Of Morality And Marshmallows

The Atlantic reports on a new study suggesting that the famous “marshmallow test” is unreliable as a predictor of future economic instability. Excerpt:

In the case of this new study, specifically, the failure to confirm old assumptions pointed to an important truth: that circumstances matter more in shaping children’s lives than Mischel and his colleagues seemed to appreciate.

This new paper found that among kids whose mothers had a college degree, those who waited for a second marshmallow did no better in the long run—in terms of standardized test scores and mothers’ reports of their children’s behavior—than those who dug right in. Similarly, among kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited did no better than those who gave in to temptation, once other factors like household income and the child’s home environment at age 3 (evaluated according to a standard research measure that notes, for instance, the number of books that researchers observed in the home and how responsive mothers were to their children in the researchers’ presence) were taken into account. For those kids, self-control alone couldn’t overcome economic and social disadvantages.

The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.

Maybe so. But might it also be the case that children raised in more affluent homes will have been taught the value of resisting their impulses? I say this because one of my own children has had a very demanding sweet tooth from earliest childhood. He is also impulsive by nature. It has taken years of effort on the part of his mother and me to train him to say no to his impulses — not only for sugar, but, as he has gotten older and started earning spending money, his enthusiasms for buying things that strike his fancy. Many times I have pondered the difficulty he is going to have managing his money if he doesn’t get this impulsiveness under control. He’s a very good kid, highly moral and responsible, but impulsiveness is his Achilles’ heel.

He’s not being raised in poverty. We are middle class people, but culturally I guess that puts us with more in common with the affluent than not. Our impulsive child has been raised in a stable household — materially and emotionally — so there are no environmental factors that nurture his impulsiveness. From an Orthodox Christian point of view, this is simply one of his passions, something he has to struggle against. I have my own particular passions (anger and gluttony). Orthodoxy teaches that life itself is a struggle to crucify the passions and order ones desires towards the will of God. There is nothing wrong in principle with wanting to eat a marshmallow, but if your reason and your will are overcome by that desire to eat a marshmallow, you are weak, and can fall into sin. The regular fasting that Orthodox Christians do is designed to train the will to desire what God desires for us, not what we desire for ourselves.

Anyway, all of that is prelude to what I want to tell you. Last night, I was at a dinner party with some friends. One of them, N., told a long story about a local carpenter she and her husband had hired to do some renovations on their house. I won’t tell the story in depth, because the story is hers to tell, and she’s a writer. The gist of the story is that N. and her husband have been working with this guy for a long time — it’s a big project — and have gotten to know him well. He’s working class, and economically quite precarious. N. said the man has become a friend, and that she and her husband have been working hard to help him stabilize his life.

N. said — again, I’m summing up, but the details are sort of breathtaking — that the carpenter’s personal life is a study in chaos. He cannot grasp that he has the power to determine future events by the choices he makes today. A sense of moral agency totally escapes him. He sees N.’s ordinary family — they have kids — and thinks that they are simply one of fate’s winners. N. talked about the extraordinary lengths she and her husband have gone to befriend and to help this man, but how ultimately it has been futile. No matter what they say to him, no matter what they do for him, he cannot get it together. And he is leaving all kinds of chaos in his wake (several wives, kids, etc.).

I told N. that my wife and I have been in the very same situation, trying to help someone just like that who had become a friend … and in the end, concluding that it was futile. I wrote about it in the past on this blog: how I had gone to my lawyer, offering to pay him to represent this impoverished friend in a particular case. Lawyer said he would take my money and meet with the friend, but that in his lengthy experience with these cases, he could tell me that I’d be wasting my money and his time, because my friend would not follow through. It’s in the nature of people who get themselves into these kinds of situations, he said, to keep doing what got them into that situation in the first place. I told him I would be willing to take that chance to help her.

Next time I saw this friend, I told her to make an appointment with Lawyer X., that he would be willing to advise her, and that I would pay the bill. She thanked me profusely, but said that wouldn’t be necessary that she had decided to … well, that she had decided to keep doing the same stupid thing that got her into this bind in the first place. The country lawyer’s practical experience in dealing with the poor was wiser than my heart-on-the-sleeve idealism. Not for the first time did I feel like a character in a Flannery O’Connor story. (My future epitaph: “Call me Azzberry”.)

At dinner last night, my friend and I dwelled on the intractability of human nature in cases like this. She said that she had to conclude that a stable family life in childhood provides psychological goods that cannot be given through any other way. There aren’t enough government programs, personal charitable efforts, or anything else to compensate adequately for a chaotic childhood. My friend was certainly not saying that we can wash our hands of the responsibility for our neighbor’s welfare, but she was concluding — accurately — that we have to recognize the limits of our ability to change the lives of others. She was also saying that her experience with the carpenter made her more fully aware of how important it is to do everything she can to give her own children a stable home life.

