A cure for obesity?

ABC News recently aired a story about the drug Qnexa, which is a combination drug which seems to treat obesity (watch the story here).  The results have been impressive, as can bee seen in the featured before and after photos.  And yes, like almost all other diet drugs, it comes with side effects.  The question, in this case, is do those side effects outweigh the benefits (no pun intended)?

In other words, this asks that if the adverse effects of the drug are worse that the health problems associated with obesity, which include heart disease and type II diabetes.  We will see what the FDA decides, but make no mistake, a drug like this is badly needed.

The conventional wisdom about the current obesity epidemic is that stressing a “better lifestyle,” that is, improved diet and more exercise is the solution.  But this has clearly been an utter failure.  What society at large does not understand that a guideline for a better lifestyle isn’t a treatment for obesity, but rather—like education—is a sorting mechanism.  Only those who are inclined to follow whatever recommendations given will do so.  Many of the rest continue to have expanding waistlines.

The prescription for better diet and exercise is based on the flawed belief that people have free will and have an unlimited ability to choose whatever lifestyle they wish.

However, that’s clearly not the case.  Instead, as Cochran and Harpending point out in The 10,000 Year Explosion, most humans spent much of their recent evolutionary history in scare food situations.  Modern people have only recently emerged from the Malthusian trap, that is having population growth checked by the availability of food.   Today’s environment—with high-calorie foods cheaply available any time of the year and not requiring massive amounts of toil to obtain them—is an environment highly different from the environment most humans have evolved to be adapted to.  Obesity and diabetes are diseases arising from this environmental mismatch.  Only a “magic pill” could hope to solve it.

However, make no mistake, if Qnexa is approved, it will be the new crack.  As you might suspect, the drug’s effect requires continual use, so taking it is a life long commitment.  Its approval would be an enormous boon to its makers.  And that is fine; I hardly imagine that it would be any different.  Some people look down on such solutions, hoping for some “natural” cure to the obesity epidemic.  But instead, perhaps they should look at it this way:  it is was an unnatural process that created the obesity crisis (modern society), it would take an unnatural solution to treat it.

Those Italians…

In an earlier post I mentioned the recent Italian cruise ship disaster.   I stated that this was an example of “Italian incompetence. ” Italians have a certain reputation attached to them, as many of you may have seen with Italian jokes after the tragedy (a word I use deliberately, as we’ll see).  Southern Italians have been especially notorious in this regard; there’s even an old notion of Southern Italy being “Africa’s last colony in Europe” (which isn’t too far from the truth).

But some of you may be thinking that “these are all stereotypes, right?”  They can’t be true; they have to be misinformed or irrational, right?   Wrong.  As evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa points out, all stereotypes are true, statistically anyway.  As he notes, stereotypes are what scientists call “empirical generalizations.”  The trouble happens when people assume that stereotypes apply in every last instance, when they clearly do not.  However, if there wasn’t some sort of statistical trend, the stereotype could not persist (not mention that the stereotype would probably never have become one in the first place).  (Of course, there might be some good reasons why people sweepingly apply stereotypes the way they often do.  I’ll discuss that in a future post).

The lowered average IQ is only in the south (Il Mezzogiorno).  Northern Italians are actually pretty clever, on average.   However, southern Italians don’t just bring their lower average IQ, they also bring their culture, a culture shaped by centuries of inbreeding.  Here are a few more of those maps from M.G.’s blog that look at the things that correlate with latitude in Italy:


Anyone who’s watched The Sopranos, The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, or any of a host of mobster flicks has had an introduction into the workings and the pathologies of Southern Italian culture.

As hbd chick puts it:

“In the North the crucial social, political, and even religious allegiances and alignments were horizontal, while those in the South were vertical. Collaboration, mutual assistance, civic obligation, and even trust — not universal, of course, but extending further beyond the limits of kinship than anywhere else in Europe in this era — were the distinguishing features in the North. The chief virtue in the South, by contrast, was the imposition of hierarchy and order on latent anarchy.”

in other words, northern italy was full of republican communes, while the south was run from the top down by the monarch.

medieval communes were a type of corporate society, but you can’t have a corporate society if you have clans or tribes or any sort of extended families produced by extensive inbreeding. you need a good deal of outbreeding to get the republican communes that putnam talks about. you need to have a society full of individuals looking out for their own best interests, and those of their immediate family (wife, children), as opposed to a society of extended families or clans or tribes looking out for the interests of their whole group. then, because of the effects of inbreeding on the evolution of social behaviors, you get clan vs. clan, not individuals coming together in guilds to promote their profession or mutal aid societies.

The province I’ve pointed to on the above map is the province of Naples, from where the captain of the ill-fated Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino, hails.  As we see, this province is rife with the problematic issues that face Italian society.  One of these is nepotism, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is how Mr. Schettino got his job.  Let’s take a look at the captain’s behavior that fateful night:

Cruise ship’s cook says captain ordered dinner after crash

(CNN) — The captain of the Costa Concordia ordered dinner for himself and a woman after the ship struck rocks off Italy’s coast, a cook from the ship told a Filipino television station.

In an interview with GMA Network, cook Rogelio Barista said Capt. Francesco Schettino ordered dinner less than an hour after the accident.

“We wondered what was going on. … At that time, we really felt something was wrong. … The stuff in the kitchen was falling off shelves and we realized how grave the situation was,” Barista told GMA.

Schettino ordered dinner around 10:30 p.m. Friday, Barista said. Authorities say the ship struck the rocks at 9:41 p.m.

“I have had 12 years of experience as a cook on a cruise ship. … I have even witnessed fires, so I wasn’t that scared,” Barista said. “But I did wonder, though, what the captain was doing … why was he still there.”

Italian media have published photos of the woman purportedly dining with the captain.

Costa Cruises, which owns the ship, said the woman boarded the ship Friday and registered.

“The company is ready to provide the authorities, when requested, with the identity of the person and the number of the ticket purchased,” the company said.

The ship hit rocks off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio on Friday night.

At least 11 people are known to have died in the disaster, and 21 are still missing, according to the Italian Crisis Unit.

There were roughly 4,200 people on the Costa Concordia when it ran aground — about 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members, the vast majority of whom made it off the ship safely.

Criticism from both Costa Cruises and the authorities has focused so far on Schettino, who is under house arrest and facing possible charges of manslaughter, shipwreck and abandoning ship.

Coast guard records published Thursday by an Italian newspaper pile further pressure on the captain of the Concordia and his officers, suggesting authorities first became aware of the crash from a friend of the mother of a passenger about 15 minutes after the ship hit rocks.

Schettino’s brother-in-law defended him in an Italian newspaper Thursday.

Schettino “managed to avoid a tragedy — it could have been worse,” Maurilio Russo said in Corriere della Sera.

And he denied that the captain had abandoned ship.

“He was not running away, he came down (from the ship) to survey the damage,” Russo said.

CNN’s Armie Jarin-Bennett and Hada Messia contributed to this report.

Interestingly, as an aside, Schettino’s appearance is also quintessential Italian.  Even if you didn’t know who this guy was or ever heard his name, you could look at him and know instantly that he is Italian, thanks to these facial averages from The Postnational Monitor :

Additionally, here’s an account of the dysfunctional behavior of the Costa Concordia’s crew during the evacuation:

Italian cruise ship survivors: Crew appeared helpless

Porto Santo Stefano, Italy (CNN) — At first, Vivian Shafer said, she thought it was part of the magic show aboard her Mediterranean cruise.

During the show, aboard the Costa Concordia, staffers had been “playing with the lights” and using smoke, “so we really weren’t that alarmed” as things began happening on the ship, she said Sunday.

Shafer said she and her traveling companion, Ronda Rosenthal, returned to their cabin after the ship gave a “shudder,” but were reassured by their cabin steward the ship was experiencing a “small technical difficulty.” And as the two got into bed, someone speaking on behalf of the ship’s captain made an announcement saying there was an electrical problem that would be fixed soon.

However, it became clear that something was amiss aboard the 1,500-cabin luxury vessel, after the two heard announcements regarding lifeboats and muster stations. They dressed, grabbed their life jackets and went to investigate, coming upon a chaotic scene.

