship to send him off on an exciting four-month expedition without worrying in “The Bon Voyage Reaction”. After Leonard returns, their relationship blossoms over the seventh season. In the penultimate episode “The Gorilla Dissolution”, Penny admits that they should marry and when Leonard realizes that she is serious, he proposes with a ring that he had been saving for years.

Jeez. Who goes through that much crap for a relationship? Here’s what a normal relationship looks like:

Day 1: meet; ask other person out. Yes => date. No => meet someone else and ask them out.

Within a month or two: if you’re in love, keep dating. If not, break up.

Within a few years: get married or break up.

I feel like I am harping on something trivially mundane and totally obvious, except that a lot of people watch TBBT, and I honestly think that plotlines like this (which serve to draw back viewers for subsequent episodes with their constant “will they or won’t they finally get together?” rather than depict reality,) actually give some people (mostly beta males) the wrong impression about how to go about their relationships. Anime is also guilty of this. DO NOT SPEND YEARS OF YOUR LIFE WAITING FOR THE GIRL YOU LIKE TO FINALLY NOTICE YOU. If you don’t ask her out, she will not date you. If she says no, she’s probably not interested and you should go ask someone else out. Doing the “nice guy” beta-male best friend thing for years in the hope that someday she will notice you does not work and tends to work out badly for everyone involved.

Here’s what my life revolves around: personal relationships (kids, husband, friends, relatives, job, etc.,) and my ideas.

I have a lot of ideas, hence this blog and a few other projects I’ve got going.

The ideas permeate everything. Picking the kids up from school? Thinking about the evolution of social structures. Conversing with mom-friend on the playground while watching the kids? Calculating estimated total fertility rate for the neighborhood. Trying to fall asleep? Narrating the French Revolution in my head.

Sometimes the ideas are so intense, it’s agony to do anything else. I can’t sleep, can’t converse, can’t be still until I write them down.

It’s ideas, all the way down.

I wouldn’t care a whit about the colorful t-shirts and weird relationships if the show just focused on Sheldon’s ideas! Admittedly, each episode would be Sheldon wrangling his friends into the apartment and then 2o minutes of enthusiastic physics lecture, which might not go over so well with the intended audience. But real life tends not to be all that TV-worthy.

I am now going to break an unstated rule of this blog and talk about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

No, I don’t watch MLP. I have kids; my kids watch MLP. (But I admit that MLP is one of the kids’ shows that doesn’t make me want to light the TV on fire and defenestrate it.)

Anyway, if I were a pony, I’d be Maud Pie:

Picture 5

She likes rocks. (I like rocks.)

Unlike Sheldon, Maud was not written for the audience to connect with. Maud is the pony the other ponies cannot connect with; the one they cannot be friends with. (This is aside from her sister, Pinkie Pie, who loves her unconditionally because she’s family.) The point of Maud’s episode is that there are some people in this world who, though they are not bad or evil people, are simply interested in things you aren’t, and you don’t have any connection to them.

Maud is interested in rocks, rocks, and nothing but rocks. She writes poetry about rocks. She has a pet rock. Her special magic abilities have to do with rocks. Her cutie mark is probably a rock. She doesn’t really have interests outside of rocks.

The audience, like the main cast, is supposed to find Maud boring. You are supposed to connect with their total lack of anything in common with someone like Maud.

Of course, since I like rocks, I spent the episode going, “Why don’t they just learn to love rocks like Maud does? Why don’t they try connecting with her by finding out what she finds so fascinating about rocks?”

But the idea that one might try to connect with someone by being willing to discuss their passion did not occur to the show’s creators. This is why physics and ideas can never be the focus of TBBT–the viewers have no real interest in what makes Sheldon passionate about physics.

While researching this post, I happened into a conversation on whether or not Maud has Asperger’s. All but one of the folks in the thread who actually have Asperger’s agreed that Maud comes across as Aspie. All but one of the folks saying that Maud was not Aspie were neurotypicals.

Their arguments tended to go like this: “Maud is not Aspie. There is nothing wrong with her, and Aspies have something wrong with them because Asperger’s is a disorder. She is just very passionate about rocks.”

Yes, well, fuck you.

Let’s get something straight. We can call Maud “Aspie” without saying that there is anything “wrong” with her.

I don’t think the show’s creators intended to create an Aspie pony. I think they wanted to create a pony none of the other ponies could connect with because she was boring, uninterested in the other ponies, and only talked about one boring thing.

Which is basically the colloquial definition of “Aspie.”

Here I need to pause and clarify the difference between a formal diagnosis of Autism or Asperger’s with the colloquial usage of “Aspie.”

Autism and Asperger’s were never all that well defined to begin with, with a tremendous overlap between there. Asperger’s is thought of as the less severe of the two diagnoses, but there are “low functioning aspies” who are much worse off than many “high functioning autistics.” My suspicion is that the distinction drawn between the two (language delay and IQ,) wasn’t really the correct distinction, and the whole business should have been determined via degree of impairment in the first place.

Which I suppose is what they are trying to do, now that they’ve formally removed Asperger’s from the DSM.

A formal diagnosis of autism means that there probably is, in fact, something “wrong” with you. As Slate Star Codex notes, formally diagnosed, institutionalized autistics do a lot of things that are definitely problematic, like try to chew off their hands.

I do not have a formal diagnosis of autism, Asperger’s, or anything of the like.

According to the Wikipedia, “Asperger syndrome is characterized by impairment in social interaction accompanied by restricted and repetitive interests and behavior; it differs from the other ASDs by having no general delay in language or cognitive development.” Autism, “is distinguished not by a single symptom, but by a characteristic triad of symptoms: impairments in social interaction; impairments in communication; and restricted interests and repetitive behavior.”

Unlike the stereotype of autistics as “idiot savants,” most of them are intellectually impaired across the board, cannot work, and will be dependent on others for their entire lives. Many of them cannot talk, put on their own clothes, use the toilet unassisted, or communicate their needs to others.

A recent study of people with actual, diagnosed Autism found a bunch of de novo mutations. These kids can’t talk because there is actually something genetically wrong with them:

By comparing affected to unaffected siblings, we show that 13% of de novo missense mutations and 43% of de novo likely gene-disrupting (LGD) mutations contribute to 12% and 9% of diagnoses, respectively. Including copy number variants, coding de novo mutations contribute to about 30% of all simplex and 45% of female diagnoses.

