Thursday, January 26, 2017


I'm sorry to say that even I am finding the Trump presidency somewhat disturbing. Ordinarily it has been easier for me to ignore politicians who seem disagreeable or incompetent, but Trump is off the scale when it comes to bad judgment. His style is reminiscent of politicians during the McCarthy era, which had ended by the time I arrived in the U.S. and I never witnessed firsthand. In his case it is as if a gorilla has escaped from the local zoo, and, due to confusion and jurisdictional disputes among the authorities, the gorilla remains at large, terrorizing old ladies and children. Trump's repeated denial of proven facts brings to mind the worst dictators and can only be resolved either by the establishment of a de facto dictatorship or by his voluntary or involuntary departure from office. Unfortunately it may take as many as four years to be rid of him. Since I don't believe in nationalism or think that Trump's long-term effect will be significant, I am less concerned than others whom I know. However, his behavior is always attention-grabbing, and one would have to avoid the news entirely in order to escape his daily offenses.

This atmosphere has caused me to curtail my reading, but I've managed to read a little of The American Enemy, by Philippe Roger, which was mentioned by Tony Judt. It is written in a scholarly style that flunks my concision test, because Roger repeats himself and takes forever to get to the point. He also, like many scholars, neglects to tell you up front the dates associated with various people, which makes it more difficult for the reader to piece together the fragments of information. As far as I've read, he has discussed Georges Louis Leclerc, compte de Buffon (1707-1788), the French naturalist; Cornelius De Pauw (1739-1799), the Dutch geographer; and Guillaume Thomas Raynal (1719-1796), the French writer. These three, despite never having traveled to the Americas, wrote extensively about them and spread misinformation that lasted for several decades. Somehow they thought that all growth here was stunted, and that humans accordingly never developed properly and had low reproductive rates. They concluded that any Europeans who settled in the Americas would also degenerate physically. To support their ideas they came up with some real doozies, such as that the Biblical flood had left salt on the land, which inhibited growth. Thomas Jefferson became the defender of his country and wrote extensively to counter these claims; he even had a moose shot, stuffed and sent to Buffon in Paris in order to prove that large animals exist here. This book is filled with entertaining information covering several centuries, and I may read it intermittently. Up to a point, reading about national hubris of the past can be amusing, but when you have to live with it in the present it can become depressing.

I've ordered a copy of How Will Capitalism End?, by Wolfgang Streeck, which is more up my alley and is a more serious subject which I think we'll be hearing about increasingly in the years ahead.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

This book, published in 2009, was written by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, two of the authors of the study of intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews cited earlier. It is an expansion of the ideas behind that hypothesis and attempts to show that human evolution is ongoing and did not, as many believe, stop about 40,000 years ago. They argue that the rate of evolutionary change in humans has increased since the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, and that this change has been driven primarily by the shift from a hunter-gatherer subsistence to an agricultural subsistence. Although I find most of their arguments persuasive, their placement of biology ahead of culture as an explanation for certain human characteristics has caused them to be labeled as racists by some. The book was not widely reviewed, but still seems to have developed somewhat of a cult following. Generally, it is consistent with many of the positions that I've taken in this blog, and I consider it to be an admirable effort to place scientific investigation ahead of unfounded academic ideology, though it may prove to be incorrect in some respects. I'll summarize it and then comment broadly on the detractors of this kind of thinking and how their objections may be resolved.

Several pages are devoted to the Neanderthals, who were, as of the time of writing, suspected of interbreeding with the first wave of humans to enter Europe. Since the book was written, that has been confirmed, with some modern humans inheriting and retaining immunity genes from Neanderthals, which is consistent with the theorizing of the authors. In general, it is becoming increasingly possible to study such matters with the help of advances in molecular biology. The heart of the book concerns the development of agriculture, which the authors believe created new evolutionary pressures among humans. On the one hand, food became more consistently available, but on the other hand farming made certain new abilities and skills advantageous. Previously, hunter-gatherers had little use for private property and escaped contact with many diseases through their nomadic existence. Because farming made them stationary, their populations grew and their proximity to livestock exposed them to new diseases, the authors speculate that immunity to disease became an important biological adaptation. Furthermore, humans were pressured to develop systems for the protection of private property, since their immobility made them more vulnerable to the theft of their food supplies. Eventually, as agricultural systems became prevalent, civilization led to governments and record-keeping. In the authors' view, genetic changes emerged during the process.

