Democrats & Liberals Archives

The Science and Politics of Humanity

Evolution. Race. Innate abilities or disabilities. Jonathan Marks, in his book What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People and Their Genes knocks down many of the myths that surround the sciences of human biology. Biology and science often get mixed up in political rhetoric, and it’s unavoidable sometimes to get caught up in the mythology (literally) that undergirds most of our assumptions.

We can't have descended from monkeys, they say. Yet here it is, we share so much of our genetic material with one. Some might take the opposite notion and say that we're just beasts with a thin veneer of civilization on top, like icing on the cake.

No, says the anthropologist author of the book, neither notion is true. Humans are great apes, he says, the way they are fish, which is to say we share some genes, but long ago went off in a different direction. A lot of folks, early on, conflated the notion of a chain of being, the so-called evolutionary latter, with what Darwin's real evolution actually talks about: Common ancestry. Nothing sits still in evolution. The chimpanzee and human branches evolved in parallel, not in sequence.

Moreovers, sharing a bunch of genetic material does not mean that the proportion of that material makes us similar in that fraction. As the author points out, that would make us half fish, or about a third Daffodil. A quick look at ourselves in the mirror would show us that we hardly look like the the first, and definitely don't look like the latter.

Humans are humans. Nothing about our common ancestry with apes or monkeys make us an ape or monkey. Just looking at them, we can see that while they resemble us in part, we are profoundly different from them, in how we move, and in how we think and behave. As much as we would like to see apes as primordial humans, they're not. They're just not human.

Scientists are cultural creatures, just like everybody else. Carl Linnaeus, the guy who gave us the system that we use to identify species (Homo Sapiens being our own designation), decided to name our particular kind of creature mammals because he wanted to make a point about breast-feeding. Social Darwinists wished to use the theory to justify their notions of class society, about who deserved to be where. Anthropologists divided mankind up according to biblical divisions of descent, creating the scientific appearance of what is really just a cultural assumption.

In truth, the author tells us, geographical proximity determines more about our genetic similarity than our apparent race. Whites from Norway, Blacks from Ghana, and Orientals from Korea are not exemplars of biological categories, but products of geographical extremity. A black person from Somalia has more in common with the folks in Saudi Arabia than they have with another black person on the other side of Africa. A white person born in The Caucasus mountains (true Caucasians, in the literal sense of the word) probably is closer genetically to the local turks than he or she is to the blond, blue eyed Norwegians we often think of pure whites. Same would probably go for the Kazakhs of Asia, and their counterparts in Korea.

Nor, he says, is their any scientific basis for believing that social status or wealth are a result of genetic superiority. A person's true abilities are not scientifically testable. There's no way to ascertain with certainty and rigor what kind of genetic would lead to athletic, financial, or other kinds of success. Culture, in all these areas, has greater influence. A hard work ethic can lead somebody with genetic deficits to triumph over a lazy guy with great genes. A lifetime of learning and experience go into what people are able to do best.

He doesn't spare the notion that Blacks are better athletes. First, since race has little to do with actual genetic similarity between peoples, since it's more a cultural construct, it's hard to say why those we call blacks would necessarily have a common array of genetic gifts to bolster their performance. Even if some in East Africa share some genes that improve their ability to run, there would be no guarantee that they would share that with people on the other side of the continent. Moreover, like we said, a person's true abilities are not testable, especially not when you decide to represent the abilities of most of this cultural category by the most elite.

We can also, therefore, say that notions of races having inherent virtues or vices are just not scientifically supportable. Now some may criticize this as a politically correct thing to say, but the reality is, you can leave "politically" right off, because no serious scientific study supports the notion that race has a inherent determining factor on abilities. None can.

So is science an antidote to racism, according to the author? No, because racism itself is as cultural as race. It was never built on rational or scientific grounds to begin with. It's a generalizaton about another culture's attributes that substitutes itself for personal experience of the other person's character. These people were never making valid, sound inferences about these people to begin with. The pseudoscientific stuff was just cover for a cultural kneejerk reaction to another culture. Being a cultural problem, it will require cultural remedies.

The media doesn't typically do justice to the complexity of genetics. The truth is, the author says, we don't know much about what genetically codes for normal, and the pathological genes aren't necessarily helpful in telling us how our normal systems operate. They also don't do justice to the emergent nature of how genes are expressed, the way that our biology comes of an interaction between our genes, our environment, and our behavior. A gene can predispose you to Alcoholism, but it's not going to drag you down the street to a bar, or grab a bottle and pour it down your throat.

Science is often reduced to a storehouse of facts, and that gets both scientists and citizens into trouble. The author of the book spends an extensive amount of time going over the issues of the public's distrust of science. The truth is, science is about the process and the quality of the inferences we make, and it is constantly in flux. However, there is a method to the madness, and throughout the book, Marks makes a point of emphasizing it.