“We peeked around the corner to kind of see what people were doing … and my gosh, people were actually getting in a lifeboat,” Shafer said.

At least five people died after the Concordia ran aground on the tiny island of Giglio Friday night. Several others remained unaccounted for.

Survivors recounted a frantic rush by passengers to get on lifeboats, while the crew appeared helpless and overwhelmed to cope.

“There wasn’t anybody to help you,” Shafer said. “I mean, the passengers were loading the lifeboats by themselves.”

Carnival Corporation, the parent company of Costa Cruises, said in a statement Saturday that it was “working to fully understand the cause of what occurred. The safety of our guests and crew members remains the number-one priority of Carnival Corporation … and all of our cruise lines.”

Costa Cruises on Sunday said crew members on board the Concordia “acted bravely and swiftly to help evacuate more than 4,000 individuals during a very challenging situation. We are very grateful for all they have done.”

It said preliminary indications are that there may have been “significant human error” on the part of the ship’s captain.

Compounding the evacuation problems was that only one side of lifeboats was available as the ship was listing. Passenger Laurie Willits, from Ontario, Canada, said some lifeboats on the higher side got stuck, leaving people suspended in mid-air amid the sounds of children crying and screaming.

“It was so crowded, and there was no room for us,” said Brandon Warrick, who was sailing with his siblings. They arrived late, he said Sunday, and “it was just bad, like mad scrambles to get into the lifeboats. Nobody followed any procedure. The crew was yelling for people to wait their turn and pretty much it was just a giant every man for himself, to get onto the lifeboat.”

He said his family hung back because “we didn’t want to make it worse.”

His sister, Amanda Warrick, said she thought several times that she might die, as they waited at least an hour and a half for more rescue boats after all the lifeboats departed.

As the ship took on water and listed to the side, “We were just holding onto the railing, trying not to fall,” Brandon Warrick said.

“I just remember standing on the decks,” Amanda Warrick said. “There were barely any people left.” She said she didn’t see any crew members “until the very last minute” and they were given no information about how long they would have to wait or whether any more help was coming.

Her primary concern, she said, was staying with her brothers. “There was no way that we were going to be separated.”

Costa Cruises said Sunday its crew members hold a certificate in basic safety training and are trained to assist in emergency situations. Every two weeks, the company said, all crew members perform a ship evacuation simulation.

Shafer said the only help they received from the crew was one young woman who approached her and told her to tighten her life vest.

“I was really disappointed and surprised,” she said. “The crew was so young. You would have thought they could have handled it better.” She said she thinks passengers should at least have been told to grab their coats, shoes and warm clothing.

Rosenthal said she believes the two waited at least 40 minutes to get on a lifeboat. The two had just embarked at the Italian port of Civitavecchia, she said, and had not undergone the mandatory safety drill, scheduled for the next evening. However, she had just taken a cruise and so she knew where the life jackets were stored, she said.

“Lack of communication was a big thing for me,” she said, “and it wasn’t the language barrier … it wasn’t handled at all like the previous cruise I had been on.” Even on shore, she said, people were wandering around aimlessly.

She said once she and Shafer got on board a lifeboat, people were angry with them, as the boat was crowded. She did not clarify whether the crew members or other passengers were angry.

Passenger Benji Smith on Saturday recounted making his own rope ladder to save himself and his wife.

“It was the Marx brothers, watching these guys trying to figure out how to work the boat,” he said. “I felt like the disaster itself was manageable, but I felt like the crew was going to kill us.”

After helping passengers, some said, crew members jumped overboard and swam ashore.

Smith said even the safety presentation was more of a “sales pitch” for shore excursions.

The problem of course wasn’t just limited to the captain or crew of the ship; the trouble is institutional to the cruise line itself.  Here’s a recount of the experiences a couple of passengers from Georgia who survive the crash, including how they were treated after they were evacuated from the ship:

U.S. passengers recount Concordia ordeal

(CNN) — Chaos and a lack of communication are common threads among American survivors’ stories of the Costa Concordia sinking, and making it to shore was only the beginning of a long ordeal for passengers trying to get home.

Melissa Goduti of Wallingford, Connecticut, boarded the ship about three hours before it ran aground Friday night, killing at least 11 passengers.

“All of a sudden, the boat leaned over like on a 70-degree angle, and everything just started falling — dishes were falling, trash cans were falling, everything was falling,” Goduti told CNN affiliate CTNow. “Then the lights went out and everything was blacked, out and then the lights came back on.”

Lynn Kaelin of Puyallup, Washington, told CNN affiliate KCPQ that it was “like having the Titanic without the water gushing through.”

“I called my husband, not knowing if I’d see him again,” she said. “I thought we were going to die.”

There were no announcements for a long time, and Goduti and her mother didn’t see signs directing them toward lifeboats.

“We were running around trying to ask what floor the lifeboats were on, and all the crew kept saying is, ‘you don’t need them, you’re fine, everything is fine, we just got hit by a big wave,’ ” Goduti told CTNow.

“All they kept saying was it’s a generator issue, just a generator issue and that the boat was floating along and just needed to get stabilized,” she said.

Nancy Lofaro of New Rochelle, New York, said the crew tried to do what they could, “but when we asked them, they said they had no information. They just didn’t have any information to give us.” Lofaro estimates the first announcement came 30 to 40 minutes after the ship ran aground.

Goduti and her mother feel lucky they found a lifeboat.

“When our lifeboat dropped, it dropped. It wasn’t an easy letdown by any means, but at least we got into the water and were safe, which is a lot better than, unfortunately, some people,” she said.

Costa staff in Lofaro’s lifeboat were debating who would drive the boat, and they didn’t seem to know what to do, she said.

Joan Fleser of Duanesburg, New York, seconds that opinion, calling the crew “inexperienced and untrained.”

In a letter to passengers, Costa Cruises CEO Pier Luigi Foschi disputes that assessment: “The crew of the Costa Concordia acted bravely and swiftly in an extremely difficult situation and succeeded — despite the terribly demanding conditions — in evacuating more than 4,000 people in the shortest possible time: we are proud of our commitment and dedication to your safety.”

He goes on to outline crew training, safety procedures and regulatory oversight.

Survivors of the disaster say the scene on land was equally chaotic. Fleser said the lifeboat ride to the Tuscan island of Giglio was the last she saw of Costa Cruises employees until she, her husband and daughter reached a hotel in Rome on Saturday.

The people of the island came out in force to help the stranded travelers, and a local priest opened up the church. Fleser and her family stayed at the home of a local family overnight.

“The people of the island were wonderful,” Fleser said.

Nancy Lofaro and her husband wandered around on shore, finding a church, a local cafe and a small hotel all packed.

“There was no organization. There was nobody, and the staff was in shock as much as we were. There were no announcements. We saw Costa people … walking around with a bullhorn, not using it,” Lofaro said.

Fleser and her family were herded onto a ferry to the mainland the morning after the wreck, “but we had no idea where we were going.”

Triage doctors, members of the coast guard, the Red Cross and other volunteer organizations met the cruise passengers and took them to a local school, where more local services were provided. Her daughter received a pair of sneakers there because she was still wearing high heels from the night before, Fleser said.

The family then boarded a bus to Rome, where they were dropped off at a hotel.

“The Marriott had no idea we were coming. All these refugee boat people land on their front door, and they say, ‘Who are you? But we’ll take care of you,’ ” Fleser said.

There were two Costa cruise representatives at the hotel, “but every time we asked them if they could do something for us, they said they had no authority,” she said.

The cruise line did pay for food, the hotel and their airfare home, Fleser said, although they booked them on a flight to Albany, Georgia, instead of Albany, New York — a mistake the family discovered in the Atlanta airport.

“Oh my god, we were just ready to lose it at that point.”

More than 1,100 Costa employees have been working to assist passengers and crew since Friday night, Foschi said in his letter to passengers.

The CEO of Costa’s parent company, Carnival Corp., pledged support to passengers: “I give my personal assurance that we will take care of each and every one of our guests, crew and their families affected by this tragic event,” Micky Arison said in a statement.

