Thursday, November 29, 2018


I haven't been reading much lately or had much to report. Pretty soon I'll start on the biography of Rousseau that I mentioned earlier, and that should take a long time to complete. The weather pattern this fall has been more irregular than usual, so preparations for winter have been somewhat disrupted. There was rain throughout October, leaving soggy leaves on the ground, and then in November it suddenly began to snow. I barely managed to pick the last tomatoes, rake the leaves and mow the lawn one last time before the first snow. We've had a total of about a foot of wet snow so far. This morning I cleared it off the vegetable garden beds and dug out the carrots, which, fortunately, hadn't frozen yet. I've given up stargazing for the year because of the sustained cloudiness, and yesterday I brought in my small telescope. The first load of firewood arrived last month, I've installed snow tires on my car, and I should be all set to waste inordinate amounts of time reading or on my computer next to the wood stove for several months.

William, the cat, is three years old now, and his behavior is changing a little. He used to like going out for most of the night, but now he balks if it's raining or very cold. The problem is that he has a great deal of energy, and if he doesn't spend several hours a day hunting mice and voles (or moles, chipmunks, birds, snakes, toads, bats or insects) he becomes obnoxious indoors. If he's inside at night when I go to bed, I close the bedroom door in an attempt to prevent him from waking me up, but he has an insistent personality and makes loud noises pawing the door, and I wake up anyway. He is hard to play with, because his idea of playing is catching a mouse and carrying it around for a while: cat toys don't register with him. When there are no small rodents around, human hands suddenly become attractive to him. He has good moments, so I still appreciate him, but I don't like the interference with my sleep.

One of my hobbies is trying to determine whether anyone reads this blog. As far as I can tell, very few do. That is fine with me, because I'm not interested in dealing with lots of comments, based on years of unsatisfactory experience with them. According to the statistics at, I get a few hits every day. It seems that many of them are generated by high school or college students who are searching for material on Google for assignments. I don't intentionally give titles to my posts with the aim of being googled, and therefore the popularity of any given post is somewhat random. Actually, I am averse to popular post titles, because they are more likely to attract unwanted readers. My post, "Robert Hughes on Andy Warhol," is popular in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Hughes was Australian, so he probably has better name recognition in those countries. My guess is that students have been writing papers on Andy Warhol. I also use Google Analytics, which often shows completely different results from When a specific pageview matches on both, you can be confident that it's real. However, in recent months, only on Google Analytics, I've been getting barraged on weekdays from unexpected locations such as Iraq, the UAE, Brazil and India. Just as I am typing this, I'm getting hits from Brazil, Italy, India, Spain, Portugal and South Africa. Since all of these hits show up as users of Windows and Chrome, I think that they are either a disguised visitor or the result of a technical glitch. It makes no sense that new visitors from all over the world would suddenly view my blog at about the same time of day on a weekday and all be using the combination of Windows and Chrome. Since I still get waves of hits identified as originating in Poland, Ukraine and Russia, perhaps various agencies also monitor this site, for whatever reasons. I suppose that at some point people will be getting PhDs in the activities on noncommercial blogs.

I am assuming, based on what a couple of readers whom I know have said, that this blog isn't getting boring.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are II

Approximately the first half of the book discusses Plomin's research with adopted children and twins, which he uses to identify the heritability of traits. The main finding is that what has typically been thought of as environmental influence is largely the expression of genes. For example, if a parent reads to a child and the child later becomes a proficient reader, rather than demonstrating a positive environmental effect, the actual situation is likely to be that the parent was a good reader and the child simply inherited the parent's reading ability. Overwhelmingly, children turn out more like their biological parents than their adoptive parents. This includes everything from adult weight to the amount of time spent watching TV: even when living in a different household from their parents, many of their characteristics mimic their parents' rather than the people in their adoptive households. Plomin's thesis, which I believe is correct, is that in the process of growing up, children should be encouraged to express their genes, because they are biologically attuned to specific stimuli and are not blank slates. The same studies also indicate that as people age they grow into greater concordance with their genetic heritage. Plomin finishes this section by saying that in a meritocracy, which is more or less what we live in (if you consider money important) some people are going to have a better genetic fit for high-paying jobs than others. He stresses that individuals should focus on meeting their genetic potentials, and, like Thomas Piketty, suggests that inequality should be balanced by taxation on wealth.

