Thursday, May 5, 2016


I've begun to read Native Realm, by Czeslaw Milosz, and though I like Richard Feynman the transition from his memoir is a little jarring. Milosz can't write about himself without including Lithuanian history, whereas Feynman is barely aware of his own. Milosz represents the Old World, with an appreciation of literature and the catastrophes of Europe, while Feynman seems like a kid in a candy store, having the time of his life and omitting reference to the consequences of the development of thermonuclear weapons. This contrast mirrors my disappointment with American literature, which leans toward the lighthearted and generally lacks seriousness. It is easier to find gravitas in Europe, which provides fertile soil for meditation on the meaning of life, than it is in America, where the lack of history seems to generate pointless, trivial narcissism in the arts. The thought occurred to me that Americans delude themselves about why they seem to be admired throughout the world. The admiration is probably real, but it isn't based on, say, the sagacity of the Founding Fathers, the wisdom of the Constitution or the liberty of the individual. Really most of the admirers around the world would just like to be equally attractive and have all that cool stuff, and they don't care at all about our system of government, our economic model or our beliefs. To them the "shining city upon a hill" represents little more than material excess. It is simply attractive to those who don't know any better.

Speaking of Feynman, I was looking into the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews and came across this amazing research paper. The paper was published in 2005 and speculates that high intelligence in Ashkenazi Jews is the result of natural selection and is associated with certain diseases in much the same way that sickle cell anemia is associated with survival from malaria at the cost of other health risks. As of the time of writing, there was insufficient study of the Ashkenazi population to confirm or deny the hypothesis, but, not being a scientist myself, I am inclined to think it is correct. It is a long and technical paper, but you can get the gist of it by reading the Introduction and Conclusion. I had not read much on intelligence for many years, and although it is a murky topic progress seems to have been made. As a measure of intelligence IQ can hardly be considered precise. What I didn't realize is that Ashkenazi IQ's are well documented to be the highest of any ethnic group. The paper explains in detail how this situation may have developed as the result of natural selection for high ability in mathematics and language in the Ashkenazi population over several centuries. Interestingly, the same IQ phenomenon does not exist among Sephardic or Oriental Jews.

I had read previously that IQ is thought to be mostly inherited, and this paper supports that view. One of the examples provided is that programs such as Head Start tend not to work because even when children get a boost in cognitive performance at an early age they tend to revert to whatever their innate intelligence was, and in adulthood no benefit is detectable. The authors say "The phenomenon of heritability increasing with age is characteristic of many quantitative traits in mammals." In other words, the IQ of a child is likely to end up similar to that of its parents regardless of early stimulation and enrichment. This whole paper sounds so politically incorrect that at first I found it hard to believe that it was legitimate. However, the authors seem to have done due diligence, their argument has merit and presumably they still have jobs. Particularly intriguing to me is the idea that one group is inherently more intelligent than others. This contradicts current thinking in public policy, which proclaims that social inequality can be rectified by providing educational opportunities to all groups, giving everyone access to high-paying jobs. If the hypothesis of the paper is correct – and I think it is – some people will never be able to get high-paying jobs because of their inherently lower cognitive abilities. Ashkenazi Jews and others will continue to hold the most intellectually demanding jobs, which are usually the ones that pay well, meaning that it is a dereliction of duty for the government to present education as a panacea for economic inequality.

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