The colloquial definition of “Aspie” is someone who’s interested in stuff you’re not interested in and who has trouble interacting with normal people. This definition has nothing to do with functionality; it’s really just a matter of whether or not you “fit in” with dumbs. So, a teenage girl who talks endlessly about boys and makeup is considered “normal” by most people, but a teenage girl who talks passionately about quantum physics is “aspie” because other teenage girls don’t want to hear about quantum physics. A man who is obsessed with motorcycles is “normal” because only an idiot risks getting punched in the face, but a man who is passionate about trains is “aspie.”

“Aspie” is the new “faggot,” now that you’re not supposed to make fun of gay people. (Is it mere coincidence that the actor picked to play Sheldon is, in fact, flamingly gay?)

There’s a major problem here that anyone who is exceptionally intelligent is probably going to have ideas floating around in their head that normal people can’t understand and is going to learn far more about any subject they’re interested in than the average person. If I am trying to express the idea that different environments favor mitochondrial or viral memes, and you’re trying to express the idea that a popular actor is very attractive, we are not going to socialize terribly well together.

But I have no difficulty socializing with other people like myself.

A recent study of “autism-spectrum-quotient” traits found that men do, indeed, rate higher than women on autism surveys, and people in STEM professions score higher than folks in non-STEM professions, true to stereotypes:

We examine correlations between the AQ and age, sex, occupation, and UK geographic region in 450,394 individuals. We predicted that age and geography would not be correlated with AQ, whilst sex and occupation would have a correlation. Mean AQ for the total sample score was m = 19.83 (SD = 8.71), slightly higher than a previous systematic review of 6,900 individuals in a non-clinical sample (mean of means = 16.94) This likely reflects that this big-data sample includes individuals with autism who in the systematic review score much higher (mean of means = 35.19). As predicted, sex and occupation differences were observed: on average, males (m = 21.55, SD = 8.82) scored higher than females (m = 18.95; SD = 8.52), and individuals working in a STEM career (m = 21.92, SD = 8.92) scored higher than individuals non-STEM careers (m = 18.92, SD = 8.48). Also as predicted, age and geographic region were not meaningfully correlated with AQ.

Hold on a second and look at that last sentence again: age was not meaningfully correlated with AQ. The number of autism diagnoses has been skyrocketing over the past couple of days, accompanied by a great deal of debate on why. Here we have evidence–from nearly half a million people–that the overall “AQ” of the British population has not increased (or decreased) significantly over the years. Either the increase in “autism” diagnoses is entirely an artifact of some other process–like kids who would previously have been diagnosed as just “retarded” getting diagnosed as “autisitic”–or the distribution of “Aspie” traits in the general population has nothing to do with autistics.

At any rate, I see no reason to assume that people in STEM fields are retarded; their aspieness strikes me as far more of the colloquial, “normal people just aren’t into this,” variety. Whereby “normal” I mean “people who talk about their emotions all the damn time.”

Stupid emotions.

Now, I have no idea whether or not Sheldon is really autistic. At this point, I’m not even comfortable with the colloquial use of “Aspie.” And I’m not saying that nerds never act like the guys on TBBT. I’m just saying that this isn’t really “my people,” at least as I see them.

A show about people like me would have one programmer guy who starts out libertarian in season one and then starts reading Moldbug in season two. The main character would be a prominent rationalist blogger/physicist, whose ex-girlfriend is in a bi-poly open relationship with an SJW Asian bio-major, who gets in frequent fights with the programmer. Their room would be full of computers, disassembled computers, computer parts, and robots. (TBBT has one Jewish and one Indian character, which I would obviously retain.)

It’s getting late, so I’m going to continue this tomorrow.

Tesla, Edison, Genius, and Loneliness (part 2/2)

Part 1 is here.

“If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.” — Confucius

This quote is one of my personal mottoes, but I have added a corollary: “If I am walking with only one man, I still have two teachers, for I may learn to achieve goodness from a man’s good side, and to avoid evil from a man’s bad side.”

At any rate, Edison is a man whose goodness instructs us on how to take brilliant ideas and build the structures necessary for them to benefit humanity. Edison is a man who literally built civilization and deserves credit for both seeing how the structures needed to fit together to work, and for having the skills necessary to actually bring people together and build those structures.

Tesla is a lesson on how society should not manage its creative geniuses, (and I don’t mean the dumb pay dispute with Edison.)

Tesla is an interesting character. He appears to have been one of the world’s exceedingly rare true short sleepers, which appears to be a genetic condition:

“Ying-Hui Fu … studies the genetics and other characteristics of short sleepers at her neurogenetics lab.

“Currently, Fu knows of three types of genetic mutations that are related to the ability to function well on minimal amounts of sleep, which often runs in the family. In a 2009 paper published in the journal Science, she described a mother and a daughter who shared the same genetic mutation of the gene DEC2 that allowed them to thrive on six hours of sleep per night. So far Fu has identified about 50 families of short sleepers.

“This group of short sleepers is unique,” Fu said, describing them as optimistic and energetic, often holding more than one job. …

“Interestingly, these high energy levels typical of short sleepers can sometimes reach behavioral extremes. For instance, a 2001 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research that examined the sleep patterns and personality of 12 short sleepers, researchers found some evidence of subclinical hypomania — a milder form of manic behavior, characterized by euphoria, disinhibition and, in fact, a decreased need for sleep.”

Please note that drinking 10 5-hour-energy drinks in a row is not the same as having a genetic mutation that lets you get by on less sleep. Chances are extremely likely that you, my friend, are already not getting as much sleep as you need for optimum health. Also, since very few short sleepers have actually been studied, what we think we know about them may not be entirely accurate; they may suffer long-term consequences that have not yet been documented, for example. I do wonder if chronic lack of sleep eventually got to Tesla, reducing him to a state of waking-dreaming toward the end of his life, when he began going obviously loopy.

 

Tesla’s rigidity of personality, behavior, and dress are reminiscent of the compulsive, repetitive, and restrictive behaviors associated with autism/Asperger’s Syndrome (now just another part of “autism” in the DSM,) eg,

“People with Asperger syndrome display behavior, interests, and activities that are restricted and repetitive and are sometimes abnormally intense or focused. They may stick to inflexible routines, move in stereotyped and repetitive ways, or preoccupy themselves with parts of objects.

“Pursuit of specific and narrow areas of interest is one of the most striking features of AS.[1] Individuals with AS may collect volumes of detailed information on a relatively narrow topic such as weather data or star names, without necessarily having a genuine understanding of the broader topic.” (Wikipedia.)

