Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Spring Break: Gawker Style 

Andrew Krucoff and I hang out with the NYU kids so you don't have to.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Help Wanted 

I'm involved in an exciting new internet/blogging venture that is going to need the assistance someone proficient at building websites. If you think you've got the skills, please send an email describing your experience and training to ManhattanTransfer(at)gmail(dot)com. Thanks.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Genetic Geography of Thought 

The New York Times ran an important article by Nicholas Wade Sunday describing recent work in genetics suggesting that recent evolutionary changes can help explain cultural differences.
EAST ASIAN and European cultures have long been very different, Richard E. Nisbett argued in his recent book "The Geography of Thought." East Asians tend to be more interdependent than the individualists of the West, which he attributed to the social constraints and central control handed down as part of the rice-farming techniques Asians have practiced for thousands of years.

A separate explanation for such long-lasting character traits may be emerging from the human genome. Humans have continued to evolve throughout prehistory and perhaps to the present day, according to a new analysis of the genome reported last week by Jonathan Pritchard, a population geneticist at the University of Chicago. So human nature may have evolved as well.

If so, scientists and historians say, a fresh look at history may be in order. Evolutionary changes in the genome could help explain cultural traits that last over many generations as societies adapted to different local pressures.

Trying to explain cultural traits is, of course, a sensitive issue. The descriptions of national character common in the works of 19th-century historians were based on little more than prejudice. Together with unfounded notions of racial superiority they lent support to disastrous policies.

But like phrenology, a wrong idea that held a basic truth (the brain's functions are indeed localized), the concept of national character could turn out to be not entirely baseless, at least when applied to societies shaped by specific evolutionary pressures.

In a study of East Asians, Europeans and Africans, Dr. Pritchard and his colleagues found 700 regions of the genome where genes appear to have been reshaped by natural selection in recent times. In East Asians, the average date of these selection events is 6,600 years ago.

Many of the reshaped genes are involved in taste, smell or digestion, suggesting that East Asians experienced some wrenching change in diet. Since the genetic changes occurred around the time that rice farming took hold, they may mark people's adaptation to a historical event, the beginning of the Neolithic revolution as societies switched from wild to cultivated foods.

Some of the genes are active in the brain and, although their role is not known, may have affected behavior. So perhaps the brain gene changes seen by Dr. Pritchard in East Asians have some connection with the psychological traits described by Dr. Nisbett.

Some geneticists believe the variations they are seeing in the human genome are so recent that they may help explain historical processes. "Since it looks like there has been significant evolutionary change over historical time, we're going to have to rewrite every history book ever written," said Gregory Cochran, a population geneticist at the University of Utah. "The distribution of genes influencing relevant psychological traits must have been different in Rome than it is today," he added. "The past is not just another country but an entirely different kind of people.

Of course, if you are reading Steve Sailer regularly (and you should be), you probably tore through Sunday’s Times searching for the article (he announced it last week). And if you are a really close student of Sailerology, you knew that Greg Cochran would be mentioned in the article. When Sailer says that an important science article is about to be published that is usually code for something having to do with Cochran.

Come to think of it, if you were reading Manhattan Transfer a year ago, you probably are familiar with the subjects discussed in Wade’s article. Back in January of 2005, I wrote about Robert Nisbett’s “Geography of Thought” and speculated that Nisbett was possibly under-estimating the role of genetics in creating the cultural differences he notices. Nisbett pretty much dismisses the notion that genetics could have anything to do with the differences he describes. It seemed to me then that Nisbett’s favored explanation—that agricultural had led to different types of social organization which in turn led to different ways of thinking—didn’t need to exclude possible genetic differences. Given enough time, I would expect that, for instance, rice farming and the resulting cooperative/collective social organization of China would select for those with the genes that made it easier to adapt to such an environment. In the comments to that post, Greg Cochran pointed out that we already had a good candidate for a gene selected in this way.

Of course, the science on this is relatively new. Some still doubt that there has been “enough time” to lead to these changes (although recent discoveries are making this position harder and harder to defend). I suspect that over the next decade or so the science of the genetic geography of thought is going to get a lot of attention, in part because there is still so much left to do in this area. If I were a young population geneticist this is where I would be focusing my attention. If I were a young political scientist, for that matter, I’d enroll in a course in basic genetics. (Actually, it may make sense for someone to start offering a “genetics for social scientists” course somewhere, if they are not already.)

A few years ago, when I first picked up Paul Johnson’s excellent “Art: A New History” I remember thinking how unfortunate it was that he began the first chapter of the opening sentence by writing, “The human personality has been in existence for about 200,000 years, when Homo sapiens first evolved.” Even then I wasn’t sure it made sense to talk about “the human personality” rather than “human personalities geographically distributed” or to claim that anything like a “human personality” had been constant for the past 200,000 years. It reminded me of something you might read from a pre-Darwin British naturalist of the rational-Christian type. In fairness to Johnson, he was thinking about art when he wrote that sentence, not our genetic history. Nonetheless, the time may be coming when even those thinking about art will hesitate before they can assume the psychic unity and constancy of humanity.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Only Difference Was the Clothes? 

Caralee Schmitt, who attended the event with her husband, marveled at the cowboy couture on display Sunday, which she had never seen growing up in Bozeman, Mont.

"My father was a cowboy, but not at all like these kind of cowboys," said Schmitt, who lives in South San Francisco.

[via Steve Sailer]

Monday, March 06, 2006

Did Brokeback Lose Because Hollywood Hates Gays? Or Maybe Because It Fears That America Hates Gays? Or Maybe... 

