The World Around Us

What does it mean to be in the world? This world, this society, what kind is it? And how does that affect us? Let me begin with the personal and put it in the context of family. Then I’ll broaden out from there.

I’ve often talked about my own set of related issues. In childhood, I was diagnosed with learning disability. I’ve also suspected I might be on the autistic spectrum which could relate to the learning disability, but that kind of thing wasn’t being diagnosed much when I was in school. Another label to throw out is specific language impairment, something I only recently read about — it maybe better fits my way of thinking than autistic spectrum disorder. After high school, specifically after a suicide attempt, I was diagnosed with depression and thought disorder, although my memory of the latter label is hazy and I’m not sure exactly what was the diagnosis. With all of this in mind, I’ve thought that some of it could have been caused by simple brain damage, since I played soccer since early childhood. Research has found that children regularly head-butting soccer balls causes repeated micro-concussions and micro-tears which leads to brain inflammation and permanent brain damage, such as lower IQ (and could be a factor in depression as well). On the other hand, there is a clear possibility of genetic and/or epigenetic factors, or else some other kind of shared environmental conditions. There are simply too many overlapping issues in my family. It’s far from being limited to me.

My mother had difficulty learning when younger. One of her brothers had even more difficulty, probably with a learning disability as I have. My grandfather dropped out of school, not that such an action was too uncommon at the time. My mother’s side of the family has a ton of mood disorders and some alcoholism. In my immediate family, my oldest brother also seems like he could be somewhere on the autistic spectrum and, like our grandfather, has been drawn toward alcoholism. My other brother began stuttering in childhood and was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, and interestingly I stuttered for a time as well but in my case it was blamed on my learning disability involving word recall. There is also a lot of depression in the family, both immediate and extended. Much of it has been undiagnosed and untreated, specifically in the older generations. But besides myself, both of my brothers have been on antidepressants along with my father and an uncle. Now, my young niece and nephew are on anti-depressants, that same niece is diagnosed with Asperger’s, the other even younger niece is probably also autistic and has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that is only what I know about.

I bring up these ailments among the next generation following my own as it indicates something serious going on in the family or else in society as a whole. I do wonder what gets epigenetically passed on with each generation worsening and, even though my generation was the first to show the strongest symptoms, it may continue to get far worse before it gets better. And it may not have anything specifically to do with my family or our immediate environment, as many of these conditions are increasing among people all across this country and in many other countries as well. The point relevant here is that, whatever else may be going on in society, there definitely were factors specifically impacting my family that seemed to hit my brothers and I around the same time. I can understand my niece and nephew going on antidepressants after their parents divorced, but there was no obvious triggering condition for my brothers and I, well besides moving into a different house in a different community.

Growing up and going into adulthood, my own issues always seemed worse, though, or maybe just more obvious. Everyone who has known me knows that I’ve struggled for decades with depression, and my learning disability adds to this. Neither of my brothers loved school, but neither of them struggled as I did, neither of them had delayed reading or went to a special education teacher. Certainly, neither of them nearly flunked out of a grade, something that would’ve happened to me in 7th grade if my family hadn’t moved. My brothers’ conditions were less severe or at least the outward signs of it were easier to hide — or maybe they are simply more talented at acting normal and conforming to social norms (unlike me, they both finished college, got married, had kids, bought houses, and got respectable professional jobs; basically the American Dream). My brother with the anxiety and stuttering learned how to manage it fairly early on, and it never seemed have a particularly negative affect on his social life, other than making him slightly less confident and much more conflict-avoidant, sometimes passive-aggressive. I’m the only one in the family who attempted suicide and was put in a psychiatric ward for my effort, the only one to spend years in severe depressive funks of dysfunction.

This caused me to think about my own problems as different, but in recent years I’ve increasingly looked at the commonalities. It occurs to me that there is an extremely odd coincidence that brings together all of these conditions, at least for my immediate family. My father developed depression in combination with anxiety during a stressful period of his life, after we moved because he got a new job. He began having moments of rapid heartbeat and it worried him. My dad isn’t an overly psychologically-oriented person, though not lacking in self-awareness, and so it is unsurprising that it took a physical symptom to get his attention. It was a mid-life crisis. Added to his stress were all the problems developing in his children. It felt like everything was going wrong.

Here is the strange part. Almost all of this started happening specifically when we moved into that new house, my second childhood home. It was a normal house, not that old. The only thing that stood out, as my father told me, was that the electricity usage was much higher than it was at the previous house, and no explanation for this was ever discovered. Both that house and the one we lived in before were in the Lower Midwest and so there were no obvious environmental differences. It only now struck me, in talking to my father again about it, that all of the family’s major neurocognitive and psychological issues began or worsened while living in that house.

