“Gay Gene” vs. “Gay Germ”

The twists of intellectual fashion in our society are often quite peculiar, especially when “touchy” topics are involved.

Consider, for example, the analysis of human behavior.  Whatever most people may privately believe or say, the vocal academics and activists who control the commanding ideological heights of our media tend to claim that people act as they do largely because of social conditioning, and they often denounce or vilify those accused of the thoughtcrime of “genetic determinism.”  Note the example of (former) Harvard President Larry Summers.

But all rules have exceptions, and for some unknown reason those same activists and media organs have decided that homosexuality is genetically based, denouncing anyone who suggests otherwise.  Thus, genes officially determine gayness and nothing else, which hardly seems the most logical possibility in the world.  But pointing out such inconsistencies can get you into hot water, so few people do.

Given the remarkable dishonesty of our media elites across such a wide range of topics, there is a natural tendency to assume that the truth is probably the opposite of whatever they say about anything.  This undermines the credibility of the Gay Gene hypothesis, as does its proponents’ practice of treating scientific disagreement as religious heresy.

But frankly, the other side of the debate sometimes seems little better in its behavior.  I think one of the most highly vilified rivals to Gay Gene theory is “Gay Germ theory,” the suggestion that some sort of virus or microorganism is responsible for the behavior in question.  And just a few days ago, I noticed that evolutionary theorist Gregory Cochran, one of the leading Gay Germ proponents, had viciously insulted the intelligence of my old professor E.O. Wilson for his remarks supporting the Gay Gene side. Read More…

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The Sidewalk Marriage Crusade

Given the unprecedented peace and prosperity currently enjoyed by nearly all Americans, it’s hardly surprising that a symbolic issue such as Gay Marriage has now moved to the forefront of the public debate, not least among the contributors to my own magazine.

Personally, it’s not the sort of issue that keeps me in a state of great ideological agitation, but since everyone else seems to be sharing his opinion, I might as well do the same, if only by pointing to the column I’d written on the subject back in the late 1990s.  I can’t say that any of my views have much changed, unlike those of a vast number of American politicians and pundits.

For me, the more important aspect of this current controversy is the insight it provides into the nature of America’s “conservative movement” and the so-called Christian Right. Some of the top leaders of the conservative anti-Gay Marriage organizations of the 2000s have now switched sides and fully endorsed the very practice they had long denounced as a social monstrosity, which is certainly a bit odd from a theological or philosophical perspective.  Have the world’s “eternal verities” suddenly been reversed in just six or seven years, or might the cause of their U-turns instead be found in the opinions of their DC cocktail-party friends or the views of the plutocrats who sign their paychecks? Read More…

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Meritocracy: The College Admissions Season

The season of college admissions is now upon us, weeks of envelopes fat and thin.

With so many teenagers now discovering their future life-prospects as dealt out by our academic gatekeepers, discussions of the selection process are appearing in our media, and some of these include reference to my own Meritocracy article of almost five months ago, focusing on the same topic.

For example, the Sunday New York Times carried an interesting discussion by columnist Ross Douthat on the Ivies and their role in producing our national elites, which included linked references to my main Meritocracy article as well as my short piece for the NYT Forum on Asian discrimination.

Given that the reach of the electronic media so greatly exceeds the number of people who ever bother reading anything, I was even more pleased to see that Fareed Zakaria’s Sunday CNN television show ran a segment on college admissions, heavily drawing upon the findings of my article; his Time magazine column covered the same topic.  One minor point of confusion was his suggestion that I had ignored the substantial number of Asian students whose fear of racial discrimination causes them to conceal their personal background and are therefore lumped into the “Race Unknown” category.  In fact, I had discussed this and similar possibilities in detail, and provided all the related data. Read More…

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The Bitter Legacy of Mickey Mouse

Developments of enormous consequence sometimes follow the most mundane of motives.

During the mid-1990s, the giant Disney Corporation became concerned that its 1928 copyright on Mickey Mouse was close to expiration.  Deploying heavy lobbying efforts, it persuaded Congress to pass and President Bill Clinton to sign what was officially entitled the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, but more informally known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”  The result was to extend Mickey’s copyright for another twenty years, and perhaps indefinitely if future corporate lobbying efforts bore similar fruit.

Now I have no particular burning desire to watch Mickey Mouse cartoons without paying for them, and I suspect that those around the world who feel otherwise simply ignore such legal restrictions, just as they watch pirated blockbuster movies only weeks after they are released into the theaters.  So if the Disney executives had merely wanted to protect their rights to old Walt’s lucrative rodent, I wouldn’t have cared in the least.  But since paying Congresspersons to enact such narrowly tailored legislation might have appeared unseemly, they decided to extend all other existing copyrights as well, including the vast number of written works possessing no financial but much intellectual value. Read More…

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China: Debating the “Clark-Unz Model”

As an individual who often regrets his decades-old defection from the academic community, I was remarkably pleased to see anthropologist Peter Frost very generously discuss my recent China article under the rubric “the Clark-Unz Model.”  The senior researcher identified is obviously economist Gregory Clark, whose influential 2007 book A Farewell to Alms had suggested a very similar evolutionary analysis for the forces shaping the British people over most of the last thousand years.