The principal example of genetic change cited is the development of lactose tolerance, which occurred more than once during this period. With a constant supply of digestible dairy milk, it became possible for populations to increase dramatically in size during a short period of time. Once large, concentrated populations came into being, it became possible for more mutations to occur over shorter periods of time, and new alleles which conferred greater fitness spread rapidly. Much of the book describes real-world genetics and gene flow. The analysis contrasts with ones such as that of Jared Diamond, who argued in Guns, Germs and Steel that cultural changes associated with food production gave those groups an advantage over other groups. Cochran and Harpending believe that natural selection occurred, that there is a genetic basis for the changes and that since then there has been a change in cognition and personality traits that conferred an advantage to those groups. Specifically, they claim that the people who first transitioned away from a nomadic life had an advantage which eventually led them to develop modern science and to initiate the Industrial Revolution. While their view can be interpreted as racist, they present it as a scientific hypothesis that has conceptual merit in its own right. They believe that the societies which practiced agriculture for the longest periods became genetically different from societies which adopted agriculture later on. As they explain:

Human evolution didn't stop when anatomically modern humans appeared, or when they expanded out of Africa. It never stopped – and why would it? Evolutionary stasis requires a static environment, whereas behavioral modernity is all about innovation and change. Stability is exactly what we have not had. That should be obvious, but instead the human sciences have labored under the strange idea that evolution stopped 40,000 years ago.

When it comes to identifying the actual groups that underwent this evolution, the book is a little unclear. The authors posit the main group as the one that first adopted the Indo-European language, also known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans. They are even murkier when it comes to identifying the actual alleles that behaviorally differentiated them from other humans. The most specific example of recent evolution offered is the one concerning inherited intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews, and though they associate this with alleles related to certain diseases, they are short on proof. However, this writing is primarily of a theoretical nature and serves mainly as a guide to future research.

On some fronts Cochran and Harpending have been attacked as racists. Cochran is probably safe professionally, since he is a self-employed physicist. Harpending was a professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Utah and died last year from a stroke. However, they have received some positive recognition, and Steven Pinker, the cognitive scientist, supports their theory of Ashkenazim intelligence. Although I am ideologically neutral, I am shocked by the extent to which political correctness has infiltrated the world of American intellectuals. Stephen Jay Gould, the well-known paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, argued, incorrectly in the view of the authors, that human evolution could not have occurred since humans left Africa, because that was too short a time span. He also went overboard in discrediting IQ tests, which, though imperfect, do have some use and have shown that intelligence is more the result of inheritance than cultural environment. Another offender has been the evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, who argued against sociobiology and popularized the idea that 85 per cent of human genetic variation occurs within groups as compared to 15 percent between groups, supporting the idea that all modern humans are basically the same. On this, Cochran and Harpending say:

Using the same reasoning that Lewontin applied in his argument about human populations, one would have to conclude that differences between individual Great Danes must be greater than the average difference between Great Danes and Chihuahuas.

Lewontin may technically be correct if you count all genes, but there is a lot of junk to be found in genes, and it is misleading to lump in the critical genes of an organism with ones that serve no known function. Gould and Lewontin represent the liberal dogma that is still prevalent at the New York Review of Books.

