We are all pinheads compared to the Ancient Greeks and Romans

One of my activities during the coronaplague has been listening to Major Transitions in Evolution, a 24-lecture course that probably is best enjoyed in the video format because there are a lot of fossils presented. (And let me remind readers that the theory of evolution is only a theory!)

Are you an elderly curmudgeon who believes that every successive generation has been getting dumber? Do you think that the 19th century British were right to emphasize the study of Greek and Roman authors?

Science backs you up!

Over the last 10,000 years, human brains have been getting smaller! Professor John Hawks says that our brains have shrunk nearly 10 percent in relatively recent times and quite a bit of the shrinkage has occurred since Virgil was having a slave scribble out the Aeneid.

(Upset about all of the head injuries that occur as part of our sports culture? Our skull bones have been getting thinner as well.)


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Mining Oxygen on Mars

From a Valentine’s Day talk by Jeffrey Hoffman, an astronaut-turned-professor who is now part of an effort to mine oxygen out of the Martian atmosphere…. If the MOXIE system works and Blue Origin gets humans to Mars, they can come back without having had to pack 80 percent of their rocket fuel for the trip home.

Professor Hoffman explained that, though there is plenty of water in the Martian crust it takes too much energy to extract it. Thus, the plan is to “mine” the atmosphere, which is 96 percent CO2 (should be toasty warm from the greenhouse effect, except that atmospheric pressure is comparable at the Martian surface to what we have at 100,000′ above sea level).

Hoffman and collaborators’ experiment will launch in July 2020 and land in February 2021. The Mars journey will also be 7 months for humans, kind of like being on a cruise ship in Asia right now. The shocking news for movie fans is that The Martian is not scientifically accurate. The dramatic wind that forces an evacuation and is blowing stuff around would have to move at 1,000 mph to have enough force, given the thin atmosphere. In fact, the highest recorded winds on Mars are roughly 60 mph.

As with other astronauts I’ve talked to recently, Hoffman is not a fan of centralized government-run rocketry. Regarding the SLS, which promises to cost taxpayers $20 billion at least: “Maybe they will launch it a few times. It is Saturn V technology.” In his view, SpaceX and Blue Origin are where the innovation happens. The government “monopoly” had cost us decades of potential progress.

One thing I learned: this next Mars mission will include a helicopter! Also, landing on Mars is a combination of the worst features of the Earth and Moon. There is the friction from entering the atmosphere, as on Earth, but not enough atmosphere to slow down with wings or a regular parachute.

Sidenote: Hoffman first came to MIT because of Walter Lewin, whose physics lectures are now securely in a memory hole due to #MeToo issues.

Hoffman flew on five Shuttle missions, logged 1,211 hours in space, and did multiple spacewalks, including one to fix the Hubble telescope. An example of “bravery”? Perhaps not. There’s a talk on real bravery today at 4 pm:

What else do we find in the corridors at MIT? “The Trump administration is the noxious product of the capitalist system” (but didn’t most of the Wall Street capitalists support Hillary?)

A poster on “ethnomathematics”:

(If these “traditional and indigenous societies” are doing interesting stuff, why isn’t it just “mathematics”? Why do they need a special numbers nerdism ghetto?)

We crashed a Valentine’s Day party for a group of PhD students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Hollywood-style background:

The future engineering PhDs pour themselves coffee:

Circling back to Professor Hoffman… As with other retired astronauts I have met, this guy is incredibly fit and sharp at age 75. Makes one wonder why humans age at all. If we can live to 75 with hardly any deficits accumulating, why can’t we live to 750? If nearly all of us drop dead by 100, why don’t we drop dead at 10? Most of our cells have to go through at least one replacement cycle by age 10, right?

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Who earned an old-style Nobel Prize in 2019?

One of the (many) interesting angles in Brian Keating’s Losing the Nobel Prize (see previous post 1; also previous post 2) was that the Nobel in Physics was previously awarded for recently-developed stuff that had obvious near-term practical value for humans.

Marconi and Braun won in 1909 for the prize in “Physics” for their work in radio, which I think today we would call “engineering.” Nils Gustaf Dalén won in 1912 for improving lighthouses with a gas regulator.

What if the Nobel prize system still worked this way? They couldn’t reach back five decades, as they did with the Higgs boson (postulated 1964; confirmed 2012; Nobel Prize 2013). Who would have earned the prize for an advancement made in 2019?

My nomination: the team behind Garmin Autoland. It seems doubtful that the headline use will be common, but the technology could be adapted to yield huge safety improvements even for healthy two-pilot crews. The weather-avoidance system, for example, could suggest to pilots “Are you sure that you don’t want to adopt the following flight path?” The flap and gear extension systems could say “Would you like to add flaps and gear now that you’re lined up on final?”