The nearly 100 total comments on that column and Frost’s previous one have most sharply focused on what certainly seems to me to be by far the weakest aspect of my theory, namely that it would predict a substantial performance gap between Chinese and Japanese, given that the traditional rural society of the latter was totally different in nature (although Frost himself argues that there may have been more similarities than I acknowledge).  Obviously, if those two major East Asian peoples are very similar in their abilities, my analysis is probably wrong.

Certainly the conventional wisdom has always placed Chinese and Japanese in the same ability category, and if someone had raised that issue with me a year ago, I would have been very skeptical of any large difference.  But while I was performing the research for my Meritocracy article I encountered some striking data.

California contains almost one-third of America’s total Asian population, and its Chinese outnumber its Japanese by about 3.5 to 1.  But among the high-ability NMS semifinalist students in recent years, there have roughly 750 Chinese names each year as opposed to a mere 15 or so Japanese ones.  Obviously, much of this difference may be explained by factors of cultural assimilation, differences in the age-distribution curves, and the impact of selective recent Chinese immigration.  However, a 50-to-1 difference in the number of top academic students is large enough to catch one’s eye and make one wonder whether there might possibly also exist the sort of intrinsic factors produced by many centuries of disparate selective pressure.  I’d also noticed that although a truly remarkable fraction of all the winners of America’s various national academic competitions had been Chinese, the number of Japanese names was so small that I never even bothered to separately record them. Read More…

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China: Chinese Eugenics?

In modern American society, few terms carry the negative and socially disreputable ring of “eugenics,” first coined by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton and later widely advocated by Margaret Sanger, America’s founding mother of birth control and abortion.  Denouncing one’s opponents as eugenicists has become a mainstay of political rhetoric across both the Left and Right, while also being an excellent means of attracting attention.

This combination of visibility and negativity left me with mixed feelings when I noticed “Chinese Eugenics” as the lead headline for the earliest discussion of my recent article suggesting that China and the Chinese may have been shaped by a thousand years or more of Social Darwinist forces.  Another slight problem was that the headline was totally incorrect.

After all, “eugenics” refers to a conscious, deliberate effort to select future generations according to some particular human ideal, while my own Chinese hypothesis could not be more dissimilar.  I had merely suggested that the extremely difficult conditions of life in traditional rural China ensured that only the hardest-working, most diligent, and most able Chinese peasants managed to survive and multiply in each generation, thereby gradually moving the Chinese people in that general direction during a thousand years of intense economic pressure.  After all, the accepted explanation for the long necks of giraffes is that in each generation only the tallest individuals gained access to available leaves, while their shorter-necked brethren often went hungry; no eugenics involved.

Indeed, after reading my article a rightwing individual with strong eugenicist leanings dropped me an anguished note, saying that my hypothesis seemed quite persuasive but also very depressing, suggesting as it did that today’s Chinese became smart and successful because their ancestors had spent most of the previous thousand years starving to death.  After all, when free market principles are taken to their “Social Darwinist” extreme, the logical result is a society in which economic achievement counts for virtually everything, and insufficiently successful families face starvation.  Add in China’s Malthusian population pressure and the relentless downward mobility produced by a strongly pro-natalist socio-cultural tradition, and the consequences seem obvious.  Intentional “eugenics” in any sense of the word had nothing to do with it. Read More…

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A Minimum Wage Hike as Amnesty-Killer?

My Friday Aspen Institute panel in DC on raising the minimum wage went well, though the discussion underscored the somewhat insular thinking of many of the policy elites who dominate life in our capital city.

As an example, although the audience and participants skewed heavily toward the “economic left,” several individuals mentioned how surprised they were to encounter the suggestion that our federal minimum wage be raised to $12.00 per hour—my proposal—or even higher, a notion that seemed almost unimaginable within their own policy circles. Meanwhile, former Democratic Congressman and Cabinet Secretary Dan Glickman described the politics of raising the minimum wage as being extremely difficult, given the intensity of opposition he had always encountered among many small businessmen.

These two issues are not unconnected. As I pointed out in response to Glickman’s question, a small rise in the minimum wage—such as the $9.00 figure proposed by President Obama—has limited political viability since it generates little of the enthusiasm necessarily to overcome the determined opposition of its ideological or practical opponents. Only a narrow sliver of American workers would directly benefit, their net dollar gains would be relatively small, and they represent an economic stratum that overwhelmingly votes Democratic, whenever it bothers to vote at all.  How would such a measure ever stand a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House?