I’ve long thought it a problem that these definitions/descriptions make no effort to distinguish between “Aspies” and genuinely intelligent people, who simply have more ability to memorize facts of any sort and will learn about any subject in more depth than someone of ordinary intelligence. If we want to define high IQ as a mental disorder, then, well, I guess we can, but it seems like a bad idea to me.

Autistic children apparently also have difficulty sleeping, which is why many of them are being prescribed melatonin as a sleep aid (as I discussed back in Melanin, Sexuality, and Aggression.) However, these autistic kids appear to actually need more sleep than they’re getting; they just seem to have trouble turning off their brains and keeping them off long enough for a proper sleep.

Anyway, to get extremely speculative: Much like Fu’s short sleepers, the autistic people I have worked with personally (N=small) seemed like they had brains on overdrive. Imagine that a normal brain is an Amish buggy, going along at a nice, reasonable clip, and their brains are Formula One race cars. Brain speed in this case may have nothing to do with IQ, per say, or may in fact be detrimental to it–autistics are far more likely than the general population to test as mentally retarded–but I favor a theory that having a small quantity of autistic-like traits may be useful for people in fields or occupations that require high IQ, but large quantities of autistic-like traits cause too many negative side effects, resulting in full-blown autism. In Tesla’s case, he got the benefits of the massively high-powered, sped-up brain, with a side effect that he couldn’t turn it off long enough to get more than a few hours of sleep and lacked the normal social instincts that lead people to marry, have children, and generally form stable relationships with other people.

There’s a certain irony to Tesla advocating for sterilization of the unfit and hanging out with Nazi propagandist George Sylvester Viereck at the same time as the Nazis were ignoring Hans Asperger’s plea that his subjects be employed as codebreakers and executing them as mental defectives instead. But then, the Nazis are kind of a great big case of how not to treat your smart people.

To be fair, this is not evidence that Tesla actually supported the Nazis or their policies.

Back in Is Genius Fragile?, I discussed a recent paper in Molecular Psychology that claimed to have studied 1,400 students with IQs of 170 or above, and found no rare genetic alleles that were more common in them than people of normal or low IQ, but did find rare, deleterious alleles in regular/dumb people.

Edit: I just realized that for scheduling reasons, “Is Genius Fragile” actually got moved to mid-November. The Molecular Psychology paper is here.

But are such alleles actually deleterious? Tesla never married and had no children; neither did Isaac Newton. Einstein had three children, but one of them seems to have died in infancy and one was institutionalized for schizophrenia.

In other words, perhaps some of these alleles they’ve noticed aren’t deleterious, but actually helpful in some way. Perhaps, for example, there is an allele that codes for processes that help you turn off your brain at night and transition to certain sleep states. Without that allele, your brain is more “on” all the time, you feel more alert and can think more clearly than others without getting tired, but ultimately there are some bad side effects to not sleeping. Or perhaps the brain’s ability to see patterns is normally regulated by another mechanism that helps you distinguish between real patterns and false matches, which might malfunction in people like John Nash, resulting both in increased pattern-matching ability and in schizophrenia. By the way, I am totally speculating and might be completely wrong.

Please note that from the evolutionary POV, traits–like IQ–are not inherently valuable. A trait is adaptive if it leads to the continuation of your DNA into future generations, and is deleterious or maladaptive if it hinders the continuation of your DNA. If high IQ people do not have children, the high IQ is maladaptive and being selected out of the population. (Please note, also, that different environments, both physical and cultural, select for different traits. Had Tesla remained near his family back in Croatia, they might have helped arrange a marriage for him, leading eventually to children and romantic entanglements with someone who wasn’t a pigeon.)

However, even if high-IQ people never reproduced under any circumstances, their existence in a population might still be advantageous to the population as a whole–you probably enjoy having lightbulbs, electricity, cell phones, and other such things, for example. The development of vaccines, industrial agriculture, and modern theories about nutrition and hygiene have vastly expanded the Earth’s human population over the past hundred years, and would have done so even if the people involved had not had any children at all.

This is a somewhat complicated issue that depends on the interaction of a lot of variables, like whether society can consistently produce high-IQ people even if the high-IQ people themselves do not have many children, and whether the innovations of modernity will actually help us survive (the Amish, after all, have more children than your average person with a cell phone.) See: “How–and why–genius is group selected–massive cultural amplification” for some more discussion on the subject.

Regardless, I am operating under the assumption that society benefits from the existence of people like Tesla (and, of course, Edison.)

Anyway, back to Tesla and his job difficulties.

In “The Improperly Excluded,” Micheal Ferguson theorizes that there exists a maximum IQ difference between two people beyond which they cannot effectively communicate, which he places around 20 IQ points. (I think I discussed it here and here.) So a person with an average IQ of 100 can understand and communicate with someone with a 120 IQ, and someone with a 120 can understand a 140, but the 100 and 140 are essentially speaking Greek to each other; the 100 IQ person cannot make heads or tails of the 140’s thoughts, nor distinguish their claims from those of a crazy person or charlatan. If the 100 trusts the 120, the 120 can take advice from the 140 and recommend it to the 100, but beyond that, people of, say, 160 IQ are just too far removed from the average population to even get their ideas effectively communicated. Extremely high IQ people, therefore, may be improperly excluded from positions where they could actually do important work just because average people have no way to understand what they’re saying. Additionally, since extremely high IQ people are very rare, they may have to cope with a world in which almost no one they meet is within their comfortable conversation zone.

Note: see Hollingworth Fan’s comment below for some very interesting quotes on this subject.

Tesla, a guy who could do integer calculus in his head, was undoubtedly brilliant far beyond the common walks of man, and so seems to have faced the constant frustration of being surrounded by idiots like Edison. Upon Edison’s death, Tesla opined in the NY Times about his former boss:

“He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene … His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense.”

That idiot Edison, by the way, had six children, none of whom seem to have died in infancy or gone crazy. Three went into science/inventing, two were women, and I don’t know what happened to the fourth boy. Edison was undoubtedly helped in life by living in the same country as his family, but he also seems to have just been a more stable person who successfully managed to balance his work and social life. Edison: better adapted to his environment than Tesla.

Tesla’s genius was undoubtedly under-utilized. Tesla could not manage his own affairs, and so needed, at the very least, the strong structural support of a family that would prevent him from doing stupid things like gambling away his tuition money and dropping out of college, as well as a sound employer or university that would manage the business end of Tesla’s laboratory expenses and design implementation. Immigration to the US left Tesla without the support of his family, and his own stubbornness lead him to quit what would otherwise have been a productive career.