Notice that I’m not saying — nor did I hear her to say — “affluent” home life. My folks never had a lot of money. We were an ordinary working-class to lower-middle-class family. But the gift my mother and father gave me of an orderly, stable childhood was priceless, I now see. How did they do it? They were both imperfect people who endured their share of difficulties in marriage, caused by their own flaws, as well as a period of economic stress. My father is no longer with us to discuss the matter, but the truth is, neither one of them would have been given over to much self-reflection on the question. They were the kind of people who would have simply said, “We made a vow,” and left it at that. For them, that was reason enough to stay together — that, and they always made it clear that the needs of us kids came before their own. That was just how my folks went through life. Not to get too philosophical about it, but for them, that was the Tao.

That wouldn’t have guaranteed stability in my family’s or my late sister’s, but they gave us such a good model of how family was supposed to work. Again, I don’t want to hold my mom and dad out to have been perfect. I don’t think there are any perfect families, and certainly mine had its particular flaws, some of which had unfortunate long-term consequences. That said, I am so very grateful to my parents for holding things together, and showing my sister and me that it is possible to build that kind of life, even when you don’t have much money.

My father was the chief breadwinner in our household, and, because they were a traditional 1950s-era couple, he was the one who dictated how our financial resources would be handled. I find this interesting with relation to the Atlantic article because having grown up very poor in the Great Depression, he ought to have been shaped by the experience of inconstancy in a particular way. Remember, the Atlantic writer said:

There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.

That’s how my father grew up, but that same experience made him far more likely to do what he could to hedge against chaos. He talked to Ruthie and me a lot about these things, relating him to his childhood. His own father was away from home for most of my dad’s early childhood, entirely because he had to work and send money back to support his wife, children, and elderly mother, who lived in the household. That sense of vulnerability made a profound impression on my dad, who was determined that his children would not feel it, if he could help it.

Daddy wasn’t unique in that. What I can’t quite understand today is why his response to childhood poverty and insecurity was so very different from what is normal today. That is, Daddy’s response was to live as an adult in such a way that he was less vulnerable to that chaos, and in which his own children were made less vulnerable to the chaos that would have come had outside pressures broken the family apart. I’ve written many times in this space about how he had deep compassion for people who were poor and suffering victims of circumstance, but also something bordering on contempt for people who were poor and suffering, but who always blamed others, or fate, for their suffering. He would say, “You can’t do nothin’ for people like that.” This was the opinion of a man who had once been poor, and who had lived his entire life in the same community as poor people, and working with them. Kind of like that country lawyer I mentioned above.

It seems to me that aside from his personal qualities, my father was the beneficiary of a local culture that, for better or for worse, had a strong bias against people living morally disordered lives. I should add that my dad had much more hostility towards middle class and wealthy people who lived that way. “They know better,” he would say. “They don’t have an excuse.” In his case, it wasn’t so much a matter of religion — my dad wasn’t particularly observant — as it was a matter of shame and honor. The culture that shaped my father’s code said it was dishonorable for men and women to live in ways that violated its core moral code. I heard my dad say on a number of occasions, “There’s no shame in being poor,” but he also spoke with stern judgment against men who abandoned their families, people who wouldn’t work, and so forth.

That code could be harsh, but it was more realistic about life than a lot of what passes for wisdom today. I think that has a lot to do with why Jordan Peterson is so popular. He gives to young men a sense of moral agency. Peterson is not Moses coming down from the summit of Sinai, but he talks common sense to a culture that has forgotten it. There has never been a society, and never will be a society, in which somebody can live like a fool and not pay the consequences — and for that matter, inflict consequences on others. You can’t not show up for work and expect to keep your job forever. You can’t ignore your kids and expect that they will grow up to be responsible people. You can’t get loaded every weekend and wonder why your roof is falling in, and won’t fix itself. You can’t allow television and social media to raise your children, and expect that they will be good.  And so forth.

“The world doesn’t owe you a living,” my father would lecture me, usually when I hadn’t done my homework, or failed to do something I was supposed to have done. I suppose this attitude is what made my dad a natural conservative. He couldn’t stand people who were ungrateful and lazy. His basic attitude towards us kids was: I bust my ass to provide for y’all, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you waste the opportunities you’ve been given. There was a time in my life when I thought he was so square, but the older I get, the more I see that there really isn’t any other way to live. My dad was keen to help people who were down on their luck, and I see now that he allowed himself to be taken advantage of by some folks with hard-luck stories. Mostly, though, what he was eager to do was to teach people how to help themselves, and to encourage them to do so. For him, this was a matter of natural justice. A society in which people were rewarded even though they did the wrong thing, or failed to do the right thing, was not a just or good society. And doing the right thing always meant subjugating your own desires to the greater good, especially the greater good of your family.

