Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


G x E, or, how to think of genius

posted by Rod Dreher

David Shenk:

Genes are always interacting with the environment, so the new way to think about this is that it’s not nature plus nurture on nature versus nurture. If anything it’s nature interacting with nurture if you have to use those words, so one of the phrases that scientists are using now is G Times E, that is genetics times environment as opposed to G plus E. They call it an additive model. The additive model is well, you have so much inborn intelligence and then plus what you get in the environment. That would be the you know nature plus nurture. The new model is you can’t separate them. You just absolutely cannot separate the effects of genes from the effects of the environment, so all we can do of course is to identify the resources that we have in our environments and maximize them as best we can.

Reading Wade Davis writing at length about the astonishing genius of the Polynesian Wayfinders, and other traditional peoples, who applied their native human genius to adapting themselves to their environments, really brings this point home. From an evolutionary point of view, what happens when a person whose gifts lie in one area is forced by his environment to put those talents aside and work in an area for which he is ill-suited? What if, say, a naturally gifted mathematician was compelled by environmental circumstance to work as a blacksmith? We would see that as a tragedy, but what would the effect be in the long term on the biology of that particular population?
It’s typically an anti-Semitic cliche to say that Jews are good with money, but it’s true that Jews are disproportionately represented in the financial business. This should not be surprising, given that Jews were forced into this line of work centuries ago by Church anti-usury laws forbidding Christians from engaging in moneylending. It’s not hard to see that the environment in which European Jews had to make a living would force a cultural adaptation toward developing skill in finance. But from the point of view of evolutionary biology, is it possible that there could have been an adaptation that more easily allows for the genetic expression of a particular genius for finance, and the suppression of traits for genius in areas of endeavor Jews were not allowed to engage in? Or is a few centuries insufficient time for such an adaptation to have evolved at the genetic level?
Similarly, is anyone aware of a book or an article that analyzes the rise of Western power in light of the role capitalism and liberal democracy played in breaking up traditional boundaries of class, nationalism, race and other categories that prevented people who possessed particular talents from capitalizing on them? In other words, has the evolution of Western economic power come about from social, cultural and legal adaptations that freed up talent and genius to find its own level? Is there a scientific case?



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JayR

posted January 29, 2010 at 3:57 pm


It’s typically an anti-Semitic cliche to say that Jews are good with money, but it’s true that Jews are disproportionately represented in the financial business.
It is also a narrow cliche that Jews are disproportionately represented just in the financial business. Jews, who after all are about 2% of the US population, are also disproportionately represented in medicine, academia, law, and probably most fields where a high level of education and intellect are valued. This has much to do with Jewish culture placing a high value these virtues and achievement.
Whether there is a genetic component to this would be difficult to measure, at least with the kind of ethics we (correctly) place on experiments with human subjects. There may be something to the idea that Jews often select for these traits in their idea of a desirable partner.



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Brian

posted January 29, 2010 at 4:17 pm


The Mediterranean provided the perfect incubator for the seeds of Western economic, political and military dominance. The dynamism of many peoples interacting with one another, the Minoans, Phoenicans, Egyptians, Greeks and Scythians up through Roman dominance forged and refined a tremendous amount of ideas and philosophies. Another factor is the respect for the individual and belief in free will of the Judeo-Christian world view plus Greek philosophy and science. Later the Romans perfected the military discipline and democratic institutions needed to form powerful states.
The result? European Empires dominate world commerce, military endeavors, and empire building into the 20th century.



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SteveM

posted January 29, 2010 at 4:22 pm


Rod,
People often confuse Evolution with Natural Selection.
Evolution is a series of random genetic mutations. Natural Selection is the competitive advantage created by a mutation. The process does not work backward. E.g., Because a community works in finance, their genes don’t mutate to make their progeny even more better at finance.
As JayR mentions above, people with similar genetic profiles may self-select mates like themselves. So you see the concentration of both genetics and values.
What make humans different from an evolutionary perspective is that Natural Selection is a “survival of the fittest” model. Not a “survival of the most intelligent” model. Smart people generally don’t squeeze dumb people out of the gene pool. I.e., someone with modest intelligence can get by just fine and have a lot of kids. So from a Darwinian perspective they are as competitive as the “geniuses” on Wall Street.