Why it is important for humanity: a lot of people ride as passengers in airplanes. It is upsetting when airplanes crash (but, to judge by relative media coverage, hardly anyone cares about automobile crashes).

Reader: What are your picks? I guess you could also go back a couple of years (but not 49!) to things that proved themselves useful in 2019.


  • this Cirrus video, in which the presumed wife-mother does not seem too concerned about the expiration of the pilot (presumed husband-father) as she activates Garmin Autoland and looks forward to the next stage of her life journey
  • TIME magazine’s best inventions of 2019 (potential candidates from the folks who remind us that Greta Thunberg is #1 out of 8 billion)
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Geologist says Black Lives Don’t Matter…

… and neither do any other lives.

I’ve been listening to How the Earth Works, a survey course in geology from Michael E. Wysession, a professor at Washington University (St. Louis). It would surely be better as a video, but it works reasonably well in audio from Audible.

Wysession has a great knack for analogy, e.g., if the history of the Earth is your arm then you could erase human history with one swipe of an emery board over a fingernail.

What are we standing on? “The crust is literally the scum of the Earth,” says the professor, and more than 90 percent oxygen by volume.

The course dates from 2008 and therefore does not reference TIME Geophysicist of the Year Greta Thunberg. Wysession is a specialist in seismology, not in climate modeling, but he delivers the standard modeler result that the Earth is going to get warmer from the abuse it has suffered at the hands of humans, a child-like species in the professor’s view. He offers some practical tips, e.g., don’t live in the interior of a continent, especially near the Equator, because in the worst case it could be 8 degrees C hotter in 100 years. Areas near the ocean (but obviously you don’t want to buy a house right at current sea level!) will experience more moderate temperature increases.

Does he wail from his parents’ $10,000 chair like Greta T? No. He seems to take the long view. The Earth’s climate has been unusually stable for the past few hundred years. Back in the pre-Babylonian times there would be huge floods and multi-year droughts (thus leading to the stories we find in the Hebrew Bible, for example). As a geologist, he doesn’t get all that excited if the Earth gets hotter or colder for a while (“while” = tens of thousands or millions of years). What if climate change causes half of the human race to perish? Famine is the standard mechanism for controlling overpopulation of any species.

Climate is important for humans, according to the notes:

Between 0–100 C.E. warm, stable climates allowed the Roman Empire to thrive and expand. However, in 400 C.E., the climate went into an extended period of freezing. Starving Europeans migrated south and eventually overrode the Roman culture, contributing to its demise.

He also describes how the colder climate starting circa 1300 brought flood to China, which caused a boom in the rat population, which led to a boom in the flea population, which led to the Black Plague as the rats and fleas spread to the Middle East and Europe. The Plague in turn made the climate colder as “Millions of trees sprang up in now-abandoned fields, pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and cooling the climate.”

But humans aren’t important for the Earth in the long run.

For those who do want to worry about our species, Wysession brings up a lot of additional risks that don’t make it into the New York Times. When the Earth’s magnetic field “flips” from north-south to south-north, the flip happens almost instantaneously… in geologic time. There is hardly any magnetic field for 1,000 years during a “flip” and that means no magnetosphere. With no magnetosphere, cosmic rays rush in and destroy almost all of the life on our planet.

Can we predict volcanic eruptions? Not really. When a big one occurs, it can plunge us into a 1,000-year cooling period. Supposedly this happened 75,000 years ago with Toba.

What about geoengineering to stave off a big climate change? Wysession says that the sunspot cycle, which changes insolation by less than 0.1 percent, can have significant effects on the Earth’s climate (the Little Ice Age from 1550-1850, for example). So if we can build a big sunshade up in space, paint a bunch of stuff on Earth white, or fill the upper atmosphere with reflective particles we should be able to set the Earth’s temperature more or less as desired. (Failing that, plant some trees in the Sahara.)

Unlike our media and politicians, How the Earth Works covers both positive and negative feedback mechanisms for all of the cycles on our planet. Despite the discussion of human-caused climate changes, the course overall is a story in remarkable stability (not as bitingly sarcastic and funny as when told by this Nobel-winning physicist, though). Why aren’t our oceans as salty as the Dead Sea? Subduction keeps them in equilibrium by dragging ocean crust, filled with salt, down into the Earth.

Given that Americans want to talk about geoscience, but without doing any studying, watching or listening to this class could make you the life of the party (assuming that it is a very dull party).

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Female infanticide disproves sociobiology?

