. . . Paul McEnery

. . .

The Gift of Fruitcake

Last week, Paul McEnery bemoaned to me the balkanized states of psychology in America: clinical psychologists ignoring research psychologists ignoring social psychologists when they could so profitably be building on each others' work....

As a layperson who likes snooping around half-understood academic journals, I've wondered about that myself.

For example, when reading a very widely noted report (Joan Freeman knows how to work those publicity machines!) that "emotional problems" and "mundane jobs" are more likely to come to intelligent children who are told they're gifted than to those "told nothing."

"Told nothing"? Enticingly vague, that....

Thus enticed toward a fuller summary, I find that Freeman's study "compared [after 27 years] the lives of pupils whose parents joined a society for gifted children with equally talented students whose parents were not members."

OK, then, what Freeman compared wasn't "children told all" vs. "children told nothing," but "parents who joined a society" vs. "parents who didn't join."

As Freeman herself acknowledges, high-IQ children are more likely to be singled out for special treatment if they already have behavior problems. Otherwise, they'll just be getting along quietly (and easily) in school. (It wasn't teaching myself to read that attracted my guardians' attention; it was acting like a horrid little monster in kindergarten. Only as part of trying to figure out how to calm me the fuck down did a counselor come up with the "gifted" label -- which may well mean that my sole "gift" was that of acting like a horrid little monster. "And what super powers do you have?") Right off, that skews the study to a "gifted" / "disturbed" correlation.

Then there's the question of what kind of parent would be most likely to join the society. Seems likely it would be someone worried about freakiness or about class mobility, either of which would up the tensions at home. As opposed to, like, all the smart-as-a-whip people I met later who came from families where big IQs weren't considered big deals: bohemian or genteelly academic or upper-middle-class or just amazing.

And it seems unlikely that society membership would be felt necessary if there was an obvious route already laid out for the kid -- something like the Bronx High School of Science or the Dalton School, where academic progress wouldn't require a misaligned age -- as opposed to having to decide between jumping grades in a regular old underfunded public school or staying stuck in a regular old underfunded public school.

Freeman's results may be secure as all get-out, then, but their only clear application is "don't think that joining a society for gifted children is going to be helpful for your child." They certainly don't support Freeman's extensive lists of recommendations, some of which seem benign -- don't assume the kid can make mature decisions -- but some of which seem less than realistic. (Despite the lasting inconveniences of that kindergarten badge, I'd have to insist that the most genuinely cheery times I had in school were due to the singling-out counselors and the few teachers not too exhausted to handle special-tracking -- though I still cringe remembering the agonizing opacity of fractions.)

Population studies work fine for spotting problems, but for spotting causes and treatments you can't beat lab work. Such as Mueller & Dweck's 1998 study showing that praise for intelligence or giftedness mimics learned helplessness, lowering both performance and motivation, whereas praise for effort or for the task itself increases performance and motivation.

Mueller & Dweck admitted their study's limits, but it ties usefully into other research, like Dykman's. And they also came up with plausible empathic explanations for the results: My attention having been drawn to myself, my goal becomes maintenance of my self-image by "succeeding at" the task, a starkly win-or-lose approach which hardly entices me to move forward: winning means I'm done, and losing means I lack the innate ability I thought I had. More fruitful is to define the goal as gradually improved competence, with setbacks expected and due to (surmountable) lack of effort or training.

(And, as a "To Be Continued" marker, their contrast of inward and outward attentiveness fits some central neuraesthetic speculations....)

. . .

But I'm always true to you, darling, in my fascism

Her Majesty's decentered subject Paul McEnery bellies up to the bar:

Matt Ridley's The Origin of Virtue weighs in with a good Darwinian argument about altruism as an optimal strategy (so long as you're sufficiently snarky), which I've probably mentioned in passing before. For him, it's all about ownership (personal or collective) as opposed to the tragedy of the commons. Linking economic and social concerns to a project means that people actually care, funnily enough. Same problem as with running an underground magazine: if you don't engage with real fiscal issues, the content runs out of steam and spirals into solipsism.

My feeling is that liberals get things typically wrong by posing it as an issue of disinterested virtue. For a start, then you get a bunch of limp-wristed Marys doing all the charity work and turning into a sexless, gutless business which is in denial of basic, grubby human nature. Whenever you don't have skin in the game, you don't play as if you mean it. Hence PBS and NPR being a load of dookey compared to the BBC.