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Cecelia

posted January 29, 2010 at 5:27 pm


ditto JayR’s comments – a facility with finance is not likely related to genetic endowment. That Jewish people are overrepresented in fields like law, finance, medicine and academia is also explained by 1) access to the connections that get you a position in that field and 2) people tend to go into the fields their parents are in. To an extent these factors give you a self perpetuating pattern of occupations.
Re: intelligence. There are lots of different kinds of intelligence but – as regards what we measure with an IQ test – what we know at this time is that there is an association between synaptic brain mass and intelligence. Synaptic brain mass develops as a result of forming associations (simple explanation here) – I associate such and such a smell with the presence of the person who satisfies that grumble in my tummy – boom – synapses develop. The more enriched my environment and the more opportunity to develop these associations the more synaptic brain mass I have. Almost all of your synapses develop by the time you are 5 years old – and most of it occurs between 0 and 3 years old. This may explain why early childhood experiences are so potent – those experiences are forming the synapses and perhaps the actual experience and its emotional content gets “hardwired” into the synapse somehow. So we now have a fairly clear picture of the biological mechanisms involved in the nature – nurture debate. Whatever nature gave you – if you are deprived of an environment in which many associations can be formed hence leading to the development of synaptic brain mass that is necessary to support high order intellectual functioning – you won’t realize the potential of what nature gave you. This also seems to explain why teens have poor judgement. They lack sufficient synaptic brain mass to engage in the sort of forward thinking that allows good judgement. The difference between the synaptic brain mass of a 16 year old versus an 18 year old is significant. Perhaps a reason to avoid giving driver’s licenses to 16 year olds.
But there have been recent findings that are really interesting in that it seems (based on very preliminary research) that there may be an interaction with the environment that actually affects the gene. We have always thought no matter what – genes don’t change other than through random mutations. There have been two studies done which suggest something more than that is going on. The studies looked at the effects of food boom and bust (times of famine versus times of plenty) and how that effected the lifespan and height of later generations. What they discovered is that if Man A experiences famine in his youth, his grandsons will have shorter lifespans and shorter height. If Man B experiences plenty in his youth his grandsons will have longer lifespans and greater height. This suggests that environmental factors can actually have an impact on later generations perhaps by in some way altering the genetic material.
As to your last question Rod – the exponential growth of knowledge that accompanies the modern era has resulted in lots of speculation but it is my understanding that there is no single explanation for it. It seems the real question that has not yet been answered is why does modernity occur in western Europe instead of any number of other places. What specific factors about western Europe at the dawn of the modern era account for this unprecedented and continuing growth in human knowledge and application? Some have suggested it was the absence of a stable empire encompassing all of Europe which forces the ruling classes to permit innovation so as to be able to successfully compete. There was a discussion of this at the Cato Institute site which is still online and besides the essays at the site there were several recommendations re: books.
Fascinating things to contemplate – good post.



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Jon

posted January 29, 2010 at 6:44 pm


Re: In other words, has the evolution of Western economic power come about from social, cultural and legal adaptations that freed up talent and genius to find its own level?
I’m not sure it was ever all that constrained. The emperor Justinian was the grandson of provincial peasants and his wife Theodora started out as a hooch dancer. In later times anyone who made a fair amount of money could buy his way into the aristocracy



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polistra

posted January 29, 2010 at 9:47 pm


What accounts for the growth of civilization in Western Europe?
One word. Monks.
We tend to think of the religious orders as places of prayer and study of religion, but mainly they were workshops. And they were thoughtful workshops. While the peasants were just scraping out a subsistence with traditional methods, the monks had the brains and resources to experiment with new ways to farm, new ways to make wine, new ways to build irrigation systems.
Other monks were building up a system of logic that turned into science.
In the modern collapsing post-industrial West, we’ve broken the crucial linkage of hands and brains. Manual work is getting simpler and more menial, and the path to status and riches no longer runs through farming or auto repair. Riches come either from personality (sales and entertainment) or from academic learning.
And science has lost the linkage to physical observation and experimentation, which has left it vulnerable to painfully obvious nonsense like Global Warming.