Wikipedia says “Sociobiology is a field of biology that aims to examine and explain social behavior in terms of evolution.”

One of the things that we learned about on our Northwest Passage cruise was the historical practice of female infanticide among Eskimos/Inuits. When food got scarce, female infants were at risk. The explanation given in museums and by guides was that boys would grow up into adult male hunters who could take care of their elderly parents.

From The North West Passage Exploration Anthology (a report from John Franklin from his 1825 trip):

The difficulty of procuring nourishment frequently induces the women of this tribe to destroy their female children. Two pregnant women of the party then at the fort, made known their intention of acting on this inhuman custom, though Mr. Dease threatened them with our heaviest displeasure if they put it into execution: we learned that, after they left us, one actually did destroy her child; the infant of the other woman proved to be a boy.

If the goal of an animal is propagating his/her/zir genes, this does not seem to make sense. A typical human female reproduces, thus passing on her parents’ genes. A typical human male has no offspring (polygamy is the natural human state, it seems; see “The era of monogamous long-term marriage was a brief interruption” within Real World Divorce).

The period of life in which the son will be potentially useful won’t likely start until after the parents are beyond reproductive age (and therefore whether they live or die has minimal effect on their reproductive success).

Readers: Is the existence of female infanticide across a range of cultures a simple proof that sociobiology is wrong?

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Nobel-winning physicists discourage young people from physics as a career

From a CNN article on the latest Nobel Prize in Physics:

Peebles, who is Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University, had a message for budding scientists.

“My advice to young people entering science: you should do it for the love of science,” he said at a press conference following the announcement.

“You should enter science because you are fascinated by it.”

In other words, “Don’t do it for the paycheck or the working conditions, as you might for most other career choices.” (Nobody says “You should train to be a dental hygienist because you are fascinated by teeth”; the stress will be on the $75k/year median wage following a two-year degree and on the flexibility to work anywhere in the U.S. and any number of days per week.)

[Apropos of nothing, CNN goes on to note

In 2018 the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to a woman for the first time in 55 years, and for only the third time in its history. Donna Strickland, a Canadian physicist, was awarded last year’s prize jointly with Gérard Mourou, from France, for their work on generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses. They shared the award with an American, Arthur Ashkin, who at 96 becomes the oldest Nobel Laureate, for developing “optical tweezers.”

The preceding year’s Nobel had nothing to do with astrophysics, but it continues to be newsworthy because of the gender ID of one of the winners? (If, indeed Dr. Strickland identified as a woman at the time of the research or award, is there any evidence that Dr. Strickland continues to identify as a woman?)]


  • In countries that empower women, they are less likely to choose math and science professions. https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2018/06/14/losing-the-nobel-prize-on-careers-in-science/ : “There is a fierce competition that begins the day you declare yourself a physics major. First, among your fellow undergraduates, you spar for top ranking in your class. This leads to the next battle: becoming a graduate student at a top school. Then, you toil for six to eight years to earn a postdoc job at another top school. And finally, you hope, comes a coveted faculty job, which can become permanent if you are privileged enough to get tenure. Along the way, the number of peers in your group diminishes by a factor of ten at each stage, from hundreds of undergraduates to just one faculty job becoming available every few years in your field. Then the competition really begins, for you compete against fellow gladiators honed in battle just as you are. You compete for the scarcest resource in science: money.”
  • https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2018/09/20/75-percent-chance-of-career-failure-considered-in-a-positive-light/
  • “Women in Science” (compare to medicine, for example)
  • “The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM” (Atlantic): “In countries that empower women, they are less likely to choose math and science professions.”
  • An academic career need not be entirely bleak: “College professor spends nearly $190K in federal grants on strip clubs, sports bars” (USA Today), regarding an Electrical and Computer Engineering professor who spent tens of thousands of dollars of grant money in strip clubs and then wasted the rest….; Philadelphia Inquirer story on the same guy says “Once confronted, Nwankpa decided to bare all” and noted that his colleagues had selected him to be department chair

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Book that explores the biggest issue of our age

The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann, author of the fascinating 1491 (what Elizabeth Warren’s ancestors were up to before Europeans arrived to trash these continents), explores what I think is the biggest issue of our age: can the human population continue to expand without (a) the Earth being transformed into an unpleasant habitat, and (b) humans themselves suffering a Malthusian reduction to a subsistence standard of living.

Mann frames the issue:

The two people were William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. Vogt, born in 1902, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement. In particular, he founded what the Hampshire College demographer Betsy Hartmann has called “apocalyptic environmentalism”—the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption its growing numbers and appetite will overwhelm the planet’s ecosystems. In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. Our prosperity is temporary, he said, because it is based on taking more from Earth than it can give.