You can't simply make a claim in the language of science, he says, an expect it to be accorded credibility. The credibility of science is not in facts, but in process, that new information and better theories replace what came before and allow better conclusions to be made, with more accuracy and precision. It's not enough to get your foot in the door with science, you have to show you belong in the room. You can't be hypersensitive to criticism, or angry that people are skeptical and demand evidence. You can't simply float an idea and expect people to take it seriously. People appeal so much to the history of science, expecting everybody to entertain the idea that their pet theory will be the next best thing, but that's no more than boast and bluster. You have to weed out the bad ideas from the good, in fact have a means of doing so, to call it science. When you fail to do so, when you refuse to do so, what you claim to be science cannot be called such, it's just rhetoric meant to sound like it, your opinion in pseudoscientific costume.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at September 17, 2007 8:42 AM
Comments
Comment #233162

Stephen, have you heard about this yet? A device that seems to violate every known law of physics by creating a great deal of energy from virtually nothing. Could it become the answer we’ve all been looking for to combat global warming? Very exciting news, IMO.

Posted by: Adrienne at September 17, 2007 11:15 AM
Comment #233169

Adrienne-
You can’t get energy from nothing. Period. If you’re getting more energy out than you’re putting in, there has to be something in the system that has that energy stored up.

The energy in this system, likely enough, is chemical; hence the need for the secret catalyst, if it actually works. Catalysts are chemicals that make it easier for other chemicals to react. You’ve got a catalytic converter in your car that helps carbon monoxide and other pollutants become carbon dioxide and water.

Another key here is the use of Potash, which is essentially Potassium Carbonate. Potassium reacts strongly with water, so the catalyst might help the chemical to break those bounds, react with water, or do something which would ultimately end up generating the heat in question.

The question would be how long this could last. The catalyst and added energy of the electrical current might allow the mixture to switch back and forth, but as with any such system, at some point it would give out. There would also be a question as to whether impurities could foul the catalyst, as it’s known to happen in fuel cells.

If this actually works, it could help, but that’s all a question of if. Technology, in my experience, giveth, and it taketh away as well.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at September 17, 2007 11:59 AM
Comment #233170

Adrienne, I’ve very skeptical. I still remember the fusion experiments that turned out to be bogus in the last 1980s. When someone posts a new technology that ‘violates all of the known laws of physics’ I smell something fishy, especially when the diagram details ‘secret catalyst’ akin to the ‘magic happens here’ box.

But, if it turns out to be true, it is a great example of how technology will win the day. I just wish it didn’t depend upon electricity, the economical damage that it does today is pretty bad…

Posted by: Rhinehold at September 17, 2007 12:01 PM
Comment #233174

Stephen, you wrote:
“The credibility of science is not in facts, but in process, that new information and better theories replace what came before and allow better conclusions to be made, with more accuracy and precision. It’s not enough to get your foot in the door with science, you have to show you belong in the room.”

I think those guys who created that device have got about one leg inside that “room”, since what they’ve done has now been looked at by a bunch of independent scientists and deemed to be somehow workable. Now of course, it will have to be studied in much more detail — but it’s still very exciting.

Rhinehold:
“But, if it turns out to be true, it is a great example of how technology will win the day.”

Indeed.

“I just wish it didn’t depend upon electricity”

I could see this being hooked up to a solar system for home heating use — if it turns out to be the real deal, naturally.

Posted by: Adrienne at September 17, 2007 12:19 PM
Comment #233178

Adrienne,

That is true, for home heating, but I still think we need to advance our solar technology further along. I hear that newer cell technology will allow us to collect more energy from smaller cells which will give us better efficiency in that area. Of course, better batteries are even more key, which is where the issue of home solar power gets tricky.

But, I’m confident that as we continue down the path of technological breakthroughs we will see crude oil a thing of the past for energy. Now to find an alternative to the plastics industry. :)

Posted by: Rhinehold at September 17, 2007 12:35 PM
Comment #233204

The trick is to maintain skepticism. There’s another device that uses electricity to release more energy than the current puts into the device: it’s called a modern internal combustion engine. It’s likely using a chemical reaction, if it actually works at all.

Additionally, if they don’t well understand what’s going on within the reactant vessel inside this thing, that opens things up to all kinds of side effects. It also makes it difficult for them to troubleshoot and optimize it.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at September 17, 2007 2:15 PM
Comment #233218

Rhinehold, solar energy is way too expensive compared to geothermal and geo mass which return savings at about 3 times per year that solar does with a lower investment cost for a new home or business. There is a role for solar, but, unless the industry can dramatically cut the initial investment cost, it just won’t take off for middle class new homes or retrofits without huge government subsidies.