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Charles Cosimano

posted January 30, 2010 at 2:12 am


The only monk who ever made a meaningful contribution to civilization was Roger Bacon, who created gunpowder.
One good engineer is worth more than all the philosophers of history combined.



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SteveB

posted January 30, 2010 at 7:39 am


Charles-
Spoken like a true engineer. (?)
However, I think you are missing the point of this, an many previous, posts. While the engineer may be of ultimate value in our current 21st century Western culture, that culture may not necessarily be the ultimate expression of humanity.
Philosophy may in fact possess much greater value than our western idea of “progress.” Jospeh Pieper, 20th century, German philosopher, wrote a book titled, Leisure, The Basis of Culture. The premise behind this short volume is that we have moved into a world of total work and in doing so have lost, or are loosing, some of what makes us human. Pieper explains that the ancient Greeks and medieval philosophers understood and valued leisure and that it has been the first foundation of any culture. I wrote a short review of it here.
In any event, I have really enjoyed the change in tone at this blog. While I read and agreed with Crunchy Cons, and had been following the Cruncy Cons blog off and on over the past year, this new incarnation has really lead me to think- which I appreciate. Keep it up!
-SteveB



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meh

posted January 30, 2010 at 7:57 am


Cecelia: “The more enriched my environment and the more opportunity to develop these associations the more synaptic brain mass I have. Almost all of your synapses develop by the time you are 5 years old – and most of it occurs between 0 and 3 years old.”
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/24/education/24baby.html
“Parent alert: the Walt Disney Company is now offering refunds for all those “Baby Einstein” videos that did not make children into geniuses.”
“They may have been a great electronic baby sitter, but the unusual refunds appear to be a tacit admission that they did not increase infant intellect.”



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Quiddity

posted January 30, 2010 at 9:50 am


I’d be careful of concluding that social forces over a 1,000 year time frame have shaped genetics in a meaningful way. It might be used to reinforce existing biases for or against various groups (races, tribes, ethnicities).



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meh

posted January 30, 2010 at 10:03 am


Quiddity, are you being ironic? What does Nature care if it can be used to reinforce existing biases for or against various groups (races, tribes, ethnicities)? That’s the moralistic fallacy.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moralistic_fallacy



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meh

posted January 30, 2010 at 10:05 am


This is from an excellent comment by Galtonian to a post at David Shenk’s blog:
http://correspondents.theatlantic.com/david_shenk/2009/07/how_genes_really_work.php#comment-233153
We can still believe that IQ is a largely innate trait for reasons that are illustrated by the following hypothetical test question:
Which of the following factors gives the strongest information that could be used to estimate the IQ of John (now 21 years old) who was adopted as an infant at age two months by the upper middle class parents Bob and Betty?
a. The IQs of Bob and Betty.
b. The IQs of the three other adopted children of Bob and Betty.
c. The IQ of Dave, John’s identical twin brother who was adopted at age two months by a working class family that lived 100 miles away (John and Dave never met since they were adopted as infants).
d. The number of books in the home of Bob and Betty and often Bob and Betty read to John when he was a toddler.
e. John’s race/ethnicity.
The answer is “c.” The IQ scores of identical twins tend to be almost identical even if the twins are raised apart. The adult IQs of adoptees show no correlation with their adoptive parents or adoptive siblings (so much for the non-genetically mediated “parenting effects”–they have virtually no effect!!). However adults’ IQs show moderately strong correlations with the IQs of their biological parents and biological siblings. This of course proves that GENES RULE!!! and that IQs tend to be quite fixed, and that Mr. Shenk is trying to feed us a bunch of baloney.
The second most informative factor would be “e.” The Scarr-Weinberg Minnesota inter-racial adoption study showed that blacks who are raised in upper middle class white homes still show (as adults) the same low IQs (average ~84*) as blacks who were raised in ghetto homes. This is of course why good liberals like Mr. Shenk are so anxious to minimize the heritability of IQ because they do not like the scary notion that racial/ethnic IQ differences are also probably caused by gene differences.