Additionally, Tesla’s ideas may truly have been too far ahead of their time for even other smart people to appreciate and understand. There were few people in the world at his level, and he must have spent much of his life completely isolated from anyone who could understand him. Even an employer willing to finance his schemes might not have been able to understand (and thus implement) some of them.

Isolation, I suspect, leads eventually to madness. Not because (or just because) isolation makes people lonely, which makes them depressed. But because the human animal is not designed to work in isolation.

In the extreme example, we know from observing people in solitary confinement that it breaks their brains and drives them insane.

In everyday life, our brains require regular feedback from others to make sure our ideas and impulses are correct. To give a trivial example, suppose I mention to my husband that a friend of mine did something today that really annoyed me, and he responds that I am misinterpreting things, that he heard from my friend’s husband that morning about some extenuating circumstances that explain her behavior and that I should not be annoyed with her. Likewise, he might come to me with a story about a co-worker who seems to be stealing his ideas, and I could help figure out if the guy really is.

Isolation removes this feedback, leading to more and more incorrect ideas.

In his recent post, “Mysticism and Pattern-Matching,” Scott Alexander writes:

“Think of top-down processing as taking noise and organizing it to fit a pattern. Normally, you’ll only fit it to the patterns that are actually there. But if your pattern-matching system is broken, you’ll fit it to patterns that aren’t in the data at all. …

“So hallucinations are when your top-down processing/pattern-matching ability becomes so dysfunctional that it can generate people and objects out of random visual noise. Why it chooses some people and objects over others I don’t know, but it’s hardly surprising – it does the same thing every night in your dreams.

“Many of the same people who have hallucinations also have paranoia. Paranoia seems to me to be overfunctioning of social pattern-matching. … When a paranoiac hears a stray word here, or sees a sideways glance there, they turn it into this vast social edifice of connected plots.”

Tesla’s claims to have been working on a “Death Ray” that turned out to be an old battery, his romantic entanglement with a pigeon, claims that “thieves” had broken into his hotel room in search of his “Death Ray” but not been able to find, and the Mythbusters’ thorough busting of his claims to have built an oscillator that nearly brought down the building and had to be destroyed with a sledgehammer all sound a lot like what Scott’s describing. As a guy who could do calculus in his head, Tesla had an extreme talent for pattern matching–perhaps too extreme. Scott continues:

“So to skip to the point: I think all of this is about strengthening the pattern-matching faculty. You’re exercising it uselessly but impressively, the same way as the body-builder who lifts the same weight a thousand times until their arms are the size of tree trunks. Once the pattern-matching faculty is way way way overactive, it (spuriously) hallucinates a top-down abstract pattern in the whole universe. This is the experience that mystics describe as “everything is connected” or “all is one”, or “everything makes sense” or “everything in the universe is good and there for a purpose”. The discovery of a beautiful all-encompassing pattern in the universe is understandably associated with “seeing God”.”

Recovered schizophrenics I’ve talked to report the exact same thing: both a mystical sense of the union of all things, and joy at the experience (though they also report that schizophrenia can be absolutely terrifying, because sometimes the voices are evil.)

And finally (at least for the quoting):

“I think other methods of inducing weird states of consciousness, like drugs and meditation, probably do the same thing by some roundabout route. Meditation seems like reducing stimuli, which is known to lead to hallucinations in eg sensory deprivation tanks or solitary confinement cells in jail. I think the general principle is that a low level of external stimuli makes your brain adjust its threshold for stimulus detection up until anything including random noise satisfies the threshold.”

Isolation/ lack of stimulus has a direct effect of lowering the brain’s threshold for identifying patterns until random background noise gets interpreted as conversation. (The general correlation between schizophrenia and low IQ could be partially an effect of smarter people being better at avoiding severe isolation, and dumber people being more likely to end up in situations where literally no one has a real conversation with them for years at a time.

Tesla seems to have been isolated in his own way, both by being far more intelligent than the vast majority of people, and so unable to converse properly with them, and also by having none of his family, kin, or fellow countrymen around. He even had to communicate primarily in a language that was hardly his first.

Long term, I suspect such isolation had a negative effect on Tesla’s sanity and ability to wisely conduct his own affairs.

 

Tesla is a difficult case, because he willingly walked away from what were probably excellent career opportunities, and there’s hardly anything anyone could do about his family being back in Croatia. However, since most people do live in the same country as their families, we can still draw some general conclusions:

Some really smart people may require significant support from society and/or their families/employers in order to properly function and fully realize their potential. Their families should probably step in and help them get married if they can’t do it themselves, at the very least to help keep them happy and stable.

The Wikipedia quotes physicist Y. S. Kim on the subject of P. A. M. Dirac (one of my favorite scientists)’s marriage to Margit Wigner, sister of Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner:

“It is quite fortunate for the physics community that Manci took good care of our respected Paul A. M. Dirac. Dirac published eleven papers during the period 1939–46…. Dirac was able to maintain his normal research productivity only because Manci was in charge of everything else.”

Dirac and Manci in Kopenhagen
Dirac and Manci in Kopenhagen

Alas, the Wikipedia does not give the details of how an autist like Dirac managed to marry Manci.

Really smart people may have some ideas that are astounding brilliant, and also have a lot of ideas that don’t work at all, because that is just the nature of creativity, but the average person probably can’t tell the difference. They need other people like themselves to bounce ideas off of and generally converse with. Their eccentricities are generally harmless, and the community is better off tolerating them.

Above all, try not to abandon them. Humans are not built to be alone.

Further implications of hippocampal theory

So while on my walk today, I got to thinking about various potential implications of the hippocampal theory of time preference.

The short version if you don’t want to read yesterday’s post is that one’s degree of impulsivity/ability to plan / high or low time preference seems to be mediated by an interaction between the nucleus accumbens, which seems to a desire center, and the hippocampus, which does a lot of IQ-related tasks like learn new things and track objects through space. Humans with hippocampal damage become amnesiacs; rats with the connection between their nucleus accumbens and hipocampus severed lose their ability to delay gratification even for superior rewards, becoming slaves to instant gratification.

So, my suspicion:

Relatively strong hippocampus => inhibition of the nucleus accumbens => low time preference.

Relatively weak hippocamus => uninhibited nucleus accumbens => high time preference (aka impulsivity.)

