Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Troublesome Intelligence.

Like everyone else, I've read Wade's book and I thought I would wait till the hullabaloo settled down before I would put my two cents in. I'm not intending for this to be a formal book review rather a collection of my thoughts on it.

From where I sit, it appears that those who believe in HBD are slowly splitting into two camps.  The first group comprises the "Hard HBD" crowd who, whilst acknowledging the role of environment, deny it in practice and effective preach a genetic Calvinism. They have a strong whiff of the eugenics movement about them. They are the intellectual opposite of the blank-slate crowd.

On the other hand, there is the "Soft HBD" faction, of which I count myself as one, who believe that both genetics and environment shape the nature of the individual with the proviso that you can't put in what God's left out. I, for instance, am never going to be a good sprinter; no matter how much I try. I can, however, improve my running performance with some training--but I'm going to hit a practical limit--and that limit is going to be set by my genetics.

It's my belief that most people don't normally operate at their maximum genetic potential unless their environment is conducive to do so. Any any evaluation of human performance therefore, needs to look at both parameters.  The practical problem with my approach, though, is that most people lack the mental machinery to juggle more than one variable at a time and hence the popularity of the one-size-fits-all interpretation of phenomenon. To the strong HBD crowd I'm a blank-slater. Such is life.

The reason why I mention this is that the Strong HBD crowd seem to have enthusiastically embraced Wade's book and seem to have taken to vigorously defending it. This is understandable given the current politically-correct intellectual climate. Unfortunately, this defence seems to be rather non-selective and any criticism of Wade's book is immediately assumed by a few of the Strong HBD crowd to be a defacto advocacy of blank-slatism. As mentioned before, some people can only do one idea at a time.

I must admit that I was left underwhelmed by Wade's book. Not because I'm a theist but because because our understanding of the biochemical basis of behaviour is so poorly understood that it's very difficult to make any definitive claims as a result. Wade acknowledges that the link between genetics and behaviour is poorly understood but nevertheless proceeds to produce a theory with regard to the the rise of the West on the most tenuous of links. Atheists, quite validly,  have for years chided Christian for their reliance on the "God of the gaps", in Wade's book we find its atheist equivalent; the "Darwin of the gaps argument"--"We don't know have behaviour and genes are linked but evolution has done it".  It's intellectually sloppy.

The two best reviews of Wade's book in my opinion were Fred Reed's and Theodore Dalrymple's. Dalyrymple was taken to task by Derbyshire who made a few fair points, but I note the Derb didn't tackle Dalrymple's point about the variation in homicide rates in New Zealand. Nor did he explain the relative increase in frequency in lactose persistence in desert Mediterranean Spain. (Note, for those who are interested. Lactose intolerance doesn't kill or maim you so I don't know how it confers selective disadvantage.) Furthermore there are alternative explanations for some of the modern day genetic signatures which he has failed to countenance.

Like the authors above, I found Wade's evolutionary explanations a bit hard to swallow. For example, his illustration of the domestication of the fox through selective breeding seem to gloss over the fact that it was only achieved through enormous selections pressures which have no analogy in Western History.  How relevant it is to the formation of Western Society is beyond me. His arguments about the persistence of surnames may be less related to good behaviour but due to the luck of being born in a wealthy family. Richer families have lower infant mortality so more survive to become breeders. Furthermore, the economic history of Europe shows that there is no gradual increase of wealth throughout most of history (as would be expected by the "bred behaviour thesis"), rather, wealth levels remain flat until the industrial revolution.

The other problem with Wade's contention is that is can be easily put to the test with common experience. For example, one complex behaviour which has been under strong selection pressure (at least in the Christian West) is that of monogamy. We can quite clearly say that until recently, Western society has strongly promoted marriage and punished its exceptions. Adultery was harshly punished, sometimes with death, bastard children were ostracised and given limited rights especially with regard to inheritance. It would be expected, then, that selection pressures will have have produced a population primed for sexual monogamy. If we looked at the data in 1950 it surely would have proved Wade's point. But the trend has totally reversed over the past fifty years, far too rapidly for genetic effects to be responsible.