About my oldest brother, he was having immense behavioral issues from childhood onward: refused to do what he was told, wouldn’t complete homework, and became passive-aggressive. He was irritable, angry, and sullen. Also, he was sick all the time, had a constant runny nose, and was tired. It turned out he had allergies that went undiagnosed for a long time, but once treated the worst symptoms went away. The thing about allergies is that it is an immune condition where the body is attacking itself. During childhood, allergies can have a profound impact on human biology, including neurocognitive and psychological development, often leaving the individual with a condition of emotional sensitivity for the rest of their lives, as if the body is stuck in permanent defensive mode. This was a traumatic time for my brother and he has never recovered from it — still seething with unresolved anger and still blaming my parents for what happened almost a half century ago.

One of his allergies was determined to be mold, which makes sense considering the house was on a shady lot. This reminds me of how some molds can produce mycotoxins. When mold is growing in a house, it can create a toxic environment with numerous symptoms for the inhabitants that can be challenging to understand and connect. Unsurprisingly, research does show that air quality is important for health and cognitive functioning. Doctors aren’t trained in diagnosing environmental risk factors and that was even more true of doctors decades ago. It’s possible that something about that house was behind all of what was going on in my family. It could have been mold or it could have been some odd electromagnetic issue or else it could have been a combination of factors. This is what is called sick building syndrome.

Beyond buildings themselves, it can also involve something brought into a building. In one fascinating example, a scientific laboratory was known to have a spooky feeling that put people at unease. After turning off a fan, this strange atmosphere went away. It was determined the fan was vibrating at a level that was affecting the human nervous system or brain. There has been research into how vibrations and electromagnetic energy can cause stressful and disturbing symptoms (the human body is so sensitive that the brain can detect the weak magnetic field of the earth, something that earlier was thought to be impossible). Wind turbines, for example, can cause the eyeball to resonate in a way to cause people to see glimpses of things that aren’t there (i.e., hallucinations). So, it isn’t always limited to something directly in a building itself but can include what is in the nearby environment. I discuss all of this in an earlier post: Stress Is Real, As Are The Symptoms.

This goes along with the moral panic about violent crime in the early part of my life during the last several decades of the 20th century. It wasn’t an unfounded moral panic, not mere mass hysteria. There really was a major spike in the rate of homicides (not to mention suicides, child abuse, bullying, gang activity, etc). All across society, people were acting more aggressive (heck, aggression became idealized, as symbolized by the ruthless Wall Street broker who wins success through social Darwinian battle of egoic will and no-holds-barred daring). Many of the perpetrators and victims of violence were in my generation. We were a bad generation, a new Lost Generation. It was the period when the Cold War was winding down and then finally ended. There was a sense of ennui in the air, as our collective purpose in fighting a shared enemy seemed less relevant and eventually disappeared altogether. But that was in the background and largely unacknowledged. Similar to the present mood, there was a vague sense of something being terribly wrong with society. Those caught up in the moral panic blamed it on all kinds of things: video games, mass media, moral decline, societal breakdown, loss of strict parenting, unsupervised latchkey kids, gangs, drugs, and on and on. With so many causes, many solutions were sought, not only in different cities and states across the United States but also around the world: increased incarceration or increased rehabilitation programs, drug wars or drug decriminalization, stop and frisk or gun control, broken window policies or improved community relations, etc. No matter what was done or not done, violent crime went down over the decades in almost every population around the planet.

It turned out the strongest correlation was also one of the simplest. Lead toxicity drastically went up in the run up to those violent decades and, depending on how quickly environmental regulations for lead control were implemented, lead toxicity dropped back down again. Decline of violent crime followed with a twenty year lag in every society (twenty years is the time for a new generation to reach adulthood). Even to this day, in any violent population from poor communities to prisons, you’ll regularly find higher lead toxicity rates. It was environmental all along and yet it’s so hard for us to grasp environmental conditions like this because they can’t be directly felt or seen. Most people still don’t know about lead toxicity, despite it being one of the most thoroughly researched areas of public health. So, there is not only sick building syndrome for entire societies can become sick. When my own family was going bonkers, it was right in the middle of this lead toxicity epidemic and we were living right outside of industrial Chicago and, prior to that, we were living in a factory town. I have wondered about lead exposure, since my generation saw the highest lead exposure rate in the 20th century and probably one of the highest since the Roman Empire started using lead water pipes, what some consider to have been the cause of its decline and fall.

There are other examples of this environmental impact. Parasite load in a population is correlated to culture of distrust and violence (parasites-stress theory of values, culture, and sociality; involving the behavioral immune system), among other problems — parasite load is connected to diverse things, both individually and collectively: low extraversion, higher conscientiousnessauthoritarianism (conformity, obedience), in-group loyalty (in situations of lower life expectancy and among populations with faster life histories)collectivism, income inequality, female oppressionconservatism, low openness to experience, support for barriers between social groups, adherence to local norms, traditionalism, religiosity, strength of family ties, in-group assortative sociality, perceived ‘ugliness’ of bodily abnormalityhomicide, child abuse, etc. Specific parasites like toxoplasmosis gondii have been proven to alter mood, personality, and behavior — this can be measured across entire populations, maybe altering the culture itself of entire regions where infection is common.