I watched the Oscars with team Teen Drama last night, chasing down pigs-in-blankets (provided by host DP Styles--mmm, thanks), barbequed antelope and bacon wrapped duck (provided by our resident game slayer, Southern Gent--double mmm) with three or four bottle of Anchor Steam Ale (do I even need to tell you that I brought the alcohol?). A New York City newspaper had asked me to write about the Oscars for a “second day” analysis piece, and I spent most of the night hoping someone would do something crazy so that I would have something to analyze. And I hoped they’d do it late enough to miss the deadline for Monday’s papers so my take would still be fresh on Tuesday morning. As you know nothing noteworthy happened, and this morning my editor and I agreed to kill the piece.

My favorite moment was when host Jon Stewart poked fun at Hollywood’s elitism at the Oscars Sunday night by turning to a giant Oscar statue looming over the stage and asking: "Do you think if we pulled this down, democracy would flourish in Hollywood?" No doubt he was alluding to famous image of Iraqi’s and American soldiers toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein a few years ago. He couldn’t have known that his remarks would turn out to be a prediction of the night’s final award, with underdog Crash toppling elite favorite Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture.

Hollywood’s elite wanted the Oscars to break new ground by awarding its top prize to the gay-themed Brokeback Mountain. If celebrating Brokeback made Hollywood seem out of touch with much of America, all the better. Much of the Hollywood elite imagines itself as iconoclastically progressive, shattering American icons such as cowboys and pressing for civil rights against recalcitrant American bigotry.

That probably sounds a little bit like a reactionary rant. But don’t take my word for it. Take theirs.

Here’s Best Supporting Actor winner George Clooney:
I would say that, you know, we are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while. I think it's probably a good thing. We're the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects."

And here is “Crash” producing Paul Haggis:
Bertolt Brecht said that art is not a mirror to hold up to society but a hammer in which to shape it, and so I guess this is ours.'

As soon as they announced the win by Crash, I knew it wouldn’t be long before someone started complaining that the loss by the gay-themed Brokeback Mountain demonstrates a lingering anti-gay prejudice in Hollywood. Sure enough, Los Angels Times critic Keneth Turan blamed “unspoken fears” and “unconscious prejudices” for thwarting “Brokeback Mountain” reach for the top prize. Reuters’s Arthur Spiegelman complained that Hollywood had shut “the closet door” on gay-themed films . There’s more of the same from Nikki Finke. Didn’t Mickey Kaus predict exactly this reaction to Brokeback’s loss?

I did a quick dash over to Kausfiles to see if he was gloating, which he was. But he was kind enough to offer the proponents of the “fear” hypothesis a slightly more plausible alternative explanation.
If the problem is really that Academy members let their fears win out over their better judgment--which I don't buy--isn't it more likely that the fears were not the Academy members own unspoken homophobic fears but fears of what their audience would think if they gave first prize to Brokeback? ... Fear of the audience--specifically, fear that the mainstream American audience will conclude you are a bunch of out-of-touch coastal liberal elitists--may in fact be the most pervasive fear in all of media.”

What makes even this alternative unlikely is that the director of the supposedly fear-inducing gay-themed film was awarded the Best Director prize and Phillip Seymour Hoffman garnered the Best Actor award portraying a famous homosexual. Is this how an Academy afraid of an anti-gay blacklash would behave? How can this be shutting the door on gay-themes?

Before conservative pundits start championing Brokeback’s loss as a victory for their side, they might want to note that Best Picture winner “Crash” is also a “topical” film centered on a cherished liberal obsession—American racism. Indeed, many critics praised the film for undermining racial stereotypes. (Although this might be a misinterpretation—Steve Sailer has argued that the film actually demonstrates how accurate those stereotypes can be.)

It seems to me that the most likely reason Crash won over Brokeback is that it has a far more appealing storyline. People would rather watch the story of a racist Irish cop heroically redeemed by rescuing a black woman than what one of my friends described as a “long, ponderous, gay march toward death.” If Crash is Homer’s Odyssey set in L.A., then Brokeback is Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. And when was the last time anyone staged Agamemnon?

(Update: Okay, okay. Stop with the emails. On reflection the reference to Homer and Aeschylus gives both movies too much credit. I only included the classical works to illustrate what different kind of stories they are, and that Crash's story is in some ways the more familiar kind. Crash does have serious problems. It is psychologically manipulative and it is topical--which is to say it seems to have a message but it really doesn't. It has topics--race and crime--but doesn't quite know what to do with them. This happens with a lot of contemporary films. They come close to having a message and then slink away from them.)

What’s more, I suspect that the “topics” involved in Crash—race, crime, prejudice—intersect with people’s lives far more than the topics—homosexuality and homophobia—raised in Brokeback. Even progressives who favor gay marriage and such things might connect more with Crash. Also, setting Crash in LA rather than in Brokeback’s rural west probably didn’t hurt.

Is it too cynical to suspect that one of the best ways to win an Oscar is to cast a lot of actors in your film? After all, a lot of actors are Academy voters and so creating a film with a large ensemble cast probably marginally increases your chances of winning.

None of which means that either film is any good. In fact, 2005 seems to have been a spectacularly bad year for big movies. Most people I talked with disliked both Brokeback and Crash. But that’s the problem with an annual award show—they have to give out the awards every year. And if it’s a year of stinkers, well, I guess they end up holding their nose while they vote for the winners.

So maybe Crash’s win didn’t exactly topple the power of the elite Hollywood Sunday night. But those who wanted the Oscars to be a celebration of the politics of Brokeback were dealt a rebuke by Academy voters not yet accustomed to following the orders commanding them to vote for this year’s pet cause. And to me, every little sign of resistance against settling in the mould of homogenous opinion is a reason to smile.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Live Blogging the First Couple of Seconds of the Oscars 

They put poor little Keira Knightly next to Jack Nicholson! That's just wrong.