Posted by: David R. Remer at September 17, 2007 3:37 PM
Comment #233237

Stephen,

Great article!
I don’t get to say that to you often… But it’s great to see someone on Watchblog coming out against the race myth rather than using “race” for political purposes. So thank you.

In truth, the author tells us, geographical proximity determines more about our genetic similarity than our apparent race… Nor, he says, is their any scientific basis for believing that social status or wealth are a result of genetic superiority… We can also, therefore, say that notions of races having inherent virtues or vices are just not scientifically supportable.

This stuff goes to back up the points I made in this thread.

So is science an antidote to racism, according to the author? No, because racism itself is as cultural as race. It was never built on rational or scientific grounds to begin with.

The trouble is, many people do not recognize this vital fact, including many who are trying to fight racism. They still believe the myth. They feel that the solution is to continue to treat these so-called “races” differently! Affirmative Action is a good example. People need to realize this:

These people were never making valid, sound inferences about these people to begin with. The pseudoscientific stuff was just cover for a cultural kneejerk reaction to another culture. Being a cultural problem, it will require cultural remedies.

Remedies based on this race thing? Of course not! When did we start making strides against racism in this country? When we passed laws that required people to be treated equally. People of all skin colors could finally vote, go to the same schools, work in the same places get equal treatment from the government and basically live like everyone else. And what of government programs that treat people differently based on race? They have accomplished little, unsurprisingly. I maintain that the perpetuation of the lie of “race” by both our government and the media only helps to enable what racism is left.

Posted by: TheTraveler at September 17, 2007 6:44 PM
Comment #233247

You are right about the cultural basis of race. We could make all sorts of different ones, if we changed some cultural assumptions.

I have two interesting stories of cultural race. When I was in Norway, Sharon Pratt Kelly/Dixon was elected mayor of DC. Some Norwegians asked how a white woman was was mayor of DC, which was mostly a black city. I did not know she was “black” and when I looked at the picture I came to the same conclusion the Norwegians had, i.e. she was white, so I just had to tell them that I did not know. Only later when I looked at her bio did I learn she considered herself black.

I had an analogous experience in Brazil. A couple of sisters came to visit. They both considered themselves black. The Brazilians judge only by appearance. As far as theywere concerned, one was black (actually mixed race) and the other was white.

I think the more we learn of genetics, the less race will be a factor. It was always a dumb distinction. Culturally, I think race is getting less important too. When we had mostly a black and white country, race was easy. Now with real diversity, it is getting too complicated. The same thing happened with religion. In the U.S. there were so many religious groups that after awhile we could not get such polarization.

Posted by: Jack at September 17, 2007 7:34 PM
Comment #233253

The Traveler-
The guy’s whole point was that even if race has no scientific meaning, it’s nonetheless embedded in our culture in many ways. I know when you hear people talk about culture, you start thinking, “well, it’s all in people’s heads, so we just need to agree that it’s all an illusion.” But it’s not so simple. That illusion has had a selective effect on people’s behavior for quite some time now, and there are real world consequences for that.

So you tell some racist it’s just cultural. So you know what he does? If he’s scientifically inclined, and not one to go after conspiracy theory, he just finds social and cultural reasons to be a bigot. You tell the person they pick on that it’s just cultural, and they’ll probably shrug. Prejudice is prejudice. They get mistreated regardless of whether races is biologically real. The biological idea of race, Marks says, was never necessary for the cultural idea. Until the culture itself changes, racism remains.

I hardly think racism will go away suddenly if we just stop trying to actively remedy it, or compensate for it. Racism is by no means dead in this country, as part of the culture. We also can’t treat it as if its a short term problem, because any number of incidents in the world can bring the focus around to people who happen to look like those involved in the crisis at hand. Just look at the Sikhs, and what happened to them after 9/11. We should no more get rid of anti-racist legislation because its gone down than we should forsake the fourth amendment because fewer illegal searches are made. The point here is for the government to govern, to discourage racism when it becomes a problem for minorities.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at September 17, 2007 8:45 PM
Comment #233256

Jack-
First: one big subject the guy confronts in his book are scientific fallacies about race. They aren’t things of the past. People still make claims like this, still use talk about genetics to support racial prejudice and so-called politically incorrect “truths” Remember the Bell Curve? Your people revived it a while back, thesis being that blacks and minorities were genetically afflicted with innate intellectual inferiorities, so trying to help them and focusing resources on them was a waste of time.

The book is very much about current affairs, and the current state of things is that race is still very much an issue, and one where most of the more bigoted people involve don’t start from the evidence to make their claims.

New information about how bad hamburgers are for you haven’t stopped people from eating them, nor has information about how addicting and deadly cigarettes are done away with smoking. People even get a perverse thrill out of sticking to the folk wisdom on matters, smoking becoming daring, devil may care behavior and eating hamburgers a statement about how you don’t care what the pointy-headed scientists say. I doubt these revelations about the nature of race will change the minds of those inclined to hate people because of skin color and superficial appearance.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at September 17, 2007 8:59 PM
Comment #233259

Stephen,

I think we’re pretty much in agreement on this.