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James Nicola

posted January 30, 2010 at 10:42 am


Charles – In deference to the topic, how about Gregor Mendel? Or, in deference to our host, Pierre Perignon?



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meh

posted January 30, 2010 at 10:52 am


Rod: ” It’s not hard to see that the environment in which European Jews had to make a living would force a cultural adaptation toward developing skill in finance. But from the point of view of evolutionary biology, is it possible that there could have been an adaptation that more easily allows for the genetic expression of a particular genius for finance, and the suppression of traits for genius in areas of endeavor Jews were not allowed to engage in? Or is a few centuries insufficient time for such an adaptation to have evolved at the genetic level?”
And here’s another Galtonian comment in David Shenk’s blog that addresses Rod’s query:
http://correspondents.theatlantic.com/david_shenk/2009/12/when_friends_become_superheroes.php#comment-335380
There may be an interesting connection to the topic of David Shenk’s blog (the genius in all of us). David Shenk as well as most of his friends in his old Adams Morgan neighborhood probably do have high (say at least 125 to 145 range if not actually genius-level) IQs. What might be some of the genes that might have helped impart higher IQs to David Shenk and his friends?
As discussed by Nicholas Wade here-
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/03/science/03gene.html?ex=1275451200&en=efcc603583e17b54&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss
Jared Diamond, in his 1994 Nature essay “Jewish Lysosomes”, and more recently two University of Utah reseachers, Cochran and Harpending, have proposed that various genetic diseases (affecting the sphingolipid/lysosomal metabolism pathway and the DNA-repair pathway) may have been selected for in Ashekenazi Jews if the heterozygote status (having only one mutated allele and one normal allele) was able to impart higher intelligence, this despite the fact that the homozygote status (having both mutated alleles) is highly detrimental and often lethal (degenerative brain disease in the cases of the sphingolipid/lysosomal diseases and cancers and anemia in the cases of the DNA-repair pathway diseases). As discussed in the Cochran Harpending paper available here-
http://harpending.humanevo.utah.edu/Documents/ashkiq.webpub.pdf
Fanconi anemia is one of four different DNA-repair pathway diseases that is much more common in Ashkenazi Jews. Cochran and Harpending hypothesize that persons who are heterozygotes for the Fanconi allele (like Laurie and Allen) have an increased tendency to be highly intelligent, and that selective pressure for high intelligence during the past thousand years within the Ashkenazi Jewish population group was responsible for driving up the allele frequency for disease alleles such as Fanconi anemia.
From the web I learn that Laurie Strongin graduated from a selective college and manages the Hope for Henry charity foundation (sounds like a highly intelligent woman) and Allen Goldberg is one of four partners in FKF Applied Research, a company that does sophisticated fMRI brain scans on subjects to produce market research for major fortune 500 companies (sounds like a highly intelligent man). According to the Cochran and Harpending theory, Laurie and Allen would probably have been slightly less intelligent if they had not been heterozygous carriers of the Fanconi anemia gene allele. So according to the Cochran and Harpending theory, the genius in Laurie and Allen is directly linked to the presence of the Fanconi anemia gene allele.



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the cat

posted January 30, 2010 at 11:32 am


Someone said:
“The second most informative factor would be “e.” The Scarr-Weinberg Minnesota inter-racial adoption study showed that blacks who are raised in upper middle class white homes still show (as adults) the same low IQs (average ~84*) as blacks who were raised in ghetto homes.”
Has anyone looked into the effect of prenatal nutrition on IQ? It seems intuitive that nutritional deficiencies that are likely to happen in the case of teenage pregnancy in the ghetto that result in these adoptions would lead to lower IQ. Not to mention the effects of alcohol and drug use during pregnancy. I wouldn’t rule out the effect of the father’s alcohol and drug use either.