Before Fleser and her family could make the journey home, they needed new passports to replace those lost on the sinking ship.

The U.S. Embassy’s response was a big disappointment, Fleser said.

“Other than getting our temporary passports, they gave us no assistance whatsoever. No food, no clothes, no money, no transportation. They told us to borrow some money, get a cab, come on down.” A hotel shuttle took Fleser and other Americans to the embassy, she said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the agency arranged with the cruise line to have American passengers transported to a Rome hotel and to the embassy for documents. More than 100 emergency passports have been issued to stranded travelers.

“We also provided all kinds of advice, telephone contacts to families, helped families create travel funds, provided them with passport photos, warm clothes, there were even a couple of families that needed diapers,” she said during a State Department briefing Wednesday.

Fleser and her family arrived home shortly after midnight Tuesday. They received a voicemail from Costa saying the family would be reimbursed for the cruise and articles lost on the ship, she said, but the message didn’t offer details of how those amounts would be determined.

In addition to arranging lodging, transportation and counseling for passengers, Costa will address possessions lost on board and is in the process of refunding cruise fares and costs incurred while on board, the company said in a statement.

Now contrast the Costa Concordia disaster with another cruise ship incident (albeit a much smaller one with fewer than 300 passengers) but nonetheless one where a near catastrophe was successfully averted.  This one occurred off the coast of Norway:

“Intense” Norway cruise fire kills 2 crew


OSLO, Norway – An “intense” fire in a cruise ship’s engine room killed two crewmen Thursday, injured nine others and forced over 200 passengers to evacuate a popular cruise off Norway’s craggy western coast. Police suspect an on-board explosion.

Thick black smoke billowed from the stern of the boat, the MS Nordlys, of Norway’s Hurtigruten line even before it pulled into the dock at Aalesund, 230 miles northwest of the capital of Oslo. Police sealed off parts of the town as the smoke engulfed nearby buildings.

The ship’s emergency evacuation began after the fire started at 9 a.m., with more than 100 passengers piling into lifeboats in the frigid waters. The rest of the ship’s 207 passengers and 55 crew were evacuated at the dock at Aalesund, with some crew staying on board to fight the fire.

Aalesund Hospital said nine people had been admitted, two with serious burns and smoke injuries. Police said all of the injured and dead were members of the ship’s crew.

“Our suspicion is that there was an explosion in the machine room,” Acting Police Chief Yngve Skovly of the Sunnmoere Police District told reporters later Thursday.

Passengers said the cruise ship, which was traveling north from the city of Bergen, had organized an orderly evacuation.

“We were sent up on deck and given our lifevests,” Danielle Passebois-Paya, a French tourist, told Norwegian daily Aftenposten. “It took only a few minutes after the alarm and we were in the lifeboats.”

“It was a well-organized evacuation,” she added. “The crew did a really good job. Everything was calm and went smoothly. There was no panic.”

The chief of Aalesund’s fire brigade, Geir Thorsen, described the fire as “big and intense.” He could not confirm reports that the ship’s fire-extinguishing system did not work, but said its electricity system was knocked out.

And this is how the company handled the passengers after the incident:

Cruise ship tilting dangerously in Norway after Thursday fire

Hurtigruten said it was organizing emergency passports and providing money for the passengers who had to leave their belongings on board during the evacuation.

The shipping line’s CEO Olav Fjell said that finding alternative transport for those who wanted to continue their journey would be difficult.

Hurtigruten Ship Nordlys Stabilized as Guests Return Home

By Theresa Norton Masek
September 19, 2011 11:23 AM

The Hurtigruten vessel Nordlys, which was damaged in an engine room explosion and fire Sept. 15, was stabilized on Sept. 18 after listing while docked in Ålesund, Norway. The ship was being cleared of passengers’ personal belongings and cargo. The 207 passengers, who were safely evacuated and put up in a hotel in Ålesund, were heading home as of Sept. 19. Two crew members were killed in the fire and two remain hospitalized. All departures of Nordlys have been cancelled until mid-October. The ship was not scheduled to operate from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31.

Hurtigruten said its support team will remain in Ålesund until all guests are on their flights back home. Hurtigruten said it would forward personal belongings to the home address of passengers who were heading home before getting their items. The fire was detected at 9:17 a.m. Norway time Sept. 15 as it neared Ålesund. The guests were from 16 nations, including 53 from the U.S. The cause of the fire is under investigation. “Hurtigruten wishes to thank deeply all involved for their impressive contribution during the last days—guests for their great patience and understanding and crew members and rescue workers for their professionalism and courage during the rescue operation,” the company said.

As we saw at the beginning of this post, institutional dysfuction is high in Southern Italy (and presumably in Northern Italian companies that contain many Southern Italians and have adopted aspects of Southern culture).  As well, as this example with the Norwegians demonstrate, part of the effectiveness of institutions (and in this case, businesses) stems from a general preference for rules and order and a concern for society as a whole (as opposed to only one’s clan, village, or region), things that are, overall, weaker among Italians.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Italians.  Their charismatic nature and culture of masculine bravado is nothing if not entertaining, and this is part of the reason so many movies keep being made about them.  But the flip side is when this culture leads to disaster, particularly disasters caused almost entirely by human foibles, hence the tragedy, in the the pure Sophoclean sense, and why this theme seems entirely fitting.

No Sh*t…


Jan. 22, 2012

A study followed nearly 20,000 students from kindergarten through the eighth grade in 1,000 public and private schools. The researchers examined the children’s weight and found that in the eighth grade, 35.5 percent of kids in schools with junk food were overweight while 34.8 percent of those in schools without it were overweight — a statistically insignificant increase.

In other words, kids with access to junk food at school were no heavier than those without.

It’s not that middle schoolers aren’t eating junk food; indeed they are, just like most Americans. It’s that most of the junk food they’re eating is not coming through the schools.

“Schools only represent a small portion of children’s food environment,” said Jennifer Van Hook, a Professor of Sociology and Demography at Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study.

The same may not hold true for high school students, who are more independent and have more disposable income (and therefore more control over what they eat).

“They can get food at home, they can get food in their neighborhoods, and they can go across the street from the school to buy food. Additionally, kids are actually very busy at school… There really isn’t a lot of opportunity for children to eat while they’re in school, or at least eat endlessly, compared to when they’re at home. As a result, whether or not junk food is available to them at school may not have much bearing on how much junk food they eat,” Van Hook said in a statement issued by the American Sociological Association.

The study, “Competitive Food Sales in Schools and Childhood Obesity: A Longitudinal Study,” is published in the journal Sociology of Education. Politicians and parents have called in recent years for various measures including a so-called “fat tax” on soda and even an outright ban on candy and junk food being sold in schools.

This research suggests that money spent on efforts to reduce childhood obesity would be much more effective in other areas, such as encouraging parents to choose healthier meals for their kids.

The research paper can be found here.  After controlling for the possible confounding effects (such as children with high BMIs being sorted into schools with junk food available and vice versa), the authors claim to have found no effect of the presence of junk food in schools on whether they gain weight.

And why would they?   Most children consume only a small percentage of their daily calories at school—and the ones that do eat a large percentage of their of daily food intake at school obviously aren’t at much risk for becoming obese.

Rather, the campaign to cut down on junk food and vending machines at school is a misguided effort borne out of a need to “do something” about the obesity epidemic, and since government can’t go into children’s homes and enforce a no-junk food policy (yet), they instead struck at the one thing they could.

As the article states, the study’s authors instead suggest berating parents to get them to choose healthy options for their kids, sort of like these scare commercials made by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to run on Georgia’s airwaves to shock parents into somehow making their kids not fat:


Readers here will note that this is about as dumb as Mike Huckabee’s “fat grade” in Arkansas, as parents aren’t the source of the problem.  It’s interesting that that one young boy in the commercial asks his parents why he’s fat.  Would he like to hear that the answer is that it’s in his genes?

The obesity epidemic represents how a gross environmental change can affect the expression of inherited traits.  It is like the Flynn Effect in that regard.  At some point, I will take an in-depth look at the causes of the developed world’s expanding waistlines.  But in any case, in the mean time, can we leave parents, and the school cafeteria, alone?