Here’s a funny thing: a few years back, when I was working with the African-American actor Wendell Pierce on his memoir of growing up in south Louisiana, I spent some time speaking with his Uncle L.C. Edwards, the last surviving member of Wendell’s parents’ generation. Uncle L.C. was the same age as my father, and like him, had grown up in rural poverty. I loved the stories of L.C.’s parents (that is, Wendell’s grandparents): poor black farmers who weren’t educated, but who had a very strong religious ethic, and who placed enormous value on education and self-discipline as the only reliable means of self-advancement. Poverty was the enemy of both L.C. and my father, but Lloyd and his siblings also had to deal with Jim Crow. If memory serves, every one of the children of Wendell’s grandparents got educated, and escaped poverty. I’m telling you, the chapter on Papo and Mamo (the grandchildren’s name for L.C.’s parents) is worth the price of the book. Here’s a characteristic excerpt:

One Christmas evening after supper, the Edwardses went to call on their College Point neighbors, to wish them a happy holiday. The kids were startled to go into one house and to see that all that family had eaten for their Christmas meal was potatoes and grits. When they returned home, Papo told the children, “This is what I mean when I tell you it’s important to save for a rainy day. If you put your money aside now, you will have enough to eat well on Christmas.”

Given the man Papo was, if the Edwardses had any food left, he probably took it to that poor family and didn’t tell his own children for the sake of preserving their neighbors’ dignity.

His children remembered Papo as a slow talker but a deep thinker. He never made a quick decision, but acted only after prayer, deliberation, and sleeping on it. Whatever the answer was, he arrived at it through careful reason, not passion. Acting on impulse was the sure way to lose your money, in Papo’s view.

Papo worked for a time in a sugar factory and received his weekly wages in a brown packet. He had a firm rule with himself: Wait twenty-four hours before spending a penny of it. Uncle L.C. said that as a young working man, he thought his father’s rule was silly. You have the money, he figured, so why not enjoy it?

But when he got married and started a family of his own, he understood Papo’s good sense and followed the rule himself. Uncle L.C., who worked at the DuPont chemical plant, has done well through saving and investing over the years. To this day, he credits Papo for teaching him by word and example the importance of being careful with your money and not letting your passions guide your decisions.

Talking with L.C. was like speaking with a black version of my own father. Though he had long been in retirement when I met him, L.C. was always thinking of ways he could make a little money. He told me about how he would take fatherless black boys from a nearby trailer park, and try to teach them something about working to make money and to plan for the future. He told me how sorry he felt for those young men, who had no father in the home to offer them direction, or a sense of responsible manhood.

But his pity had strict limits. Like my own father, L.C. was death on those who wouldn’t work or practice self-discipline. He told me about how his own wife, a retired public schoolteacher, quit her job the very day the last of their adult children no longer needed their help paying for college. She was of a generation for whom education was the most precious thing, their ticket out of poverty and oppression. Today, though, she was worn down by students who wouldn’t work, wouldn’t behave themselves, and parents who blamed the schools and the teachers for their kids’ failures.

American culture is far less friendly to the worldview of those Depression babies like L.C. and my father. Politics and economics are complicated things. You can’t simply apply a moral code to every situation, and expect it to solve the problem. But let’s recognize this: very few Americans in 2018 are as materially poor as my dad and L.C. Edwards were when they came into this world in the 1930s. Is there anybody in America today who is poorer than a black child born to uneducated farmers living in the Deep South under American apartheid? And yet, look what they did with what they had been given! There never will be a society in which family won’t matter, and in which moral self-discipline won’t matter. 

The wealthy, and those with social connections, can absorb a lot more disorder than the less well off can, but money won’t last forever.

The world we have today is wealthier, and in some ways is better able to defray the cost of that disorder. We have more of a social safety net today than we did back then. But this world is much poorer in social capital, which is not something you can raise from Chinese bankers.

There’s a lot of brokenness in this country, and no clear way to fix it. The people my dinner companion and I were talking about last night are white. They live in Charles Murray’s fictional Fishtown. They diverge greatly from the core values and practices of stable middle-class and well-off Americans, in ways that were not true a couple of generations ago. Society has grown far more individualistic and tolerant of non-conformity. This is not entirely a bad thing! But the cost to people who don’t have a lot of social and material capital to begin with has been immense. People love to imagine that if only we brought good jobs back to America, or voted in this or that political party, then these problems would solve themselves. I don’t believe that’s true. That’s no reason not to try to improve opportunities for people, but there are no government programs or private charitable initiatives that can meaningfully compensate for the loss of a sense of moral order and purpose.