Borlaug, born twelve years later, has become the emblem of what has been termed “techno-optimism” or “cornucopianism”—the view that science and technology, properly applied, can help us produce our way out of our predicament. Exemplifying this idea, Borlaug was the primary figure in the research that in the 1960s created the “Green Revolution,” the combination of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that raised grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger.

Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.

Mann reminds us that the default scientific assumption is that Vogt is correct:

Biologists tell us that all species, if given the chance, overreach, overreproduce, overconsume. Inevitably, they encounter a wall, always to catastrophic effect, and usually sooner rather than later.

Yet, on the other hand, we’ve already apparently cheated what seemed like biological limits. World population has the proverbial Silicon Valley hockey stick growth and yet people are living better than ever, all around the world (except here in the U.S., according to my Facebook friends, since the Trumpenfuhrer arrived at the Reichstag!). Mann cites estimates that humans currently consume 25-50% of the Earth’s “primary production”

Convinced by politicians that STEM is the path to a glamorous and satisfying career? Here’s a description of Vogt’s 1938 job studying birds:

As a new employee of the Compañía Administradora del Guano, Vogt based his operations on the Chincha Islands, three granitic outposts thirteen miles off the southwest coast of Peru. Named, unexcitingly, North, South, and Central Chincha, they were each less than a mile across, ringed by hundred-foot cliffs, and completely covered in heaps of bird excrement—treeless, gray-white barrens of guano. Atop the guano, shrieking and flapping, were millions of Guanay cormorants, packed together three nests to the square yard, sharp beaks guarding eggs that sat in small guano craters lined by molted feathers. The birds’ wings rustled and thrummed; multiplied by the million, the sound was a vibration in the skull. Fleas, ticks, and biting flies were everywhere. So was the stench of guano. By noon the light was so bright that Vogt’s photographic light meter “often could not measure it.” Vogt’s head and neck were constantly sunburned; later his ears developed precancerous growths. Vogt worked, ate, and slept in the bird guardians’ barracks on North Chincha, remaining offshore for weeks on end (he was also given an apartment in the nearby shore town of Pisco). His quarters on the island were almost without furniture, covered with guano dust, alive with flies and roaches. Birds mated, fought, and raised their offspring on the roof overhead, leaving so much guano that the building had to be shoveled off periodically to avoid collapse.

Vogt’s opinion was that World War II in the Pacific could be explained by “population pressure” in Japan, and that both World Wars in Europe were explained by competition over resources. He was worried about population growth elsewhere:

Vogt, for instance, was loudly scornful of the “unchecked spawning” and “untrammeled copulation” of “backward populations”—people in India, he sneered, breed with “the irresponsibility of codfish.”

The book proves that every American has an idea for a movie (about soil!) and confirms the history in Real World Divorce:

Marjorie instead went home to California, where she apparently met Vogt, fourteen years her senior, who was futilely trying to convince Walt Disney to make an animated movie about soil. It seems evident that they began a relationship. Juana had spent much of the previous two years alone in Latin America, trolling the embassy circuit for Nazi gossip. In June 1945 the couple rendezvoused in California. The marriage collapsed. Two months later Juana went to Reno, Nevada, to obtain one of the city’s famous quick divorces. Early in 1946 Marjorie also went to Reno, and for the same reason. Marjorie filed for divorce from Devereux, appeared before the court, received her decree, and married Bill on the same day: April 4, 1946.

With the help of the new young wife, Vogt pushes Road to Survival in 1948, coinciding with Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet. Thinking around environmentalism hasn’t significantly changed in the ensuing 70 years:

Vogt and Osborn were also the first to bring to a wide public a belief that would become a foundation of environmental thought: consumption driven by capitalism and rising human numbers is the ultimate cause of most of the world’s ecological problems, and only dramatic reductions in human fertility and economic activity will prevent a worldwide calamity.

The Earth has a carrying capacity. Humans will breed until this carrying capacity is exceeded. Then wars and famine will break out.

Norman Borlaug also demonstrates what a comfortable career science can be…

Many years later, after he won the Nobel Prize, Norman Borlaug would look back on his first days in Mexico with incredulity. He was supposed to breed disease-resistant wheat in Mexico’s central highlands. Only after he arrived, in September 1944, did he grasp how unsuited he was for the task—almost as unqualified in his own way as Vogt had been when he set sail for Peru. He had never published an article in a peer-reviewed, professional journal. He had never worked with wheat or, for that matter, bred plants of any sort. In recent years he had not even been doing botanical research—since winning his Ph.D., he had spent his time testing chemicals and materials for industry. He had never been outside the United States and couldn’t speak Spanish. The work facilities were equally unprepossessing. Borlaug’s “laboratory” was a windowless tarpaper shack on 160 acres of dry, scrubby land on the campus of the Autonomous University of Chapingo. (“Autonomous” refers to the university’s legal authority to set its curriculum without government interference; Chapingo was the name of the village outside Mexico City where it was located.) And although Borlaug was sponsored by the wealthy Rockefeller Foundation, it could not provide him with scientific tools or machinery; during the Second World War, such equipment was reserved for the military.