Not being a scientist, my views are the result mainly of lifelong observation. On that basis it has been obvious to me that heritable intelligence is a real phenomenon that cannot be ascribed entirely to environmental influences. Thus I agree with Cochran and Harpending that Ashkenazi Jews received a boost in intelligence through natural selection. Other aspects of their argument are too vague for confirmation anytime soon. Although there is probably something to it, we're nowhere near finding anything that would resemble the genes for complex behavior such as "the Puritan work ethic," which Cochran and Harpending seem to think constitutes a recent evolutionary development. In my view there are many real differences between individuals, and no amount of politically correct indoctrination is about to convince me otherwise. To some extent the movement to consider all people the same has a desirable side, in that it might potentially reduce conflict. However, to the extent that it ignores reality it is anti-scientific and encourages delusional thinking. It also has a theological quality which I find offensive. My own preference is to think in terms of eusociality and law and to emphasize legal equality over biological sameness. The meme that is currently circulating in favor of equality seems to deny the possibility that significant biological differences can exist between groups, and there are costs to such misunderstandings. The most obvious ones pertain to public policies such as the use of education to foster economic equality among all groups. The fact is that, for biological reasons, not all groups are going to be able to produce the same percentage of rocket scientists as the Ashkenazi Jews no matter how well-educated they become. If you fully buy into the arguments of Cochran and Harpending, you may also want to look at some world conflicts as having causes related to differences between populations that have long agricultural histories and those that have maintained nomadic or pastoral practices until recently. Whether or not such speculations are fruitful, they would certainly be more mind-expanding than the dogmatic clichés repeated perpetually in politically correct circles.

Much of the rancor that surfaces whenever there is a hint of racism or bigotry relates to the perception that one group is being considered inferior to another. My view is that, given the sloppy, random process of evolution and the general limitations of human beings as organisms, such thinking is a waste of time. It is true that some people have cognitive skills that enable them to perform tasks that others can't and that other people have other skills that are lacking in intelligent people, but there is no point to arranging everyone into a meaningless hierarchy. From a policy standpoint the only thing that is important is that people are treated equally under the law, and there is no reason to pretend that all people would have identical abilities under the right circumstances. In my futurist frame of mind I like to think that what is currently seen as high intelligence will someday be seen as a small differentiation compared to what becomes available through AI. As an exercise, I entertain myself by thinking of apps such as ones that decide which career suits you, which colleges you apply to, whom you marry, where you live, whom you vote for and which hobbies you adopt. There is no reason to think that such apps couldn't do a better job than people have been doing without them up to now. In this framework humans become simple inhabitants of the universe rather than exalted beings worthy of awe, and I find that preferable to the petty posturing and one-upmanship that seems to dominate contemporary life.

Friday, January 13, 2017


The Trump election is weighing heavily on many Americans. Liberals went into a shock from which they are slowly recovering, and his supporters seem to retain some cautious optimism. However, his popularity has already dropped according to a recent poll, and signs of buyers' remorse are starting to emerge among those who voted for him. The act of voting is saturated with emotion, and much of Trump's appeal has been his style, which is nearly the opposite of Obama's. Trump's supporters are bound to become disappointed the more they learn about him.

It is still too early to tell for certain what the Trump presidency will be like. Assuming that he isn't assassinated or dragged down by a major scandal, it will soon become apparent that he has no credible policies. This is already becoming clear in his cabinet nominees. Before even receiving confirmation they are expressing opinions which conflict with statements that he has made. As an observer I deduce from his primitive vocabulary and body language that not only does he read very little, but that he rarely engages in sophisticated discussions concerning complex subjects: his habitual thinking must be crude. If you look at his background, his success as a businessman required less skill than it would have in many other fields. Real estate is one of the easiest fields to enter, and real estate tycoons constitute the most thuggish of the billionaires. Even as a real estate billionaire, in the course of his career he has made serious blunders which eventually forced him to retreat to brand marketing rather than actual real estate development. Others own most of the real estate with which his name is associated, and he is generally considered a pariah by respectable businessmen. There is also considerable concern about him among psychologists, since he clearly exhibits the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, which entails the potential for seriously destructive behavior.

The possibility remains that the Trump presidency will be a complete failure. There isn't much overlap between political skills and business skills, and if anything Trump's business skills are narrow. He is already showing signs that he will be unable to work with Congress, where his bullying may be ineffective and his lack of knowledge is a handicap. Many Republicans detest him but are accommodating him only to advance their own careers, and it is unlikely that they will come to support him ideologically given that he is inconsistent in that regard. Congress won't want to finance the wall with Mexico and may be unable to produce an adequate law to replace the Affordable Care Act. As I mentioned earlier, Trump's plan to bring back jobs is economically naïve and will not create an increase in well-paying jobs. What enthuses me the most, however, regarding Trump's exit, is the timing of the business cycle. Obama walked into the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, and though his influence was probably minuscule, the economy has more or less recovered since then. In Trump's case there is a very good chance that halfway through his first term there will be another recession regardless of what he does, and, depending on the timing, he may not be able to take credit for any economic improvement and would be defeated if he ran for reelection. Politicians routinely take credit for economic improvements that have nothing to do with them, but when there is no improvement they lose that opportunity.