Finally, I phrase occurred to me while writing this post, a fragment from something I’d read ages ago. I googled it, and the source turned up here. Here is the excerpt I was thinking about. The writer is talking about the 1950s:

It was a more human world in that it was a sexier world, because sex was still a story. Each high school senior class had exactly one girl who got pregnant and one guy who was the father, and it was the town’s annual scandal. Either she went somewhere and had the baby and put it up for adoption, or she brought it home as a new baby sister, or the couple got married and the town topic changed. It was a stricter, tougher society, but its bruising sanctions came from ancient wisdom.

We have all had a moment when all of a sudden we looked around and thought: The world is changing, I am seeing it change. This is for me the moment when the new America began: I was at a graduation ceremony at a public high school in New Jersey. It was 1971 or 1972. One by one a stream of black-robed students walked across the stage and received their diplomas. And a pretty young girl with red hair, big under her graduation gown, walked up to receive hers. The auditorium stood up and applauded. I looked at my sister: “She’s going to have a baby.”

The girl was eight months pregnant and had had the courage to go through with her pregnancy and take her finals and finish school despite society’s disapproval.

But: Society wasn’t disapproving. It was applauding. Applause is a right and generous response for a young girl with grit and heart. And yet, in the sound of that applause I heard a wall falling, a thousand-year wall, a wall of sanctions that said: We as a society do not approve of teenaged unwed motherhood because it is not good for the child, not good for the mother and not good for us.

The old America had a delicate sense of the difference between the general (“We disapprove”) and the particular (Let’s go help her”). We had the moral self-confidence to sustain the paradox, to sustain the distance between “official” disapproval and “unofficial” succor. The old America would not have applauded the girl in the big graduation gown, but some of its individuals would have helped her not only materially but with some measure of emotional support. We don’t so much anymore. For all our tolerance and talk we don’t show much love to what used to be called girls in trouble. As we’ve gotten more open-minded we’ve gotten more closed-hearted.

Message to society: What you applaud, you encourage. And: Watch out what you celebrate.

The author of those words is Peggy Noonan. She published them in, get this, 1992. Some things have gotten better over the last 26 years. For example, when she published this, David Dinkins was mayor of her town, New York City, and the city would record just over 2,000 homicides. Know how many the city recorded last year, 25 years after the column was published? Only 290.  Progress is real!

On the other hand, I can’t get out of my head the words spoken to me by a professor at an Evangelical Christian college. Speaking about the student body, which is predominantly white, he told me that he didn’t think most of them would ever be able to form stable families. I was shocked by this.These were not kids from the blighted projects or wretched rural trailer parks. Why not? I asked.

He said, “Because they have never seen it done.”

We live in a society in which the moral code that we applaud and the people we celebrate all say: Take the marshmallow now, and don’t worry about the future. This is going to cost us.

Read more from The American Conservative…

Seattle’s Proposed Employment Tax is Just the City’s Latest Self-Inflicted Wound

As self-inflicted wounds go, Seattle officials seem to have stumbled on a winning formula for tanking their city’s economy and their constituents’ prosperity. All it takes is a deep antipathy for the laws of economics and a series of policies based on the same, culminating in a proposed tax on hours worked by the employees of large companies to fund social programs that are making little if any headway in their supposed missions.

“An employee hours tax is hereby levied upon and shall be collected from every person for the act or privilege of engaging in business activities within the City,” reads the tax bill, which appears to have four of the necessary five city council votes locked up. “The tax shall be measured by the number of employee hours of work conducted within the City during each quarter of the calendar year.”

Every hour worked will bring in $0.26 from large employers with revenues of more than $20 million, for a grand total expected to tally up to between $25 million and $75 million. The bulk of that take is earmarked for the city’s years-long campaign against homelessness.

Why the wide range for projected revenue? Well, predicting economic activity is an inexact science at best—especially when the companies you’re planning to soak threaten to go elsewhere and take their jobs with them. Specifically, in response to the proposed employment tax, Amazon paused construction on a downtown office tower and may sublease space in another building rather than use the space itself.

“The company helmed by Jeff Bezos has planned to fill its 17-story ‘Block 18’ tower and the skyscraper being built at Rainier Square with an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 workers,” the Seattle Times reported.

“Jeff Bezos is a bully,” the city council’s resident overt socialist, Kshama Sawant, huffed in response.

But it’s not as if Seattle officials had no warning that Amazon was unhappy with the city’s anti-business rhetoric and its intrusive policies which include high taxes, a soaring minimum wage, a nanny-ish sugar tax, and expensive labor mandates. In setting the expectations for a second headquarters—HQ2—Amazon specified that it was looking for “a stable and business-friendly environment.” Seattle city council members responded just last October with a letter pleading, “[t] o the extent that this decision was based on Amazon feeling unwelcome in Seattle, or not being included in some of our regional decisions, we would like to hit the refresh button.”