Mann points out that being a science writer is a lot more fun than being a scientist: “A prerequisite for a successful scientific career is an enthusiastic willingness to pore through the minutiae of subjects that 99.9 percent of Earth’s population find screamingly dull.”

After decades of poverty and 80-hour work weeks, the Green Revolution ensues. Combine with the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia to use in fertilizer (Mann says that 1 percent of the world’s industrial energy goes for this) and we can have unlimited food, right?

Maybe not. “Norman Borlaug: humanitarian hero or menace to society?” (Guardian, 2014):

“Few people at the time considered the profound social and ecological changes that the revolution heralded among peasant farmers. The long-term cost of depending on Borlaug’s new varieties, said eminent critics such as ecologist Vandana Shiva in India, was reduced soil fertility, reduced genetic diversity, soil erosion and increased vulnerability to pests.

Not only did Borlaug’s ‘high-yielding’ seeds demand expensive fertilisers, they also needed more water. Both were in short supply, and the revolution in plant breeding was said to have led to rural impoverishment, increased debt, social inequality and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers,” he wrote.

The political journalist Alexander Cockburn was even less complimentary: “Aside from Kissinger, probably the biggest killer of all to have got the peace prize was Norman Borlaug, whose ‘green revolution’ wheat strains led to the death of peasants by the million.”

Mann does not cover these criticisms of Borlaug’s work. Even with Mann’s 100-percent positive perspective on the frankengrains, he admits that the only way to feed an increased human population with the latest tech comes at the cost of destroying animals in the ocean:

Hard on the heels of the gains were the losses. About 40 percent of the fertilizer applied in the last sixty years wasn’t assimilated by plants; instead, it washed away into rivers or seeped into the air in the form of nitrous oxide. Fertilizer flushed into rivers, lakes, and oceans is still fertilizer: it boosts the growth of algae, weeds, and other aquatic organisms. When these die, they rain to the ocean floor, where they are consumed by microbes. So rapidly do the microbes grow on the increased food supply that their respiration drains the oxygen from the lower depths, killing off most life. Where agricultural runoff flows, dead zones flourish. Nitrogen from Middle Western farms flows down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico every summer, creating an oxygen desert that in 2016 covered almost 7,000 square miles. The next year a still larger dead zone—23,000 square miles—was mapped in the Bay of Bengal.

How about organics? Maybe that is the answer:

[Organic farming promoter Jerome] Rodale died in 1971—bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering the host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

The Gates Foundation will enable the Earth to support 50 billion people by engineering rice that accomplishes C4 photosynthesis:

Barely 3 percent of the flowering plants are C4, but they are responsible for about a quarter of all the photosynthesis on land. The impact of C4 is evident to anyone who has looked at a recently mowed lawn. Within a few days of mowing, the crabgrass in the lawn springs up, towering over the rest of the lawn (typically bluegrass or fescue in cool areas). Fast-growing crabgrass is C4; lawn grass is ordinary photosynthesis. The same is true for wheat and maize. Plant them on the same day in the same place and soon the maize will overshadow the wheat—maize is C4, wheat is not. In addition to growing faster, C4 plants also need less water and fertilizer, because they don’t waste water on reactions that lead to excess oxygen, and because they don’t have to make as much rubisco.

One of these in-between species is maize: its main leaves are C4, whereas the leaves around the cob are a mix of C4 and ordinary photosynthesis. If two forms of photosynthesis can be encoded from the same genome, they cannot be that far apart. Which in turn implies that people equipped with the tools of molecular biology might be able to transform one into another. In the botanical equivalent of a moonshot, an international consortium of almost a hundred agricultural scientists is working to convert rice into a C4 plant—a rice that could grow faster, require less water and fertilizer, withstand higher temperatures, and produce more grain. Funded largely by the Bill & Melinda

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Factory farms may be killing coral reefs, not a warming planet

Interesting article from the nerds at phys.org:

A study published in the international journal Marine Biology, reveals what’s really killing coral reefs. With 30 years of unique data from Looe Key Reef in the lower Florida Keys, researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and collaborators have discovered that the problem of coral bleaching is not just due to a warming planet, but also a planet that is simultaneously being enriched with reactive nitrogen from multiple sources.