Or consider high inequality that can cause widespread bizarre and aggressive behavior, as it mimics the fear and anxiety of poverty even among those who aren’t poor. Other social conditions have various kinds of effects, in some cases with repercussions that last for centuries. But in any of these examples, the actual cause is rarely understood by many people. The corporate media and politicians are generally uninterested in reporting on what scientists have discovered, assuming scientists can get the funding to do the needed research. Large problems requiring probing thought and careful analysis don’t sell advertising nor do they sell political campaigns, and the corporations behind both would rather distract the public from public problems that would require public solutions, such as corporate regulations and higher taxation.

In our society, almost everything gets reduced to the individual. And so it is the individual who is blamed or treated or isolated, which is highly effective for social control. Put them in prison, give them a drug, scapegoat them in the media, or whatever. Anything so long as we don’t have to think about the larger conditions that shape individuals. The reality is that psychological conditions are never merely psychological. In fact, there is no psychology as separate and distinct from all else. The same is true for many physical diseases as well, such as autoimmune disorders. Most mental and physical health concerns are simply sets of loosely associated symptoms with thousands of possible causal and contributing factors. Our categorizing diseases by which drugs treat them is simply a convenience for the drug companies. But if you look deeply enough, you’ll typically find basic things that are implicated: gut dysbiosis, mitochondrial dysfunction, etc —- inflammation, for example, is found in numerous conditions, from depression and Alzheimer’s to heart disease and arthritis — the kinds of conditions that have been rapidly spreading over the past century (also, look at psychosis). Much of it is often dietary related, since in this society we are all part of the same food system and so we are all hit by the same nutrient-deficient foods, the same macronutrient ratios, the same harmful hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils/margarine, the same food additives, the same farm chemicals, the same plastic-originated hormone mimics, the same environmental toxins, etc. I’ve noticed the significant changes in my own mood, energy, and focus since turning to a low-carb, high-fat diet based mostly on whole foods and traditional foods that are pasture-fed, organic, non-GMO, local, and in season — lessening the physiological stress load. It is yet another factor that I see as related to my childhood difficulties, as diverse research has shown how powerful is diet in every aspect of health, especially neurocognitive health.

This makes it difficult for individuals in a hyper-individualistic society. We each feel isolated in trying to solve our supposedly separate problems, an impossible task, one might call it a Sisyphean task. And we rarely appreciate how much childhood development shapes us for the rest of our lives and how much environmental factors continue to influence us. We inherit so much from the world around us and the larger society we are thrown into, from our parents and the many generations before them. A society is built up slowly with the relationship between causes and consequences often not easily seen and, even when noticed, rarely appreciated. We are born and we grow up in conditions that we simply take for granted as our reality. But those conditions don’t have to be taken as fatalistic for, if we seek to understand them and embrace that understanding, we can change the very conditions that change us. This will require us first to get past our culture of blame and shame.

We shouldn’t personally identify with our health problems and struggles. We aren’t alone nor isolated. The world is continuously affecting us, as we affect others. The world is built on relationships, not just between humans and other species but involving everything around us — what some describe as embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended (we are hypersubjects among hyperobjects). The world that we inhabit, that world inhabits us, our bodies and minds. There is no world “out there” for there is no possible way for us to be outside the world. Everything going on around us shapes who we are, how we think and feel, and what we do — most importantly, shapes us as members of a society and as parts of a living biosphere, a system of systems all the way down. The personal is always the public, the individual always the collective, the human always the more than human.

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When writing pieces like this, I should try to be more balanced. I focused solely on the harm that is caused by external factors. That is a rather lopsided assessment. But there is the other side of the equation implied in everything I wrote.

As higher inequality causes massive dysfunction and misery, greater equality brings immense benefit to society as a whole and each member within it. All you have to do in order to understand this is to look to cultures of trust such as the well functioning social democracies, with the Nordic countries being the most famous examples (The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen). Or consider how, no matter your intelligence, you are better off being in an on average high IQ society than to be the smartest person in an on average low IQ society. Other people’s intelligence has greater impact on your well being and socioeconomic situation than does your own intelligence (see Hive Mind by Garett Jones).

This other side was partly pointed to in what I already wrote in the first section, even if not emphasized. For example, I pointed out how something so simple as regulating lead pollution could cause violent crime rates around the world to drop like a rock. And that was only looking at a small part of the picture. Besides impulsive behavior and aggression that can lead to violent crime, lead by itself is known to cause a wide array of problems: lowered IQ, ADHD, dyslexia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, etc; and also general health issues, from asthma to cardiovascular disease. Lead is only one among many such serious toxins, with others including cadmium and mercury. The latter is strange. Mercury can actually increase IQ, even as it causes severe dysfunction in other ways. Toxoplasmosis also can do the same for the IQ of women, even as the opposite pattern is seen in men.

