Saturday, February 13, 2016

Who is Gillian Rose?

Image result for Gillian Rose

The name "Gillian Rose" recently flitted across my screen for reasons I won't try to unravel.

But it flitted across in a context that suggested that this was the name of an important near-contemporary philosopher with whose name I ought to be familiar.

So I did the easy thing and checked with Wikipedia, where there is an article that describes her (1947-1995) as a sympathetic interpreter of Adorno, who went on from interpreting other people's views to expounding her own -- but went on in a manner that, from such a brief summary as the wiki article provides, is incomprehensible to me.

With a little more internet searching, I found a characterization of her as someone who had moved away from Adorno only to find herself back with Hegel.

Unless anyone among my readers can explain to me why I should continue my inquiries, I will consider the matter of Gillian Rose to be a closed file.

Friday, February 12, 2016


Diane and I recently drove to Worcester to see a performance of RAGTIME, the musical based on the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name.

The novel, published in 1975, became a movie in 1981 and a Broadway musical in 1998.

It was nominated for just about every Tony Award during its Broadway run, and it won four of those Tonys, including Best Book for a Musical, and Best Original Score.

It was revived on Broadway in 2009, and that revival won several more Tonys.

The play begins with a lot of exposition. Each of the central characters sings a brief song describing him/herself in the third person. This would normally seem flat-footed, but the story from Doctorow is a very complicated one, so this is arguably the line of least audience confusion. And the music is compelling enough to make this opening work.

That opening describes where the main characters are in their lives in 1904.

One odd feature of it is a bit of parapsychology.  Some of the main characters consist of a nuclear family, wealthy white folk, living in New Rochelle, New York. There's a grandfather, a father and mother, a young boy, and a bachelor uncle --- Mom's brother. Through happenstance, they meet the escape artist Houdini.

Houdini (as was explained to us in the expository scene) understood that his 'magic' was just illusion, and he wanted to encounter something genuinely mystical. The young boy, Edgar, blurts out to him "Warn the Duke." Houdini has no idea what this means. Years later, engaged in a stunt in Times Square, Houdini learns of the dramatic world-changing news from Sarajevo, and the boy's warning comes back to him.

Thus, he has his encounter with the genuinely mystical. Anyway, I think the Tony Awards were fairly won.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Evolution and Human History, Part III

Image result for IQ test

This will continue my examination of Nicholas Wade's book, A TROUBLESOME INHERITANCE: GENES, RACE, AND HUMAN HISTORY (2014).

In my first blogpost on point, I observed and approved of Wade's observations that races are biological realities, and that their development has left more recent genetic traces than sometimes thought. Sociobiologists sometimes posit that we are adapted for a period of about 10,000 years ago. Wade convincingly makes the case that there is no reason to develop such an arbitrary line. Also, race-differentiated genetics go beyond obvious features such as skin pigmentation or hair follicles. They determine matters such as the whites of our eyes, or the phenomenon of blushing, which may well in turn mould the development of behaviors.

But in the second post, I made the case that Wade wants to press this point much further than his evidence will take it.   He wants to argue that people inherit patterns of behavior in a strong sense, that behavior (for example, the tendency to obey authority unquestioningly) varies by race, with East Asians being more inclined to enthusiastic obedience than others, and that distinct civilizations in turn are distinct largely because of their different racial composition. He spends a chapter early on acknowledging the ugly history of precisely such ideas, but maintains that science is unwittingly coming around to the inference that there is some truth to them. I don't see that it is, and his efforts at persuasion fall far short.

I add a third post because I want to say something about intelligence, or its quantization, that is, IQ.  And I'll add a fourth post to say a very few words about language.

Here is that something-about-IQ: Wade distinguishes himself from others who have made analogous arguments in that he does not stress IQ as a key part of the real or alleged racial differences on which he builds his book.   I commend him for staying out of Buck v. Bell territory.

When he does raise the issue of intelligence, it is by way of considering the work of Richard Lynn, a psychologist from Northern Ireland, and Tatu Vanhanen, a political scientist from Finland. Lynn and Vanhanen have together argued, in words of theirs that Wade quotes, that "differences in the average mental abilities of populations measured by national IQ provides the most powerful, although not complete, theoretical and empirical explanation for many types of inequalities in human conditions."

