Sunday, December 02, 2007

More on Saletan

Saletan asks us to consider a thought experiment in which biological differences make for difficult social choices. The critique of Saletan that makes the most sense to me, and that he does not appear to engage, is that our understanding of biology is already social. It's thus hard to imagine a scenario in which differential/unequal treatment of people would be preferable to a rethinking of our biological categories.

My thought experiment: imagine a world in which social status is based entirely on height. Height is very clearly a biological difference. Tall people could claim that there are any number of areas in which they were biologically superior, in part because they lived in a world devoted to the betterment of tall people. They could even come up with mythic reimaginations of human history in which (for example) reaching the farthest branches had always allowed the tall better access to food, superior living conditions, etc, etc.

Now, I happen to be not especially tall. What counterargument is available to me? The tall have biology on their side -- height is a function of genes. But of course, the real biological difference does not have to correlate to social hierarchies. Hence the argument of the short -- that biology is not destiny, that there are other imaginable worlds that have been systematically not imagined -- that have been discarded or not thought of -- because biological categories have naturalized social inequality.


Surely a just society is one that finds the best way for biological differences to be advantageous to all concerned, that finds opportunities for both short and tall. An unjust society is one that allows prejudice to shape scientific categories, thus justifying discrimination.

Saletan's a smart guy, and I'm sure he understands something about the history of science. I'm sure he thinks (probably correctly) that the fray criticisms are too strongly shaped by current culture wars. But it's not like the categories Saletan uses are any more immune to culture. Surely the history of scientific ideas of race is so horrific that we are justified in being particularly cautious.

Two side points:

1. Any genetic difference is really a difference in phenotypic effect, and those differences in phenotype depend on environment. A gene for digging, for instance, icould easily be a gene for digging when you are on the ground, and splashing when you are in the water. The nature vs. nurture debate is thus a false dichotomy. It thus makes sense to think of "genetic" inequalities as a result of the environment in which the genes express themselves. So even if we take Saletan's thought experiment in a naive way, and conclude that people from Antarctica are genetically more intelligent than people from the Arctic, then surely the appropriate response is to change the Arctic environment such that the phenotypic effect of the genetic difference is not so stark as to create permanent inequality.

2. But I don't particularly want to grant Saletan even that naive interpretation. I just don't believe that there is a truth, out there, independent of our categories of perception. "Intelligence" is a creature of our own manufacture. We made it to serve a purpose in the world -- education. If people are not being educated, then we need to create a different concept that will allow us to order the world in a more equitable way. That seems to me the thrust of much of the disagreement with Saletan, and I don't see how he feels justified in brushing it aside.

22 comments:

Archaeopteryx said...

You've got it exactly right.

Gregor Samsa said...

In our societies, humans enjoy higher status than dogs. This inequality can be eliminated by restructuring what is valued and rewarded, e.g., de-emphasizing the ability to create music or fly airplanes, and stressing the ability to piss on hydrants and hunt rabbits. I doubt you’d prefer that kind of equality (axiomatic speciesism is not a valid response).

Most people agree that stuff which have historically mattered a lot, shouldn’t (e.g., accent, family name, caste, brute force, etc.) and there is other stuff which creates polarized opinion today (e.g., whether power jobs should be restructured to better accommodate family needs - relevant to the issue of gender parity).

However, even a moderately affluent (and dare I say “good”) society cannot be sustained without demanding, and discriminately rewarding, a core set of cognitive, moral and social skills. Of course it is “socially constructed” (as are laws against murder and genocide). So what? How far are you willing to bend to extend equal opportunity in the face of human diversity? Do psychopaths, deadbeats, racists, lazy bums and inept surgeons need apply? Why not choose a President by drawing lots, instead of this intense scrutiny of “desirable” qualities?

Yes, phenotype = genotype + environ, but the substitution possibilities are far from infinite, obviously. Puppies don’t fail to make it to Harvard because of environmental deprivation.

There are enough methodological flaws in the studies Saletan cited. It’s really low tech data mining and cherry picking (e.g., the stuff on phrenology ignores the basic distinction between the correlation coefficient, which reflects goodness of fit, and the regression coefficient, the strength of a statistical relationship). But dwelling on that is tedious for most people, as opposed to easy sanctimony and boilerplate “truths” (no such thing as race, IQ is like a lottery number, yada, yada, yada).

Archaeopteryx said...