The point is that solving or even lessening major public health concerns can potentially benefit the entire society, maybe even transform society. We act fatalistic about these collective conditions, as if there is nothing to be done about inequality, whether the inequality of wealth, resources, and opportunities or the inequality of healthy food, clean water, and clean air. We created these problems and we can reverse them. It often doesn’t require much effort and the costs in taking action are far less than the costs of allowing these societal wounds to fester. It’s not as if Americans lack the ability to tackle difficult challenges. Our history is filled with examples of public projects and programs with vast improvements being made. Consider the sewer socialists who were the first to offer clean water to all citizens in their cities, something that once demonstrated as successful was adopted by every other city in the United States (more or less adopted, if we ignore the continuing lead toxicity crisis).

There is no reason to give up in hopelessness, not quite yet. Let’s try to do some basic improvements first and see what happens. We can wait for environmental collapse, if and when it comes, before we resign ourselves to fatalism. It’s not a matter if we can absolutely save all of civilization from all suffering. Even if all we could accomplish is reducing some of the worst harm (e.g., aiming for less than half of the world’s population falling victim to environmental sickness and mortality), I’d call it a wild success. Those whose lives were made better would consider it worthwhile. And who knows, maybe you or your children and grandchildren will be among those who benefit.

Clusters and Confluences

A favorite topic in my family is the personality differences, psychological issues, behavioral traits, and other idiosyncracies among family members. In the immediate family and on both sides of the extended family, there are patterns that can be seen. Some of this might be genetic in origin, but no doubt there is much involving epigenetics, shared environmental conditions, parenting style, learned behavior, etc. Besides, nature and nurture are inseparable, in terms of actual people in the real world.

One example of a familial pattern is learning disabilities. I was diagnosed with learning disabilities when younger, but before my generation such diagnoses weren’t common. There appears to be some learning disabilities or rather learning style differences among some of my mother’s family. Another example is a dislike of physicality that was passed down from my paternal grandmother to my father and then to my older brother.

That latter one is interesting. My older brother has always been physically sensitive, like my dad. This to some extent goes along with an emotional sensitivity and, at least in the case of my brother, the physical sensitivity of allergies. His daughter has also taken on these psychological and physiological traits. All of these family members also have a hypersensitivity to social conditions, specifically in seeking positive responses from others.

I, on the other hand, have had an opposite cluster of factors. I was socially oblivious as a child and still maintain some degree of social indifference as an adult. My psychological and social insensitivity, although compensated for in other ways, goes hand in hand with a physical hardiness.

Unlike my paternal grandmother, father, brother, and niece, I am big-boned and more physical like my mother’s family. I even look more like my mother’s family with thicker hair, big feet, a bump on my nose, an underbite, and hazel eyes. About my physicality, it goes beyond just my body type, features, and activity level. I have such a high pain tolerance that I commonly don’t notice when I get a cut. I also don’t worry about cuts when I get them because I’m not prone to infections. I’ve always had a strong immune system and rarely get sick, but neither do I have an over-active immune system that leads to allergies.

All of this is the opposite of my older brother. He and his family are constantly getting sick, even as they constantly worry about germs and try to protect themselves. I played in filthy creeks as a child with exposed cuts and was far healthier than my cleanliness-obsessed brother who, when younger, panicked if his new shoes got scuffed.

It’s strange how these kinds of things tend to group together. It indicates a possible common cause or set of causes. That would likely be some particular combination of nature and nurture. I not only take more after my mother’s family for I also spent more time with my mother as a child than did my brothers, since she took time off from work when I was born (I was the third and last child, although fourth pregnancy following a miscarriage). My brothers didn’t get the same opportunity. So, I was also more likely to pick up behaviors from her. Between my brothers and I, only I am able to relate well with my mother. In particular, my older brother’s sensitivity is in constant conflict with my mother’s insensitivity. But I’m used to my mother’s way of relating, allowing me to better understand and sympathize, not to mention be more forgiving, partly because I share some of her tendencies.

Why is one kind of high sensitivity often related to other high sensitivities: emotional, social, pain, immune system, allergies, etc? And why is the opposite pattern seen with low sensitivities? What causes these clustered differences? And how can two such distinct clusters be found among siblings, sometimes even identical twins, who shared many factors?

It makes me curious.

It’s not just conditions like allergies and intolerances. There are similar clusters of neurocognitive, behavioral, and health conditions observed in various immune system disorders, the autism spectrum, fragile x syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and other nutritional/dietary/intestinal issues, migraines, ADHD, toxoplasmosis and parasite load, heavy metal toxicity such as lead and mercury, etc. When there is one abnormal symptom or developmental issue, there are often others that show up at the same time or later on. This can involve such things as depression, anxiety, IQ, learning disabilities, irritability, impulse control issues, emotional instability, suicidal tendencies, accident proneness, etc along with more basic issues like asthma, diabetes, obesity, and much else.

In some cases, such as lead toxicity, the causal mechanisms are known as the toxin impacts every part of the body, especially the brain and nervous system. Or consider toxoplasmosis which apparently can alter the rates of personality traits in a population, along with differences in health consequences and social results, whatever is the exact chain of causation. But sometimes the correlations are far less clear and certain in their causal relationship. For example, what is the possible connection(s) between depressive tendencies, anger issues, addictive behaviors, learning difficulties, and physical hardiness among my maternal family?