Furthermore Wade seems to have serious gaps in his understanding of the biochemistry of DNA and seemed to be in the dark with regard to the  role of non-coding DNA;
Most mutations affect only the copious regions of DNA that lie between the genes and are of little consequence. (Page 73)
It's rapidly being proven that this is not the case. Never mind, as Wade wasn't putting forward his ideas as fact, rather, a theory. But it's hard to form a good theory when you appear to be ignorant of the basic facts.

However what bothers me about Wade's book is the subtle digs he makes at Christianity throughout it. He continually tries to paint Christian religion in a negative light especially with regard to its relationship with science. For example, he mentions Aquinas's condemnation by the Bishop of Paris, but not the Church's overruling of that Condemnation. He tries to paint the advancement of science, especially in medieval times as occurring within "independent institutions" failing to mention that these institutions were Church run. Printing presses were shut down in Muslim lands, not in Christian ones, where Bishops and Cardinals enjoyed enormous prestige and power and could prohibit books from being printed. The telescope was rejected by the Chinese after it had been bought to them by the Jesuits. Someone needs to remind Wade that Newton believed in God.

The closest that Wade comes to giving Christianity some credit is in acknowledging that theological discussions may have habituated men to reason.  It's a rubbish proposition.  Aristotle, which predated Christianity, certainly taught the laws of logic and metaphysics. Men were thinking logically in Europe well before Christ. Not only is he ignorant of the intellectual history of the Church but where he acknowledges it he gets it wrong.

In the end, his explanation for the rise of the West is due to geographic and historical luck; the peculiarities of which shaped evolutionary forces to produce science and Western civilisation. In other words, it just happened. I'm afraid the proposition didn't convince me.  The reason why it doesn't convince me is because, as Wade acknowledges, China and Muslim world were more advanced with regard to Science than the West in the early Middle Ages. If evolution gives rise to behaviours which foster science, then clearly selection pressures favouring science were operating in these cultures as well. Given the continuity of these cultures, why did evolution stop there? Wade provides weak explanations.

What really got me down after reading Wade's book was that was a product of Wade.

Let me explain what I mean. Wade is not your ordinary man. Educated at Eton, an editor of the prestigious journals, Science and Nature and Science Editor for the New York Times, Wade occupied important nodal points in the development of contemporary Western Scientific Culture and indirectly influenced the development of it. One often imagines that the men occupying these positions are broadly educated and cultured. It appears that Wade is not.

Take, for example, his position with regard to the Church. I'm fully aware that there were instances where the Church tried to suppress scientific discovery but these were the rare exceptions and not the rule. It's as if Wade did not know who Mendel was or his occupation. The Church by-and-large encouraged the development of science, and people who've looked at this matter in some detail have noted an intimate connection. It is evident from Wade's writings that he is factually ignorant of the intellectual history of the Church. Now I want to be clear. I'm not faulting Wade for getting specific facts wrong, rather, the general direction of them, Now this wouldn't matter if he were some grunt scientist working in some obscure corner, but he occupied a position of considerable influence and probably influenced policy.

He is, effectively, uneducated with regard to Western Intellectual history and yet has occupied important roles in the shaping of it. To be so ignorant of history and yet to occupy the positions that he has is truly worrying for a whole host of reasons. Wade is a scientist who is ignorant of science's underpinnings. A Church-hostile scientist is likely to end up a science hostile scientist as well. Lysenkoism was the official policy of an avowedly atheist state.

Wade is clearly has a good adequate knowledge of genetics but seems to be ignorant outside his area of expertise. He is typical of many of today's technocrats and an example of Ortega y Gasset's Mass-Man: Specialists who can't see the big picture. The problem is that when these guys advocate social or educational policy they are given an ear because they are thought to be all wise, whereas in reality, they are very ignorant outside their area of particular expertise. The fact that this type of mind is now routinely produced in our best universities and ends up occupy positions of great power is a very troublesome intelligence.

The book may have impressed the plebs but it didn't impress me.