All of this absurdity encourages me to return to my futurist mode, in which I try to envision a world organized according to more rational principles. If any of my readers are writing novels, I still encourage them to write ones in which AI gradually becomes the curator of mankind and ensures its well-being while limiting its destructiveness for the benefit of all. A novel such as this would be more plausible than the futuristic ones produced so far by Michel Houellebecq, in which human cloning becomes the norm or France becomes an Islamic caliphate. The more I think about it, the more I become convinced how feeble human brains are and how apparent this will become in the near future as AI research advances. A few hundred years from now people will shocked by the primitive circumstances in which we find ourselves today.

I have been scrounging around for some good reading material that is of greater length than what I've been reading recently and hope to come up with something soon.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Anti-Americans Abroad

This essay by Tony Judt first appeared in the NYRB in 2003 just after the Iraq War had commenced, and I vaguely recall reading it at the time. It is a review of several French books about the United States. Anti-Americanism has a long history in Europe, and Judt briefly recounts it before examining the then-current state of affairs as reflected in these books:

Charles Dickens, like Alexis de Tocqueville, was struck by the conformism of American public life. Stendhal commented upon the country's "egoism"; Beaudelaire sniffily compared it to Belgium (!) in its bourgeois mediocrity; everyone remarked upon the jejune patriotic pomp of the United States. But in the course of the next century, European commentary shifted perceptibly from the dismissive to the resentful. By the 1930s, the United States' economic power was giving a threatening twist to its crude immaturity. For a new generation of anti-democratic critics, the destabilizing symptoms of modern life – mass production, mass society, and mass politics – could all be traced to America.

Judt seems to approve the most of Philippe Roger, who wrote:

What if anti-Americanism today were no more than a mental slavery that the French impose on themselves, a masochistic lethargy, a humdrum resentment, a passionless Pavlovian reaction? That would offer grounds for hope. There are few vices, even intellectual ones, that can long withstand the boredom they elicit. 

His reaction to the other books is mixed. Thierry Meyssan wrote a ridiculous best seller "purporting to show that the September 11 attack on the Pentagon never happened....the whole thing is a hoax perpetrated by the American defense establishment to advance its own interests." Emmanuel Todd "is right to say that asymmetric globalization – in which the United States consumes what others produce, and economic inequalities grow apace – is bringing about a world unsympathetic to American ambition." However, Judt finds poor argumentation and fallacies elsewhere in Todd's book. Jean-François Revel makes too many sweeping generalizations and goes overboard in defending America while pointing out social problems in France.

Judt concludes, somewhat off-topic, that "the Iraq crisis has exposed three kinds of weakness in the modern international system." First, the UN is inadequate for addressing such problems. Second, the EU is divided by "American mischief and European leaders' own incompetence." And third, "President Bush and his advisers have managed to make America seem the greatest threat to international stability....You don't have to be a French intellectual to believe that an overmuscled America, in a hostile international environment, is weaker, not stronger, than it was before."

Of course, Judt was fully aware that he was writing about an unfolding process, and here we are nearly fourteen years later with the situation generally looking worse. Although relations between Europe and the U.S. have superficially improved with the help of Barack Obama, who by European standards has been a more palatable president than George W. Bush, the actual conditions on the ground seem only to have deteriorated. Conflicts are still raging in the Middle East, Afghanistan is still politically unstable, the European immigration crisis is worsening, Russia has escalated its KGB tactics, the U.S. has just elected a president who makes George W. Bush seem thoughtful, and other countries are electing fascists. Unfortunately, I don't think Tony Judt would have the answers if he were still on the scene.