I'm led back to Crowley's analysis of the three mystic traditions: the grim, the detached, and the engaged. Liberalism has led us up the blind alley of the detached, while the underground holds fast to its antinomian rejectionism. To really make an impact calls for getting your hands dirty, I think. Not that I'd know...

I agree that engagement seems necessary. I'm merely suggesting that the range of human engagement is wider than our dominant rhetoric can handle.

PBS and NPR have to beg for donations from corporate sponsors; I don't think you could make a case that PBS is livelier now than no-strings-attached NET was in the late 1960s. Some unfunded magazines die because the publisher is broke, some because it only took one or two issues to say everything they had to say, and some through a combination of slaked desires and straitened finances.

I haven't read Ridley's book, relying on his unseductive Atlantic piece and a second hand slap that sounded solid enough. Intersect the gappy guesswork of evolutionary theory with the fad-ravaged cultural specificities of psychology, and you only get metaphors, anecdotes, generalizations, and wild leaps of common sense -- the tools of popularized science writing. No wonder it has such a vogue. I'll stick with phrenology.

At any rate, I'm not interested in trying to explain unselfish behavior. I just want to acknowledge that it exists, and that it isn't necessarily any more deceiving, half-baked, half-assed, unnatural, or disinterested than grind-the-bastards-down competition.

When and where I went to college in the late 1970s, liberals were a major social annoyance. That changed with Reagan and Thatcher. Since then the leading pain suppliers have been libertarians, fundamentalists, crybaby greedheads, fashion anarchists, golfing CEOs, passive-aggressive identity politicians, superconsuming cyberutopians, trust fund artists, doltish enforcers of political incorrection, and obsessive self-helpers. Dragging the sad old liberal corpse out for another spray of spittle is like trying to beat down wantonness with photos of tertiary syphilis.

But the shameful impulses will have their way. It doesn't take much questioning before "I have to make a living" falls back to "I do what I can stand to do," where the unexamined indefiniteness of "what we can stand" is the big fig leaf.

. . .

Sweet Gene Vincet

Paul McEnery's genetic programming remains unaltered by me and the Orrs I rode in on:

Orr is a world class point-misser. Ridley's story is as convincing a piece of post-Dawkins biology as you can find, and for that matter, he's not saying anything that isn't bloody obvious when you think about it. Granted competition, some version of altruism will emerge inevitably as a strategy. Which kinda goes without saying, since altruism has emerged, and therefore must have present some sort of adaptive advantage.

Orr's criticism is one of those "romantic liberal attachment to the enlightenment individual" pieces of crap. Unable to face the brute truth of sociobiology, he skirts it, skates over it, pokes at it, examines it trunk, leg and tail, and does just about anything but call it an elephant. I bet he's a Catholic. And certainly not an anarcho-socialist.

NB: "But these theoretical worries pale in comparison to the empirical problems besetting tit-for-tat. Animals just don't seem to do it. With a few exceptions, experiments have simply failed to find tit-for-tat--or any related form of reciprocity--in nature."

Um, exactly what the book does in fact establish. Or rather, slightly more complex versions. Vervet calls. Chimp meat eating. Fish who investigate danger with first one, then the other getting closer. The wolf who leaves the pack to investigate. And so on. Plus Orr's rather annoying moment when he can't see that selfish genes would like social cooperation. The numbskull can't grasp that it's the distribution of selfish genes across first a family, then a tribe, that leads to any form of cooperation, like the bloody non-breeding ants and bees.

Ridley only gets weak when he gets up to the more complex levels of business, but it's a typical weakness of not taking his theoretical basis seriously enough. Taking it the extra step myself, I come up with:

Big businesses work on linear logic, nature works on non-linear logic, therefore the approximations of business wind up with a mess. The only method to bring reciprocity back into the game is regulatory organs with their own stupid linearity so that the interaction between them restores non-linearity.
Um, and so on.

As a morbidly religious child, I found no behavior untainted by the sin of pride; as a complacently carousing adult, I find no sustainable way to remain purely acquisitive. Social impulses are neither strictly selfish nor strictly altruistic. I'm content to rest at that rather than insist on the validity of a Personal Darwin.

To me, biological reductionism seems as transparent an ideology-rescue here as when eighteenth-century slaveholders called rape betterment of the primitive races.