Wade points out, accurately it seems to me, that Lynn and Vanhanen are guilty of the old mistake of confusing correlation with causation. A cannot be said to explain B simply because higher A corresponds to higher B or vice versa. Does higher IQ make a nation wealthier, or are the people of the wealthier nation simply better able to score high on the tests that measure IQ? In the 1980s, East German children scored significantly lower than West German children on standard tests. The obvious explanation involves the environmental differences. The gene pool hadn't had much of an opportunity to differentiate itself, and (fortunately)  the physical separation that did exist at that time didn't survive that decade.

So ... good for Wade there. But his book is, as I hope this series of posts has shown, a very uneven one. I'll have one more point to make about the book, Sunday

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Neville Chamberlain

In the final season of Downton Abbey, we and the characters are living through the year 1925.

The government was trying to make the hospital system in the country more rational and efficient, and to that end of Minister of Health tours around listening to ideas of experts and prominent non-experts alike. He comes to Downton Abbey in this capacity and we witness a dinner in his honor.

The name of the health minister is Neville Chamberlain. To some extent, I think, the writers have taken a historical liberty here. Chamberlain was the Minister of Health at one point in the 1920s, but I believe by 1925 he had moved upward, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer. Anyway, since his name became famous/notorious as a result of events late in his life/career, so if its a bit of fictional fudging, it's an understandable bit.

At the dinner, two hospital-affiliated professionals with very different views on public health issues begin to argue in front of him. Chamberlain says, "I thought I was coming here to listen to a unified presentation, not to witness a battle royale."

The dowager of the estate says, "Don't you enjoy a good fight, minister?"

Chamberlain, "No, I don't think I do."

The moment moves on quickly. But I do think the writers had a bit of a subtle laugh there.

And, no, there was no umbrella in sight.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Evolution and Human History, Part II

Front Cover

As I said in yesterday's entry, Wade argues that the human race has continued to evolve subsequent to its spread across the eastern hemisphere. When it had spread, it was in effect divided into three habitats: Africa, east Asia, and 'the rest,' that is, all Eurasia west of the Himalayas. The geographical barriers were great enough to make further evolutionary (genetic) change a matter of divergence.

From this situation arose distinctions among races/subspecies that are not "social constructs," but genetic facts.

As the result of a period of climate change and melting ice caps, rising sea levels cut Australia off from East Asia, though allowing for a lot of "stepping stones" between. This allowed for the divergent development of the Aborigine people of Australia.

Later, around 15,000 years ago, the northernmost east Asians, Siberians, crossed into the Americas. Some genetic divergence has arisen subsequent to that crossing, too.  Thus, by the time of the species' earliest written records, there were five distinct continental races, along with various admixed populations and subgroups.

I'm not an expert in any of the fields of science involved. Wade, like myself a journalist by trade, isn't an expert either. But I have to say I find it all plausible. In terms of the old nature/nurture dichotomy, I'm inclined to see both nature and nurture as real facts contributing to the reality of human life. Further (so long as we don't introduce value judgments at this point), I believe we can say inoffensively that the nature part of our selves, the genetic part, is not necessarily identical, and that differences go beyond the most obvious ones of pigmentation, hair follicles, etc. The example I mentioned yesterday of the Tibetan adaptation to high altitudes is an example. No amount of training will turn me into a suitable denizen of the Himalayas, or could have done so even had the training begun at my birth.

Another subtler example is the anatomy behind the human ability to read facial expressions. This has a lot to do with a species anatomical peculiarity, the whites of our eyes, called the "sclera,"  which serves as the backdrop where our iris' move around. We can see each others' iris move around in the sclera. So we say "I'm following your eyes" or "stop rolling your eyes at me." To some uncertain extent, our human sociability derives from ... the whites of our eyes.