I am particularly inspired by Judt's expression of anti-Americanism, which, though subdued, has often been the only intelligent criticism to be found in the press here. The lack of focus by thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and movements such as Occupy Wall Street has made them seem like hollow echoes of the protests of the 1960's. Equally ineffectual, the publications of the intelligentsia seem to serve no purpose beyond the entertainment and self-aggrandizement of small, well-heeled elitist groups. More widely, in this country there is little awareness of European culture and history beyond Europe's appeal as a tourist destination for those who can afford it. As it is, not many Americans are interested in travel beyond their borders except to resorts in warm climates. The ways in which America remains deficient from my point of view have been voiced by few besides Judt. On the other hand, the outrage spawned by Trump's election and his behavior since may yet provide a solid basis for a new resistance to the crassness, materialism and shortsightedness that have come to dominate American public life. With the election of Donald Trump, the news media may have been sufficiently shamed by their dereliction of duty to work in the public interest again. At the moment he seems to be waging a losing war against the media, though only time will tell.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


The holidays are drawing to a close without much fanfare. However, there was one incident that revived several thoughts that I've brought up before on this blog. On Christmas Eve during dinner at a restaurant I mentioned the article discussed here earlier which raised the question of whether the high relative IQs of Ashkenazi Jews compared to other ethnic groups is the result of natural selection. Within moments the two youngest people present got up and left the table in protest without further discussion. Things cooled down immediately, but neither of them put forth an argument or even bothered to explain what it was that they objected to about my comments. Presumably they thought that they were hearing a racist diatribe and that a proposition such as this does not even merit discussion because it is known to be false. I wouldn't have thought much of this disagreement were it not for the fact that these were two highly-educated people, one a software engineer with a degree from Yale and the other a Ph.D. in mathematics. The two aspects of this that interest me the most are how political correctness distorts rational thought and how even well-educated people may have a poor understanding of the basic logic of evolution.

As for the Ashkenazi Jew hypothesis, I am inclined to think that it is correct, though I admit that it would be difficult to prove. However, the study of this hypothesis is possible, and it could be of some use if it confirmed the connection between Ashkenazim intelligence and some of the illnesses associated with that population. That would present a similarity to the African population that acquired a resistance to malaria at the cost of sickle cell anemia, and would therefore not be an unprecedented example of natural selection acting recently within the world population. For that matter it is also known that Tibetans and Inuits, for example, possess uncommon genes that provided them with selective advantages in the environments inhabited by their ancestors.

My first point is that people who reject outright a hypothesis such as this in such a manner are operating on principles comparable to religious dogma. Although they didn't say so, I presume that they thought that I was following a model like Social Darwinism, and that my goal was to show how one group was inherently superior to another and that it therefore deserved higher status in some form. However, I am only interested in actual differences, ones that can be scientifically measured, and have no political agenda at all. It is true that some capitalists have distorted Darwin's ideas in order to provide justification and elicit praise for their excessive wealth, but that has nothing to do with science or any point that I was making. I find it incredible to see otherwise intelligent people unthinkingly subscribe to flimsy politically correct theories that have no better foundation than those held by creationists.

My second point is that evolution is an ongoing process and is happening around us all of the time. While the current human population seems to have descended from one small group in Africa and all modern humans are very similar to each other, there are still many genetic differences associated with the different habitats that humans have occupied since the migrations out of Africa began. I think that in school evolution is poorly taught, and students tend to think of it as occurring in time spans of millions of years, which is not necessarily the case. Environmental changes may accelerate evolutionary changes, and we are currently entering a period of mass extinctions: this is no time to be thinking that evolution is always gradual.

A third point, which has more to do with human cognition than with evolution per se, is that we tend to think hierarchically even when it isn't appropriate. Thus, in this instance perhaps the suggestion that Ashkenazi Jews are smart was interpreted to mean that they are better than other people. Intelligence, though important, is not necessarily a crucial characteristic, especially from an evolutionary standpoint. We think of it as important because it has become so in recent years, with a college education and advanced intellectual skills becoming more essential to employment than ever before. However, the ability to live in socially cohesive groups has also been extremely important to our survival as a species, and that probably surpasses intelligence in significance on a longer time horizon. If you are a purist about evolution, interpreting it teleologically and assuming that intelligence is its final outcome is presumptuous, because evolution only concerns itself with which species survive, and what a particular species may happen to think is its most important characteristic is irrelevant. Regarding the importance of intelligence, you can conduct experiments on this yourself: if you familiarize yourself with different types of people, it doesn't take long to notice that socially inept people are often at a disadvantage regardless of their level of intelligence.