Improperly treated sewage, fertilizers and top soil are elevating nitrogen levels, which are causing phosphorus starvation in the corals, reducing their temperature threshold for “bleaching.” These coral reefs were dying off long before they were impacted by rising water temperatures. This study represents the longest record of reactive nutrients and algae concentrations for coral reefs anywhere in the world.

In other words, the same factory/industrial farming that creates massive dead zones in oceans worldwide (including the Gulf of Mexico) is also at least partially responsible for killing the coral reefs, not a rise in sea temperature.

Will Earth support a human population of 10 billion or more? Yes, but maybe without any animals, including coral.

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Science says that success cannot be inherited genetically

An enduring source of amusement is watching people who have a scientific perspective (and oftentimes actual training in science) throw rocks at the religious for being irrationally dogmatic.

Part of the dogma of the politically righteous today in the U.S. is that success cannot be inherited genetically. The children of the rich tend to be rich, but that is because they got cash from their parents (Exhibit A: Donald Trump!), not because they have personal characteristics that resembles their successful parents’ personal characteristics.

When this has been carefully studied, e.g., in The Son Also Rises, it turns out that success does behave like other genetically inherited characteristics. The child of successful parents has roughly the same chance of becoming successful regardless of the number of siblings who are present to dilute any financial inheritance.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer is a great illustration of this dogma. The book goes on at length regarding things that can be inherited genetically. But then we get an economics lesson on inequality:

Raj Chetty, a Stanford economist, has estimated that Americans born in 1940 had a 90 percent chance of making more money than their parents at age thirty. But Chetty and his colleagues have found that those odds then steadily dropped. Americans born in 1984 had only a 50 percent chance of making more than their parents. The shift was not the result of the United States suddenly running out of money. It’s just that wealthy Americans have been taking much of the extra money the economy has generated in recent decades. Chetty’s research suggests that if the recent economic growth in the United States was distributed more broadly, most of the fading he has found would disappear. “The rise in inequality and the decline in absolute mobility are closely linked,” he and his colleagues reported in 2017. Inheritance has helped push open that gulf. About two-thirds of parental income differences among Americans persist into the next generation. Economists have found that American children who are born to parents in the ninetieth percentile of earners will grow up to make three times more than children of the tenth percentile. This inheritance is not simply what parents leave in their wills but the things that they can buy for their children as they grow up. In the United States, affluent parents can afford a house in a good public school district, or even private school tuition. They can pay for college test prep classes to increase the odds their children will get into good colleges. And if they do get in, their parents can cover more of their college tuitions. Poor parents have fewer means to prepare their children to get into college. Even if their children do get accepted, they have fewer funds, and they’re more vulnerable to layoffs or medical bankruptcy. Their children may graduate saddled with steep college debts or drop out before getting a degree. The gifts that children inherit can keep coming well into adulthood. Parents may help cover the cost of law school, or write a check to help out with a septic tank that failed just after their children bought their first house. Protected from catastrophes that can wipe out bank accounts, young adults from affluent families can get started sooner on building their own wealth. Inheritance also goes a long way to explain the gap in wealth between races in the United States. In 2013, the median white American household had thirteen times the wealth of the median black household, and ten times that of the median Latino household.

Whites are five times as likely to receive major gifts from relatives, and when they do, their value is much greater. These gifts can, among other things, allow white college students to graduate with much less debt than blacks or Latinos. And the effects of these inheritances have compounded through the generations as blacks and Latinos were left outside the wealth feedback loop that benefited white families.

In looking at how the children of those in the top 10 percent do, the author does not consider the possibility that the parents reached the top 10 percent due to genetic fitness for the current economic environment. (e.g., a fondness for sitting at a desk looking at numbers on a computer screen!). So it is our cruel economic system alone that dooms children of the least successful parents to mediocre incomes. If a third generation of a family whose first and second generations were on welfare (public housing, Medicaid, food stamps, and Obamaphone) elects to continue the welfare lifestyle, this is because the parents and grandparents couldn’t provide an inheritance.

It is not the beliefs that are interesting so much as the fact that the author can’t see this dogma conflicts with all of the science that he presented in the previous pages. Perhaps the UC Davis econ professor who did The Son Also Rises got it wrong, but what’s interesting is that apparently nobody can dare to consider the possibility that he got it right.

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Science is Settled: one characteristic cannot be inherited genetically

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer says that almost everything is heritable and that genetics is the mechanism for heritability. However, there is one big exception… intelligence.