IQ Ceilings?

Note: My blog has moved to WordPress. This post can be found at its new home at: http://jaymans.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/iq-ceilings/

I had promised a couple of posts to bring those not necessarily familiar with HBD (i.e., Human BioDiversity) up to speed, but as I’ve not been getting around to those transitional posts, I’ve decided to skip that step and go on ahead.  So here is my first semi-original contribution to the world of HBD.  I’m going to take a look at the global distribution of average IQ scores in light of what we know about recent human evolution:

The two general things one notices is that first, average IQ scores cluster by race; that is European peoples all have average IQ scores around 100, Black Africans all around 70, Native Americans in the 80s, etc.

(IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: It’s very important to note, for those who aren’t familiar with the statistical nature of IQ and other biological traits, is that in most every population, you have individuals at all levels of IQ; that is, there are plenty of smart Africans and plenty of not so smart Europeans, for example, even though the group averages are different.  By no means is every last European smarter than every last African.  A good analogy is height among the sexes.  Men are, on average, taller than women.  But that surely doesn’t mean that there aren’t tall women or that there aren’t short men, as one can clearly see here. Rather, the average of a trait tells you something about the frequency of that trait in a given population, as for example, there are many more men than women at a height of 6’2″, just as there are many more women than men at a height of 5’2″.  Group averages don’t necessarily tell you anything about a given individual.)

The second thing one notices is that average IQ increases with latitude. The traditional explanation, advanced by Richard Lynn and J. Philippe Rushton, is that racial differences in IQ are very ancient and go back to when humans migrated out of Africa into Eurasia and experienced the two previous ice ages.   The theory goes that cold winters select for higher intelligence as these conditions present challenges to survival not found in the tropics (such as storing food, keeping warm, or hunting big game).  As such, Eurasians evolved higher IQs than Africans to cope with these conditions.

(A note on the low average IQ of some groups, like sub-Saharan Africans and the Australian Aborigines: those scores are not in error. Multiple lines of evidence confirm these low scores, especially for Africans.  You may have heard that IQs ≤ 70 signifies mental retardation, but that is not exactly the case.  That number was selected as a somewhat arbitrary marker of retardation and is only obliquely related to true retardation in the sense that most people think of it.)

However, this theory is problematic for several reasons.  For one, the most northerly group, the Inuit, do not have the highest average IQ (though it is higher than most peoples further south).   Going further south in the New World, the Native North Americans do not have IQs comparable to Europeans, despite having lived in very similar climatic conditions.  Additionally, although the average IQ of Mongolia is listed as “unknown” on the map, IQ data from Mongolians living in China find that their average IQ is about 100, slightly lower than the Han Chinese who live further south.

As well, we have Gregory Cochran’s & Henry Harpending’s 2010 book The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution which demonstrated that the pace of human evolution has in fact been speeding up and has been since the advent of agriculture and the rise of civilization.  This suggests that much—or perhaps all—of the global distribution in IQ is recent, within the last few millennia or less.  To see this, let’s take a closer look at Europe (click to enlarge):

This is a map that I have made of the average IQ of the European nations based on data assembled by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen (also here) as well data from the PISA test as complied by A Reluctant Apostate and hbd* chick.

As we can see, there is considerable variation in the average IQ of the different parts of Europe, even within nations, as we see in the U.K., Spain, and Italy.  It is not at all true that the average IQ of all European populations is 100 (indeed that number is based on the average score of White British), because several populations score below it.  In general, we see a decline in the south and southeast.  But also standing out as distinctly low is Ireland (Lithuania’s score is probably spurious due to bad sampling).

But more interestingly, there seems to be a relationship between modern IQ levels and fairly recent history in Europe, since the Middle Ages, as we see here:

This is a map of the Hajnal line, which is the red line seen here.  West of this line, we have a unique pattern of marriage, as Wikipedia states:

West of this line, the average age of women at first marriage was 24 or more, men 26, spouses were relatively close in age, and 10% or more of adults never married. East of the line, the mean age of both sexes at marriage was earlier, spousal age disparity was greater and marriage more nearly universal.

The blue lines mark areas west of the Hajnal line where nuptiality was high and the above pattern didn’t necessarily hold.

But we see something more interesting when we overlay the Hajnal line with my map of European IQ, as hbd* chick did:

It can be seen that aside from Finland, these exempt areas correspond to the regions of lowered average IQ in Western Europe.

Hbd* chick has just written a glorious summary of why this may be so:

 the populations behind the hajnal line (i.e. the core of europe) are characterized by:

- late marriages (present since at least the early medieval period)
- small family sizes (nuclear or stem families versus extended families; also present since at least the early medieval period)
- higher average iqs, in general, than populations in the periphery of europe (see map)
- strong future time orientation, strong societal collectivism, strong preference for rules and order (Ordnung!), strong drive to succeed
- being more civic than populations in the periphery of europe


well, maybe it’s just ’cause these populations are mostly germanic, or at least had a strong-ish germanic presence in their territory at some time in the past. maybe this is just an example of ice peoples who evolved high iqs and a lot of other neat traits ’cause they survived for a long time in adverse conditions.

but’s it’s hard to ignore how the Type A Personality areas of europe coincide with the hajnal line. at least, i find it hard to ignore. what happened behind the hajnal line?

at the risk of repeating myself (is there an echo in here?), what happened behind the hajnal line starting in the early medieval period was:

- changes in mating patterns (thanks to the church) from close relative marriage to more distant marriages, thus breaking down clans and tribes
- changes in the economic structure from whatever the h*ll went before (i have no idea) to manorialism
- changes in family structures (thanks to both the increased outbreeding and manorialism) from extended families to smaller nuclear or stem families

all of these would’ve changed the selection pressures on the populations in the areas where these practices were adopted.

A look at Italy illustrates what hbd* chick is talking about.  Here’s a map made by M.G.:

This is a map of consanguinity—that is, the rate of cousin marriage in Italy during the early 20th century.  This map shows that Southern Italians are fairly inbred (no, it’s not just Appalachia—more on that in a later post).  What’s more fascinating is that this map corresponds very well to my map of the average IQ of the various Italian provinces (and a whole host of other things, see M.G.’s blog). Italian stereotypes notwithstanding, especially of southerners, (including unfortunate and tragic demonstrations of Italian incompetence such as the recent cruise ship disaster), this shows the impact of more recent history on the evolution of Europeans.

What I found fascinating however is that people east of the Hajnal line still managed to evolve high IQs, such as the northern Slavs and the Finns.  People in this part of the world lived in a family system that was vastly different than that of westerners, as hbd* chick discusses here.  This caused Easterners to go down a considerably different social and political trajectory than did Westerners, and the system found in Eastern Europe was common in the rest of Eurasia going as far east as China.  This is displayed geographically here:


However, despite these different systems, Easterners still managed to evolve IQs as high as Westerners.  Perhaps the IQ differences were pre-existing in the various populations, and I believe they most likely were—to an extent.  But one cannot escape certain recent historical correlates with modern average IQ levels.  For example, most of Southeastern Europe was dominated by the Byzantine Empire and then later the Turks.  One has to wonder if centuries of Muslim domination (and perhaps Muslim family structures) have had something to do with the lowered IQs of SE Europeans.

In any case, despite all this evidence for the recent evolution of modern IQ levels, there are the facts that average IQs cluster by race and correlate strongly with latitude (and skin color, but that’s not important at the moment).  If IQs reached their modern levels due to the fairly capricious events of history, then why are they not more haphazard across racial groups?  Why the consistency?  Perhaps this is evidence for a prehistoric origin.  Or perhaps this is result of several factors acting together to produce this effect, which is what I propose.