Also, Strong hippocampus = skill at high IQ tasks.

Incentivise traits accordingly.

Anyway, so I was thinking about this, and it occurred to me that it could explain a number of phenomena, like the negative correlation between weight and IQ, eg:

Shamelessly stolen from Jayman's post.
Shamelessly stolen from Jayman’s post. As usual, I recommend it.

(Other theories on the subject: Intelligent people make lots of money and so marry attractive people, resulting in a general correlation between IQ and attractiveness; there is something about eating too much or the particular foods being eaten that causes brain degeneration.)

People generally claim that overweight people lack “willpower.” Note that I am not arguing about willpower; willpower is only a tiny part of the equation.

The skinny people I know do not have willpower. They just do not have big appetites. They are not sitting there saying, “OMG, I am so hungry, but I am going to force myself not to eat right now;” they just don’t actually feel that much hunger.

The fat people I know have big appetites. They’ve always had big appetites. Some of them have documented large appetites going back to infancy. Sure, their ability to stay on a diet may be directly affected by willpower, but they’re starting from a fundamentally different hunger setpoint.

So what might be going on is just a matter of whether the hippocampus or nucleus accumbens happens to be dominant. Where the NE is dominant, the person feels hunger (and all desires) quite strongly. Where the hippocampus is dominant, the person simply doesn’t feel as much hunger (or other desires.)

That a strong hippocampus also leads to high IQ may just be, essentially, a side effect of this trade-off between the two regions.

We might expect, therefore, to see higher inhibition in smart people across a range of behaviors–take socializing, sex, and drug use. *Wanders off to Google*

So, first of all, it looks like there’s a study that claims that higher IQ people do more drugs than lower IQ people. Since the study only looks at self-reported drug use, and most people lie about their illegal drug use, I consider this study probably not very useful; also, drug use is not the same as drug addiction, and there’s a big difference between trying something once and doing it compulsively.

Heroin and cocaine abusers have higher discount rates for delayed rewards than alcoholics or non-drug-using controls

IQ and personality traits assessed in childhood as predictors of drinking and smoking behaviour in middle-aged adults: a 24-year follow-up study (they found that lower IQ people smoke more)

Severity of neuropsychological impairment in cocaine and alcohol addiction: association with metabolism in the prefrontal cortex (Cocaine users are dumb)

HighAbility: The Gifted Introvert claims that 75% of people over 160 IQ are introverts.

Research Links High Sex Drive To High IQ, But Brainiacs Still Have Less Sex Than Everyone Else (Spoiler alert: research does not link high sex drive to IQ. Also, NSFW picture alert.)

I am reminded here of a story about P. A. M. Dirac, one of my favorite scientists:

“An anecdote recounted in a review of the 2009 biography tells of Werner Heisenberg and Dirac sailing on an ocean liner to a conference in Japan in August 1929. “Both still in their twenties, and unmarried, they made an odd couple. Heisenberg was a ladies’ man who constantly flirted and danced, while Dirac—’an Edwardian geek’, as biographer Graham Farmelo puts it—suffered agonies if forced into any kind of socialising or small talk. ‘Why do you dance?’ Dirac asked his companion. ‘When there are nice girls, it is a pleasure,’ Heisenberg replied. Dirac pondered this notion, then blurted out: ‘But, Heisenberg, how do you know beforehand that the girls are nice?'”[30]” (from the Wikipedia.)

Folks speculate that Dirac was autistic; obviously folks don’t speculate such things about Heisenberg.

Autism I have previously speculated may be a side effect of the recent evolution of high math IQ, and the current theory implies a potential correlation between various ASDs and inhibition.

Looks like I’m not the first person to think of that: Atypical excitation–inhibition balance in autism captured by the gamma response to contextual modulation:

The atypical gamma response to contextual modulation that we identified can be seen as the link between the behavioral output (atypical visual perception) and the underlying brain mechanism (an imbalance in excitatory and inhibitory neuronal processing). The impaired inhibition–excitation balance is suggested to be part of the core etiological pathway of ASD (Ecker et al., 2013). Gamma oscillations emerge from interactions between neuronal excitation and inhibition (Buzsaki and Wang, 2012), are important for neuronal communication (Fries, 2009), and have been associated with e.g., perceptual grouping mechanisms (Singer, 1999).

Also, Response inhibition and serotonin in autism: a functional MRI study using acute tryptophan depletion:

“It has been suggested that the restricted, stereotyped and repetitive behaviours typically found in autism are underpinned by deficits of inhibitory control. … Following sham, adults with autism relative to controls had reduced activation in key inhibitory regions of inferior frontal cortex and thalamus, but increased activation of caudate and cerebellum. However, brain activation was modulated in opposite ways by depletion in each group. Within autistic individuals depletion upregulated fronto-thalamic activations and downregulated striato-cerebellar activations toward control sham levels, completely ‘normalizing’ the fronto-cerebellar dysfunctions. The opposite pattern occurred in controls. Moreover, the severity of autism was related to the degree of differential modulation by depletion within frontal, striatal and thalamic regions. Our findings demonstrate that individuals with autism have abnormal inhibitory networks, and that serotonin has a differential, opposite, effect on them in adults with and without autism. Together these factors may partially explain the severity of autistic behaviours and/or provide a novel (tractable) treatment target.”

This may not have anything at all to do with the hippocampus-NA system, of course.

Schizophrenic patients, on the other hand, appear to have the opposite problem: Hyper Hippocampus Fuels Schizophrenia?:

““What we found in animal models and others have found postmortem in schizophrenic patients is that the hippocampus is lacking a certain type of GABA-ergic [GABA-producing] neuron that puts the brakes on the system,” says Grace. “What we’re trying to do is fix the GABA system that’s broken and, by doing that, stabilize the system so the dopamine system responses are back to normal, so that we can actually fix what’s wrong rather than trying to patch it several steps downstream.””

Wow, I made it through two whole posts on the brain without mentioning the amygdala even once.

Bi-modal brains?

But... the second equation makes perfect sense.
But… the second equation makes sense.

So I have this co-woker–we’ll call her Delta. (Certain details have been changed to protect the privacy of the innocent.) Delta is an obviously competent, skilled worker who has succeeded at her job in a somewhat technical field for many years. She has multiple non-humanities degrees or accredidations. And yet, she frequently says things that are mind-numbingly dumb and make me want to bang my head on my desk.