There was a particular conversation that inspired this line of thought. My parents and I were discussing many of the above issues. But a major focus was on sleep patterns. My brother, like my dad, has a difficulty getting up and moving in the morning. They both tend to feel groggy when first waking up and prefer to remain physically inactive for a long period after. They also both find it hard to fall asleep and, in the case of my dad, a problem of waking up in the middle of the night. My mom and I, however, don’t have any of these issues. We fall asleep easily, typically stay asleep throughout the night, and wake up quickly. So, the difference between sensitivity and insensitivity impacts every aspect of life, even sleeping and waking.

Oftentimes, in our society, we blame individuals for the way they are. We act like people have a choice about how they feel and what motivates them. But it’s not as if because of moral superiority and strength of will that I’ve chosen to sleep well, have a strong immune system, feel physically energetic, and generally be insensitive. No more than I chose to have a learning disability and severe depression. It’s simply the way I’ve always been.

There is obviously much more going on here than mere genetics. And so genetic determinism is intellectually unsatisfying, even as some might find it personally convenient as a way of rationalizing differences. We have too much data proving environmental and epigenetic causes. A recent study could only find a few percentage of genes correlated to intelligence and, even then, they couldn’t prove a causal connection. The same thing is seen with so much other correlation research. The way various clusters form, as I argue, implies a complex web of factors that as of yet we don’t come close to understanding.

One intriguing connection that has been found is that between the brain and the gut. There are more neurons in the lining of the gastrointestinal system (the enteric nervous system) than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system. This is often called the “second brain,” but in evolutionary terms it was the earliest part of the brain. This is why there has been proven such a close relationship between intestinal health, diet, nutrition, microbiome, neurotransmitters, and mood. The human brain isn’t limited to the skull. The importance of this is demonstrated by introducing a new microbiome into the gut which can lead to physiological and pyschological changes.

Much else, however, remains a mystery. Seemingly minor changes in initial conditions, even epigenetic changes from prior generations, can lead to major changes in results. There can be a cascade of effects that follow. As I’ve previously stated, “This is because of the cumulative effect of initial conditions. One thing leads to another. Lowered nutrition or increased toxicity has its impact which gets magnified by such things as school tracking. Each effect becoming a cause and all the causal factors combining to form significant differences in end results.”

Later conditions can either lessen or exacerbate these results. Even epigenetics, by way of altered environmental conditions, can be switched back the opposite direction in a single generation with results that we know little about. Now consider the complexity of reality where there are millions of factors involved, with only a tiny fraction of those factors having been discovered and studied in scientific research. Those multitudinous factors act in combined ways that couldn’t be predicted by any single factor. All of this has to be kept in mind at the very moment in history when humans are ignorantly and carelessly throwing in further factors with unknown consequences such as the diversity of largely untested chemicals in our food and other products, not to mention large-scale environmental changes.

We don’t live at a society ruled by the precautionary principle. Instead, our collective ignorance makes us even more brazen in our actions and more indifferent to the results. The measured increase in certain physical and mental health conditions could be partly just an increase in diagnosis, but it’s more probable that at least some of the increase is actual. We are progressing in some ways as a society such as seen with the Moral Flynn Effect, but this is balanced by an Amoral Flynn Effect along with many other unintended consequences.

Along with this, our society has a lack of appreciation for the larger context such as historical legacies and a lack of respect for the power of larger forces such as environmental conditions. We are born into a world created by others, each generation forming a new layer upon the ground below. We are facing some tough issues here. And we aren’t prepared to deal with them.

As individuals, the consequences are laid upon our shoulders, without our realizing all that we have inherited and have had externalized onto our lives, as we grow up internalizing these realities and coming to identify with them. Each of us does the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt, but in the process we get more praise and blame than we deserve. The individual, as the product of collective forces, is the ultimate scapegoat of society. The lives we find ourselves in are a confluence of currents and undercurrents, the interference pattern of waves. Yet, in our shared ignorance and incomprehension, we are simply who we are.

* * * *

The Ending of the Nature vs Nurture Debate
Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc
What Genetics Does And Doesn’t Tell Us
Weak Evidence, Weak Argument: Race, IQ, Adoption
Identically Different: A Scientist Changes His Mind
What do we inherit? And from whom?
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
The Desperate Acting Desperately
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope
Society: Precarious or Persistent?
Plowing the Furrows of the Mind
Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery.
Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

How do we make the strange familiar?

I’ve been simultaneously looking at two books: This is Your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe. And Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs. The two relate, with the latter offering a larger context for the former. The theme of both might well be summed up with the word ‘strange’. The world is strange and becoming ever stranger. We are becoming aware of how utterly bizarre the world is, both within us and all around us.

The first is not only about parasites, despite the catchy title. It goes so far beyond just that. After all, most of the genetic material we carry around with us, including within our brains, is non-human. It’s not merely that we are part of environments for we are environments. We are mobile ecosystems with boundaries that are fluid and permeable.