We should no more get rid of anti-racist legislation because its gone down than we should forsake the fourth amendment because fewer illegal searches are made.

I just want to make sure you don’t think that is what I’m calling for. Nothing of the kind. But I do think much of today’s legislation on the subject (stuff like Affirmative Action) purports to be anti-racist while really only, as you put it, compensating for it.

Another problem is the government’s use of the concept itself. Almost every time you have contact with the government, on almost form you fill out, your “race” is asked. This is obviously unnecessary and does nothing but continue a false premise. Talk about being dividers not uniters! Plus there are more and more people who fall into many or even none of the silly choices they give you. Since when are middle-eastern and Hispanic considered races, anyway?
By the way, I plan on reading the book.

Posted by: TheTraveler at September 17, 2007 9:32 PM
Comment #233260

Stephen

Did you read the Bell Curve? It really did not make that contention. It merely postulated the probability of group differences, not necessarily based on biological race. Race was not a big part of the book at all. It is just the part that got attacked.

Re “Your people revived it a while back”, do you mean people born in Wisconsin? People of Polish/German/Norwegian descent? Residents of Virginia? My people are mostly interested in drinking beer, hunting deer & not being bothered.

Among “my people”, however, I have noticed a big change in ideas toward race. I have not heard anybody use the “n-word” for at least 25 years (except on TV). My cousins have married into most of the world’s races, so that I have cousins, nieces and nephews of various colors and ethnicities. Nobody pays much attention to race. Attitudes and culture still matter and I think they should. I do not like Rap music or ghetto culture. That has nothing to do with race. I won’t eat kishka and I never have enjoyed curling either.

Our racial categories are old fashioned. They would disappear quicker if they did not have political support.

Posted by: Jack at September 17, 2007 9:46 PM
Comment #233269

Jack-
Your people as in Republicans.

The Bell Curve is simply social Darwinism dressed in science-like clothing. First, IQ itself is something of an abstraction. They even had to invent a new kind of mathematics in order to distill that unipolar factor. Second, if race is not a distinct genetic inheritance, how are blacks and hispanics, as the book suggests, supposed to inherit these bad socioeconomic genes?

Meanwhile, cultural forces provide much more ready explanations for underperformance among minorities, and much more scientifically demonstrable.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at September 17, 2007 11:24 PM
Comment #233282

Rhinehold:
“I still think we need to advance our solar technology further along. I hear that newer cell technology will allow us to collect more energy from smaller cells which will give us better efficiency in that area.”

It’s already happening, Rhinehold! I went to a “Environmental Event” here in Berkeley recently, and you should see how thin, and lightweight, and super efficient the new solar panels are becoming now — and amazingly enough, they’re starting to come way down in cost, too! I wish all you Watchbloggers could have attended this “event” with me — there were so many snazzy innovations!

“Now to find an alternative to the plastics industry. :)”

Seriously.
Here’s a couple of ideas on that front:

1. Boycott (or possibly, outlaw) Walmart! Don’t we all know that their low, low, sense of responsibility (not to mention their complete lack of style) and high, high greed is totally wrecking our environment/decor? :^)
2. Promote woven wicker, reeds, and other fibrous green-style goods as THE trendy, and hip thing to own and use! These woven things are not just easier on the eyes, they’re so easy on our health, and that of our planet. Eschew the toxic, uncool Rubbermaid, in favor of life with the friendly and lovable Scarecrow! You can get something far prettier made out of straw. In fact, you could even make your own storage baskets, drawer dividers, or cutlery trays (etc) yourself — if you’re the arty-crafty sort.

David:
“There is a role for solar, but, unless the industry can dramatically cut the initial investment cost, it just won’t take off for middle class new homes or retrofits without huge government subsidies.”

See above — the cost is starting to come down! Maybe government subsidies would be a good idea if America wants to get really serious about this on a much wider scale, but where I live (at the state and city level), they’re lowering the costs on all kinds of energy efficient goods through incentives.

Stephen:
“The trick is to maintain skepticism.”

Well, sure. We all want to know how and why it appears to work. Still, it seems like a total bummer to be a sour-puss when they’re claiming:

The device has taken ten years of painstaking work by a small team at Ecowatts’ tiny red-brick laboratory, and bosses predict a household version of their device will be ready to go on sale within the next 18 months.

Go ahead and call me a romantic, but that line put me in mind of the Wright Brothers toiling away on their machines, dreaming of flight…

“It’s likely using a chemical reaction, if it actually works at all.”

researchers believe it taps into a previously unrecognised source of energy, stored at a sub-atomic level within the hydrogen atoms in water.