To be fair, everybody makes mistakes and says incorrect things sometimes; maybe she thinks the exact same thing about me. Also, I have no real perspective on how dumb people think, because I haven’t spent much of my life talking to them. Even the formerly homeless people I know can carry on a layman’s discussion of quantum physics.

At any rate, I don’t actually think Delta is dumb. Instead, I think she has, essentially, two brain modes: Feeling Mode and Logic Mode.

Feeling Mode happens to be her default; she can do Logic Mode perfectly well, but she has to concentrate to activate it. If Logic Mode isn’t on, then things just get automatically processed through Feelings Mode and, as a result, don’t always make sense.

When Logic Mode is on, she does quite fine–her career, after all, is dependent on her rational, logical abilities, above-average math skills, etc. But her job is just that, not a passion, not something she’d do if it didn’t put food on the table. When she is in default mode, her brain just doesn’t make logical connections, notice patterns (especially meta-patterns), or otherwise understand a lot of the stuff going on around her. And her inability to judge distances/estimate sizes just makes me cringe.

My conversation topics typically go over like lead balloons.

In a recent Stanford Magazine article, Content to Code? in which Marissa Messina discusses her decision to major in computer science:

BEFORE STANFORD, I’d never heard the term “CS.” When my pre-Orientation mates used it repeatedly during our technology-free week of hiking in Yosemite prior to the start of freshman year, I had to ask them what it stood for. But their matter-of-fact response—”computer science”—was still a foreign concept to me. …

“Nonetheless, I celebrate my decision to develop my technical side. Although it does not come naturally to me, in Bay Area culture, knowing how to code feels like a prerequisite to existing. …

“I quickly learned through get-to-know-you conversations that being a “techie” was inherently cooler than being a “fuzzie,” and that social standard plus rumors of superior job prospects for engineers began to make me question my plan to major in psychology.

“Three years later, here I am, close to graduating and capable of coding. Now what?

“I certainly don’t imagine myself thriving as a professional programmer, because thinking in syntactically flawless computer-speak remains a wearisome process for me. … “

How on Earth does anyone arrive at Stanford without knowing that computer science exists?

Messina illustrates my theory rather well. She can go into logic mode, she can write code well enough to major in CS at Stanford, but it does not come naturally to her and she finds it rather unpleasant. She is only doing it because, back in freshman year, someone said her job prospects would be better with a CS degree. Now she realizes that she doesn’t actually want to do CS for a full-time job.

I suspect that most people operate primarily in Feelings Mode, and may be even worse than my co-worker at activating Logic Mode. Some may not have an operative Logic Mode at all; a few people may not have a Feeling Mode, but that seems less common. Feelings are instinctual, irrational, and messy. They exist because they are useful, but that does not mean they make logical sense.

For example, let’s suppose an out-of-control train is racing toward a group of schoolchildren who’ve been tied to the railroad tracks, but if you push a 9-foot tall man in heavy plate mail in front of the train, his death will save the children.

People operating in Logic Mode start debating the virtues of Kant’s Categorical Imperative verses Mill’s Utilitarianism.

People operating in Feelings Mode want to know what kind of psycho came up with a fucked up question like that. Children tied to the train tracks? Murdering an innocent bystander by pushing him in front of the train? Why are you fuckers debating this? Are you all sick in the head?

When Feeling people switch over into Logic Mode, I suspect it exerts some cost on them: that is, they can do it, but they don’t really like it. It’s uncomfortable, unpleasant, and sometimes exhausting. So most of the time, they prefer to be in default mode.

So there are things that they can understand in Logic Mode, but since they find the whole business unpleasant, they prefer to ignore such conclusions if they possibly can. This probably makes it very difficult to get people to make any kind of decisions involving unpleasant scenarios + data. The unpleasantness itself of the scenario breaks them out of Logic Mode and into Feeling Mode, and then the whole business is flushed down the toilet because someone goes into a screaming fit because you hurt their feelings with your data.

Earlier this morning, I happened across this “Systematizing Quotient” Quiz that HBD Chick linked to. Obviously the quiz has certain drawbacks, like user bias and the difficulty of comparing oneself to others (do I know more or less about car engines than other people? I probably know less about them than most men, but since I can diagram how an engine works and explain it, do I know more than the average woman? Where do I fall on a population scale? And what if I wouldn’t research something before buying it because I already know all about it, or because I think the brands available on the market are similar enough that the time spent resourcing would not be cost-effective?) but I thought I’d try it, anyway.

I scored in the 61-80 range, which is not terribly surprising. What’s weird is just how low everyone else scores, since the averages are 24 and 30 for women and men, respectively, and it’s not like the scale goes down to -50 or anything.

At any rate, when Delta started talking about how much she hates the Common Core math, well, I was curious. I did some digging and came up with problems like the one at the top of the screen, generally accompanied by a bunch of comments from parents like, “What are they even doing?” and “I have no idea what that is!” and “That makes no sense!” And I just look at them all like, Wow, you can’t figure out that 5+2+10+10+10=37?

Sure, math is a recently evolved trait and all, but those sorts of comments still vaguely surprise me.

IQ probably intersects the two modes via a separate axis. That is, a high-IQ Feelings Person might be able to concentrate enough of their mental resources to out-math a low-IQ Logic person, and vice versa, a high-IQ Logic Person might be able to concentrate enough mental resources to out-feel a Feeling Person. (For example, by reading a book about what various facial expressions mean and then using that knowledge in real life.) Delta, for example, could probably figure out the problem after a while, but would still say it’s a terrible problem.

There was a conversation around here somewhere about a recent paper that came out claiming that the discrepancy between the number of men and women in high-end mathematics was due to not enough girls taking rigorous math courses in middle school. Well, I don’t know about the middle schools where the paper was published, but my middle school only had one math class, and we all took it, so I don’t think that’s exactly the problem. More likely, cognitive differences just happen to be manifesting themselves in Middle School, and the math geniuses are starting to outshine people who are smart and hard working but not geniuses.

In the conversation, someone remarked that while women (or in this case, girls,) they’ve known can do math perfectly well, they tend not to enjoy it, and prefer doing other things, whereas the men they know are more or less forced to do it because their brains just happen to automatically look for patterns. This was the original inspiration for this post; the idea that someone might be able to switch back and forth between two modes, but would generally prefer one, while someone else might generally prefer the other. I might call it “Logic Mode” and The Guardian might call it “Systematizing Mode”, but they’re both basically the same.

