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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Location: Surreality, Have Fun Will Travel, Past Midnight before a Workday

Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Now They Can Quit Pretending

The Discovery Institute does believe in eugenics after all.

Michael Medved claims that Americans are genetically superior to other human beings.

The radical notion that our national character stems from genetics as well as culture has always inspired angry controversy; many observers scoff at the whole idea of a unifying hereditary component in our multi-racial, multi-cultural society. Aside from the varied immigrants who now make up nearly 15% of the population, the forebears of today’s Americans journeyed to this continent from Asia, Africa, Latin America and every nation of Europe. Our stark differences in appearance, if nothing else, argue against the concept of common DNA connecting contemporary citizens of wildly divergent ancestry.

Gee, I guess different colors of paper also show that it can't all be made from trees. (I suppose that God made the nice colors - pink, blue, yellow - and Satan the colors that I like, like black, red, and hot pink.)

Nevertheless, two respected professors of psychiatry have recently come out with challenging books that contend that those who chose to settle this country in every generation possessed crucial common traits that they passed on to their descendents. In “American Mania,” Peter C. Whybrow of U.C.L.A. argues that even in grim epochs of starvation and persecution, only a small minority ever chooses to abandon its native land and to venture across forbidding oceans to pursue the elusive dream of a better life. The tiny percentage making that choice (perhaps only 2%, even in most periods of mass immigration) represents the very essence of a self-selecting group. Compared to the Irish or Germans or Italians or Chinese or Mexicans who remained behind in the “Old Country,” the newcomers to America would naturally display a propensity for risk-taking, for restlessness, for exuberance and self-confidence – traits readily passed down to subsequent generations. Whybrow explained to the New York Times Magazine that immigrants to the United States and their descendents seemed to possess a distinctive makeup of their “dopamine receptor system – the pathway in the brain that figures centrally in boldness and novelty seeking.”

John D. Gartner of Johns Hopkins University Medical School makes a similar case for an American-specific genotype in “The Hypomanic Edge”—celebrating the frenzied energy of American life that’s impressed every visitor since Tocqueville. The United States also benefited from our tradition of limited government, with only intermittent and ineffective efforts to suppress the competitive, entrepreneurial instincts of the populace. Professor Whybrow says: “Here you have the genes and the completely unrestricted marketplace. That’s what gives us our peculiar edge.” In other words, “anything goes capitalism” reflects and sustains the influence of immigrant genetics.

The idea of a distinctive, unifying, risk-taking American DNA might also help to explain our most persistent and painful racial divide – between the progeny of every immigrant nationality that chose to come here, and the one significant group that exercised no choice in making their journey to the U.S. Nothing in the horrific ordeal of African slaves, seized from their homes against their will, reflected a genetic predisposition to risk-taking, or any sort of self-selection based on personality traits. Among contemporary African-Americans, however, this very different historical background exerts a less decisive influence, because of vast waves of post-slavery black immigration. Some three million black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean arrived since 1980 alone and in big cities like New York, Boston and Miami close to half of the African-American population consists of immigrants, their children or grandchildren. The entrepreneurial energy of these newcomer communities indicates that their members display the same adventurous instincts associated with American DNA.

In other words, "Oh, we're not saying that white people are genetically superior to black people - we're just saying that white Americans are genetically superior to black Americans!" What a pig Medved is!

Naturally, PZ Myers takes down Medved's pseudo-genetics.

What utter nonsense! I've been to "command and control" Europe several times, and then had the shock of returning here. Europeans are lively - walking everywhere, meeting friends at the cafe instead of watching television, going out at night (without the kids, because they actually leave them with a babysitter or a nanny, whereas American parents drag their little darlings everywhere, even into bars and nightclubs, and then complain about the skimpy dress, raucous behavior, and unchurched language of child-free people like me who think that bars and nightclubs are for adults). I don't know how to put the difference more clearly than this photo:

And I wish this was an exaggeration.

As a consequence, Americans live shorter lives than West Europeans. Their children are more likely to die in infancy: the US ranks twenty-sixth among industrial nations in infant mortality, with a rate double that of Sweden, higher than Slovenia's, and only just ahead of Lithuania's—and this despite spending 15 percent of US gross domestic product on "health care" (much of it siphoned off in the administrative costs of for-profit private networks). Sweden, by contrast, devotes just 8 percent of its GDP to health. The picture in education is very similar. In the aggregate the United States spends much more on education than the nations of Western Europe; and it has by far the best research universities in the world. Yet a recent study suggests that for every dollar the US spends on education it gets worse results than any other industrial nation. American children consistently underperform their European peers in both literacy and numeracy.