What if the reason that average IQ correlates with latitude is because climate imposes a ceiling on average IQ, not necessarily selects for a particular IQ level?  There is some evidence that head and brain size faced biological constraints in the tropics, due the problem of overheating.  And indeed, average head size increases with latitude, as can be seen here on this map of the average cranial capacities of indigenous populations:

Human variation in cranial capacity. Black, 1,450 cc and over; checkerboard, 1,400-49 cc; crosshatching, 1,350-99 cc; horizontal striping, 1,300-49 cc; diagonal striping, 1,250-99 cc; dots, 1,200-49 cc; white areas, under 1,200 cc (Beals et al., 1984)

Head size (and hence brain size) does indeed correlate with IQ, both between individuals and between groups, but it’s not a perfect correlation.  Far northerners, such the Inuit, have the largest heads (and largest brains) but not necessarily the highest IQs (as well, peoples with the smallest heads don’t necessarily have the lowest IQs, but as one can see from comparing this map to the first, the pattern is fairly solid overall).

Especially interesting are the Native Americans.  All Native Americans descend from Asians that crossed the Bering land bridge into the Americas.  Hence, all have had to  have been fairly cold-adapted people.  But Natives that hail from the American tropics seem to have regressed a bit in terms of head size and average IQ (as well as evolved darker skin).  I propose in that the tropics, the ceiling on average IQ is lower (not necessarily maximum individual IQ, as there are plenty of smart individuals who originate from tropical climates).  This may be due in part  to physiological constraints (heat stress), but also survivability.  Tropical living is overall easier than living in temperate and polar climates (in pre-modern times anyway, when we didn’t have the modern conveniences that makes winter living more bearable), since for one, food is typically available all year around.  Being exceptionally smart is not as much of a reproductive advantage (especially facing tropical diseases); or perhaps more accurately, being not very smart is not that much of a disadvantage.

Big brains come with drawbacks.  For one, larger heads make giving birth more difficult.  As well, brains are very metabolically expensive (your brain consumes about 25% of your resting calories).  Larger brains only make sense evolutionarily when these drawbacks are outweighed by the advantage increased intelligence affords.

Populations in different latitudes thus face different limits on how far they can advance in average IQ, both because of limits on those at the top, as mentioned, and because of the level of relaxation of limits on the bottom.  That is, even if the smartest members of society reproduce well, the society’s average IQ will not increase if the least intelligent individuals also reproduce as much.

For long periods of time in Europe, there was a strong limit on the bottom.  The highly stratified nature of European society meant that the poorest (and on average, least intelligent) individuals faced poor prospects for surviving and raising children.  Over time, that meant that almost all people in many European societies were descended primarily from the upper classes (which is why when many of you trace your ancestry back that far, you often find European nobility/royalty).

This is, by the way, an example of how I think this ceiling effect can operate: perhaps in lower latitudes, the constraints on those on the bottom were not as tight, and less intelligent people were able to survive and reproduce more.

However, the important point—and the part that I think has been missing from the puzzle—is that regardless of the ceiling given by climate and geography, it is not a given that a population will evolve to reach that ceiling.  Looking at Europe again, we can see that the Irish have a lower mean IQ than the rest of the inhabitants of the British Isles; they have not reached their region’s ceiling.  I contend that in pre-civilized times, no Europeans did.  The earliest Europeans (or perhaps more accurately, the earliest farmers) probably did not have the equivalent of an average IQ of 100 (though it was probably higher than modern Africans).   Instead, I contend that their IQs increased to their current levels through the effects of civilization, mostly during the Middle Ages, as described by hbd* chick’s hypothesis.

Over in Asia and the Americas, the same phenomenon likely applied.  The early Chinese/Koreans/Japanese probably did not have the same average IQs as their modern counterparts.  Their average IQs may have instead been more like the Mongolians or the Inuit, and only reached their modern levels through the effects of millennia of civilization (and likely heavy attrition in the lower classes).

So it seems that different latitudinal regions have different ceilings.  Broadly speaking, the IQ ceiling in sub-Saharan Africa is lower than it is North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, which is in turn lower than it is in Europe and Northern Asia.  Average IQ is allowed to rise somewhat in these northern regions, as the Mongolians, Siberians, Inuit, and Native Americans demonstrate. Civilization then takes it “all the way”.

Even in Africa, farming/herding Africans, such as the Bantu and Nilotic groups, seem to have higher average IQs (≈ 70) than the more primitive hunter-gatherers like the rainforest Pygmies or the Khoisan (≈54).  The evolutionary/societal changes brought about by farming (e.g., population growth), as well as tools/ideas acquired through outside trade, allowed various Bantu groups to at times form regionally powerful empires in Africa.  The fact that many relatively unrelated groups, such as the Bantu and Nilotic peoples, have the same low (by Western standards) average IQ (70) indicates the rather low IQ ceiling there.

Another interesting fact is that it seems that the global average IQ ceiling may be 100.  While East Asians are noted as having an average IQ of 105, their mental profiles (along with everyone along the Pacific Rim, from Mongolians, Inuit, Native Americans, and Australian Aborigines) is such that their visuospatial reasoning is stronger than their verbal reasoning.  This may be because the plain, featureless terrain of the Asian interior may have selected for better navigational ability, or perhaps these abilities developed over time considering that these people have had the longest migration distance out of Africa (or both).  In any case, the average verbal IQ of East Asians is around 100, whereas their visuospaitual IQ is about 109-110 (which averages to 105).  Could it be that, for whatever reason, average verbal IQ peaks at 100 globally?  (It is verbal reasoning that correlates most strongly to most of the life success measures in the modern world.)

Indeed, the only group to exceed an average verbal IQ of about 100 are the Ashkenazi Jews, who seemed to have evolved an average IQ of 110 (which is strongest in verbal and mathematic ability but weaker in visuospatial ability) during the middle ages in Europe.  But the interesting fact about the Ashkenazim is that they did not evolve this high IQ in isolation, but by living among gentile Europeans.  As the Europeans Jews were always a minority group in a larger population, they were free to specialize in cognitive occupations (or more accurately, forced to specialize, since they were often barred from many occupations) in a way no other population could (because every other society needed laborers, farmers and other people do the grunt work).  This may have allowed them to break through the ceiling imposed on all other peoples.  But even this may have come at a price, because the mutations that lend themselves to Ashkenazi intelligence came with the side-effect of genetic diseases.  This could be a result of the necessary inbreeding that Jews practiced based on their restrictions on marriage outside the group; the high levels of exogamy among other Europeans may have distributed deleterious mutations rather than allow them to accumulate as they seem to have done among the Ashkenazim.

Our friend Occam’s Razor leads one to prefer explanations that are as simple as we make them, but no simpler.

What if it’s not their fault? The myth of free will.

Note: My blog has moved to WordPress. This post can be found at its new home at: http://jaymans.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/what-if-its-not-their-fault-the-myth-of-free-will/

Fresh stuff!  New Blog Post #3!

So in my last blog posts we learned about the role of heredity in determining behavior and the non-affect of parenting and the family environment on behavioral traits.  But most of us feel we are in control of ourselves (I suppose except when it comes to the “scars” parents leave with us that shape our behavior). But it turns out like the effect of parenting, the notion of free will is an illusion.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine has written an article in The Atlantic detailing insights on the brain and behavior:

The Brain on Trial
Advances in brain science are calling into question the volition behind many criminal acts. A leading neuroscientist describes how the foundations of our criminal-justice system are beginning to crumble, and proposes a new way forward for law and order.

As he shows, what has been thought of as “free will”, the uncaused cause, simply does not exist. All human behavior is the result of physical processes that occur in the brain. But even more poignant is that despite the brain’s awesome complexity, it behaves in some fairly predictable ways. The most basic evidence of this is the fact that people have personalities; we all have certain tendencies and semi-predictable responses to certain situations. Our behavior is far from completely random. Even more concretely, we have evidence from the sciences of behavioral genetics, which finds that all behaviors are heavily influenced by the genes; cognitive neuroscience, which finds that our thoughts and emotions can be traced electrical and chemical activity in the brain; and pharmacy, which finds that personality and behaviors can be altered by the introduction of drugs.  And of course, there is the (apparently somewhat exaggerated) story of Phineas Gage.