And they had good reason to plead. In 2015, the city’s budget department attributed 43 percent of jobs created in the post-Great Recession recovery to Amazon and Boeing, directly and also indirectly through secondary and tertiary effects.

Maybe, just maybe, employers and workers targeted by the proposed employee hours tax might be less resistant to being soaked if the money wasn’t so likely to be unproductively pissed away while homelessness continues to worsen. But this week Seattle residents learned that “KOMO News has obtained an unpublished report that shows how the city spent more than $53 million on the homeless in 2017. Although millions have been spent, Seattle’s homeless population continues to rise.”

Apparently, $20 million of the money went to emergency and shelter services, and “only six percent of people who use those services were able to find permanent housing.”

The Associated Press noted last year that “while homelessness has decreased nationwide and in many cities, the problem has grown in others, such as Seattle. In 2016, a one-night homeless count found nearly 3,000 people living outside in this city of about 650,000, marking the fourth straight year of increases.”

Even before that, in 2015, the local NPR affiliate found that the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness was doing nothing of the sort. “[T]he 10-year plan is ending and local homelessness is worse than ever” even though “[t]he ranks of the homeless have declined in Washington state and nationally during that time.”

Then again, part of that homelessness is due to high housing costs fueled by demand from highly paid employees of the sort of large companies targeted by the employee hours tax. Building takes time, so supply can’t immediately catch up to demand—especially when real estate development is regulated by the same city officials doing their best to alienate the city’s large employers. Among other rules, Seattle mandates a minimum number of parking spaces be included in residential construction, and also mandates that developers either include low-cost housing in their plans or else contribute to a housing fund—measures that raise costs.

So chasing big employers out of the city would certainly reduce the demand driving rising housing costs. But that sort of gut-punch to the economy might not be a “solution” that Seattle residents ultimate appreciate.

Of course, Seattle isn’t the only city to try to cripple itself with taxes and regulations. Cities across the country have been hiking minimum wages—an issue on which Seattle is a leader. That’s unfortunate, given the negative impact researchers find the requirement has had on employment there. And Seattle’s real estate red tape has yet to reach the heights of complexity and corruption that, in New York City, requires an industry of middle-men “expediters” to navigate—and has trashed the construction of new housing in San Francisco.

Nobody doubts that in its search for an HQ2 location, Amazon wants a more business-friendly environment. Some cities are basing their pitches on exactly that assumption (they’re also being warned to focus on the tax and regulatory environment, rather than expensive bribes to the company). Locales that want healthy economies will be well-advised to avoid emulating Seattle’s mistake of abusing the businesses that help to create prosperity.

Read more from Reason.com…

Science Refutes Orthodoxy—Again

Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution, Basic Books, 2009, 288 pp., $27.00.

The 10,000 Year Explosion is such a subversive book it is surprising it was brought out by a mainstream New York publisher. The authors, both of whom teach anthropology at the University of Utah, steer clear of politics, but the scientific findings they describe have such obvious policy implications that they will reduce liberals to spluttering incoherence — if liberals can bring themselves to read the book.

Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion- How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

This volume shatters one of the obligatory doctrines by which the Left lives: that Homo sapienshardly evolved at all after modern man ventured out of Africa, and that although groups differ in appearance their brains are identical. This is clearly nonsense, but the great strength of this book is to have marshaled so many contemporary genetic discoveries that prove it is nonsense. Far from slowing down, evolution has been speeding up, and the authors argue that for the last several thousand years it has been roaring along 100 times faster than during the Stone Age, making different populations increasingly unlike each other. “The biological equality of human races,” the authors write, is “about as likely as a fistful of silver dollars all landing on edge when dropped.”

Rapid evolution

If one accepts the theory that modern humans first evolved in Africa and began colonizing the rest of the world 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, it is obvious that there has been enormous evolutionary change since that time. Zulus and Danes presumably had a common ancestor about the time humans left Africa, but are now so different from each other that standard taxonomies might well classify them as separate species.

Nature is full of dramatic change. When fish are trapped in caves they lose their eyesight in just a few thousand years. Rapid evolution also occurred when the sea rose at the end of the last Ice Age, 11,500 years ago, and herds of elephants were cut off from the mainland on what became islands. Size is not an advantage on an island, and the fossil record shows that the elephants shrank in height from 12 feet to three feet in just 5,000 years. Elephants have about the same 20-year generation span as humans.

Professors Cochran and Harpending point out that even more rapid evolution is taken for granted by ranchers and farmers, who are constantly raising stock that did not exist 100 or even 15 years ago. They note that every breed of dog has evolved from wolves, which were domesticated 15,000 years ago, and that most of the breeds we recognize today are only about 200 years old. A Russian scientist managed to breed tame foxes in just 40 years — ten generations — by selecting only for tameness and friendliness. The pet foxes lost their musky, fox smell, wagged their tails when they were happy (which wild foxes do not), and liked to lick people’s hands.