Very well, you might conclude. Europeans are better—fairer—at distributing social goods. This is not news. But there can be no goods or services without wealth, and surely the one thing American capitalism is good at, and where leisure-bound, self-indulgent Europeans need to improve, is the dynamic generation of wealth. But this is by no means obvious today. Europeans work less: but when they do work they seem to put their time to better use. In 1970 GDP per hour in the EU was 35 percent below that of the US; today the gap is less than 7 percent and closing fast. Productivity per hour of work in Italy, Austria, and Denmark is similar to that of the United States; but the US is now distinctly outperformed in this key measure by Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, ...and France.

...Indeed, Europe is facing real problems. But they are not the ones that American free-market critics recount with such grim glee. Yes, the European Commission periodically makes an ass of itself, aspiring to regulate the size of condoms and the curvature of cucumbers. The much-vaunted Stability Pact to constrain national expenditure and debt has broken down in acrimony, though with no discernible damage to the euro it was designed to protect. And pensions and other social provisions will be seriously underfunded in decades to come unless Europeans have more children, welcome more immigrants, work a few more years before retiring, take somewhat less generous unemployment compensation, and make it easier for businesses to employ young people. But these are not deep structural failings of the European way of life: they are difficult policy choices with political consequences. None of them implies the dismantling of the welfare state.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't more and more Americans facing foreclosure on their homes and mountains of debt? Didn't we have another serious recession after eight years of another moron in the White House? Didn't we have a major Depression in the 1930s? So how many Americans, showing their natural grit and "risk taking" behavior, fled their country to seek adventure and fortune elsewhere? How many Americans even go abroad anymore? How many speak a second language, even?

Medved is just riffing on the tired old "How-come-it's-always-the-black-folk-who-win-all-the-racing-medals-at-the-Olympics" argument, conveniently forgetting that appearance doesn't indicate race. As a matter of fact, it's mostly black Americans who win those medals, not Africans, a fact resulting from a miriad of causes including mixed heritage with whites, Native Americans, and other ethnicities, nutrition, socio-economic status, individual talent, and personal choices. And that holds true for everyone.

That's why Americans, who used to be risk-takers, adventurers, and creative inventors, are now largely superstitious, fatalistic, consumerist couch-potatoes. (I don't think the Founding Fathers and Mothers would recognize us.) It's due to the choices we've made. And that doesn't have to be our future. Strict genetic determinism has never been the consequence of evolution. Strict genetic determinism is just a cartoon vision of those who don't know (again) what the hell they're talking about. (But then again, the concept of strict determinism, or "cause and effect," is what convinces many people that intelligent design is persuasive.)

Human beings belong to only one race. "Race" is a social construct. It's a relatively recent idea that has no genetic basis and is literally skin deep.

But it doesn't surprise me at all to find out how racist, provincial-minded, and hate-filled the Discovery Institute minions are. Their yawping about how Darwin "caused the Holocaust" is filled with more envy than alarm. Like most revisionists, what they truly want is to purify the nation - their way.

While crying "Censorship! Tyranny! I was expelled!" they seek to censor, to expel, and to impose their own tyranny - their way. What they are "rebelling" against is the perceived weaknesses, not the "tyranny" of the scientific community. They want an umbrella of certainty held above their whole lives, and science can't give anyone that.

"Freedom" and "academic inquiry" to them mean conformity and unquestioning obedience. They are guilty of those very crimes which they see in others, everywhere.

Rust Belt Philosophy also takes Medved to task for his unwarranted genetic generalizations.

UPDATED: Our President George W. Bush has funded with our tax a "study" (being that they're so sciency and all) on "human dignity," chaired by a crank named Leon Kass, who is the President's advisor and bioethics. In that capacity, Mr. Kass warns the President about grave dangers to our human "dignity," and in this capacity he is deeply troubled by the social adoption of "animal behavior" such as licking ice cream cones and eating hot dogs on the street:

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone - a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive. ... Eating on the street - even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat - displays [a] lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. ... Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. ... This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if we feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.

But he has no problem shaking his finger at "aging bachelors" and advocating that all women welp like bunnies in the backyard.

Call me catty, but I think the next round of "no new human-animal hybrids" is going to be something else. They just want to protect us! Keep repeating the word "Freedom!"

UPDATED: Ben Stein says, "Scotland is the most intelligent race in the world." And I thought Scotland was a country.

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Anonymous Christopher Waldrop said...

"'Freedom' and 'academic inquiry' to them mean conformity and unquestioning obedience. They are guilty of those very crimes which they see in others, everywhere.
Thank you for saying that. I'm sure it's been said elsewhere, but it bears repeating. Medved and his cronies are opportunists and hypocrites. They cry "freedom!" but the only freedom they really want is the freedom to dictate how the rest of us think and act.

May 14, 2008 6:09 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Thank you. Long before I ever heard of the film Expelled, I had contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center and told them to keep an eye on what was going on at the Discovery Institute and what was being said at Uncommon Descent. ("Islam is a disease and I'm the cure." DaveScot. Etc.) It's my hope to get the DI classified as a hate organization.