Doesn’t that kind of give you goose bumps — just like when you were a kid learning/fooling around with your chemistry set?

“Additionally, if they don’t well understand what’s going on within the reactant vessel inside this thing, that opens things up to all kinds of side effects. It also makes it difficult for them to troubleshoot and optimize it.”

I think after this news, UK scientists are going to be all over this Tube like flies on sherbet! And you know they won’t stop until they can figure out what’s what’s going on inside that thing.

Posted by: Adrienne at September 18, 2007 1:44 AM
Comment #233286

Stephen

Meanwhile, cultural forces provide much more ready explanations for underperformance among minorities, and much more scientifically demonstrable.

I have for as long as I can remember been of this notion. I find it absurd to believe that a person of any particular race is somehow born biologically, psychologically, or mentally inferior or superior. The distinction in classes started with man initially as a form of survival and has evolved into cultural distinctions that allow some to live more comfortably than others. I think that throughout mankind there has always been a built in need for dominance. Much the same as apes, wolf packs, elephants, dogs etc. All of these groups have dominate leaders. And all these groups have challenges to that leadership. I know it gets much more complicated when we introduce the ability to think and manipulate thoughts but in the end it is the teaching of various cultures that has shaped our acceptance of individual orders within the ranks of society.

Posted by: RickIL at September 18, 2007 9:01 AM
Comment #233293

Adrienne-
It doesn’t give me Goosebumps, it sets off my B.S. Detector. Previously unrecognize sources of energy is either a fancy way to talk about some chemical reaction, and therefore misleading, or it’s an extraordinary claim they should not be making if, as they claim, they don’t really know what’s going on.

I know I’m sounding like a wet blanket, but believe me when I tell you that I truly have a sense of wonder, and there is much to be amazed at in the world. Even so, for this thing to have real world value, to be safe and effective, we have to understand what’s going on. A failure to fully apprehend the consquences of pumping out gigatons worth of CO2 every years is what got us into this situation in the first place.

There’s a difference between technology we would like to work, and technology that actually will. People need to dream in order to come up with new technology, but they need to wake up in the morning and work hard to see if the dreams can become reality, before they start claiming they will come true. We grow this tree to prune it.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at September 18, 2007 10:53 AM
Comment #233296

Stephen:
“for this thing to have real world value, to be safe and effective, we have to understand what’s going on.”

I would assume that if they want to market this device, they’ll need to prove both? Hence, they asked some independent scientists to come take a look at it. Now that they’ve passed the first hurdle with the scientists agreeing that they seem to be onto something here, that will generate the interest in what they’ve been developing to get funding for the scientific study that will give them that proof.

“People need to dream in order to come up with new technology, but they need to wake up in the morning and work hard to see if the dreams can become reality, before they start claiming they will come true.”

Well, in this case, it took the guy who came up with the idea, and his dream of developing it, and it took the dream of an environmentally friendly energy source for the wealthy patrons to write the check that funded that development, and then ten years of people working hard in that lab to bring us this story. Now they’re claiming it could be brought to the market in 18 months — but only because it seems to be working (even if they can’t explain exactly why).
Like I said, it seems that they’ve got one leg in the “room” at the moment, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what comes of this.

Posted by: Adrienne at September 18, 2007 11:31 AM
Comment #233298

Stephen,

On the whole a good article, but, as is usually the case, the manner in which race is really being used today is overlooked.

While we all seem to know that we are 98% chimp we seem to forget that we are 99.999% black, or asian, or white, or whatever. There are however, these subtle external differences we share within identifiable groups- and human beings are nothing if not able to detect subtleties. Therein is a key point to remember. Evolutionarily we are predisposed to be able to detect subtle identifying factors that help us to stay with “our” group.

I once had a fascinating discussion with Donald Webb, the Welsh-born former president of Centenary College of Louisisana about my mystification at the then-raging war between Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics. The racism of the Old South, I stated, at least made a limited sense to me because one could see a color difference between the so-called races. These people, though, came out of the same gene pool.
He responded that the culture of Ireland was so attuned to these old hatreds that one could dress Protestant and Catholic in the same clothes and, from a thousand feet away, any common Irishman would still be able to tell them apart.

This is a deep truth. The differences we use to separate us will be clear to us if it is important to us that they do so. Race is presently a means of maintaining political, cultural, and social distinctions that allow forms of social control government alone would not be permitted to impose on us.

The first step to conquering a society is breaking it up into little pieces that will not stand with each other. Race is simply a convenient cleaver.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at September 18, 2007 11:35 AM
Comment #233305

Stephen,

Good Post. Thanks for the thoughts. It seems I recently read however that when the entire genome was mapped it was recently determined that perhaps we only share 96% of Chimp genetic material. Not that this changes the thrust of your post. Ahhh here’s a link


Adrienne,
a link you may want to read.