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Jon

posted January 30, 2010 at 12:21 pm


Re: And science has lost the linkage to physical observation and experimentation, which has left it vulnerable to painfully obvious nonsense like Global Warming.
This is decidedly not a good example, because global warming is science that is amenable to observation and (proxy) experimentation. A better example is some of the esoteric stuff in physics, like String Theory, dealing with matters which we probably never will be able to experiment with, even by far proxy.
In regards to the medieval monks, they had some advantages over the peasantry. They were willing to live ascetic lives and so did not use their suplus to fund luxruies for themselves. And celibacy deprived them of wives and children to support, again freeing up more of their surplus to be used as an early form of “venture capital”.
Historically the whole of Europe found itself briefly in this situation after the Black Death when population declined by a third, but there was no concommitant loss of hard capital. Hence for a while there was extra capital sloshing through society. A lot of it did go to fund luxury (hence all that Renaissance art), but there was enough left over to fund the early voyages of discovery, expand the university system (with salutary effects on learning and science) and set the foundations for the modern banking system.
And for Charles Cosimano– a lot of monks were craftmen who made small and unsung improvements in tools and techniques. And sometimes not so small improvements: clocks came from monasteries (the monks wanted to better reckon the proper times of prayer) and many monks experimented with distillation giving us liquors and the beginnings of a chemistry well in advance of anything the Greeks knew.



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brandon hendrickson

posted January 30, 2010 at 1:10 pm


Rod – It’s been a while since I’ve read it, so I can’t reliably rehash the book’s arguments, but Intelligence and How to Get It (by Richard Nisbett) is a quite good examination of IQ, genes, and environment. It has a chapter on the case of Ashkenazi Jews, and another chapter on how Eastern and Western cultures shape intelligence. For that last question, Guns, Germs, and Steel may be useful.



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Hector

posted January 30, 2010 at 1:53 pm


Something else to bear in mind is that in medieval Europe (at least in the West after 1054) the most ‘intelligent’ and book-smart people went into the priesthood, and did not reproduce, thus their genes would be presumably weeded out of the population. Judaism does not practice clerical celibacy, and so there might have been less adverse selection against the most intelligent people (using a very narrow definition of literary/mathematical/scientific/philosophical intelligence). One of the things that saddens me a bit about compulsory priestly celibacy is that i think so many of the priests I know would have made wonderful parents.
This wasn’t the case, of course, for the Orthodox countries or for Armenia, where priests were allowed to marry (though I have no idea how many such priests during the middle ages may have been in monastic orders and celibate).



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Cecelia

posted January 30, 2010 at 3:34 pm


meh – I think you missed the point – making associations (ya know – learning) is what stimulates the formation of synapses. Not sure listening to Mozart causes associations to be made so baby mozart always seemed silly to me – especially since you do not know if the child is attending to the music. An environment where lots of words were used and the child associated the word with an action/object would be an example of an association. Some researchers attribute the continuing lag in IQ scores among african americans to the failure to form sufficient synaptic brain mass – although no one has tried checking this out. There was a famous study done back in the 70’s which looked at how parents used language with their kids. Families both white and black that had multi generational poverty would say things like “go get that thing over there” whereas parents who had more education would say – “pick up the red ball that is under the table”. They followed the kids for several years and big surprise discovered the kids who came from families that used a more enriched and descriptive language did better in school etc. One of the results of the study was that most pre schools now will place a lot of emphasis on teaching kids directional words – in front of, behind, under, over etc and also will label everything in the room. It seems part of the reason some kids were so lost in school was because they could not understand simple directions – they had not been exposed to those words. Just a reminder – in the 50’s the standard IQ test was the Stanford Binet which included the following question – two men – one dressed in a suit carrying a brief case the other dressed in overalls and a plaid shirt. The question was – which man is going to work. The correct answer was – the man in the suit. The cultural bias there is pretty obvious. Stuff like that has been weeded out of the IQ tests now but I think it is foolish to assume all biases have been removed from such testing and that IQ tests are the last word on intelligence.