Why does this matter? The book reminds us that the idea that a lack of intelligence will render a person dependent on welfare goes back at least to the 1930s:

The Great Depression was reaching its depths when [Henry Herbert] Goddard came back to Vineland, and he blamed it largely on America’s lack of intelligence: Most of the newly destitute didn’t have the foresight to save enough money. “Half of the world must take care of the other half,” Goddard said.

The idea that intelligence could not be explained by heredity is similarly old:

[British doctor Lionel] Penrose entered the profession as a passionate critic of eugenics, dismissing it as “pretentious and absurd.” In the early 1930s, eugenics still had a powerful hold on both doctors and the public at large—a situation Penrose blamed on lurid tales like The Kallikak Family. While those stories might be seductive, eugenicists made a mess of traits like intelligence. They were obsessed with splitting people into two categories—healthy and feebleminded—and then they would cast the feebleminded as a “class of vast and dangerous dimensions.” Penrose saw intelligence as a far more complex trait. He likened intelligence to height: In every population, most people were close to average height, but some people were taller and shorter than average. Just being short wasn’t equivalent to having some kind of a height disease. Likewise, people developed a range of different mental aptitudes. Height, Penrose observed, was the product of both inherited genes and upbringing. He believed the same was true for intelligence. Just as Mendelian variants could cause dwarfism, others might cause severe intellectual developmental disorders. But that was no reason to leap immediately to heredity as an explanation. “That mental deficiency may be to some extent due to criminal parents’ dwelling ‘habitually’ in slums seems to have been overlooked,” Penrose said. He condemned the fatalism of eugenicists, as they declared “there was nothing to be done but to blame heredity and advocate methods of extinction.”

Even if a country did sterilize every feebleminded citizen, Penrose warned, the next generation would have plenty of new cases from environmental causes. “The first consideration in the prevention of mental deficiency is to consider how environmental influences which are held responsible can be modified,” Penrose declared.

The author finds some cases in which children with severe physical disorders, e.g., PKU, have impaired intelligence. From this he reminds us that it is wrong to believe that “our intelligence is fixed by the genes we inherit.” (Is that truly a comforting idea? I would have been as smart as Albert Einstein, for example, but I watched too much TV as a kid and didn’t work hard enough as an adult?)

We would be as tall as the Dutch if only we were smart enough to build a bigger government (2nd largest welfare state, as a percentage of GDP, is not enough to grow tall!):

The economy of the United States, the biggest in the world, has not protected it from a height stagnation. Height experts have argued that the country’s economic inequality is partly to blame. Medical care is so expensive that millions go without insurance and many people don’t get proper medical care. Many American women go without prenatal care during pregnancy, while expectant mothers in the Netherlands get free house calls from nurses.

How do intelligence distributions change over time, given that environment is supposed to be a huge factor?

Intelligence is also a surprisingly durable trait. On June 1, 1932, the government of Scotland tested almost every eleven-year-old in the country—87,498 all told—with a seventy-one-question exam. The students decoded ciphers, made analogies, did arithmetic. The Scottish Council for Research in Education scored the tests and analyzed the results to get an objective picture of the intelligence of Scottish children. Scotland carried out only one more nationwide exam, in 1947. Over the next couple of decades, the council analyzed the data and published monographs before their work slipped away into oblivion.

Deary, Whalley, and their colleagues moved the 87,498 tests from ledgers onto computers. They then investigated what had become of the test takers. Their ranks included soldiers who died in World War II, along with a bus driver, a tomato grower, a bottle labeler, a manager of a tropical fish shop, a member of an Antarctic expedition, a cardiologist, a restaurant owner, and an assistant in a doll hospital. The researchers decided to track down all the surviving test takers in a single city, Aberdeen. They were slowed down by the misspelled names and erroneous birth dates. Many of the Aberdeen examinees had died by the late 1990s. Others had moved to other parts of the world. And still others were just unreachable. But on June 1, 1998, 101 elderly people assembled at the Aberdeen Music Hall, exactly sixty-six years after they had gathered there as eleven-year-olds to take the original test. Deary had just broken both his arms in a bicycling accident, but he would not miss the historic event. He rode a train 120 miles from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, up to his elbows in plaster, to witness them taking their second test. Back in Edinburgh, Deary and his colleagues scored the tests. Deary pushed a button on his computer to calculate the correlation between their scores as children and as senior citizens. The computer spat back a result of 73 percent. In other words, the people who had gotten relatively low scores in 1932 tended to get relatively low scores in 1998, while the high-scoring children tended to score high in old age.