As such, none of us have any real control over our behavior, our emotions, even our thoughts—though our brains are designed to make us believe that we in fact do. Indeed, we may consciously deliberate over our actions, but even this is just the dueling between different parts of the brain, such as between the limbic system that may urge one to pick up a box of jelly donuts, and the prefontal cortex that weighs the consequences and compels one to put it down. Whatever portion of the brain which “wins” leads us to commit a given action, be it to indulge or to pass. Meanwhile, the social part of our brain concocts a story about our reasons for committing this action, leading us to believe “we” (the self) were in control all along. You don’t control your brain; your brain controls you. And much of what it does is often hidden and mysterious to you.

Even more significant is that different brains are built differently, and we all vary in the strength and the proclivities of these different systems. As such, what is a reasonable action to one might be totally alien to another.

Yet in many ways, our society—including our justice system and the libertarian concept of “personal responsibility”—is built on the idea that we indeed do have full control. Even beyond expecting people to not kill or steal, society expects overweight people to “eat right,” smokers, drinkers, and drug addicts to use “will power” and quit, people in relationships to resist temptation and stay faithful, and often expects people with depressed moods to soldier on and “take control” of their lives.

Clearly this is foolhardy, because despite a myriad of different diets, despite berating, humiliation, warnings about our health, and despite Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, people continue to become overweight and obese in increasing numbers. Despite a decades-long “War on Drugs”, people continue to get high. Despite ever increasing taxes and restrictions on smoking, people continue to light up. And despite destroyed careers and arduous public scandals, people (mostly men) continue to cheat.

Each of these can be traced to particulars of the brains in people that engage in them, all being highly heritable. Indeed, as we’ve seen, adult BMI has been found to be 80% heritable. And recent research has made some amazing discoveries into the brains of some people who chronically overeat; they are indeed “food addicts,” and respond to food much the same way as a smoker’s does to cigarettes or how an alcoholic’s does to booze.

Indeed, here’s a short list of some of the genes that have been discovered to influence behavior:

OXTR (Oxytocin-Receptor): The “Kindness gene”: people with the “GG” alleles are “generally judged as more empathetic, trusting and loving. Those with AG or AA genotypes tend to say they feel less positive overall, and feel less parental sensitivity.”

BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor): The shorter allele has been found to be linked to suicidal behavior, possibly because they take longer to recover from highly adverse experiences.

5-HHT: Serotonin transporter gene:  Individuals with the shorter alleles of this genes are at risk for depression when they experience periods of prolonged stress.  Part of the “Orchid hypothesis,” that some individuals have evolved to prosper only in specific environments, but fall apart if not properly cared for (this hypothesis will be the subject of a future post).

Vassopressin receptor gene:  Men who have one the shorter versions of the gene are less satisfied with one female partner and are inclined to seek out more (as most of the rest of the class Mammalia does). Men with one of the longer versions stay true to one woman.

MAOA (monoamine oxidase-A): The “warrior gene,” men with one the shorter alleles have been shown to be more prone to violence, particularly when abused as children (although I suspect that that due to a gene-gene interaction rather than a gene-environment one).

And of course, the effects of these genes by themselves are only probabilistic in nature; they need to be taken in the context of the entire genome; i.e., they are impacted by other genes.  The DRD4 (Dopamine receptor D4), gene, a gene that has been linked to all sorts of novelty seeking behaviors (also known as the “Wanderlust/Thrillseeking” gene), links to behaviors including…

  • Gambling
  • Alcoholism
  • Drug use
  • ADD
  • Impulsivity
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior.

…only seems to exhibit such effects in certain samples and not others, suggesting that other mediating genes also play a role.

As well, some of these genes, such as 5-HHT, show distinct environmental interactions.  But even an “environmental” source of behavior doesn’t imply the existence of free will.  Either it be by genetic specification or by the impact of experience, the brain is still compelled to act according to its present composition, regardless of how such composition came about.

Note that most of these genes code for interactions with important neurotransmitters and hormones.  Neurotransmitters are—in a manner of speaking—the juice of emotion; they are chemicals that act in the brain and nervous system to promote certain emotional states.  Dopamine for example is the brain’s natural high, and any gene that affects it (and other neurotransmitters) affects the reward system in the brain, and promotes or inhibits certain behaviors.  Oxytocin is the “love hormone,” and is responsible for long-term emotional bonding, such as between parent and child and between partners in long-term relationships, among other things.

In the case of cheating men, a gene for the receptors for the hormone vasopressin seems to be at play. So, indeed, it turns out that the reason that men like Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Jesse James, and Tiger Woods stray is highly similar to the reason that Jim McGreevy, Ted Haggard, and Larry Craig committed their acts; they are “oriented” that way.

Indeed, the word “orientation” betrays the way we think about sexual behavior.  Its use indicates that today—when it comes to homo- and bisexuality—most of us accept such individuals were “born that way” and can do nothing to alter this aspect about themselves.  Yet we do not extend this notion to men with polygynous preferences.  Nor do we extend that thinking to the chronically overweight, and we barely extend this notion to substance addicts, despite that all are equally heritable, and were all equally “born” the way they are. Asking a man with one of the short copies of the vasopressin receptor gene to stay faithful to one woman is like asking a gay man to do the same. Asking the chronically overweight to “eat right and exercise” is like asking a cocaine addict not to snort up if coke was readily accessible. It simply doesn’t work, and sooner or later, it breaks down if the object of desire is available.

This inability to recognize the differences among ourselves coupled with erroneous the belief in the existence of free will is the central failure of our thought on this matter. What works for one person does not necessarily work for the next person. Yet much of our society—especially our legal system—is built on this one-size-fits-all model, which is simply outdated.

This suggests a new approach to understanding behavior. Much as psychiatrists have given up trying to toughen up the depressed out of their woes or have given up trying to “cure” homosexuality, we should rethink our response to these different behaviors. Society should stop trying to shame the overweight into eating right or exercising or berating their lack of “will power.” We should

come to accept that not all men (and many women) were cut out for monogamy and stop holding them to that expectation (which is why I’m skeptical of those ridiculous “sex rehabs” for cheaters—they are about as sensible as spiritual healing camps for gays).

We should stop waging this wasteful “War on Drugs”—stop locking up the addicted—and instead offer better chemical treatments for the worst addicts.

Of course, none of this means that we should completely do away with the concept of responsibility or stop locking up criminals. To come to this conclusion based on what I am saying would be misunderstanding the true purpose of legal punishment. While we are slaves to our brains, our brains are organic computers that generate outputs based on inputs. The threat of punishment if one breaks to law is one of these inputs that the brain weighs in making decisions. Criminal justice serves as a deterrent, causing people to behave responsibly by letting us know that if we offend, we serve time, maintaining order.

But even with this knowledge, people still commit crimes. This is because brains vary in their ability to process these incentives that lead to responsible behavior. This understanding should alter our justice system based on the idea of willful intent. Instead we should try to focus on the risk of re-offense, as that is truly what is more important when dealing with criminals. This, ultimately, is why it is indeed justified to punish a Winona Rider or a Paris Hilton less severely than one would a more hardened criminal for same crime; a short prison sentence is likely to be a very effective deterrent on these individuals than it would be on a more aggressive thug.

Indeed, the secondary purpose of prison is to keep dangerous people away from law-abiding folks. Killers and thieves are a danger to society and need to be kept somewhere where they cannot harm decent people.

One problem group that falls under this category are pedophiles. Pedophilia is really an “orientation” as is homosexuality—pedophiles are sexually attracted to young children. And as such, it is equally incurable. Yet they can’t be allowed to prey upon children, but prisons are often less-than-effective because it doesn’t address the underlying issue—the pedophilia itself. As Eagleman suggests, newer scientific understanding of the risk of re-offense should be used to decide what we do with them.

The idea of “free will” is an outdated philosophical concept that modern science has rendered meaningless. Yet we continue to base our legal system, our politics, and our approach to vice as if it was the basis of human behavior. Only with coming to terms with its nonexistence can we hope to achieve a more fair and just society with more effective approaches for the problems that ail many of us and the things that cause personal heartache.

Should Parents Lose Custody of Obese Kids?

New blog post #2!