Wade discusses the sclera briefly and then drops it. But it will serve as another example. Different gene lines have different ocular anatomical features., including (perhaps) the iris-to-sclera ratio. That might underlie the experience in which people of one race have difficulty reading the expressions of people of another. Inscrutability, if you will.

Where the discussion gets a good deal more speculative (even as "troublesome" as the title of the book suggests)  is that Wade wants to persuade is that people come to inherit patterns of behavior. The ability to breathe thin air isn't a behavior, it's a capacity. Likewise,  the iris-to-sclera ratio isn't a behavior. But Wade's broad thesis includes the proposition that "important aspects of human behavior are shaped by the genes and that these behavior traits are likely to vary from one race to another, sometimes significantly so."

And here I don't believe he has made his case.  Indeed, that's an understatement. The behavior traits he has in mind involve, for example, an individual's willingness (without eagerness) to accept hierarchical authority. We can think of mere "willingness" here as the middle of a continuum, with rebellion against authority on one side and eagerness to accept authority on the other. Wade is in favor of mere willingness here, and he thinks its a racial trait.

The too-happy-with-authority Chinese, he says, allow rulers who are not accountable to law, and this trait leaves the state "defenseless against a bad emperor, of whom the most recent was Mao Tse-tung."

In such passages Wade seems to have gone sliding off the good-science-reporter's greased rails.

One issue often treated in the midst of nature/nurture polemics, on both sides, is the matter of IQ. Some writers regard intelligence, as quantified by testing, as the chief manner in which genes presumably impact behavior. That is not Wade's opinion. Indeed, he spends very little time on intelligence. I'll come back to this aspect of the book next week.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Evolution and Human History, Part I

Image result for Nicholas Wade

My recent reading has included A Troublesome Inheritance (2014) by Nicholas Wade.

Wade is an experienced science journalist -- he is a graduate of King's College, Cambridge, was deputy editor of Nature, and before going freelance he was both a reporter and an editor at The New York Times, where  he wrote frequently about scientific and environmental matters.

His book has the subtitle "Genes, Race, and Human History," which suffices to reveal how fraught is the subject matter. The point he wants to make is that biological evolution continues to change the human genome, and does so at time scales which are relevant to an understanding of history, not just dim pre-history. Evolution by natural selection isn't just about the fossil "Lucy" and her peers. It's about the fellow or gal in the mirror this morning.

Evolutionary psychologists, he says, commonly "teach  that the human mind is adapted to the conditions that prevailed at the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago." But that is an arbitrary demarcation. There have been changes in innate human behavior (mark the word "innate" -- his word) -- subsequent to that. Only 3,000 years ago, for example, "Tibetans evolved a genetic variant that lets them live at high altitudes."

This does open up the discussion of race, not as a "social construct" but as a biological fact. Why? Because much longer ago than 3,000 three main sub-groupings of humans had become geographically divided: those of sub-Saharan Africa, of Eurasia from the Himalayas west, and of Asia from the Himalayas east. Those Tibetans notwithstanding, the highest mountains on the planet served as a powerful barrier to genetic mixing, as did the Sahara desert. So it seems a priori reasonable to suppose that to the extent evolution as been active since the geographical spread of the human race across these natural boundaries, that evolution has taken somewhat disparate paths.

The back of the book includes a blurb from Edward O. Wilson, praising Wade for celebrating "genetic diversity as a strength of humanity."

I'll say some more about this book and its thesis tomorrow.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Fragrances & Perfumes

Back when I was an undergrad at Marist College, a professor in an introductory psych course mentioned the degree to which sexual attraction in most animals is a matter of scent.

Then he paused dramatically and asked: Is it a matter of scent for humans as a well? He answered himself after another pause, "Of course! That's why perfumes and colognes are such big business worldwide, after all."

I've wondered about that from time to time. That is, I've wondered about the size of that industry, but I've never until quite recently wondered with sufficient intensity to do a google search.

Here is some information:

According to these market researchers, the global market is projected to reach $40.6 billion by 2020.

For a mere $4,950 I could buy a complete report on this market covering 354 companies in 492 pages, with 138 market data tables.

Cool. I have $5,000 lying around and until now I've had no idea what to do with it....