The remainder of the book switches to very recent studies which associate human traits with specific genes. After several false starts, rapid progress became possible with the advent of polygenic scoring, which links the presence of specific sets of alleles in single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) with probabilities for specific traits, psychological disorders and illnesses. For example, future years of educational attainment could theoretically be estimated at the moment of conception on the basis of the genetic sequencing of an embryo. Probabilities for adult height and weight can be estimated, along with probabilities for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and Alzheimer's disease. Polygenic scoring also indicates that different psychological disorders can be produced by the same alleles, meaning that the medical profession has been misunderstanding the underlying causes of disorders by focusing on symptoms rather than causes. This field is in its infancy, and it looks as if it will radically alter the fields of child development and disease prevention. The research already indicates that students at private, selective schools outperform students at public, unselective schools only because the students have higher academic potential to begin with: the quality of teaching is irrelevant to test score outcomes. Overall, Plomin is optimistic about the usefulness of this research, and I think he's right.

I do have a few quibbles, which I'll mention. Because he is working in the field of psychology, he uses many terms which I think are inadequately defined. For example, he accepts the g factor theory of intelligence, which I have always found spurious: it's another way of saying that smart people are just smart, and therefore they're good at everything. To be sure, there are some people who are good at a variety of intellectual tasks, but, in my experience, the range of actual skills in intelligent people is usually fairly narrow. Then, while saying that expensive private schools aren't worth the money, he overlooks the rather obvious sociological fact that having rich and successful friends – the kind of people you're likely to meet at expensive private schools – can and does improve people's fortunes.

My greatest complaint about the book is that Plomin has intentionally left out all references to evolution. This was probably a wise move to minimize hostile reactions to controversial material, but I think that seeing this through an evolutionary lens offers a wider picture. He has skirted the issue of what to do about poor minorities who inhabit dangerous neighborhoods. His position on the heritability of academic attainment seems to imply that poor minorities will never become wealthy by their own efforts, and that they should just be handed some money. This is a topic worthy of further discussion. If you take the long view of human existence, the traits that are the most beneficial change somewhat over time. Prior to civilization, the most important traits were probably social skills and the ability to hunt and gather food. When civilization arose, organizational and strategic skills such as those possessed by monarchs became the most valuable ones. During the Industrial Revolution, the Puritan work ethic and basic mechanical understanding sufficed. The kinds of skills that are valuable now, as noted by Plomin, are those associated with high educational attainment. I find this view a little myopic, because I think that we are in a transitional phase, and that the traits that seem essential at the moment may become less so in the future. The people who have been at the top end of the food chain recently, such as doctors and lawyers, are gradually losing their jobs to new technology, and this trend is likely to continue. Perhaps highly-paid software engineers will face a similar fate in the not-too-distant future. I have been thinking that the rise of the tech nerds may be brief: if further advances in technology obviate the need to hire them, their social deficiencies may become handicaps again. Since natural selection doesn't follow a path to a specific outcome, it is possible that social skills could make a comeback. Of course, this is all well beyond the scope of Plomin's book, but it's something to think about.

Plomin, it should be noted, is not a good writer – I found the repetition annoying – but the book is certainly worth reading, and you are definitely going to be hearing a lot about this topic in the years ahead.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are I

Robert Plomin, the behavioral geneticist, has written this book to sum up several decades of his research for general readers. So far, I've only read the initial chapters, which describe research on the characteristics of adopted children compared to their natural and adopting parents and unrelated siblings over time, and research on the characteristics of twins who were adopted into different families. The gold standard for this kind of research is identical twins who have been adopted into different families. Unfortunately, only a few such twins have been studied, and even though those studied indicate a very high correlation between characteristics of identical twins who have been raised apart, the number of identical (monozygotic) twins is too small to produce statistically significant results. The general findings indicate a relatively high correlation between the characteristics of closely related people, suggesting that environmental factors are far less important than genetic relatedness in producing characteristics in people.

Although adoption itself is not a subject that excites me much, I have often wondered whether parents who adopt know what they're getting into. I don't think so. Of the few instances with which I have some familiarity, the results have tended to be disastrous. This was because, as Plomin says, adopted children don't usually have much in common with the families into which they are adopted, and adopting babies, who haven't developed their adult personalities, doesn't improve the odds. Plomin correctly notes that nature significantly outweighs nurture in these situations.