People consciously direct the evolution of plants and animals, but the authors point out that the process is no different from the rigors of natural selection — just quicker. Much as the race deniers hate to admit it, humans in different environments evolved in sharply different directions. As the authors conclude, “We expect that differences between human ethnic groups are qualitatively similar to those between dog breeds.”

What, however, caused human evolution suddenly to speed up ten to twelve thousand years ago? For Professors Cochran and Harpending, the short answer is “agriculture.” It did so in two ways: by sharply increasing the number of people and by radically changing the environment in which they lived.

More humans meant more children, and therefore more mutations. Most babies are born with about 100 mutations, all but one or two of which are in DNA that does not seem to do anything and therefore have no effect. Those that make a difference are usually harmful or neutral but it is the occasional helpful mutation that drives evolution. Sixty thousand years ago, before the expansion out of Africa, there were perhaps only about 250,000 humans. By the Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago, there were 60 million, so a mutation that would have taken 100,000 years to occur could appear in just 400 years. Evolution was painfully slow among Paleolithic proto-humans because beneficial mutations show up so rarely in tiny populations.

Large populations are therefore a reservoir of new mutations and their size hardly slows down the propagation of good genes. According to the authors, a genetic leg up is like the flu, and can sweep through a population of 100 million in only twice the time it takes to go through a population of just 10,000.

The power of agriculture

Agriculture also brought perhaps the most dramatic change in the biological and social environment our species has ever experienced. Farming meant that for the first time in their existence Homo sapiens stayed in one place, and could therefore own more things than they could carry with them. They could become wealthier than their neighbors, and had to guard possessions against theft. Farmers could produce more food than their families needed, and this gave rise to commerce, division of labor, artisans, and non-productive elites. This social environment was completely new.

Of particular significance from an evolutionary point of view were the change of diet, domestication of animals, and population densities. The first agricultural diets had little variety and were not nearly as nutritious as the meat humans had been eating for millennia. With little protein in their diets, farmers were as much as five inches shorter than hunters, and any mutations that helped farmers get more out of a cereal diet got around quickly. At the same time, the widespread use of fire to prepare and soften food meant people could evolve smaller teeth than those necessary during the Paleolithic period.

Domestication and herding meant living with animals, and people began to catch their diseases. At the same time, villages produced heaps of rubbish that attracted rats and other disease carriers. New kinds of pestilence ran through populations that were far denser than before, so there was a high demand for genes that gave resistance to disease. Farmers invariably discovered fermentation, so selective pressure also began to weed out excessive susceptibility to alcohol.

In dense communities, in which wealth could be accumulated and traded, complex speech is more important than among hunters. Ownership of land and livestock required new rules and ways to enforce them. People had more to think about, more possessions to look after, and thieves and con men to deal with. All this pushed evolution in new directions.

The nature of agriculture changed human nature. Farming requires more planning and self-restraint than hunting; at the very least, farmers must save seed corn for the next year no matter how hungry they get during the winter. Meat, on the other hand, goes bad in a few days, so hunters gorged themselves rather than save. Farming favored deferred gratification.

Likewise, if farmers worked hard they could make permanent improvements to their land and build safe, comfortable houses. There was no incentive for hunters to build things or accumulate anything they could not move. Once their bellies were full they goofed off until the next hunt. Farming favored mutations that produced steady toilers.

People who lived in densely packed, permanent settlements also had to control anger and violence. If hunters had nasty neighbors they could just move away. Farmers could not abandon their farms, so they had to learn to live with people they did not like. Once governments arose, people had to submit to rulers, and the impulse to reach for a weapon was no longer so adaptive. As the authors explain, “Eventually there must have been many people with personality types that hadn’t existed at all among our forager ancestors.”

There is direct, genetic evidence that agriculture caused rapid genetic change. Sophisticated techniques can indicate how recently distinctive genetic patterns evolved in different populations, and more new genes were sweeping through European and Asian populations about 5,500 years ago than at any time before or since. The huge changes brought on by agriculture were probably the cause.

Sooner or later?

Professors Cochran and Harpending point out that some groups took up farming long before others, and that this explains a lot. Australian aborigines never farmed, and the American Indians of Illinois and Ohio started farming only 1,000 years ago. Both groups never drank alcohol before the white man showed up, and are highly susceptible to alcoholism. Fetal alcohol syndrome is about 30 times more common in these groups than in whites.

Aborigines and American Indians suffer in other ways from only recently having adopted a farming diet. Type 2 diabetes is related to a sensitivity to carbohydrates and a metabolic tendency to obesity. It is four times more prevalent among Aborigines and 2.5 times more prevalent among Navajos than among whites.