Sometimes, the low-tech sanctimony and boilerplate "truths" correspond exactly with capital-T Truth. Why in the world would you want to spend time picking apart the materials-and-methods sections of a paper on astrology or phrenology? If there is some racially-correlated, genetically based difference in intelligence, then, sure, let's talk about it, but starting with "what, oh, what will we do if this is true?" and working backward from that is pointless, and as has been pointed out a zillion times--harmful.

Saletan compares "liberals" who don't agree with his conclusions to creationists, but it is the "scientists" he cites who start with a conclusion, then tailor the facts to prop up their conclusion.

august said...

hi arch, have you met gregor?

hi gregor, perhaps prague traveling salesmen are abuzz with the latest in deconstruction, but on fray most of the folks I encounter seem much more interested in keeping out the dirty foreigners, and thus preventing a drop in national IQ, thus preventing us from becoming more susceptible to those fucking sneaky dark-skinned muslim terrorists. "Most people" agree that stuff that shouldn't matter does -- do they? Are you really confident about that? Because I have it on pretty good authority that the entire culture that created you is about to get annihilated. And I see no reason to think that people have gotten any smarter (particular when one of the articles Saletan uses cites exactly the same stuff that Nazis were reading -- Broca et al. I'm reading "Mismeasure of Men" and am aware of the math issue, but do you really think the math problem is a mere clerical error? Don't you think that racism has something to do with the nature of the cherry picking?)


I'm fine with the idea that we have to make decisions about equality and inequality. My point is that it is dishonest to pretend that a particular decision results from biological imperatives. There are all sorts of ways of making choices look perfectly natural. I choose the president who seems to best serve my interests. If I claim that my interests are...

1. identical to those everybody else
2. the result of biology
3. therefore, vote obama

then you ought to be pretty fucking suspicious. The particular "cognitive, moral, and social skills" we reward need to be open to debate and revision, not treated as some kind of god-given truth.

Puppies -- if I had to bet on one getting into harvard, I'd guess leona helmsley's pooch. I'm sure it would be in Harvard's interest to make it appear that the dog was a fucking genius.

Also -- question for the group. When did "East Asians" become a race?

[this message got eaten twice.. sorry if it seems cranky]

august said...

Or to put it differently:

In my original example, I'm short, and I ask why I can't go to college

Answer 1 "Because you are short"

Answer 2 "Because we as a society have decided not to allocate resources for short people to go to college."

Can you see why I would regard answer 2 as more honest?

TenaciousK said...

Gregor's brave new world of result's-focused differential social reinforcement.

Hi Gregor!

august said...

I think I finally get what gregor is saying (saw post in human nature fray). I take back my inane sputtering about the holocaust.

Part of the problem, as usual, is my shitty use of language. I'm trying to get at a tendency to use the body as a way of legitimating some social situation.

I still think my second response is appropriate. The "so what" of "social construction" has to do with the ways people see the range of possibilities, and the extent to which they acknowledge decisions as decisions rather than truth. That opens up the issues of who is making the decisions, with what justifications, with what consequences, and what alternatives might be available.

Take dogs. It's of course cake to show that different societies grant different levels of status to dogs. If I live in a city where dogs are to be shot on sight, and I ask "Why are dogs shot on sight?" the answer is thus more complicated than "Because they are dogs." The answer is more like, "because we have decided the benefits dogs grant are not matched by their use of scarce resources."

True, imagining different possible social arrangements does not overcome environmental constraints. But it seems to me the usual problem is that people use environmental constraints as a cover for poor decisions. For example, yes bad weather can cause famine, but the worst most recent famines have been just as much caused by state policy (Stalinist USSR, Japanese controlled Vietnam, Maoist China) or by idiotic allocation and management of resources (Africa). Keeping political and social alternatives in mind can thus help policymakers (who have they may be) make more just choices.

I talk too much. Weren't you recommending porn earlier?

Dawn Coyote said...

For example, yes bad weather can cause famine, but the worst most recent famines have been just as much caused by state policy (Stalinist USSR, Japanese controlled Vietnam, Maoist China) or by idiotic allocation and management of resources (Africa).

This made me think of all the starving donkeys, camels and horses I saw travelling through the Middle East immediately after 9/11, when all the package tourists had cancelled their trips. One wants to make a just allocation of resources, but in times of scarcity, it's easy to deny animals, and anyone else that doesn't test "human" (ie white and male).