But consider the very different politics of a $12.00 figure.  Over 40% of all American wage-workers would benefit, including 40% of the white Southerners who constitute the Republican base, and the mean gains for both those groups would be over $5,000 per year. Such an enormous sum of money would capture the imagination of its potential recipients, and also that of their immediate family members.  Conservative ideologues such as Rush Limbaugh would surely denounce the proposal, but many of his ditto-heads are struggling with credit-card and mortgage loans, and for an extra $5,000 per year they’d surely turn a deaf ear to his arguments or even decide to turn their radio dial.  The intensity of support for such a minimum wage hike would become every bit as great as the intensity of the regular opposition cited by Glickman.  Offering people serious money may get their serious attention. Read More…

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Meritocracy: Dangerous Cancer Statistics

About the only detailed public criticism of my Meritocracy article by an academic has come from Prof. Janet Mertz, a Wisconsin cancer researcher.  Since her analysis draws so heavily upon her own 2008 academic paper on top performing math students, I decided that paper warranted a close examination.

The primary focus of her article was a worldwide gender analysis of top performing math students aimed at refuting the controversial speculations of former Harvard President Larry Summers, who had suggested that men might be better at math than women, at least at the very high end of math ability.  She and her co-authors therefore examined the previous twenty years of the International Math Olympiad, determining the exact number of male and female participants from all the leading countries.  They provided their findings in Table 6 (p. 1252), which I am summarizing below in terms of the male percentages for the aggregate years 1988-2008: Read More…

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Meritocracy: Almost as Wrong as Larry Summers

Several years ago, Harvard President Larry Summers spoke at an academic conference on diversity issues, and casually speculated that one of the possible reasons there were relatively few female mathematics professors might be that men were just a bit better at math than women.  Although his remarks were private and informal, the massive national scandal that erupted rapidly transformed President Summers into former President Summers, and coincidentally persuaded Harvard to name its first woman president as his permanent successor.

Now I am hardly someone willing to defend Summers from a whole host of very serious and legitimate charges.  He seems to have played a major role in transmuting Harvard from a renowned university to an aggressive hedge fund, policies that subsequently brought my beloved alma mater to the very brink of bankruptcy during the 2008 financial crisis.  Under his presidency, Harvard paid out $26 million dollars to help settle international insider-trading charges against Andrei Shleifer, one of his closest personal friends, who avoided prison as a consequence.  And after such stellar financial and ethical achievements, he was naturally appointed as one of President Obama’s top economic advisors, a position from which he strongly supported the massive bailout of Wall Street and the rest of our elite financial services sector, while ignoring Main Street suffering.  Perhaps coincidentally, wealthy hedge funds had paid him many millions of dollars for providing a few hours a week of part-time consulting advice during the twelve months prior to his appointment.

Still, even a broken or crooked clock is right twice each day, and Larry Summers is not the only person in the world who suspects that men might be a bit better at math than women. However, the notion that such vile and disgusting thoughts may be concealed in a few human skulls tends to agitate many ideologues, whose motives often seem to include a powerful emotional component.  For example, MIT Professor Nancy Hopkins told reporters that she became physically ill at hearing Summers’ controversial remarks, and fled the auditorium, fearing she would black out or vomit if she remained.  Many of the other details of Summers’ defenestration may be found in the numerous columns by bloggers such as Steve Sailer. Read More…

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Resurrecting Our Intellectual Past

As many may know, I have spent most of the last decade or more producing a content-archiving website that provides convenient, readable access to over 500,000 print articles from the 19th and 20th centuries, together with hundreds of thousands of books.

Most of these articles are drawn from what were once America’s leading journals of intellectual thought and influence, but which eventually vanished so completely that their very names have long been forgotten.  Studying our history of the last century or two without giving full consideration to these periodicals would be similar to analyzing the domestic politics of the Vietnam War while ignoring CBS, NBC, ABC, and The New York Times.

Resurrecting long dead publications is nearly as difficult as resurrecting people, and merely putting those millions of scanned pages on the Internet does not necessarily mean that anyone will notice or read them.  Therefore, as a means of promoting awareness of this valuable intellectual resource, I announced last year a historical research competition, offering prizes to the best original project produced from this material, with the requirement that Wikipedia accept the work for publication.

The winning entry, submitted by Scott Lahti, was a detailed history of Encounter Magazine, a leading intellectual journal of the Cold War Era, based in London.  For decades, Encounter had been a premier venue for both mainstream anti-Communist liberals and the early neoconservatives, with numerous prominent intellectuals appearing in its pages. As of last year, the magazine’s Wikipedia entry had been a tiny stub, providing almost no useful information; but Lahti’s winning entry had expanded it in length and detail to rival that of any other publication, extent or not.

The obvious value of providing such detailed background information on one of the many important periodicals provided by our website persuaded me to announce a second research competition, this time restricted to producing or enhancing the Wikipedia entries for any of the many dozens of our magazines.  This new competition also proved very successful, with a number of excellent entries. Read More…

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