If this is true, most people may not operate in Feeling Mode, but most women do. On the other hand, it may be that only a small sub-set of men operate primarily in Logic Mode, either, but they happen to be a larger sub-set than the sub-set of women who operate primarily in Logic Mode. Since I don’t talk to most people (no one possibly could,) and my real-life conversations are largely limited to other women, I am curious about your personal observations.

 

 

Is Disgust Real? (Part 2 of a series)

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust; and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

One of the theories that undergirds a large subset of my thoughts on how brains work is the idea that Disgust is a Real Thing.

I don’t just mean a mild aversion to things that smell bad, like overturned port-a-potties or that fuzzy thing you found growing in the back of the fridge that might have been lasagna, once upon a time. Even I have such aversions.

I mean reactions like screaming and looking like you are about to vomit upon finding a chicken heart in your soup; gagging at the sight of trans people or female body hair; writhing and waving your hands while removing a slug from your porch; or the claim that talking about rats at the dinner table puts you off your meal. Or more generally, people claiming, “That’s disgusting!” or “What a creep!” about things or people that obviously aren’t even stinky.

There is a parable about a deaf person watching people dance to music he can’t hear and assuming that the people have all gone mad.

For most of my life, I assumed these reactions were just some sort of complicated schtick people put on, for totally obtuse reasons. It was only about a year ago that I realized, in a flash of insight, that this disgust is a real thing that people actually feel.

I recently expressed this idea to a friend, and they stared at me in shock. (That, or they were joking.) We both agreed that chicken hearts are a perfectly normal thing to put in soup, so at least I’m not the only one confused by this.

This breakthrough happened as a result of reading a slew of neuro-political articles that I can’t find now, and it looks like the site itself might be gone, which makes me really sad. I’ve linked to at least one of them before, which means that now my old links are dead, too. Damn. Luckily, it looks like Wired has an article covering the same or similar research: Primal Propensity for Disgust Shapes Political Positions.

“The latest such finding comes from a study of people who looked at gross images, such as a man eating earthworms. Viewers who self-identified as conservative, especially those opposing gay marriage, reacted with particularly deep disgust. … Disgust is especially interesting to researchers because it’s such a fundamental sensation, an emotional building block so primal that feelings of moral repugnance originate in neurobiological processes shared with a repugnance for rotten food.”

So when people say that some moral or political thing is, “disgusting,” I don’t think they’re being metaphorical; I think they actually, literally mean that the idea of it makes them want to vomit.

Which begs the question: Why?

Simply put, I suspect that some of us have more of our brain space devoted to processing disgust than others. I can handle lab rats–or pieces of dead lab rats–without any internal reaction, I don’t care if there are trans people in my bathroom, and I suspect my sense of smell isn’t very good. My opinions on moral issues are routed primarily through what I hope are the rational, logic-making parts of my brain.

By contrast, people with stronger disgust reactions probably have more of their brain space devoted to disgust, and so are routing more of their sensory experiences through that region, and so feel strong, physical disgust in reaction to a variety of things, like people with different cultural norms than themselves. Their moral reasoning comes from a more instinctual place.

It is tempting to claim that processing things logically is superior to routing them through the disgust regions, but sometimes things are disgusting for good, evolutionarily sound reasons. Having an instinctual aversion to rats is not such a bad thing, given that they have historically been disease vectors. Most of our instincts exist to protect and help us, after all.

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust; and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

Somali Autism

Approximately one in 88 children has been diagnosed with autism, but in Minnesota, one in 32 Somali children and one in 36 white children have the condition.

A recent study–the Minneapolis Somali Autism Spectrum Disorder Project–reviewed the diagnosis paperwork to make sure the autism diagnoses were accurate, and concluded that they are. They did not go interviewing kids in search of symptoms, just looked at the records of people who’d already been diagnosed.

According to the NY Times, “But the Somali children were less likely than the whites to be “high-functioning” and more likely to have I.Q.s below 70. (The average I.Q. score is 100.) The study offered no explanation of the statistics.”

Well that one seems obvious: average Somali IQ is probably below 70.

Supply your own map if you feel like it
Average IQ by Country, from Memolition

Also, “While some children back home had the same problems children everywhere do, parents said, autism was so unfamiliar that there was no Somali word for it until “otismo” was coined in Minnesota.”

You might think it’s just something in the Minneapolis water supply, but another study, this one from Sweden, found something similar:

Children of migrant parents were at increased risk of low-functioning autism (odds ratio (OR) = 1.5, 95% CI 1.3-1.7); this risk was highest when parents migrated from regions with a low human development index, and peaked when migration occurred around pregnancy (OR = 2.3, 95% CI 1.7-3.0). A decreased risk of high-functioning autism was observed in children of migrant parents, regardless of area of origin or timing of migration. … Environmental factors associated with migration may contribute to the development of autism presenting with comorbid intellectual disability, especially when acting in utero. High- and low-functioning autism may have partly different aetiologies, and should be studied separately.

So what’s up with white kids with autism? Did they get screwed by migration, too?

There is one thing that Minneapolis and Sweden do have in common: lack of sunlight. Somalis may be particularly at risk of Vitamin D deficit, or some other disorder caused by differences in the night-day cycle at different latitudes.

But again, whites have similar rates of autism despite having had thousands of years to adjust to high-latitude winters, while African Americans, who ought to be more similar to the Somalis in their winter/light adaptions, have much lower rates.

In fact, I can’t really think of anything that whites in Minnesota and Somalis in Minnesota might have in common that they wouldn’t also have in common with African Americans in Minnesota. Or Sweden.

The obvious solution is that Somali autism might just be caused by totally different stuff than white autism. Perhaps migration itself caused the high Somali autism rates, or the stress and trauma of war and dislocation. Or it could have something to do with the Somali preference for cousin marriage, but perhaps the autistic kids never got noticed back in Somalia because of high infant mortality rates.

Study: Sexually dimorphic facial features vary according to level of autistic-like traits …

Sexually dimorphic facial features vary according to level of autistic-like traits in the general population.
“three-dimensional (3D) facial images were collected from 208 young adult males and females recruited from the general population. Twenty-three facial distances were measured from these images and a gender classification and scoring algorithm was employed to identify a set of six facial features that most effectively distinguished male from female faces. In study 2, measurements of these six features were compared for groups of young adults selected for high (n = 46) or low (n = 66) levels of autistic-like traits.
RESULTS:
For each sex, four of the six sexually dimorphic facial distances significantly differentiated participants with high levels of autistic-like traits from those with low trait levels. All four features were less masculinised for high-trait males compared to low-trait males. Three of four features were less feminised for high-trait females compared to low-trait females. One feature was, however, not consistent with the general pattern of findings and was more feminised among females who reported more autistic-like traits. Based on the four significantly different facial distances for each sex, discriminant function analysis correctly classified 89.7% of the males and 88.9% of the females into their respective high- and low-trait groups.”