For a popular science book, it covers a surprising amount of territory and done so with more depth than one might expect. Much of the research discussed is preliminary and exploratory, as the various scientific fields have been slow to emerge. This might be because of how much they challenge the world as we know it and society as it is presently ordered. There are other psychological factors the author details such as the resistance humans have in dealing with topics of perceived disgust.

To summarize the book, McAuliffe explores the conclusions and implications of research involving parasitism and microbiomes in terms of neurocognitive functioning, behavioral tendencies, personality traits, political ideologies, population patterns, social structures, and culture. She offers some speculations of those involved in these fields, and what makes the speculations interesting is how they demonstrate the potential challenges of these new understandings. Whether or not we wish to take the knowledge and speculations seriously, the real world consequences will remain to be dealt with somehow.

The most obvious line of thought is the powerful influence of environments. The world around us doesn’t just effect us. It shapes who we are at a deep level and so shapes our entire society. There is no way to separate the social world from the natural world. This isn’t fatalism, since we also shape our environments. The author points to the possibility that Western societies have been liberalized at least partly because of the creation of healthier conditions that allow human flourishing. All of the West not that long ago was dominated by fairly extreme forms of social conservatism, violent ethnocentrism, authoritarian systems, etc. Yet in the generations following the creation of sewer systems, clean water, environmental regulations and improved healthcare, there was a revolution in Western social values along with vast improvements in human development.

In terms of intelligence, some call this the Moral Flynn Effect, a convergence of diverse improvements. And there is no reason to assume it will stop and won’t spread further. We know the problems we face. We basically understand what those problems are, what causes them and alleviates them, even if not entirely eliminates them. So, we know what we should do, assuming we actually wanted to create a better world. Most importantly, we have the monetary wealth, natural resources, and human capacity to implement what needs to be done. It’s not a mystery, not beyond our comprehension and ability. But the general public has so far lacked this knowledge, for it takes a while for new info and understandings to spread — e.g., Enlightenment ideas developed over centuries and it wasn’t until the movable type printing press became common that revolutions began. The ruling elite, as in the past, will join in solving these problems when fear of the masses forces them to finally act. Or else the present ruling elite will itself be eliminated, as happened with previous societies.

What is compelling about this book are the many causal links and correlations shown. It matches closely with what is seen from other fields, forming a picture that can’t be ignored. It’s probably no accident that ethnocentric populations, socially conservative societies, authoritarian governments, and strict religions all happen to be found where there are high rates of disease, parasites, toxins, malnutrition, stress, poverty, inequality, etc — all the conditions that stunt and/or alter physical, neurocognitive, and psychological development.

For anti-democratic ruling elites, there is probably an intuitive or even conscious understanding that the only way to maintain social control is through keeping the masses to some degree unhealthy and stunted. If you let people develop more of their potential, they will start demanding more. If you let intelligence increase and education improve, individuals will start thinking for themselves and the public imagining new possibilities.

Maybe its unsurprising that American conservatives have seen the greatest threat not just in public education but, more imporantly, in public health. The political right doesn’t fear the failures of the political left, the supposed wasted use of tax money. No, what they fear is that the key leftist policies have been proven to work. The healthier, smarter, and better educated people become the more they develop attitudes of social liberalism and anti-authoritarianism, which leads toward the possibility of radical imagination and radical action. Until people are free to more fully develop their potentials, freedom is a meaningless and empty abstraction. The last thing the political right wants, and sadly this includes many mainstream ‘liberals’, is a genuinely free population.

This creates a problem. The trajectory of Western civilization for centuries has been the improvement of all these conditions that seems to near inevitably create a progressive society. That isn’t to say the West is perfect. Far from it. But imagine what kind of world it would be if universal healthcare and education was provided to every person on the planet. This is within the realm of possibility at this very moment, if we so chose to invest our resources in this way. It’s nothing special about the West and even in the West there are still large parts of the population living in severe deprivation and oppression. In a single generation, we could transform civilization and solve (or at least shrink to manageable size) the worst social problems. There is absolutely nothing stopping us but ourselves. Instead, Western governments have been using their vast wealth and power to dominate other countries, making the world a worst place in the process, helping to create the very conditions that further undermine any hope for freedom and democracy. Blowing up hospitals, destroying infrastructure, and banning trade won’t lead to healthier and more peaceful populations; if anything, the complete opposite.

A thought occurred to me. If environmental conditions are so important to how individuals and societies form, then maybe political ideologies are less key than we think or else not as important in the way we normally think about them. Our beliefs about our society might be more result than cause (maybe the limited healthcare availability in the American South being a central factor in maintaining its historical conservatism and authoritarianism). We have a hard time thinking outside of the conditions that have shaped our very minds.

That isn’t to say there is no feedback loop where ideology can reinforce the conditions that made it possible. The point is that free individuals aren’t fully possible in an unfree society where individuals aren’t free on a practical level to develop toward optimal health and ability. As such, fights over ideology miss an important point. The actual fight needs to be over the conditions that precede any particular ideological framing and conflict. On a practical level, we would be better off investing money and resources where it is needed most and in ways that practically improve lives, rather than simply imprisoning populations into submission and bombing entire societies into oblivion, either of which worsens the problems for those people and for everyone else as well. The best way to fight crime and terrorism would be by improving the lives for all people. Imagine that!