What's my point? Nothing, really, except that when determining the parameters of one's meritocracy, broad implications must be considered. I'll go read Gregor's post in Human Nature now.

Dawn Coyote said...

No joy. Am I missing something? Does Gregor have a mysterious incognito nick I don't know about?

august said...

The Psychometric Savant's Negro Problem

Dawn Coyote said...

Ah, thanks.

Thinking about the questions he asked here: The really tough question that Saletan should be addressing, especially since he seems to have convinced himself rather hastily that the races differ in qualities relevant to modern life – to what extent are we ethically obliged to compensate for nature’s unequal and whimsical gifts? This would still be relevant, a little less so, if all variations were confined within traditional identity boundaries (the various races and sexes), but takes a more acute form if it spills over.

If undertaking such an exercise, we ought to look at variations within an ethnic population, and apply those compensations to other populations. Adjustments would need to be considered for relative privilege or oppression mechanisms, particularly when one can demonstrate historical harms that persist today...

...I guess.

On a personal note, I'm much more inclined to idealistic pie-in-the-skyism when I'm not depressed. If I'm depressed, I'm more willing to acknowledge all the places where the drive to survive and thrive will overcome any altruistic leanings I might have. I find it interesting that I need the rose-coloured lenses when I'm happy—to bolster my idea of myself as a decent person? That's probably it, but how trite and dishonest is that? Ick.

august said...

Gregor's probably right about the question, but (what Gregor probably regarded as too obvious to mention) nature also doesn't dictate a particular answer, and the answers are going to vary over time and space. That was my point, and that's how I was talking past him.

And yeah, the equally important question is "who decides?" I suspect injustices are multiplied when those 'deciding' don't even recognize their judgments to be decisions. That, I think, is where history matters most.

At any rate, I very much doubt that the question can be answered in the abstract. I guess I'd approach it with my usual lazy pragmatism. Perhaps a preliminary social goal could be to create citizens who are capable of understanding the question.

Gregor Samsa said...

Sorry, didn’t check back earlier.

Again, genes (interacting with environment) choose specific traits in individuals, a mapping that is itself value neutral. Which traits are highly valued is chosen by society, and varies over time and space. This point is entirely trite and uncontroversial, at least among the sane.

What is not trite is your normative claim that society should choose what it values so that people of different genetic endowments enjoy roughly equal success. The dog example illustrates that nobody is prepared to embrace it beyond a point, not even you (yes, their treatment varies across cultures but pampered slaves is as good as it gets). That is because there are other properties (e.g., general affluence, peacefulness, culture, etc.) that we find desirable in our notions of a good society, and a trade-off between equality and these other virtues is plausible. Some values may be imposed by power elites, but many others are rendered necessary by widely shared goals, like freedom from hunger and violence.

So the main thesis of your post that genetics is beside the point is beside the point. First, if you choose the capacities to be rewarded from a restricted set, you’ve gotta know who has it in spades and who in spoonfulls, and what to do about that. Second, even if you allow yourself a free reign, implementing your vision is impossible without knowing the actual distribution of genetic endowments. You cannot design a society in which the Arctic and the Antarctic peoples have an equal shot if you don’t know what, specifically, they are good at (engineering and hunting? music and masturbation?)

Both you and Arch (to say nothing of Stanley Fish) also seem to suffer from the perennial confusion between normative science and the sociology of practiced science. The fact that there are few, if any, disinterested observers doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t endorse a Platonic principle of disinterested observation, and hold each other to it. The statements “Rushton’s motivations are racist” and “Rushton is wrong” require different (though not completely unconnected) reasoning. If I claim that dogs are genetically unsuited to play piano sonatas, it is not enough to cite chapter and verse on how many poodles I have killed or how I am funded by the cat lobby (cats, it is well known, have a deep appreciation of Chopin), true as they might be. The arrogance of postmodernism lies in the smug assumption that everyone who rejects epistemological relativism/nihilism must be a political naïf.

There is more to “what if” than proof by insinuation (though it is often employed as such a tactic, for sure). The evidence for racial differences in socially valued genetic endowments is unpersuasive, but that for substantial individual variations is overwhelming (mushy liberals refute the former by rejecting the latter). If you haven’t thought about how society should treat its congenitally dumb, ugly, lazy, criminal or psychopathic members (in proclivity, at least) - regardless of race or gender - you haven’t paid attention to much that is relevant in the social realm.

august said...