Posted by: alien from the planet zorg at September 18, 2007 12:58 PM
Comment #233317

Lee Jamison-
Does it requires government intervention for people to be aware of or sensitive to race? No.

Part of the functions of laws to prevent racial discrimination is to make sure that people get used to each other enough that they no longer consider them in terms of being inside or outside their group. At the same time, though, you can’t entirely forces this on people, it’s something that has to be negotiated out in time.

Culture is not a minor thing for people. It shapes just about everything about who they are. Language, custom, dress, religion- all these form aspects of our existence. As the author of the book that prompted my entry would put it, culture isn’t the icing on the cake, a superficial glaze, but rather like the eggs by which the cake was baked. I think Conservatives underestimate the amount of work it will take to bring this about, and some among the Republicans (a minority, admittedly) don’t even want the culture to change to that extent.

Not everything should be done with government, but not everything a society needs to be done can be done without it.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at September 18, 2007 2:54 PM
Comment #233341

Stephen

I do not want to sideline the discussion into the Bell Curve, but it is not social Darwinism. It does not advocate survival of the fittest economically nor does it make any attempt to set up normative behavior.

If I had to sum the whole book up in a few sentences, I would not even bring up race. The main thrust is simply that people are not blank slates. Some have skills and intelligence that allow them to do things that others cannot. Increasing understanding of human genetics is proving this very much the truth. The book also does NOT advocate taking resources away from low achievers. It simply states that you are unlikely to be successful trying to train someone with low IQ as a doctor or rocket scientist.

Most importantly, the book takes great pains to point out the limits of grouping and statistics. The authors specifically say that if you know an individual’s intelligence, you probably can say little about his individual achievement. But if you have 100 people with IQs of 130 and 100 people with IQs of 95, you would have to be really stupid to bet on the lower group as higher achievers.

I read the book more than 10 years ago, but I recall that there was little in it that was not just well established ideas in statistics and cognitive behavior. It got trouble becuase it was not PC and because it was a very direct attack on the blank slate ideas of human behavior, which were already moribund by then, but still well loved by some “progressives”.

In fact, many of the things that you praise in the book above are very similar. Achievement in our society results from a combination of natural talent, family background, cultural factors and luck. They interact so much that it is often not possible to separate the effects. For example, a talented family will often also have money and social position. Talents must usually be developed, so you need the advatages. On other hand, w/o talents the advatages mean little. We all know smart poor people, although in the U.S. they rarely stay poor. We also know dumb rich kids. They are usually disappointed.

Posted by: Jack at September 18, 2007 6:58 PM
Comment #233359

Jack-
The Bell Curve is not a sideline for this discussion, actually. It’s one of the books that the author brings up.

Neither of these guys are genetics, and for all their talk about a genetic basis for the intelligence test results, they can’t really say that they’re starting from actual genetics (as in, they haven’t actually identified these inheritable factors), nor can they really say that they can scientifically determine a person’s full potential.

Take kids with Asperger’s, for example. By definition, they score average or above on IQ Tests. Some are quite functional, and you probably see quite a number of them represented in the ranks of scholars, artists, computer geeks and scientists. Others find it difficult to lead productive lives because of their autistic tendencies, their social deficits, their blindly intense focus on routine, tasks at hand, and what seem to other trivial things.

Just look at them, and you’ll see why this notion of innate intelligence being a measure of potential is so flawed. These are people who can alternative be huge underacheivers, or huge successes, the guy in his parent’s basement, or the guy in a mansion. Or they can be anything in between. Human intelligence is very complex, and measuring a person’s innate abilities is confounded by it, because you’re asking an unanswerable question: what is this person capable of?

If you can’t answer that for one person, can’t really piece together all the factors for one person, how the heck can you do so for so many? Just because you’re talking to masses of people, doesn’t mean you get to sweep the question of identifying actual genetics, and getting past the unanswerability of the question of potential.

It’s not science, if you choose to ignore confounding factors in people’s lives, while in search of innate intelligence. You can’t really claim that the averages for a group of people living in one set of circumstances represent what their performance would be had they developed under better circumstances.

Adrienne-
Results have to be reproduceable, of course. This could all be a result of a mistake on their part. Perhaps some part of the device doesn’t function as the people intend and that’s what’s causing the heat. Additionally, how does this device behave? What kinds of moving parts are we talking about here, chemicals and whatnot? This is important because people could come into contact with A Chemical which is hazardous to their health. Long story short, you don’t want to ingest the Potassium Carbonate, or bathe in it.

These guys need to prove themselves first. That’s the scientific way of doing things. If they can’t prove what they’re doing is what they think it is first, then why should they get funding?

As for what I said about Dreaming? Well, I should have been more clear, less lyrical. Put simply, one tries to think of all the different possiblities, then one does the work necessary to cut down those possibilities down to the ones that are actually supportable.

