Thursday, July 29, 2021

Stray Thoughts On Genetics

One downside of listening to podcasts while walking is that it is hard to take notes.  I have used both a notepad system and a "dictate into notes" system, but the latter is hampered by poor reception in some areas, and the battery going down very quickly, not to mention toggling back and forth between apps. The cumbersome nature of the former should be easily imagined by all of you.  First world problem, I know.

But when I think of things they collect up and I forget them if I don't write them down.

In the discussion of measuring intelligence, people often give an example of being placed in a hunter-gatherer's environment and not being as smart as they are. Yet there is more to that story. Hunter-gatherers don't survive alone in those environments either. If you were plunked down in Amazonia alone you would die, yes. Someone who grew up there would last longer than you, and might by some chance make it on their own, but most likely, they are also dead. But if you flopped into an Amazonian group and tried to survive, there would be a few abilities you would need. You would not only need the intelligence to know that you had darn well better be humble and inoffensive and willing to be subservient, but the ability to actually effect such things. Learning physical skills would be as important as learning cultural skills, and both of those involve cognition. Copying others is a useful human skill and it is usually wisest to do what everyone around you is doing.  However much we might praise the nonconformist, that is a tendency best expressed against a background of 90% conformity, and in the Amazon, you had better aim for 99%.

This is true for the Amazonian native moving to America as well. She could not survive alone, but we are pretty used to integrating people in, if she were willing to adapt. And she would do better at this if she has better cognitive skills. Thus the example chosen to undermine the standard definition of intelligence ends up supporting it instead.

This adjusting to new groups is what we do throughout our lives to survive, though in less dramatic forms. We are parachuted into kindergarten, into a new job, into a new family of in-laws, into a new town...and we have to make that work.  We do need a variety of skills - again, humility might be one, ability to get along with others also.  But cognitive skills are going to help at every turn.


JBS Haldane said "I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins," being clever and cute about the math of natural selection at the gene level. Yet it is not the laying down of one's life that is the issue but the enduring risks for the sake of others.  As in the line from General Patton's introductory speech in the movie "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country.  He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." This overlooks the fact that the other guy doesn't die unless someone takes the risk of dying himself. (Patton certainly knew this but was sidestepping it for persuasive purpose.) It's better for your brothers and cousins if you also survive. Once we see that it is risk, not sacrifice that is the key the equations change. There are varieties of risk, physical, financial, social, and they are often not simple in how much one is putting others at risk as well. Generosity is risk, because circumstances might change and we need that money or object someday.  Helping others physically is risk for similar reasons. Tolerance and forgiveness are both social risks, as a difficult or offending person might cost us something in the future. 


Social disapproval used to signify danger more than it does now. When resources are scarcer, a girl's friends and family communicated that having a baby without being able to claim resources from the father might mean starvation, and for the man, offending against that family or the society might mean punishment or banishment as well. Even in survival, resources would be diminished for all concerned. However cruel it seems to us to shame or even banish offenders, it would serve to discourage others - because young people do not weigh consequences well and take too many risks that also affect others (as above). A harsh calculation, but the survival of the customs suggest the math works out for the group. 

The calculation changes as resources improve. Unmarried women getting pregnant now do not face death, and the men face diminished consequences. Therefore, social disapproval seems unnecessarily unkind we have taken to disapproving of the disapprovers instead. Yet unmarried pregnancy does still result in diminished resources for several people, and young people are still not fully understanding of risks. It is a less dire calculation than the one our ancestors faced, but social disapproval - even the milder shaming or punishment of the one for the sake of the group - did work up until the day we stopped using it.


David Foster said...

"BS Haldane said "I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins," being clever and cute about the math of natural selection at the gene level."

Yet Haldane was a socialist...a Marxist, actually...which seems contradictory to his above equation.

David Foster said...

Actually JBS Haldane, although the simple 'BS' seems applicable to many of his ideas.

james said...

Sometimes even more drastic punishments than disapproval are in order to keep the society as a whole from disintegration.

A systematic examination of "old-fashioned" rules might be enlightening. As a hot-button for-instance, birth control wasn't acceptable for Christians. The Anglicans decided that it was OK in some circumstances, and suddenly multitudes discovered that they qualified for the exceptions. By the time we got married, it was simply assumed that everyone would use it. The side effects from that have not all been benign--too few children to support the oldsters, for example. The advertised "child-free" seem rather unpleasantly materialist--but that may be sampling bias to encourage the advertisers.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: In the discussion of measuring intelligence, people often give an example of being placed in a hunter-gatherer's environment and not being as smart as they are.

While intelligence certainly has a genetic component, IQ tests are often culturally biased. What people usually mean when speaking of hunter-gatherers is that someone who tests high on a standard IQ test may test low on a test of intelligence devised by a community of hunter-gatherers—not that some people are not smarter than others.

Narr said...

I used to be proud of my "high IQ." Then I learned that IQ tests really only measured Whiteness, Maleness, and Middleclassness. Apparently I was exceptionally White, Male, and Middleclass.

In my senior years, I've decided to be proud of that.

Cousin Eddie

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Asians outscore Whites, Males and Females score the same, and they measure financial success and behavior just about as well as you'd predict for something that measures an ability necessary for a wide range of cognitive skills. Despite the claim of cultural bias, it exists only at the extremes, of people who don't use paper-and pencil in their society (and there are workarounds for that) and cultures that have no concept of being asked questions for a test that means anything. So Amazonians, Papuans. African-Americans actually do a little better on the supposedly culture-bound sections of the test than on the math portions, for example. Those sorts of problems that were quite naturally there in the original designs - we all have to start with our own definition of what intelligence is - were reduced very early as people moved the test to other cultural and geographic areas and the charges of bias were repeated every year. There isn't evidence for it now. I have seen the reports and accommodattions that testing psychologists do for immigrant patients from all over the world. The tests are fine, even for Nepalese and Chileans. Of course, and incompetent tester can give you a bad result. That happens. So if you are tempted to resume worrying about it, Eddie - don't.

Narr said...

What, me worry?

Cousin Eddie

Assistant Village Idiot said...