Hi Gregor,

Your critique comes at a useful time for me. I've been designing a course about technology and interactions between Europe and the Qing dynasty. I'd meant the course to be about things like changes in the manufacture of opium, Jesuit contributions to cannon technology, the development of a Chinese navy (and the sinking of that navy by the Japanese in 1895), changes in sugar production and how they affected labor, the development of rifles with a higher rate of fire, the relationship between steamboats and steamship diplomacy -- that sort of thing, not really history of science at all.

Well, anyway, a lot of the ways that both Chinese and Europeans understood this technological development was cast in racial terms ( roughly "Machines as the Measure of Men" ). So I got into depictions of the world according to supposed technological prowess, and from there it's just a short hop to Gould's book on The Mismeasure of Men. I was in the middle of that when I read Saletan. I'll add that I felt a bit horrified because the institution where I teach is very similar to one that trained him, I regard my main task as trying to prevent people from spouting the kind of bullshit he was spouting. And then I manage to spout my own forms of bullshit as well.

Point being, if you are willing to keep up this conversation (I know you are busy) it would be very helpful to me.

To your most recent points:

Again, genes (interacting with environment) choose specific traits in individuals, a mapping that is itself value neutral. Which traits are highly valued is chosen by society, and varies over time and space. This point is entirely trite and uncontroversial, at least among the sane.

The general point may be uncontroversial, but the specifics matter. I assume this is so obvious to you that you choose not to dwell on it (or maybe you just think I'm dwelling too deeply on it, and want me to look in a different direction.) Anyway, as you know but apparently Saletan doesn't, and for the benefit of anybody else reading -- the variation is in the genes, the ways the genes are expressed, the ways that a given observer chooses to define the trait under observation, and the social value/attention placed on the trait. The cases of race and intelligence both show that you can construct a trait that, yes, corresponds to some kind of physical reality but is itself a reification. I think it is fair to say that most people are less aware of that last point than you are. And I also think the example is an argument for paying attention to history – which definitions have caused mischief in the past, and how? Perhaps you think that if people get the math right the problems are solved and the history doesn’t matter. The honest answer is that I don’t know the math well enough to judge, but it seems to me your Platonic goal of disinterested observation might be served by keeping an eye on those interested observers who thought they were being disinterested.
In my sober moments, I don't mean to throw the baby out with the bathwater. My post is overstated, but I don't think that that point is trivial, even to the sane. Maybe I wouldn't know.


What is not trite is your normative claim that society should choose what it values so that people of different genetic endowments enjoy roughly equal success. The dog example illustrates that nobody is prepared to embrace it beyond a point, not even you (yes, their treatment varies across cultures but pampered slaves is as good as it gets). That is because there are other properties (e.g., general affluence, peacefulness, culture, etc.) that we find desirable in our notions of a good society, and a trade-off between equality and these other virtues is plausible. Some values may be imposed by power elites, but many others are rendered necessary by widely shared goals, like freedom from hunger and violence.


Fair enough. Still, the conversation seems to be going like this:
You “What about the constraints?”
Me “What about the way people overstate those constraints?” I mean, freedom from hunger and violence seem to me goals of very, very few societies – the far more common model seems to be “Protect one group from hunger and violence by lumping as much as possible of it on another.”

So I guess one of my questions is, what kind of a question are we debating? If we are talking about the world of 2007, what do you think is the bigger problem – our failure to acknowledge genetic differentiation or the arrangement of the world into societies based on a bogus categories supposedly derived from science? I recognize the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and I also recognize that that isn’t your claim.

So yes, a trade off between equality and heritable virtues is possible (you are right) – but it seems to me that the more difficult social problems up to now have involved trade offs (not made) between groups that are not constituted by genetic differences. More often, what I see happening is people trying to justify for example, poor treatment of women on the basis of female biology. Hence my claim “Surely a just society is one that finds the best way for biological differences to be advantageous to all concerned, that finds opportunities for both short and tall. An unjust society is one that allows prejudice to shape scientific categories, thus justifying discrimination.” – I take your point that the “best way” is going to have a number of caveats, that it will never be possible to ignore genetic differences. I still think the second sentence is correct – you may find it trivial (and not relevant to your own intellectual endeavors) but it’s relevant to the lives of lots and lots of people. It doesn’t necessarily help them to acknowledge the general principle as obvious when the fallacy is so common. (Not that I’m doing them any good either).

