Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ecce Simiae

Behold the Ape

One of the things I find difficult to discuss with fellow Liberals is the question of intelligence and its heritability.  That observable differences in cognitive function may be no more than learned behavior, or a the most a product of childhood experience, seems to be one of the credos that today's Liberal must share at the risk of losing the label.  Of course there is evidence to show that childhood deprivation of several kinds does affect the way one performs on IQ tests and perhaps in the experiences of life, but looking at people who are incontrovertibly brilliant it's hard to select parenting skills as the cause without looking silly.  The result is often that  people who have achieved great breakthroughs, often incomprehensible to the rest of us: people with great powers to analyze, calculate and create have their accomplishments explained by diligence or the willingness to work. That is something to which we can all aspire and fits into our cultural ethic

I heard in a movie trailer yesterday, that old and quite untrue saw "we only use 10% of our brains" which is patently untrue but  survives by offering hope that, like J.N. Barrie's Wendy Darling, we too can aspire to great ability if we only try hard and truly believe. No matter how hard I try, I still cannot follow Einstein's math much less develop the ability to have worked it out myself.

But to preserve the ego: to preserve the hope of a possibility that we're not second or third rate, we analogize with other achievements.  After all me can train to run farther or faster, to lift greater weights, to play sports better. We only have to use that latent 90%, to buy the "Baby Einstein" CD's and never mind the lack of evidence for success.  We can decide that specific talents are not part of some greater measure of mental ability, and some remarkable ability to calculate or to write music might just be latent in all of us if we try harder. We might decide to see some physical ability as a compensatory type of intelligence to offset our other intellectual lacks and in fact that's a component or the " intelligence is learned behavior" school of Liberal thought.  How brilliant must a Gibbon be, a squirrel, a bird!

But as I said, one risks ostracism by the trustees of conventional enlightenment by discussing, even in jest, such shibboleths as the genetic basis of intelligence, of racial features or even physical stature. What I'm saying is that by many measures, we Liberals are not the opposite of conservatives but just another variant. We too believe what is comfortable and what makes others comfortable with us and what is very uncomfortable to all good people is racism. I've heard it said many times that we cannot research certain things lest we play into the hands of racists or sexists or eugenicists and other miscreants. It's so much like that refrain from so many 20th century horror films: "there are things men were not meant to know."

And so we will ascribe that bell curve to other things. We will question, and perhaps rightly, the ability to test intelligence accurately, writing off vast differences in number crunching ability or short term memory or pattern recognition to cultural things, even when culture has little to do with those tests.  We talk about 5% differences and ignore the 100% differences that can hardly be written off so easily and  not only because we aspire to undeserved greatness, but because we're afraid others will misuse the data.

So it's interesting to see how we very conservative Liberals will see peer reviewed studies like the one in Current Biology that arrives at these conclusions:

•Individual differences in chimpanzee cognitive performance are heritable
•Cognitive traits found to be heritable show significant genetic correlations
•Sex and rearing history do not significantly influence cognitive performance

Will we decide that a biological basis for intelligence only pertains to modern Humans and not our immediate or more distant ancestors?  Perhaps it will be decided that our ancestors learned to be sapient the way we learned to lose out body hair and gain larger brains.  If not, we're going to have to learn to stop hiding and to address the real problems, the cultural and social and ethical problems of how we treat other people directly. We're gong to have to learn to separate all sorts of human variation from estimations of human worth, rights and dignity.  That's far harder to do than to wear a blindfold and demand that others do as well.

My guess is that the "no scientific basis" will remain a strong political force despite any degree of  sabotage by science because truly, there is no conservative more tenacious than a Liberal.

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