As transparent but not nearly as evil, and so I'll leave you to it -- with thanks for your answer to Ridley's free market bias. (On second thought, with thanks for the whole thing. Given JP&SP's findings, we need all the "It's not really altruism..." defenses we can get.)

I'd still rather my political world wasn't divided between those who deny the nonselfish and those who are out to kill us, but maybe secular Jesuitism wouldn't be that nifty either.

. . .


Now for my favorite part of the weblog: ...what's that say? Reader responses?! Ooghh, this is always death.

OK, someone writes in from somewhere to tell us:

Pumping to protect salmon habitat
Thank you for good question.

And we're delighted that our toast to the computer game industry made someone think of a rock song, because what more can mere prose aspire to?

Two years ago, I solicited suggestions for a new site name and logo. This month, one arrived:
name: Robert Dean
logo: A Retard
It's not clear just which Robert Dean and Retard are meant to suppy our new brand identity, but I'm sure they'll be very nice.

From another browser of the archives:

who are you? and how long have yopu been going to the hotst totsy? I've been a member for 18 years so I demand you identify yourself.
Yes! Thank you for very good question. I've attempted to answer it before, but to summarize:

Ray Davis is in good standing at the University of Life and has completed all graduation requirements except the dissertation.

Hale fellow well met Paul McEnery suggests that we

Interesting sociobiology stuff from Steven Pinker, a man who overstates so drastically it undermines his thesis, which is too bad, because I think about half of it is right

On the plus side (for you) (perhaps), a pinko Darwinian reckons the Y chromosome is on the way out and we'll all be hermaphroditic slugs soon enough.

And around the same time that someone searched this site for "rumsfeld handsome," Beth "Blessed Relief" Rust provided news of a small press dedicated to what really matters:

No, not repentance, for when I thought back I saw no reason to regret any job Id pulled off, and in one case, that of the brute Id lashed for killing the white kitten, I patted myself on my back. Not that at all, but a new sort of view of life, given me in the first place by the Princess on that voyage in the Ning-Wha, and buttressed solidly by this meeting with real, human kindness.
Thank you all for good question!

. . .

Notes & Queries

A reader submits a candidate for the FAQ sheet:

Bologna Tines?
Yes. Very much so.

Another requests:

Please send me evenings and weekends.
Honest I do, honest I do, honest I do.

Paul McEnery posted from San Francisco's fashionably lower Haight:

In re: Wilensky.

Seems like this kinda goes back to Lakoff's argument that we have to choose between Mommy Government and Daddy Government. Lakoff's superficial argument tends to imagine that an infantile polity is the only kind the US has to offer (at least, that's what I got from the book reviews and reading the back of the book), but it gets close to the nub. What we really got here is (sticking to the infantile polity script) a choice between the two least recommended parenting strategies: authoritarian and permissive. Both of these produce neurotic people who are incapable of fully individuating. The recommended course -- authoritative, according to the book -- is firm but fair, and does all the things that any parent with a lick of common sense would do. Now take this lesson and apply it to the big, bad world, and we're in business.

In some distress, I wrote back:
Since democracy is supposed to be about self-governance, I have a hard time seeing any way to go right once you've decided to think of your government as your parent and yourself as a child. Is this uniquely unimaginative of me?
Mr. McEnery was kind enough to respond:
Well, that's my problem with the Lakoff analysis. He appears to accept the state of affairs, whereas I regard it as a uniquely pathological relationship to the democratic process. Of course, not having done more than skim the book, I might be giving him short shrift. However, I'll stick to my guns: it's a sound diagnosis of the problem, the prognosis is to ditch the party system (and the electoral system past the level of state congressman) as an irrelevant boondoggle, while working at the local level to increase democratic participation wherever possible. Except for the last step, I think that's the point of view of most Americans.
I wish I could believe you, Mr. McEnery. But I'm afraid that, as another reader has pointed out, given complete freedom of choice, the mob will always instead let themselves be distracted by free access to peculiar short fiction by young Israeli authors:
speaking of Etgar Keret I just read a great new story at openDemocracy
Puppies. I ask you. Puppies.

. . .