Both you and Arch (to say nothing of Stanley Fish) also seem to suffer from the perennial confusion between normative science and the sociology of practiced science. The fact that there are few, if any, disinterested observers doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t endorse a Platonic principle of disinterested observation, and hold each other to it. The statements “Rushton’s motivations are racist” and “Rushton is wrong” require different (though not completely unconnected) reasoning. If I claim that dogs are genetically unsuited to play piano sonatas, it is not enough to cite chapter and verse on how many poodles I have killed or how I am funded by the cat lobby (cats, it is well known, have a deep appreciation of Chopin), true as they might be. The arrogance of postmodernism lies in the smug assumption that everyone who rejects epistemological relativism/nihilism must be a political naïf.

I’m not Stanley Fish. Point taken. As noted, I reacted the way I did because Saletan was rehearsing ideas that were both wrong and caused terrible injustice. He claimed that ignoring the injustice made him more objective, and then used his supposedobjectivity to ignore the ways issues he brought up had already been demonstrated to be problematic. What I think is sad about the episode is that Saletan has now replicated precisely the error you bring up here – he’s partially retracted what he said because he discovered that one of the authors of a study was racist, but still not pointed out the ways that the study was wrong. Probably a more socially useful post would have been to rehearse Gould’s points.

There is more to “what if” than proof by insinuation (though it is often employed as such a tactic, for sure). I assume this is a reference to my stupid point about Prague. Sorry about that.

The evidence for racial differences in socially valued genetic endowments is unpersuasive, but that for substantial individual variations is overwhelming (mushy liberals refute the former by rejecting the latter). If you haven’t thought about how society should treat its congenitally dumb, ugly, lazy, criminal or psychopathic members (in proclivity, at least) - regardless of race or gender - you haven’t paid attention to much that is relevant in the social realm.

Your second sentence – I assume rewritten it says that “There are substantial individual variations in socially valued genetic endowments” I don’t quite understand how that answers my worries about who is deciding what is socially valued. And again, I remain impressed that there might be a lot of different ways of handling this problem, and that an answer on first principles might not be as effective as a kind of ad hoc pragmatism.
But I’ll try to take your question as stated. It seems to me that we have differential moral obligations. I think that there is a certain base set of obligations due to people simply by virtue of their being human, and that those obligations take priority over others (I’m perhaps Confucian in this respect – I see somewhat higher obligations to immediate community, family, etc). Once those basic obligations (i.e. those due to people by virtue of being human) are met, my tolerance for inequality is high. Indeed, I’d prefer a world in which the morally astute (which may well be a heritable characteristic) are rewarded.

Is that a useful response? If not, it would be most helpful for me if you reproduced the old ghost of a-z you –yadda yadda, me trenchant point, you idiotic point, me ??? style of précis.

Sorry for banging on so long. I’m posting this on my blog august philippic because it has gotten long.

Gregor Samsa said...

I’ll jot down a few points. Maybe more later.

1. I’m glad you explicated the usual paint-the-opponent-as-extremist game (often a failure of comprehension than deliberate tactic):

Naturist: To you, it’s all nurture. I’ve got the balanced view.
Nurturist: To you, it’s all nature. My position is nuanced.

So yes, on many of the questions, disagreements (among the sane) are a matter of degree, emphasis, caveat, etc.

2. As to which is a bigger threat: legitimizing pseudo-science, or wishful thinking based on lack of scientific understanding. I’ll refrain from ranking them, but I think both are pretty significant in general. Let me reframe, though: if I am talking to social liberals, should I be complaining more vocally about leftist shibboleths that hurt liberal causes, or about reactionary prejudices for which there is shared antipathy? Echo chambers aren’t useful, or fun.

3. The framework of thinking that the left has adopted is a major threat to its own causes. For one, it is important to clarify the reasons behind your positions, and if possible, not hang them on tenuous empirical claims. I oppose the death penalty not because of judicial error (rather, moral objection), and I support redistribution not because I believe useful abilities are spread equally (rather, no entitlement to genetic lottery, a la Rawls, but tempered by incentive-type arguments). I saw a rampaging mob crying for blood over allegedly false empirics, and I didn’t see anyone question the leap from the genetic premise to the laissez-faire policy conclusions of Murray or Jensen. Saletan’s own attempt was worse than sophomoric.