You have to appreciate that when I talk about doing more than getting your foot in the door, I meant that it was not enough for the scientists to claim they had something that worked, to claim some mysterious process at work.

A scientist has to be open to all kinds of possibilities, including those that contradict the theory they like. You have to be truly open-minded and consider all the reasonable alternatives. Perhaps it’s a quirk of the circuitry, or a consequence of the heater’s physical design that makes it more effecient, rather than the chemical mix within. Or, if its the Chemical mix, perhaps reactions are occuring they haven’t considered.

The whole point of the scientific method is to encourage people to consider the fallibility of they think to be right about the empirically measureable world out there, to test for other possiblities, and the possibility of their hypothesis, their explanation being wrong.

Science works on meaningful distinctions between what would be true if an explanation were right, and if it were not. If the test doesn’t turn blue, for example, you might not be pregnant. Then you might have to find another explanation for your recent hormonal changes, or perhaps avail yourself of a more conclusive test.

I’d say this: be careful about science through the media. A reporter might not be scientifically literate enough, or know enough scientists to get the other side of the story on the matter. The Media loves to talk about gee-whiz developments, but the really important stuff isn’t always that dreamy or glamorous. Technology often develops much more mundanely than people anticipate, and the real profound advances sneak up on us when we’re not looking. Just look at the way people envision computers in the sixties and seventies. Now we got pocket calculators with greater power, and home PC’s that would sooner scrape them off their shoe than look at them. At the same time, We never got HAL 9000! Nor did we get manned missions to Jupiter.

Yet, paradoxically enough, our unmanned missions have revealed worlds far stranger than anything the prophets of the space age would imagine. Further observation of the outer reaches of solar space have shown us huge objects, some bigger than Pluto, orbiting far beyond the once Ninth Planet’s orbit.

There is a great deal of wonder out there, but sometimes, we can be so focused on what we imagine to be grand and full of possibility, that we miss the real wonders of the world.

It’s important to know, if this device really works, why it does, because that effect can likely be used elsewhere to mankind’s advantage. If we just let it go at “and then something mysterious occurs” we miss out on an awful lot.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at September 18, 2007 9:12 PM
Comment #233368

Stephen

The whole principle of statistics is that you can make many true statements about groups that you cannot make about individuals. You can say with certainty that a representive sample of NBA players will on average play basketball better than a sample from the YMCA, but I bet you could find particular individuals where this is not true.

As I said, achievement comes from many factors. Innate talent is only one of them, but it clearly is a factor. Most people would probably do better if they have advantages to develop their talents. Maybe Mozart would not have been a great musician w/o his musical family but I am pretty sure that I (a talent free individual) could have been Mozart no matter what the advatages.

Talent, advantages, training, luck all play parts. I will contend, however, that it is sometimes difficult to assess “advantages”. I come from a poor family. Both my parents dropped out of HS. Yet when I look back, I had many advantages that some richer kids did not.

You also cannot forget that people interact with their environments. Those with certain talents or predelictions seek out opportunities in those areas.

People are NOT blank slates. They come with lots of pre-programming. Ideally, we should all have chances to develop our talents, but you know that IF we had a perfect “fair” and equal opportunity, the ONLY thing that would matter would be genetics, since you will have eliminated the other variables. Do you want that? Sort of like an ant colony.

Posted by: Jack at September 18, 2007 9:51 PM
Comment #233394

Alien, indeed. I was very busy today, but I started thinking about how they were more interested in talking about when they could get that device to market than they were about all the tests that would automatically need to be conducted before that could ever happen. I mean, they don’t even claim to understand what is happening inside of their own device, and all they want to talk about is selling it? Very suspicious. So, I just spent a few minutes checking out the scientific creds of that guy from the University of York that they were quoting in the article. I just did, and you had already beat me to the punch. I came here to tell Stephen that I don’t think Eccowatts has crossed any hurdles at all, and that the whole thing could very well be nothing but a scam.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time scammers have claimed to have discovered a way to miraculously tap into “free energy” — and even in the midst of my excitement, it had occurred to me that if producing their “secret catalyst” ended up using up more energy than the Glorious Tube could be made to produce, it would no longer be much of a miracle, right?
Still, I think it’s an extremely interesting scam. Assume for a moment that a chemical reaction between potash, the “secret catalyst” and perhaps a few other components inside a tube could be made to generate a lot of extra heat. What would need to be tested was how long they could keep it going — and come to think of it, that really should have been the focus of this story if it really was such a miraculous leap forward. It would definitely seem likely that at some point the heat would simply cease — you know, once all the reactants were used up. So if people wanted to use this device, would they need to keep dumping in large quantities of “Eccowatts super-secret miracle reactant”?