So far in the book Plomin has not used the kind of language that I use to think about the issues associated with heritability, but it doesn't look as if we are going to have disagreements. For me, this goes way back to my adolescence, when I began to think about determinism. That had more to do with physics and Einstein's famous statement, "God does not play dice with the universe." For many years I hemmed and hawed over whether truly random events occur and even whether paranormal phenomena are real; my current thinking is that we do in fact live in a deterministic universe without true randomness, and that phenomena such as ESP are imaginary. Sean Carroll, my physics guru, apparently believes in determinism, and it makes sense to me. The hard part in physics is admitting that some of the techniques used by physicists to explain reality actually disguise the fact that certain aspects of it are not fully understood. Thus, I now think that true randomness does not exist; randomness is a fudge factor disguising the fact that we don't have the necessary techniques or computational power, and perhaps never will, to provide a detailed description of every event in the universe from the Big Bang onward. My own reasoning is that without a rigid coherence to the universe, it would be too unstable to produce stars and planets, let alone organisms. There is a deep coherence to the universe which I think would be shattered by truly random events.

I have also thought about determinism as it pertains to free will. Ultimately, I was unable to reconcile the existence of free will with the science now associated with Darwinism. Natural selection is a mechanism that produces organisms which survive in their environments, and all living organisms are comprised of certain characteristics that could not be otherwise. As the most cognitively advanced animals, we have a tendency to think that there is some magic ingredient that only we possess. That ingredient, it is said, might be consciousness or free will. My view is that our brains have simply evolved a few tricks that give us an advantage over other organisms, and that, in a broad sense, we're not that different from other mammals. I have little doubt that in due course all of the "higher" functions of Homo sapiens will be linked to ordinary evolutionary processes and DNA. The conceptual problems associated with consciousness will disappear when it can be described with greater precision as an evolutionary adaptation, or at least as a byproduct of an evolutionary adaptation.

Plomin only slightly touches on these topics, but he is engaging in an important demystification process that could eventually help produce better ways of organizing society by taking into account the innate differences between people. Later chapters, which I haven't read yet, look more closely at personality traits and DNA associations. Thankfully, Plomin, unlike some other science writers, is interested in the policy implications of this work, and I am looking forward to reading what he has to say. He has done groundbreaking research which will put to rest some of the ideas that have been circulating unquestioned for decades in politically correct circles, which are often composed of well-educated people who tend to ignore science. The book isn't that long, and I'll probably finish discussing it on my next post.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018


I was dragged into a household distraction regarding the midterm elections, and now that they're over it will be easier for me to think about other things. I am hoping that the demise of Donald Trump has begun, and that the day is coming when I won't have to hear his name so often. It is absurd that such an ignorant and self-centered person has been elected to the presidency: one wonders how anyone can believe in democracy. Of course, this all comes down to the fact, which a friend often reminds us of, that fifty percent of the people are below average. Now, finally, if Trump gets sufficiently out of hand he can be impeached by the House of Representatives, and there will be nothing that he can do to prevent it.

I have been pondering my split interest in literature and science. Occasionally I revisit the literary sites in which I participated a few years ago, and, after nearly five years of writing on my own blog, the quality of discussion on those sites now seems remarkably low. If you had been looking for substantive comments, you would have been going to the wrong places. They are either like support sites for introverted people who don't have real friends or like sites for more extroverted literary people who can only handle the most superficial interactions. There is also one literary blog that I used to read sporadically, but I have concluded that the reviews written there are shallow for the most part; the purpose of the blog seems to be to perpetuate the illusion that the blogger is a literary person; I don't think that he does real literary criticism, or, for that matter, anything of literary interest. On all of these sites it boils down to whether the writer likes something or not, and there is little useful information about particular works or why or why not someone should bother to read them. At least on this blog I summarize the works and explain what I like or dislike about them. To be fair, I haven't looked at comparable scientific sites, which might have similar weaknesses, but I wouldn't be surprised if the discussions there were a little more focused in terms of making distinct points.

Although I continue to admire a few literary works, the conclusion that I am arriving at more often than not is that in some sense literary people as a group are a little stupid. Science seems comparatively harsh and abstract, but its practitioners are usually more fearless about looking at things that might be unsettling or scary. If scientific people sometimes seem aesthetically challenged, literary people seem like escapists – the kind of people who wouldn't be of much use in an emergency. Since I believe that we may always be on the verge of some crisis, I am tending to lump in literary culture with people who can't face facts and would rather play video games all day. It is easy to justify much scientific work on the basis of its usefulness, and the same can't be said of literature. Many of the great works of literature derive their significance partly from the specific social and historical contexts in which they were written, and in my opinion there is a surprising paucity of masterpieces that have been written in the last hundred or so years, especially when you consider how much higher the volume of publication is today. This leads me to think that literature and poetry may be going the way of dinosaurs – subjects studied mainly by antiquarians or people who just can't cope with the modern world. Thus arises my reluctance to read much contemporary fiction.

I have ordered a new book, which will take a while to arrive from New Delhi – so I'm a little short on topics at the moment.