4. I do think many folks on the left are seriously delusional in their understanding of the mechanisms behind today’s racial or gender disparities. They cannot think without personalized villains and crude villainy – rapists, skinheads, etc. Discriminatory outcomes can often arise without (much or even any) overt discriminatory intent, especially via historical legacies and linkages, and I think that is primarily the case today. I don’t care if it’s a moral error. It’s a diagnostic error that can lead to some seriously wrong-headed and even counterproductive policies. I sense your thinking is also largely hegemonic, and not enough structural (reminder: diff of degree).

5. I like an anti-pomo rant every once in a while, so apologies for inflicting it on you. For folks who believe that myth is the mother of oppression, the denial of objective reality (or its knowability) seems like the most stunning non sequitur invented since Jesus’ time.

Mustafa Kemal said...

A quick response on topic of hegemonic v. structural -- as noted, my mind at the moment is in the nineteenth century, hence a lot of thought about hegemony. But yeah -- I'm quite aware that (what I think were earnest) attempts at social equality in (for example) Chinese history have gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Beyond that, I'd be interested in what you see as the unspoken hard truths behind inequality. If you have time. I understand the way that small social differences can boom into major disparities (China again), and the problem of Einstein's rolls royce seems clear enough. This sentence I had a little trouble parsing:
"Discriminatory outcomes can often arise without (much or even any) overt discriminatory intent, especially via historical legacies and linkages, and I think that is primarily the case today."

If the point is that historical legacies and linkages create social differences that replicate even when the actors involved are well meaning, then we're on the same page. The links between pollution and economic development strikes me as a particularly tricky example (again, China-centered). But again, in China a great deal of mischief is exacerbated by precisely the sort of machines as the measures of men thinking that i was talking about before -- we're going to both solve our energy problems and prove how advanced we are by building the world's biggest dam!, which then fuels (in China) both economic development and (in the US press) ethnic stereotypes about the Chinese.

I guess that just brings me back around to something that keeps impressing me -- the ways that policy, myth, need, etc create hugely thorny problems . I don't feel like taking you on re. postmodernism, but I remain convince that the language people use to define the issue is both varied and important.

Anyway, if you feel like demolishing any liberal orthodoxies, I'll be reading (i.e. not an echo chamber).


oh, I'm in an account left over from Diplomacy game -- not making a point. It's august, obviously.

Gregor Samsa said...

Your interpretation of the turgid paragraph seems about right. Just to be concrete, take the question: why are women so scarce on math/science faculties?

Hypothesis A: Crusty old dons prowl the halls to keep the damsels out and maintain an old boys’ club.

Hypothesis B: Hysteresis. People in general feel uncomfortable or lacking in confidence in social environments where there are too few of their own kind. Hence, women (unless extraordinarily talented or motivated) don’t aspire to enter the scientific academia because other women don’t enter the scientific academia - it’s a self fulfilling prophecy.

A is a hegemonic theory, B is structural (plenty other possibilities, just picking examples). Could be both play some role, and relative weights are an empirical issue. B could be traced to overt discrimination in the past, when women were explicitly barred from the Ivies. That’ll tend to perpetuate a vicious cycle even when the doors are opened (“historical legacies and linkages”).

A common mistake on the right is the failure to imagine stuff like B. This leads to treating equal opportunity as synonymous with procedural equality. If the rules of the game are no longer biased, all is fair and fine.

Ironically, a common mindset on the left is also the same failure of imagination, i.e., stuff like B. I suspect it’s because A is too emotionally satisfying, it gives you someone to blame (sexist, tenured jerks), as opposed to impersonal forces.

Needless to say, what kind of policies will be effective depends very much on whether underlying reality is A-type or B-type

JohnMcG said...

Perhaps germane to this discussion is Kingsley Browne's discussion of women and combat at the Volokh Conspiracy.

My main though about the series is that IQ measures how successful someone can be in a society where the rules have been made mostly by whites, so that whites do better (that Asians do even better notwithstanding) is unremarkable.

Those were the thoughts that popped into my head as he discussed that men are more likely than women to take physical risks, endure pain, use violence, etc. That may be true, but is that what we want to encourage? I can see how these would be desirable traits for a warrior, but then should we have warriors.

And are males pursuing bellicose policies to increase the desirablility of those traits and maintain the male grip on power?