I wonder if they controlled for family’s overall androgyny level/IQ/ethnicity.

In 6th Grade, I Prayed Every Day for God to Turn me into a Mexican

Then, I thought, I would have friends.

In retrospect, if god had turned me into an Indian, I think I would have just about died of joy. I fucking loved Indians. Alas, scouring my family tree didn’t reveal even one great-grandparent who could conceivably have been a Cherokee princess.*

For irrelevant reasons, I got sent to a ghetto school for sixth grade. I had no friends at this place. The whites wanted nothing to do with me. The blacks were openly hostile. A few of the Mexicans were friendly, but when it came to recess, they played with each other, not me. And besides, they didn’t speak English, and I didn’t know much Spanish.

If only I were Mexican, I thought. If only I woke up tomorrow with beautiful black hair and brown skin, then I could have friends and my classmates wouldn’t hit me.

Sadly, god was not forthcoming. I was stuck with whiteness, pale, useless, disgusting. Maggots are white, I thought.

For some reason my parents tacked up on the wall a portrait I drew of myself in art class. The portrait was supposed to express my misery. Every time I walked past it, I thought, Why do they have that thing on the wall? They never understood.

By middle school, I’d latched onto an identity that I could reasonably fake. It wasn’t really mine, but it was close. I at least had the right facial features, and was legally related (through adoption) to some people from that part of the world, if you went back enough generations. This became my obsession. I studied the language. I saved up my allowance to purchase traditional costumes. I read histories and novels; devoured the music. I talked endlessly about my heritage, no doubt annoying the everliving shit out of everyone around me. (No wonder no one liked me.) I even dyed my hair to look more like my ethnic ideal and lied about my eye color.

In retrospect, that was pretty dumb. But I was a kid, lonely and desperate. The people around me had culture, community, history, identity, pride. And I wanted that. I wanted something to call my own–my own music, my own history, my own country.

The place where I grew up was, obviously, not terribly pleasant or special to me. “Whiteness” is not a trait whites are taught to be proud of; “white music” or “white history” are not things that I was aware of as part of my heritage. On top of that, I came from a part of the country with a reputation for backwardness and bigotry, also not things I was proud of. Ethnically, I do not really have a particular European country I can claim as my own–I am not a majority English or French or German or Hungarian or anything.

As a statistical outlier in many ways, I don’t fit in terribly well with most people, except with other outliers like myself. (Finding such outliers is, I suppose, one of the purposes of this blog.) Not fitting in and what that does to your psyche is a thing I understand.

I have known other people like myself–other people who, at some point in their lives, desperately wanted to be part of an ethnic group they weren’t born in to, leading to what an outside observer would call, “talking all the damn time about it.” I suspect Dolezal experienced something similar. I suspect she just wanted to fit in with the people she loved being with and an identity to claim as her own. Our politics may differ, but I still feel really sorry for her.

Scratch a dozen whites, and I bet six of them secretly wish they could be something they aren’t. That’s why so many of them lie about being Irish, twisting one possibly Catholic grandparent or great-grandparent into a claim that they practically hopped off the land o’ blarney yesterday. No one wants to admit to being mostly English or German, even if they are.

I am struggling to come up with a neat and tidy conclusion to this post. I have obviously come to a point where I am comfortable admitting actual reality, and enough distance from the loneliness to think I was once kind of funny. I have some positive thoughts associated with various accomplishments of groups I have some kinship with. And I am an adult, busy with the everyday concerns of work, friends, family, etc.

But I look at my kids and wonder what sort of identity would make them happy.

 

*According to 23 and Me, I may actually have a sliver of Indian ancestry, but it’s pretty far back.

Autism Exists Because Math is a Recently Evolved Ability

This is a theory.

We know mathematics is a recently evolved ability–all human groups can talk and compose stories, (even groups without written language,) but many groups do not even have words for numbers over three.

Out of the 200,000 years or so that anatomically modern humans have been around, no one bothered to invent written numbers until about 6,000 years ago; algebra didn’t really take off until about 1,000 years ago; calculus was invented about 400 years ago.

The ability to do any kind of abstract mathematics beyond the four basic operations is most likely a very newly acquired human skill–selection for higher math ability would have been virtually impossible prior to the invention of math, after all.

The thing about newly acquired skills is that evolution tends not to have worked out all of the kinks, yet. Things your ancestors have done consistently (including your parents) for the last 100,000 years will probably involve some decent genetic code. Things your ancestors did for millions of years will involve even better code. Things humans have been doing for only 400 years will probably involve some very kludgey code that might have some shitty side effects. Avoiding malaria comes immediately to mind–sickle cell anemia might help you avoid malaria, but it’s a pretty crappy adaptation overall. By contrast, animals have had circulatory systems for a long time; the code that builds circulatory systems is pretty solid.

Since math is a recently acquired skill, we’d expect at least some of the genes that makes people better at math to be a little, well, wonky.

It is probably no coincidence that people with extremely high math abilities have a reputation for being total weirdos, while people with very high verbal abilities–say, published authors–are regarded as pretty normal.

There are a few obvious ways to make people better at a particular task. You could take some neural real estate away from other tasks and assign it to the one you want. We know we can do this “environmentally,” (Phantom Limb Syndrome appears to be caused by the missing limb’s brain area being re-purposed for other tasks, such that when you do those other tasks, your brain simultaneously registers the activity as information coming from the limb); it seems reasonable that some sort of coding could do it genetically. Alternatively, you could increase neural speed or density or something. Or perhaps the overall size of the brain.

Each of these possibilities could also have some negative side effects–bigger brains kill mothers; re-purposing mental real estate could leave you unable to do some other function, like fine-motor control or talking.

Autism appears to basically do some set of these things (it seems to increase neural density, at least.) People with a small amount of autistic traits end up better at math than they would be otherwise. People with too many, though, suffer negative side effects–like struggling with verbal tasks. (It’s no particular surprise that autistic people tend to come from families with high math ability.) Autism is probably another mental trait that makes sense in a Sickle Cell Anemia sense.