Addendum: No Single Reason in the World

Readers inquire:

God the Ambivalent hises up his tartan petticoats, hauls out his schlong, and pisses on the beach every once in a while, to search for buried treasure. Hence these bluffs and cliffs, out of which the rockin' bones prick. (See, for instance, "Rockin' bones, rockin' bones, rock rock rock it" by The Rockin' Bones; or don't.) I think I was trying to talk about evolution, was it?
Do the pseudopodium form at different parts of the amoebae body?

Usually, yes.

My recent series on the origin of evolutionary sociology nattered on mercilessly; I, like you, would welcome a change of subject. But self-publication must go where self-indulgence directs, and, you know, other folks are still talking about it, and I recently had my attention drawn to a phenomenon I wished I'd included, and, oh dear, oh well, I apologize to you and to my best intentions.

To recap a bit: When a respected compeer questioned the evolutionary value of homosexuality, I answered "Who needs one?" Sex as aggression, sex as social duty, and sex as friendly gesture are all fully capable of baby-making, and homosexual lust doesn't interfere with them. Heterosexual lust, as usually defined, is therefore not necessary for reproduction. Just look at the Hapsburgs.

But there's another common trait that's 100% effective at eliminating baby-making: infertility.

The human Y chromosome consists of decaying debris. Its presence triggers maleness, but its contents are mostly ignored. And they mostly have to be. Senile and solipsistic, the Y genes don't take part in recombination, and so there's no way for their basic structures to be reinforced over time. Genetic rot and drop-offs are common.

Among the few bodily traits blueprinted in the Y are some which help bring spermatozoa fully to term, so to speak, pampering the little dears till they grow up to be big and strong like daddy's. When chromosome rot strikes out that genetic mapping, the eventual result is someone who's indisputably male but almost always infertile, with few and immobile sperm.

How many offspring will an infertile man's genes selfishly acquire? None considerably less than the average number of offspring among my gay and lesbian acquaintances. That's about as little support from natural selection as possible.

And yet a significant percentage of men are infertile. Why is this permitted?

If you want to, you can try to work out some convoluted untestable Rube Dawkins explanation of how it might actually benefit the species.

I have a simpler, and thus preferable, answer. It's permitted because natural selection and genetic reproduction are too dumb and too hamstrung by earlier choices to be able to prevent it. Too many changes would need to be coordinated. Oh, maybe if we're left to breed undisturbed (with a pinch of radiation) for another hundred million years or so, a row of cherries will line up. How likely is that?

Admittedly, this is reductio ad absurdum. But I believe that most interesting aspects of human behavior are closer to that reductio ad absurdum than to the bill of Darwin's finch.

I can't prove my belief. I don't even want to prove my belief. I do want evolutionary psychologists and evolutionary sociologists to disprove my belief before they leech funding and publicity from legitimate science. Wild speculation from iffy evidence can be a beautiful thing in a creative writing department.


Infertile man is not permit, no. He is weeded out and all genes of him are not spread unto next generation. But think now, is his infertility controlled by his genes? Or is it function of his use of saran wrap for lunchbox, inhalation of rubbish fume from factory, imbibation of excess of absinthe or what have you. There is always environment factors to be consider. Best weeshes, Ricardo Dorkanvilla
Different type of infertility. They're all good.
okay smart guy, why do men have tits? huh? huh?
Men have tits to make Iggy Stooge possible.
why isn't elvis god?

Hoo boy. Why isn't the sky blue? Doesn't a bear shit in the woods? What am I, the IM question answerer?

That particular blasphemy wasn't mine.

I'm glad to hear it.

More topically, a long, playful message from professional speculator Paul McEnery unexpectedly reinforced my dominant thesis when I found the negative reviews of Steve Jones's innocuous works splitting between snubbed creationists and snubbed evolutionary psychologists and when I found Steve Jones espousing my dominant thesis.

Try checking out recent research on the evolution of the Y-chromosome, particularly Nature. 2003 Jun 19;423(6942):873-6. The Y-chromosome is actually able to stave off deterioration through a process of gene conversion, which is basically a form of self-recombination. A dandy evolutionary strategy if there ever was one...

The research reported in that issue was what started me off again, actually. It's great science: painstaking data collection; ingenious pattern-tracing; reasonable contextualizing with plenty of mystery left to entice wonderful stuff.... What I instead tried to apply above for entertainment purposes only were techniques of crummy science as I see them popularly applied: an assumption that for every phenomenon there must be an "evolutionary" justification conveniently tucked just up the explainer's ass.


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