Keifus said...

I find it fascinating to imagine the ways in which phenotype and genotype feed back on each other, and it's especially fun to "reduce" the complexity of human behavior into that paradigm. (But less so when it moves into evolutionary dogma.)

Saletan may or may not be smart, and he may or may not be aware of science history. My usual criticism of him is that he doesn't have much handle on the science he reports. Not that you even need so very much to get the idea usually, but I don't see him trying.

Should society reward genetic endowments based indiscriminantly? Maybe not. Intellectual capacity and work ethic (presuming these are biological) seems key factors to success, and I'm okay with that. The question Saletan's scientists toyed with is, if I got the gist from a skimming, "does intellectual performance correlate with ethnicity?"

I imagine that a case could be made there, but I also think the argument's poison. Ethnic groups aren't so obviously defined, they don't seclude themselves from interbreeding quite that much, the actual correlation seems to be pretty minor compared to individual variation (and I trust Gregor that it's statistically suspect), there's more to human capacity than IQ, etc, etc. I agree with august when he says that sort of observed correlation is going to be latched onto by the idiot cranks. I'm not the sort of guy to say researchers should avoid empirical pursuits for fear of attracting morons, but it did look like advanced phrenology at a glance. If it's honest, I'll leave it to someone more interested to verify as much.

As an aside: what is it about biology that favors such, um, heavy arguments? Is it some sort of cultural thing related to this field? This comment thread reads like Stephen Jay Gould at his most verbose.

As another aside: the way technology has affected society is very interesting. So is the history of science, and I don't think you can quite have one without the other. You going to share some of that august?

K

august said...

Hey Keif,

I'm reading some interesting work about sugar and opium. Both interesting, with plenty of examples of both hegemonic and structural inequality (i.e. there are bad guys, but they don't dictate the whole picture). Both technologies are closely related to the politics of empire, but the empires are by no means limited to Europeans. If I were to post, I'd want to double check to make sure I have both the science and the history right. Ranting seems to correlate closely to errors of both (causal?).

I remember an extended college debate in the Women's Center about what kind of feminism would be preferable -- one that furthers the choices of individual women should they wish to serve in combat, or one that seeks to keep both women and men out of combat.

A favorite poem, Elizabeth Bishop's Crusoe in England. here if anybody is interested. Long, yet rewarding.

Keifus said...

Go west and pick tea (East India Co.), fur (Hudson's Bay), railroad, oil, modern military. You can take your pick almost. I've been thinking how things look the same and yet not.

Incidentally, and with regard to the extended phenotype business as I understand it, human behavior is biologically based. Sociology is a model to describe the expression of genes, and is can be thought of as a high-level biological model if you really want to do that. (Of course it's not useful to consider each cellular chemical path going on when you make a decision, even if we could.) We're wired for society, and for technology too, and society (and technology) helps us select what gene expressions persist. I've been having trouble expressing them, but it's been fun trying to shape those ideas.

So the latest idea, stemming from the idiot David Brooks' view of (of all places) China (which looks more like the American "corpocracy" he lives in than anything--Brooks is anything but self-aware), thinking about how the expression of power often looks the same when it concentrates, and making some goofy generalities and analogies about wealth, resources, and population density.

As soon as I have time...

Dawn Coyote said...

That was a worthwhile read.

Gregor, I take your point about the unwisdom of crowds and misdiagnosis of the problem (I'll sheepishly note that in full charge with the lynch mob I'll sometimes ignore the little voice in my head that tells me we've taken a wrong turn and are on our way to string up the wrong mad scientist), and I'll comment that not only is it emotionally satisfying to choose A as the problem, it's often much easier than choosing B, and the crowd has moral certitude on its side. Going against it can be dangerous, as you well know.

On the other hand, I think your A or B is a false dichotomy. A and B are intertwined and often inseparable, like flies and rotting meat, and need to be disposed of strategically. Attending to one doesn't dismiss the other, but the approach is different, by necessity.

Also, sometimes screaming long and loud about a problem that few people see (see my reply to Aaron, above) is the best way to get it to stay to people's front page for awhile.

Another personal note: I had an a-ha moment when Ted wrote about his experiences as a bookstore salesperson. I was about to say something along the lines of, "You know, I've heard so often about what assholes people can be, but I've never really experienced it first hand," and then the nickel dropped.