Recently a doctor at Harvard University, David Ludwig, claimed that some parents—those of children who are morbidly obese—should lose custody of those children, for the child’s own good.  This is reported in this news article from ABC News here.

Here are some quotes from the article:

Ludwig, an obesity expert at Children’s Hospital Boston and associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, shared his divisive idea in an opinion piece that ran in the Journal of the American Medical Association Wednesday: that state intervention can serve in the best interest of extremely obese children, of which there’re about 2 million across the United States.”In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable, from a legal standpoint, because of imminent health risks and the parents’ chronic failure to address medical problems,” Ludwig co-wrote with Lindsey Murtagh, a lawyer and researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

Of course, if you read my last blog, you know where I’m going to go with this.  Behavioral genetic evidence using twins and adoptees has found that the body mass index (BMI) of adults is not at all affected by variation in the home environment.  What does that mean, especially in lieu of an “obesity epidemic”—a greatly increasing obesity rate?  For one thing, it is heredity—genes—not the home environment—that is the primary determinant of one’s weight.  Heredity appears to be 80% responsible for the variation in adult BMI, about as much as adult height or adult IQ.  But what’s more interesting, and the key fact, heredity is 100% responsible for the similarity between parents and children in adult BMI.  If you’re a chucky adult, don’t blame it on your parents, short of criticizing them for passing on their genes to you.

But, the obesity rate is increasing, and surely that can’t be genetic, right?  Indeed, genetic changes in the population could not occur so quickly to account for the increasing obesity rate.  (However, changes in the gene pool of the population—otherwise known as evolution—can occur more quickly than you may have been led to believe.  I will deal with that in a future blog post.)  No, rather it is the environment—the gross environment—that has changed.  It could not be something that any one family does, but rather something all families are doing that is making the difference.  For instance, perhaps children spend more time doing indoor activities, like playing video games or surfing the internet, than than doing outdoor activities that require more movement, than in the past.  Perhaps it’s because “junk food”  is cheaper and more readily available.   But in any case, differences among families can’t be the culprit in the expanding waist lines of adults.

But Ludwig was talking about children.  Here, there almost certainly are transient effects of the home environment, just as they are transient effects on the home environment on IQ.  Both of these wear off as children grow older.  These means that teaching your children healthy eating habits or enforcing exercise now is not likely to make much of a difference as they grow older; they will settle to their predisposed weight. Ludwig is focusing not on children that are a few pounds overweight but those who are morbidly obese, say, a nine year-old that weighs 300 pounds.  While it might at first seem reasonable to intervene in such cases, in almost all such cases an underlying metabolic disorder is to blame.   As cited in the article:

In a case that shocked many people across the country, 3-year-old Anamarie Regino, weighing 90 pounds, was taken from her outraged parents by government officials and placed in foster care. ”Literally, it was two months of hell. It seemed like the longest two months of my life,” mother Adela Martinez said. As it turned out, it was two unnecessary months of hell. Anamarie didn’t improve at all in foster care, and she was returned to her parents. The young girl was later diagnosed with a genetic predisposition. ”They say it’s for the well-being of the child, but it did more damage that any money or therapy could ever to do to fix it,” Martinez said. Anamarie, who is now 14, agreed.

The ABC News story also notes “that there was no evidence that the state would do a better job of feeding children than their parents.”  Basically none of Ludwig’s claims are with any merit, despite whatever good intentions he may have.  Some of you may be familiar with child service agencies, and that the system is not necessarily all that kind to the children that end up in it, and neither are the foster homes children are placed in.

Worse still, Ludwig’s claims, if given merit, may be abused, giving license to child services to take away any child that’s a tad fatter than school officials and others would like.

No, rather than the state intervening in the lives of overweight children, further burdening parents with the false belief that they are harming their children by overfeeding them, we should recognize the importance of heredity and stop looking to nurture as the be-all end-all of development.  I’ll leave with the closing words from the abstracts from the papers where this was researched:

In conclusion, family environment does not appear to influence the food use of young adults and thus nutritional education should be targeted at this age group to support development of healthy eating patterns.

(Keskitalo, et al, 2008)

Results are consistent in suggesting that environmental experiences are important for weight and obesity, although they account for much less variation than do the effects of genes. Furthermore, only environmental experiences that are not shared among family members appear to be important. In contrast, experiences that are shared among family members appear largely irrelevant in determining individual differences in weight and obesity. These conclusions are consistent with a growing body of evidence on the relative unimportance of such shared experiences for many psychological characteristics.

(Grilo & Pogue-Geile, 1991)

Taming the “Tiger Mom” and Tackling the Parenting Myth

Welcome to my blog!

New Blog post #1!

So I moved over from Blogger.com because it didn’t allow people to comment without signing in.  Why would I want to restrict people that way?  So this post is mostly copied from that site with a few changes.

This will be a blog about human nature, particularly facts about human nature that are not popular or widespread, or are often denied.  This is my attempt to change that.

Facts about humanity lend themselves to denial, because while it’s relatively easy to come to terms with some abstract notion about the world, it’s a lot harder when we’re talking about ourselves, because here there may be truths that we don’t want to accept.  Nonetheless that doesn’t change these truths, and denying them often has deleterious consequences for people and society.

When I first wrote this (6/30/11), ABC had just aired an episode of  “Primetime Nightline: Beyond Belief.”   The subject of this demonstrates what I’m going to discuss in this posting.  Titled “Twintuition,”  this episode dealt with identical twins and rehashed the old myth that identical twins are linked by some sort of ”telepathy”.  The show featured several pairs of twins and gave anecdotes of the often eerie similarities between them, such as wearing the same clothes or finishing each others sentences.

One set, doubles tennis stars Mike and Bob Bryan, even seem to anticipate each others moves on the court, leading some opponents to think that they were reading each others’ minds, purportedly giving them an unfair advantage. 

Of course, twins aren’t actually reading each others’ minds—at least, not through any sort of “telepathy.” But this phenomenon demonstrates the power of an often overlooked force: heredity. 

Identical twins share virtually 100% of their genes (save for a few minute mutations).  Nancy Segal, a behavioral geneticist at the California State University, Fullerton, was featured on the show.  She explained that research with twins has discovered that heredity impacts all aspects of human behavior, including the very way we think. 

Twins separated at birth and reunited often give tales of similar life histories, and in one case featured on “Primetime,” of even having just begun reading the same book. 

Given the same circumstances, such as the tests given on the show to the twins from the J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas, identical twins often give the same answers.   The real reason that twins seem to act as if they shared some sort of paranormal link is because identical twins think so much alike.

The pervasiveness of heredity down to all these aspects about ourselves—from the specific to the gross—is central to what I’m about to discuss.

Today I’m going to start with a topic I wrote to one my favorite social commentators—comedian and political satirist Bill Maher.  On the May 20th, 2011 episode of his hit HBO talk show, Real Time with Bill Maher, he featured the “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua, author of the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,  as his first interview guest. 

Now, I love watching Bill Maher and I’m usually in agreement with most of his views, but after watching that show I felt that I had to write to him, so I snail-mailed him a letter, and here it is:

Hi Bill, This is my first time writing to you. I absolutely love your show and I look forward to watching it every week; in fact Real Time is one of the few shows I watch on TV. I love your comedy and I’m proud to say I’ve been see your stand-up act in person. I’m a loyal fan of yours and I have been for many years now. And in many ways, I must credit you for my political views and for inspiring me to express my thoughts and speak the truth, whether or not it’s popular. I love your no-nonsense way of cutting through much of the bunk that permeates society, especially that which comes from a certain side of the political spectrum. While I don’t always agree with every point you make, I can understand your point of view. However, I am compelled to write to you about your conversation with the “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua, because you both have unfortunately propagated some very disturbing falsehoods.