Wouldn’t that mean that our “glorious free energy future” would become much like owning a messy and bothersome kerosene heater? :^)

Posted by: Adrienne at September 19, 2007 12:58 AM
Comment #233412

Adrienne,

Your thoughts there show a good concept of physics. Energy in = Energy out.

Nuclear and Fossil fuels make use of stored energy. We know the negative issues surrounding these.

There is a free energy source around, called wind, water and solar. The cost comes in harnessing it and the negative effects of the structures built to make use of it. I think we’ve little sensible choice left, but to develop these.

Posted by: alien from the planet zorg at September 19, 2007 7:24 AM
Comment #233415

Stephen, I fail to see directly from your writing what this has to do with politics. Indirectly, I see great import of your discussion on the politics of education, media, religious activism in government, and government funding of R&D. But, you leave all that to the reader.

Plus this, for me, was pretty long winded. The succinct argument you make was made eloquently when you said: “It’s [racism] a generalizaton about another culture’s attributes that substitutes itself for personal experience of the other person’s character.”

In other more common parlance, racism is prejudging another on race rather experience of the individual and their composite of traits and abilities and predispositions and experience, that go into making them an individual of far greater sum than their racial heritage.

Posted by: David R. Remer at September 19, 2007 7:37 AM
Comment #233441

Jack-
You can work up a statistical correlation for just about anything. Statistical and scientific, though, are not necessarily the same thing.

The inference is worthless in terms of scientific credibity, if you can’t demonstrate that you can scientifically establish what a person abilities would be, or if you can’t establish a genetic marker or system of genes.

And if you can establish ability, even if you can establish a genetic code, given what we know about the relationship between race and genetics, there is likely no guarantee that people as a race would commonly inherit good or bad versions of that gene.

An honest scientist will tell you that we don’t know what a individual is capable of, physically or mentally. They’ll also tell you that we don’t know what the critical genes in intelligence are. You can measure IQ across groups, but there’s nothing that necessitates that IQ represent innate ability. A dyslexic person can score poorly on portions requiring reading without lacking the skills that it tests for. A person who’s functionally illiterate could be performing far below their potential; I suspect any number of us smarty-pants on this site have ancestors who were basically illiterate. That, though was a cultural problem, not a result of inherent genetic deficiencies.

People are not blank slates, but what is already written is much more complex, even for the poorest performer than fans of The Bell Curve suppose. The interaction is complex beyond words. It’s not for nothing that studies that deal with human behavior are soft sciences.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at September 19, 2007 11:39 AM
Comment #233462

Stephen,

My comments on race shouldn’t suggest that I discount culture. My opinion of culture is that it is like the programming that runs on the human machine. Every human of normal intelligence can run the majority of the dominant cultural program. Race has no effect on this.

Clearly, though, some people are directed to sub-versions of culture that severely limit them and race is used as a pry-bar in that process.
No one of any social credit would tell someone they are not being “white” enough because they chose to get involved in some aspect of a minority culture, but we hear intimations frequently about how some people like Barak Obama or Tiger Woods are somehow not “black” enough. That pressure is ubiquitous in America- to the detriment of many peopl in minority communities whose natural tendency would be to assimilate with the dominant culture.

You also ought to find a book by Jared Diamond called The Third Chimpanzee . http://www.amazon.com/Third-Chimpanzee-Evolution-Future-Animal/dp/0060984031 It is a good read on a similar area of thought.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at September 19, 2007 2:09 PM
Comment #233900

http://www.mailonsunday.co.uk/pages/live/articles/technology/technology.html?in_article_id=481996&in_page_id=1965
How this 12inch miracle tube could halve heating bills | the Mail on Sunday

Adrienna- This is where your new power can be seen.

Posted by: -DAVID- at September 22, 2007 3:57 AM
Comment #233901

————sorry Adrienne, I put an a on the end of
your name on above post.————-

Posted by: -DAVID- at September 22, 2007 4:03 AM
Comment #234007

David,

If it really does what it says it does someone has finally invented a perpetual motion machine- which means, somehow, it does not do what it says it does,

Posted by: Lee Jamison at September 22, 2007 10:35 PM
Comment #234015

Lee Jamison- What do you mean “if” have you read

the article?

Posted by: -DAVID- at September 22, 2007 11:39 PM
Comment #234150

Yes, David, I read it.

It claims that, somehow, more energy comes out than goes in. OK, that solves the energy crisis, because one could set these things up in series, use them to drive any number of low-pressure, high efficiency electrical generation systems (Israel uses such systems to capture solar energy trapped in heavy brine under a layer of fresh water) and use the energy they produce to drive the system, while bleeding off excess energy for consumption. Voila! Perpetual motion machine!

This is a violation of both the first and second laws of thermodynamics. See:the Wikipedia article and skip down to section 10.

It’s not impossible that the fundamental laws of physics are wrong, but it is VANISHINGLY unlikely.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at September 24, 2007 12:21 PM
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