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Quiddity

posted January 30, 2010 at 6:24 pm


meh: I have no idea what makes you think that I was saying that there was no connection between environment, genes, and (subsequent) behavior. Only that you’d better have some good empirical evidence that it’s the case. Absent that – which Rod’s musing about Jews was – there is the risk of reaching an false conclusion that harms people unnecessarily. I consider that “wrong”. Perhaps you don’t.



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meh

posted January 31, 2010 at 10:43 am


http://harpending.humanevo.utah.edu/Documents/ashkiq.webpub.pdf
Summary. “This paper elaborates the hypothesis that the unique demography and sociology of Ashkenazim in medieval Europe selected for intelligence. Ashkenazi literacy, economic specialization, and closure to inward gene flow led to a social environment in which there was high fitness payoff to intelligence, specifically verbal and mathematical intelligence but not spatial ability. As with any regime of strong directional selection on a quantitative trait, genetic variants that were otherwise fitness reducing rose in frequency. In particular we propose that the well-known clusters of Ashkenazi genetic diseases, the sphingolipid cluster and the DNA repair cluster in particular, increase intelligence in heterozygotes. Other Ashkenazi disorders are known to increase intelligence. Although these disorders have been attributed to a bottleneck in Ashkenazi history and consequent genetic drift, there is no evidence of any bottleneck. Gene frequencies at a large number of autosomal loci show that if there was a bottleneck then subsequent gene flow from Europeans must have been very large, obliterating the effects of any bottleneck. The clustering of the disorders in only a few pathways and the presence at elevated frequency of more than one deleterious allele at many of them could not have been produced by drift. Instead these are signatures of strong and recent natural selection.”
***************************************************
“There are several key observations that motivate our hypothesis. The first is that the Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group, combined with an unusual cognitive profile, while no similar elevation of intelligence was observed among Jews in classical times nor is one seen in Sephardic and Oriental Jews today. The second is that the Ashkenazim experienced very low inward gene flow, which created a very favourable situation for natural selection. The third is that they experienced unusual selective pressures that were likely to have favoured increased intelligence. For the most part they had jobs in which increased IQ strongly favoured economic success, in contrast with other populations, who were mostly peasant farmers. They lived in circumstances in which economic success led to increased reproductive success. The fourth is the existence of the Ashkenazi sphingolipid, DNA repair, and other disease clusters, groups of biochemically related mutations that could not plausibly have reached their present high frequencies by chance, that are not common in adjacent populations, and that have physiological effects that could increase intelligence.”
*****************************************************
“With its high heritability, IQ should respond rapidly to directional selection according to equation 1. Assuming, for example, that the narrow-sense heritability of IQ is 0·8 and that the parents of the next generation have an average IQ one point above the population mean, the average IQ increases by 0·8 points per generation. In 20 human generations, about 500 years, it would increase by 16 points – slightly more than the difference between average Ashkenazi IQ scores and average European IQ scores. Change of this magnitude over historical time is not at all implausible.”



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Lindsey Abelard

posted January 31, 2010 at 8:09 pm


While the engineer may be of ultimate value in our current 21st century Western culture, that culture may not necessarily be the ultimate expression of humanity.
I disagree. I think the engineer is the ultimate expression of humanity because it is the ultimate expression of creativity and pioneering. These are the ultimate values of the universe and the basis of real spirituality.
Of course, I enjoy leisure as well and I think it also important. As one might say, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” and I certainly enjoy my leisure (I spent Christmas and New Year in Costa Rica). However, I think the essence of humanity is our desire to dream big and to make those dreams a reality.
I have a poster of Einstein that says, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds”. I believe this to be as true today as any time in history.
I consider much of philosophy to be nothing more than sophistry. Except for a hand-full of Philosophers (Locke, Rand, Rothbard), they really don’t have much to say.



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