The only reason we can have a public debate now is because we have finally come to the point in society where conditions have improved just enough where these issues are finally comprehensible, as we have begun to see their real world impact in improving society. It would have been fruitless trying to have a public debate about public goods such as public healthcare and public education in centuries past when even the notion of a ‘public’ still seemed radical. The conditions for a public with a voice to be heard had to first be created. Once that was in place, it is unsurprising that it required radicals like socialists to take it to the next level in suggesting the creation of public sanitation and public bakeries, based on the idea that health was a priority, if not an individual right then a social responsibility. Now, these kinds of socialist policies have become the norm in Western societies, the most basic level of a social safety net.

As I began reading McAuliffe’s book, I came across Higgs’ book. It wasn’t immediately apparent that there was a connection between the two. Reading some reviews and interviews showed the importance Higgs placed on the role (hyper-)individualism has played this past century. And upon perusing the book, it became clear that he understood how this went beyond philosophy and politics, touching upon every aspect of our society, most certainly including science.

It was useful thinking about the issue of micro-organisms in a larger historical context. McAuliffe doesn’t shy away from the greater implications, but her writing was focused on a single area of study. To both of these books, we could also add such things as the research on epigentics which might further help transform our entire understanding of humanity. Taken together, it is clear that we are teetering on the edge of a paradigm shift, of the extent only seen a few times before. We live in a transitional era, but it isn’t a smooth transition. As Higgs argues, the 20th century has been a rupture, what having developed not being fully explicable according to what came before.

We are barely beginning to scratch the surface of our own ignorance, which is to say our potential new knowledge. We know just enough to realize how wrong mainstream views have been in the past. Our society was built upon and has been operating according to beliefs that have been proven partial, inaccurate, and false. The world is more complex and fascinating than we previously acknowledged.

Realizing we have been so wrong, how do we make it right going forward? What will it take for us to finally confront what we’ve ignored for so long? How do we make the strange familiar?

* * *

Donald Trump: Stranger Than We Can Imagine?
by David McConkey

Why Jeremy Corbyn makes sense in the age of the selfie
By John Higgs

Stranger Than We Can Imagine:
Making Sense of the Twentieth Century
by John Higgs
pp. 308-310

In the words of the American social physicist Alex Pentland, “It is time that we dropped the fiction of individuals as the unit of rationality, and recognised that our rationality is largely determined by the surrounding social fabric. Instead of being actors in markets, we are collaborators in determining the public good.” Pentland and his team distributed smartphones loaded with tracking software to a number of communities in order to study the vast amount of data the daily interactions of large groups generated. They found that the overriding factor in a whole range of issues, from income to weight gain and voting intentions, was not individual free will but the influence of others. The most significant factor deciding whether you would eat a doughnut was not willpower or good intentions, but whether everyone else in the office took one. As Pentland discovered, “The single biggest factor driving adoption of new behaviours was the behaviour of peers. Put another way, the effects of this implicit social learning were roughly the same size as the influence of your genes on your behaviour, or your IQ on your academic performance.”

A similar story is told by the research into child development and neuroscience. An infant is not born with language, logic and an understanding of how to behave in society. They are instead primed to acquire these skills from others. Studies of children who have been isolated from the age of about six months, such as those abandoned in the Romanian orphanages under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, show that they can never recover from the lost social interaction at that crucial age. We need others, it turns out, in order to develop to the point where we’re able to convince ourselves that we don’t need others.

Many aspects of our behaviour only make sense when we understand their social role. Laughter, for example, creates social bonding and strengthens ties within a group. Evolution did not make us make those strange noises for our own benefit. In light of this, it is interesting that there is so much humour on the internet.

Neuroscientists have come to view our sense of “self,” the idea that we are a single entity making rational decisions, as no more than a quirk of the mind. Brain-scanning experiments have shown that the mental processes that lead to an action, such as deciding to press a button, occur a significant period before the conscious brain believes it makes the decision to press the button. This does not indicate a rational individual exercising free will. It portrays the conscious mind as more of a spin doctor than a decision maker, rationalising the actions of the unconscious mind after the fact. As the Canadian-British psychologist Bruce Hood writes, “Our brain creates the experience of our self as a model – a cohesive, integrated character – to make sense of the multitude of experiences that assault our senses throughout our lifetime.”

In biology an “individual” is an increasingly complicated word to define. A human body, for example, contains ten times more non-human bacteria than it does human cells. Understanding the interaction between the two, from the immune system to the digestive organs, is necessary to understand how we work. This means that the only way to study a human is to study something more than that human.

Individualism trains us to think of ourselves as isolated, self-willed units. That description is not sufficient, either biologically, socially, psychologically, emotionally or culturally. This can be difficult to accept if you were raised in the twentieth century, particularly if your politics use the idea of a free individual as your primary touchstone. The promotion of individualism can become a core part of a person’s identity, and something that must be defended. This is ironic, because where did that idea come from? Was it created by the person who defends their individualism? Does it belong to them? In truth, that idea was, like most ideas, just passing through.