If you had looked at the score of one of the eleven-year-olds in 1933, you’d have been able to make a pretty good prediction of their score almost seven decades later. Deary’s research prompted other scientists to look for other predictions they could make from childhood intelligence test scores. They do fairly well at predicting how long people stay in school, and how highly they will be rated at work. The US Air Force found that the variation in [general intelligence] among its pilots could predict virtually all the variation in tests of their work performance. While intelligence test scores don’t predict how likely people are to take up smoking, they do predict how likely they are to quit. In a study of one million people in Sweden, scientists found that people with lower intelligence test scores were more likely to get into accidents.

IQ is correlated with longevity:

But Deary’s research raises the possibility that the roots of intelligence dig even deeper. When he and his colleagues started examining Scottish test takers in the late 1990s, many had already died. Studying the records of 2,230 of the students, they found that the ones who had died by 1997 had on average a lower test score than the ones who were still alive. About 70 percent of the women who scored in the top quarter were still alive, while only 45 percent of the women in the bottom quarter were. Men had a similar split. Children who scored higher, in other words, tended to live longer. Each extra fifteen IQ points, researchers have since found, translates into a 24 percent drop in the risk of death.

The author reports that twins separated at birth have almost identical IQs, despite completely different childhood environments. With most other personal characteristics, this would lead to the conclusion that intelligence was mostly heritable. Instead, however, Zimmer points out that if heritability is not 100 percent then it would be a mistake to call something “genetic”:

Intelligence is far from blood types. While test scores are unquestionably heritable, their heritability is not 100 percent. It sits instead somewhere near the middle of the range of possibilities. While identical twins often end up with similar test scores, sometimes they don’t. If you get average scores on intelligence tests, it’s entirely possible your children may turn out to be geniuses. And if you’re a genius, you should be smart enough to recognize your children may not follow suit. Intelligence is not a thing to will to your descendants like a crown.

To bolster the claim that intelligence is not heritable, the book cites examples of children whose mothers were exposed to toxic chemicals during pregnancy. Also examples that staying in school for additional years raises IQ (a measure of symbol processing efficiency).

Here’s an interesting-sounding study:

In 2003, Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia and his colleagues gave a twist to the standard studies on twins. To calculate the heritability of intelligence, they decided not to just look at the typical middle-class families who were the subject of earlier studies. They looked for twins from poorer families, too. Turkheimer and his colleagues found that the socioeconomic class determined how heritable intelligence was. Among children who grew up in affluent families, the heritability was about 60 percent. But twins from poorer families showed no greater correlation than other siblings. Their heritability was close to zero.

(Do we believe that heritability is zero because identical twins and siblings both have highly correlated IQs? Earlier in the book, the author describes how hospitals and doctors often misclassify twins.)

Buried in the next section is that this finding is not straightforward to replicate (“Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”):

If you raise corn in uniformly healthy soil, with the same level of abundant sunlight and water, the variation in their height will largely be the product of the variation in their genes. But if you plant them in a bad soil, where they may or may not get enough of some vital nutrient, the environment will be responsible for more of their differences. Turkheimer’s study hints that something similar happens to intelligence. By focusing their research on affluent families—or on countries such as Norway, where people get universal health care—intelligence researchers may end up giving too much credit to heredity. Poverty may be powerful enough to swamp the influence of variants in our DNA. In the years since Turkheimer’s study, some researchers have gotten the same results, although others have not. It’s possible that the effect is milder than once thought. A 2016 study pointed to another possibility, however. It showed that poverty reduced the heritability of intelligence in the United States, but not in Europe. Perhaps Europe just doesn’t impoverish the soil of its children enough to see the effect. Yet there’s another paradox in the relationship between genes and the environment. Over time, genes can mold the environment in which our intelligence develops. In 2010, Robert Plomin led a study on eleven thousand twins from four countries, measuring their heritability at different ages. At age nine, the heritability of intelligence was 42 percent. By age twelve, it had risen to 54 percent. And at age seventeen, it was at 68 percent. In other words, the genetic variants we inherit assert themselves more strongly as we get older. Plomin has argued that this shift happens as people with different variants end up in different environments. A child who has trouble reading due to inherited variants may shy away from books, and not get the benefits that come from reading them.

Poverty in the cruel U.S. crushes children! But, measured in terms of consumption, an American family on welfare actually lives better than a lot of middle class European families. The author praises the Europeans with their universal health care systems, but 100 percent of poor American children qualify for Medicaid, a system of unlimited health care spending (currently covering roughly 75 million people).

If unlimited taxpayer-funded Medicaid isn’t sufficient to help poor American children reach their genetic potential, maybe early education will? The book quotes a Head Start planner: “The fundamental theoretical basis of Head Start was the concept

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