Sub-Saharan Africa was also late to take up agriculture — 7,500 years after it arose in the Middle East — and this helps explain why intelligence differences alone do not explain differences in black and white behavior. When the two groups are matched for IQ, blacks are still more likely to be criminal, shiftless, or have illegitimate children. This is probably due in part to the persistence of the smash-and-grab mentality that suits hunters but is gradually bred out of farmers.

Professors Cochran and Harpending note that this probably explains why it is so hard to teach African Bushmen — who never made the switch to farming — to be herders rather than hunters: they eat all their goats. The Chinese, on the other hand, who have been farming a long time, appear to have had virtually all the genes associated with attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity bred out of them.

The authors of The 10,000 Year Explosion understand that population differences of this kind mean that some peoples create civilizations and others do not. Noting that some nations have leapt into the industrial age while others are stuck in poverty, they conclude:

“If the root causes of these differences are biological changes affecting cognitive and personality traits, changes that are the product of natural selection acting over millennia, conventional solutions to the problem of slow modernization among peoples with shallow experience of farming are highly problematic.” The authors propose no “unconventional” solutions.

Some aspects of modernity simply cannot appear without the intelligence — and the genes — necessary to support them. The authors argue that “the scientific ‘revolution’ may well have resulted from modest changes in gene frequencies affecting key psychological traits.” They explain that science probably arose only after a society had a certain minimum number of people who had the temperament to be interested in puzzles and were smart enough to solve them. There also had to be a level of communication within society that allowed ideas to circulate so that smart people could benefit from the discoveries of others. Not all societies, in other words, have the genetic basis for science.

The brain has evolved differently among different groups just as have skin color, body type, and facial features. The authors write that there are recent variants of genes that affect synapse formation, axon growth, formation of the layers of the cerebral cortex, and brain growth. “Again, most of these new variants are regional,” they add. “Human evolution is madly galloping off in all directions.”

Sometimes, even what appear to be racial similarities are actually differences that merely resemble each other. The authors point out, for example, that although both Asians and Caucasians have much lighter skins than ancestral Africans, the genetic mechanisms that shut down melanin production are different in the two races. In both Asia and Europe it was useful to let in more sunlight for vitamin D synthesis, but evolution found different ways to do it.

Milk drinkers

The same is true for lactose tolerance, a surprisingly interesting subject to which Professors Cochran and Harpending devote many pages. They point out that before the domestication of cattle, there was no need for humans to be able to digest milk after they were weaned, and all populations were lactose intolerant until a mutation that occurred about 8,000 years ago among European herding people. Dairying produces about five times as many calories per acre as raising cattle for slaughter, and milk is very nutritious, so it was a considerable advantage for adults to be able to drink it. The mutation therefore swept through Europe.

Thousands of years later, people living in what is now Sudan and Ethiopia developed a tolerance for milk, but their mutation was different from the one that appeared in the north. The authors point out that the ability to drink milk is so advantageous that it would have spread through Africa if even just a handful of northerners had ventured into the area during the Bronze Age. The absence of the northern gene suggests how little contact there was with people south of the Sahara.

Professors Cochran and Harpending speculate that lactose tolerance may even account for the spread of the Indo-Europeans. Around 3,000 BC, nomads who were to have a far-reaching impact began to move out of an original Indo-European homeland that may have been in Anatolia or southern Russia. They eventually spread their language and culture not only throughout Europe but to Central Asia, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian subcontinent. Some three billion people now speak the more than 400 languages and dialects that comprise the Indo-European language group, making it the largest in the world. How did the Indo-Europeans cover so much ground?

The authors think it may have been because they were among the first to be lactose tolerant, and this changed their society in several important ways. First, because it is much more nutritionally efficient to milk cattle as well as eat them, the first milk drinkers could produce denser populations than farmers or other herders. Also, cattle are both valuable and portable — they transport themselves — so herders inevitably become rustlers, which leads to a warrior tradition. Farmers, who had to defend fixed targets, were no match for mobile cattlemen who could attack wherever and whenever they liked. Finally, milk-drinkers had a better diet; there is evidence that Indo-Europeans were up to four inches taller than the people they overran.

The Indo-Europeans appear to have gone on a conquering spree that lasted several thousand years. They are likely to have been a dominant elite that forced their culture on subject peoples but then moved on before they were absorbed. The strong, established states of the Middle East managed to fend them off, but Indo-Europeans were invincible in colder areas where the growing season was short and their superior diet gave them the greatest advantage.

Professors Cochran and Harpending point out that there was yet another independent development of lactose tolerance, which took place on the Arabian Peninsula among drinkers of camel milk. They suspect that the same results — good diet, mobility, a tradition of raiding — helped the Arabs achieve their remarkable sweep across North Africa and into Europe that was stopped only in 732 — by other milk drinkers.