May 15, 2008 7:39 AM  
Blogger gg said...

"I've been to "command and control" Europe several times, and then had the shock of returning here. Europeans are lively..."

Nicely put. I lived in The Netherlands for two years, and the lesson I learned is that some things are done better in Europe, some in America. A true strategy for 'social evolution' is to look critically at the differences in cultures and find the best way forward, not hide behind a wicker shield of 'genetic superiority'.

"Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone - a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive."

I wonder how he feels about Roy Comfort eating a banana on television...

May 16, 2008 12:53 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...


Love the take-down of the pseudo-genetics arguments.

But in all honesty I have to say the praise of the EU you quoted is way overblown.

The statistics cited are selected for the purpose of showing EU superiority, and I won't nitpick or engage in a contrary act of selectivity, though I could.

Instead I'll mention that an EC sponsored study of productivity trends in 2003 bore the evocative title, "EU Productivity and Competitiveness: An Industry Perspective Can Europe Resume the Catching-up Process?"

The implication, of course, was that there HAD BEEN a catching up process, but that at some time before 2003 it had been stalled.

So ... could it be resumed? What has happened since then? Well ... in general, Europe has blamed the influence of the US for its problems, and credited its own separate ways for its successes. What else would one expect?

We are (as you rightly note!) all of the same species after all, and subject to the same frailties -- which include the convenient use of statistics.

May 16, 2008 8:52 PM  
Blogger crf said...

I had read that cats lick by curling the tongue downward, so the milk is held on the bottom of the tongue and then whisked into the mouth.

So much for that.

May 17, 2008 8:39 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Christopher, you're right, but you know what? I am simply not a good fit for America. That's what it comes down to for me.

I saw how hard the French, whom Americans particularly hate, work - and then I saw how they are rewarded. I'll take it.

I'm tired of always being an outsider, out of step with this culture. Belive me, young children can spot the oddballs early on. There is incredible pressure on American children to be a certain way, and I never was. My school years were awful because of it.

This country, which doesn't accept evolutionary theory, allows (and secretly encourages) bullying of weaker, more sensitive, and artistically talented students in school. I went to school and saw the photos of the people (boys and girls) who bullied me hanging on the walls as heroes for their athletic prowess, whereas my academic ability was celebrated by only a few exceptional teachers.

I have less and less to talk about with many people, because all they talk about is television. ("What do you think about Hulk Hogan's son being arrested?" Why should I care?)

I'm tired. People in America never work only one job, because so many positions have been eliminated and combined. People in American don't have good benefits. I have exactly five days of vacation for this year. That's all I'm getting for a whole year.

I'll take the EU's imperfections over what's happening around me any day. I intend to leave before I retire and become physically vulnerable. Frankly, I'm scared of the future in America.

Which leads us, appropriately, back to the whole issue of eugenics and social Darwinism, which this country embraces while denying that it does.

May 19, 2008 10:02 AM  
Anonymous Christopher Waldrop said...

I saw how hard the French, whom Americans particularly hate, work - and then I saw how they are rewarded.
I've been to France twice. I lived with a French family. The stereotypes of the French, the things I was told to expect--that they'd be rude, smelly, and lazy--were not true. I met a lot of wonderful, kind people. Even in Paris people were understanding of my lack of French (although they appreciated me making an effort), and sometimes went well out of their way to help me. I suspect the Americans who warned me about the French were simply projecting. I'm sorry that's off the main topic, but I felt compelled to say that.

May 19, 2008 6:46 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

That was my experience also. I had no problem telling people in Paris that I was an American. I loved Paris!

May 20, 2008 8:44 AM  
Blogger Alan Fox said...

Hey, when were you in Paris, Kristine? That's only 8 hours drive away from me :) What I notice is how civilised it is where I live. Taxes are high, though.

I hope you get somewhere with your campaign to get the DI marked as a hate organisation. Best of luck.

Thank FtK for reminding me about your blog. She has you linked!

May 22, 2008 2:56 PM  
Blogger Cujo359 said...

I've never been to Europe, and it looks like I've been missing something. The description of Europeans as being lively and involved with each other is particularly interesting. It does seem as though we're much more isolated from each other here in the US, doesn't it? I can tell you from my experience in Asia that there are good and bad points about foreign places, and I'm very skeptical of anyone who tries to paint his own society as superior to others.

Medved's an ass of long standing, so none of what he said here surprises me much.

Thanks for highlighting this, Kristine. It's certainly a wonderful counterpoint to all the accusations about evolution being an excuse for eugenics. As I told a guy who wrote as much on my site, all you have to do is read the Old Testament to get that kind of inspiration.

May 23, 2008 7:42 PM  

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