Chua’s book, and the particularly harsh formula for raising successful children that she espouses, are based on a faulty premise: that parenting can greatly affect the outcome of children. This is false. Steven Pinker, your fellow Project Reason Advisory Board member, has discussed this in detail in his 2002 book The Blank Slate. A chapter of Pinker’s book is devoted to discussing what Judith Rich Harris researched for her 1998 book The Nurture Assumption: twin and adoption studies (collectively known as behavioral genetic studies) have consistently shown that differences in parenting do not correspond to differences in how children turn out, once you control for heredity. Identical twins, as well other biological siblings, are no more similar when raised together than if raised apart (being about 50% and 25% similar overall, respectively). Adopted siblings, who grew up the same home and were exposed to the same parenting practices; with same amount of books; the same examples; the same degree of encouragement and discipline; the same amount of order or disorganization; the same level of quarrel or tranquility; the same permissiveness to watch TV; have sleepovers and go on dates—turn out to be no more similar than strangers plucked off the street at random. This is not just in IQ and large scale personality traits, such as how outgoing or talkative one is, but in real tangible “important” outcomes such as likelihood of getting divorced, finishing school (and the level of education obtained) getting into trouble with the law (Loehlin, Horn & Ernst, 2007; Harris, 2009), and even the income one makes as an adult (Bowles & Gintis, 2002; Caplan, 2009a; Caplan, 2009b). This also includes one’s body mass index (BMI); in defense (grudgingly) of Mike Huckabee and this infamous photo of him with his obese family, parenting has no impact on adult BMI, once heredity is controlled for (Grillo & Pogue-Geile, 1991; Harris, 2009; Keskitalo et al., 2008). It is their shared genes—not examples set by the parents—that explain the relationship between parents and their biological children (including the size of Huckabee and children). Here is a summary of all this in an essay by Harris about the absence of birth order effects. The ineffectualness of parenting was also the focus of a recent book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids by George Mason University professor of economics Bryan Caplan, which he broached in two blog posts in The Wall Street Journal (see here and here). Of course, any differences measured are all relative to the differences in the sample to begin with. Severely abusive or neglectful parenting—cases of which are routinely excluded from behavioral genetic studies—would have a deleterious impact, but thankfully, most American parents do not do these horrible things to their children.

Contrary to what Chua claimed on your show, one cannot make one’s children into “respectful, decent human beings who contribute to society” if it is not in their makeup, their peer environment, and the luck of the draw to become this way. As Pinker put it in The Blank Slate, “Not to put too fine a point on it, but much of the advice from the parenting experts” (which now, apparently, includes Amy Chua) “is flapdoodle” (p. 384).

All of the studies—and there are lots—that have claimed to show a link between any facts about parents, whether it be their education level, their parental philosophy, their level of discipline/permissiveness or their communication, and their biological children all make the same fatal flaw: they fail to control for heredity (Harris, 2006, 2009; Pinker, 2002). It is not at all surprising that bright, hard-working and successful parents would have bright, hard-working and successful children. It is the same reason that tall, freckled parents tend to have tall, freckled children: their genetic endowment. It is interesting that in the discussion of the success of Chua’s children, no one seems to take note of the fact that their parents are both Yale law professors (Caplan, 2011b). Chua’s obsessive push for her children to succeed at things like classical piano and violin (which, not surprisingly, failed to a degree with her second child) played no role in their subsequent success—including getting into Harvard. This had more to do with the traits that Chua and her husband passed down to their children—which includes their intelligence, their self-discipline, and their commitment to task—as well as the neighborhood where they grew up and the studious peers found there in.  

I want to be sure to stress that heredity is far from everything (indeed, identical twins, who share all of their genes—save for a few tiny mutations—are only about 50% similar overall). But the evidence clearly shows that what is not in the genes is not in the hands of the parents. Instead, Harris posed in The Nurture Assumption that children’s peers were the main people who influenced their development, something she expanded upon and explained in her 2006 book No Two Alike.  

Parents may not be able to affect how their children turn out but they can certainly affect their happiness today, and in turn, their fond memories (or lack thereof). As Harris put it in The Nurture Assumption (which Pinker also quoted in The Blank Slate), “We may not hold their tomorrows in our hands but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable” (p. 291). Sure, Chua’s children credit their mother for their success (perhaps because of their erroneous belief in the role their mother’s treatment of them had in that success), but wouldn’t their memories be better if they didn’t have such horrendous experiences? To quote Caplan, discussing the brutal methods Chua used to force her daughter to learn piano, “To my mind, the mere memory of this experience is lasting damage of a heinous kind (Caplan, 2011a).”

As such, I’m particularly disturbed by your claim that “discipline is love.” Not only is this false, but sadly, this will be interpreted by some parents as an invitation to abuse their children. Parents can indeed affect their children’s behavior in the short term—in the family setting—by how they treat them, and this is the major effect of parental discipline. This does not spill over into their behavior outside the home in the real world, where other factors, such as their experiences with their peers and good old luck come into play (Harris, 2006). Parents already stress themselves out enough trying to make sure their children succeed, so much to the point that Caplan believes that this discourages many couples from even having children or having fewer children that they otherwise would. And in some of the worst cases, parents subject their children to tortuous drills and impossible regimes in a foolhardy attempt to mold them into their vision of success, as Chua did, and for many, only to be disappointed when their children do not turn out like they hoped. Why “not let your children give up when they want to give up,” when children—and adults—often do have good reasons to give up, or not even try some things (Caplan, 2011c)? Parents cannot foster creativity in their children (if it wasn’t already present to begin with), so there is no point in trying to “strike balance,” as Chua suggested, at least surely not in the manner that she advocates. Why fuel that paranoia by lending credence to Chua’s rubbish?  

And, contrary to your statement, American minorities (Blacks and Hispanics, at least) actually do not have lower self-esteem on average than Whites and Asians. In fact, the exact opposite is true (Bennet et al., 2007; Twenge & Crocker, 2000), despite the fact that the academic and life performance of these groups goes in the other direction. That said, it is not exactly true that “the world doesn’t care about self-esteem,” as one can make a living out of more or less basically having a high opinion of oneself, as salesmen, motivational speakers (like one former President…), and our favorite, religious gurus do (hey, I never said that this was a good thing). As well, the world confers a lot upon those with a high self-opinion and not much else to back it up. Just ask Donald Trump…  

As to the difference between the overall success of the Chinese versus the Americans, it’s not so easy to boil it down to differences in parenting, or for that matter, differences in education. Jews have also been highly successful—more so than the Chinese and other East Asians—and typically do not push their children anywhere nearly as hard as East Asians typically do (Caplan, 2011a).  Harris, Pinker, and Caplan have made efforts to make this knowledge widely known, but parents still believe that they hold their children’s destinies in their hands, so much so that abusive parents like Chua are embraced. Your show however reaches more people than any of these three likely ever will. Wouldn’t it be great to use your platform to counter this misinformation about the myth of the effects of parenting, especially in light of the popularization of this myth thanks to Amy Chua? I personally have wanted to see Pinker on your show for a long time, and I think this would be an excellent topic for you to discuss with him on Real Time. I also believe Caplan would be an excellent guest to discuss this topic.  

Thanks for taking the time to read my letter. I look forward to watching your show every Friday, and continue to be informed and entertained.

Of course, the printed letter that I sent to him was bereft of hyperlinks so you reap the benefits of the internet.  So far I haven’t received a response (and as 11/16/11, still haven’t..)  nor have my points been mentioned or hinted to on the show.  But that’s OK, I understand that Maher is a busy man—that, and I’m content that the subject nor Chua has come up since, so far.   I still would love to see Pinker or Caplan on Real Time, though.

Recently Caplan and Chua had a debate on the British Paper The Guardian, which can be seen on their website here.

This is fascinating because I’ve wanted to see these two go head to head (I would have liked to have seen Pinker debate Chua even more).  Not too surprisingly, it seems Caplan’s words were totally lost on Chua.  I do admit the ineffectualness of parenting is rather counter-intuitive, and I’ve seen many really intelligent and reasonable fail to accept the enormous body of evidence that demonstrates that parenting hold up to the power we quite expect it to.

This is will be the first of many things I’ll discuss here, but I’d love to hear your comments, so feel free to tell me what you think.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker is published by Viking. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua is published by Bloomsbury. The Nurture Assumption:  Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Revised edition, and No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, by Judith Rich Harris are published by Free Press. Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun than You Think by Bryan Caplan is published by Basic Books.


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