Germ warfare

A less speculative subject the authors treat at length is the evolution of resistance to disease. It is well known that diseases for which the Indians had no immunity helped the Spanish conquer the New World, and The 10,000 Year Explosion explains why the Indians were so vulnerable. Their ancestors crossed the land bridge from Asia some 15,000 years before the Spanish showed up, and did not bring with them the crowd diseases that sprang up after the rise of agriculture. Also, they passed through cold areas on their way to the Americas, and this killed off many infectious bacteria. Finally, they exterminated most of the large animals in the Americas (which had evolved independently of man and had not developed defenses against hunters), and thus had very few domesticated animals from which they could catch diseases. There was therefore little pressure on Indians to develop strong immune systems.

What is more, during the period when Europeans were being winnowed by plague and pestilence, Indians were probably evolving weaker immune systems. Indeed, they have lower rates than Europeans of type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis, which are caused by overactive immune responses.

The Indians’ first contact with Old-World diseases was devastating. Caribbean island tribes were even more vulnerable than those on the mainland, and the Arawak and the Taino were almost completely wiped out. It was Indians in the high Andes who best resisted the Spanish because the invading bacteria often did not survive in the cold, and because Indians were better adapted than Europeans to the thin air.

There are no precise records of early death rates, but more recent epidemics give us an idea. An 1827 smallpox outbreak among Mandan Indians in what later became North Dakota killed 1,475 out of 1,600. The Surui, a small Brazilian rain forest tribe, first made contact with outsiders in 1980. Six years later, despite the efforts of modern medicine, 600 of 800 were dead, mostly of tuberculosis.

Professors Cochran and Harpending point out that it is wrong to accuse the Spanish colonizers of deliberately eliminating native populations. They note that the conquistadors wanted to rule over a populous empire, not a wasteland of corpses. Moreover, when the Spanish conquered the Philippines less then a century later, there was no sharp drop in the population, because Filipinos had resistance to European diseases.

The authors also explain that when Europeans first explored Africa they, too, were decimated by unfamiliar diseases. British soldiers in the Gold Coast could expect to lose half their number in a year. Without the development of medicines for malaria, yellow fever, and sleeping sickness, the colonization of Africa would have been impossible.

On an entirely different subject, The 10,000 Year Explosion has a long chapter that proposes an explanation for how Ashkenazi Jews became the smartest people in the world. Trading and money-lending were high-IQ jobs, and in 1,000 years, or about 40 generations, European Jews appear to have increased their average IQs by about 12 points.

Jewish intelligence seems to be genetically associated with such diseases as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher’s, and familiar dysautonomia, which are up to 100 times more common among Jews than European gentiles. People with one copy of these genes appear to have an IQ advantage whereas two copies cause the disease. Professors Cochran and Harpending write that over time, advantageous mutations with such dangerous side effects are usually replaced by more benign mutations. The persistence of these odd mutations in Jews suggests they are recent.

One highly speculative but stimulating chapter considers the possibility that Neanderthals might have made crucial genetic contributions to Homo sapiens. There is no doubt that something important happened 30 to 40 thousand years ago. New tools, improved weapons, art, sculpture, and more efficient use of fire made big changes in what was still a Stone Age existence. These changes took place only in Eurasia — nowhere else — and Professors Cochran and Harpending are convinced they would not have come about without some important genetic change.

As it happens, this Stone Age flowering took place during the 10,000 years or so during which modern man and Neanderthals competed against each other in the same territory. Neanderthals are gone and we are not, so it is safe to assume Homo sapiens were superior — perhaps in intelligence, language, or resistance to disease. However, the authors believe there must have been genetic mixing with Neanderthals, and explain that even if just a few Neanderthal genes were useful to modern man, they would have spread through populations while the useless ones were eliminated. “It is highly likely that out of some 20,000 genes, at least a few of theirs [Neanderthal’s] were worth having,” they write. The authors concede that the genetic evidence is inconclusive — Neanderthal DNA is hard to come by — but they cite cases of “introgression,” in which wild species have acquired useful mutations from other populations.

Readers will have to judge the case for Neanderthal introgression for themselves, but it is typical of the free-wheeling thinking that makes The 10,000 Year Explosion such a pleasure to read. Professors Cochran and Harpending follow the data wherever they lead, which means they cheerfully trample basic assumptions on which the mainstream worldview depends.

This book is therefore yet more proof that science is always the ally of race realism. The better we understand the genome, the more irrefutable our views become. Scientists, along with anyone who cares about the truth, increasingly take it for granted that populations differ not just in susceptibility to disease and reactions to drugs but in average IQ, typical personality, and the ability to achieve civilization. The real question is when, after decades of suppression, sensible views of race will again influence policy. By blowing yet another great hole in today’s poisonous orthodoxy, Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending have hastened that day.

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