* * *

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder

The Desperate Acting Desperately

Homelessness and Mental Illness

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Morality-Punishment Link

Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class

Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine

Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

Moral Flynn Effect?

Racists Losing Ground: Moral Flynn Effect?

Immoral/Amoral Flynn Effect?

Of Mice and Men and Environments

What do we inherit? And from whom?

Radical & Moderate Enlightenments: Revolution & Reaction, Science & Religion

No One Knows

An Invisible Debt Made Visible

Externalized costs have been on my mind for a very long time. Ours is a self-enclosed biosphere. All costs are ultimately internal, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.

My sense of the political has been rooted in environmentalism, from early on in my life. This worldview has been informed by a larger environmental sense of the world, including the social and economic environment. It’s always been how I experience reality, as something far beyond the false divisions we create and reify—between individual and collective, self and world, society and nature.

My young political sensibility was expressed in school papers I wrote about externalized costs, a gut level intuition about what was being lost. These papers were about overpopulation and pollution. Now here I am as an adult and everything has gotten far worse, some might say beyond the point of no return.

Pollution and environmental destruction knows no boundary. The natural world cares not about our ideological beliefs. It doesn’t matter who is fault when the costs come due. The free market is and always was bullshit. Nothing is free, even if we don’t see the price tag. In fact, capitalism is rather costly. The ultimate cost might be greater than we can afford.

These costs are highly personal. I’ve talked many times about lead toxicity, the costs of which are numerous and yet still measurable. For every IQ point lost to lead toxicity, it is a specific amount of money lost in lifetime earnings. Multiply that by many IQ points lost for untold millions of people. The costs are devastating and that is considering just one of many costs.

Considering all pollution and environmental degradation, that is the cause of 40% of the deaths worldwide. Those deaths include working men and women who were helping care for family members. Those deaths represent human potential thrown away. Those deaths didn’t just happen instantly but followed years or even decades of illnesses, suffering, and healthcare costs.

Other costs are also economic on the larger scale, which also can be measured. For a long time, I’ve suspected that many corporations would go bankrupt if they were ever forced to pay for their externalized costs. This was shown to be the case with a recent UN report:

“The report found that when you took the externalized costs into effect, essentially NONE of the industries was actually making a profit. The huge profit margins being made by the world’s most profitable industries (oil, meat, tobacco, mining, electronics) is being paid for against the future: we are trading long term sustainability for the benefit of shareholders. Sometimes the environmental costs vastly outweighed revenue, meaning that these industries would be constantly losing money had they actually been paying for the ecological damage and strain they were causing.”

This means these industries are environmentally a net loss to the global society. They aren’t contributing more to society than they are taking away. All the rhetoric of capitalism, meritocracy, and progress is lies built upon lies.

We obsess about individual problems when that isn’t the real danger we face. We make people feel guilty about recycling at home while corporations throw out so much potential recyclables as to make all the rest look minuscule. Similarly, almost all the pollution comes from big biz, not from people driving their cars too much or whatever. If we wanted to make a dent in these problems, we’d tackle it at the largest level of the most major contributors to these problems, instead of tinkering around the edges.

Meanwhile, these companies that profit from human misery, from the forced sacrifice of present and future generations lobby the world’s governments so that they’ll make even greater profit. They get tax breaks and subsidies. They hide their profits in fake businesses and secret overseas accounts. We debate about whether taxes are too high when any rational and moral person is forced to admit that taxes don’t come close to offsetting all the costs these filthy rich corporations force onto the rest of society.

Why do we tolerate this? Are we mentally deranged? Are we suicidal?

If the unsustainable costs of industrial externalities doesn’t incite mass outrage and force systemic global reform, then there is no hope left for humanity. We are doomed. Saving capitalism from communism will be the least of anyone’s worries.

Is anyone paying attention? It’s only the survival of civilization as we know it. No biggie. Have we grown so cynical and fearful that we can’t even face reality barreling down on us like a freight train? We are looking at a nightmare scenario.

Costs can be externalized and deferred. But costs can’t be denied.
Even if we are lucky enough to die before costs become due, do we really want to be such sociopathic assholes in the legacy we leave for the coming generations, for our children and grandchildren? They will curse us for what we did and failed to do.

We will be among the most hated generations ever born. There will be no forgiveness for us. Memorials will be built in memory of the evil we committed and the destruction we caused.

Of course, we could in this moment begin to lessen some of this harm. We could prepare for the consequences we’ve unleashed. We could give these next generations a fighting chance. Will we?

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

A paradigm change has been happening. The shift began long ago, but it’s starting to gain traction in the mainstream. Here is one recent example, an article from Psychology Today—Anxiety and Depression Are Symptoms, Not Diseases by Gregg Henriques Ph.D.:

“Depression is a way the emotional system signals that things are not working and that one is not getting one’s relational needs met. If you are low on relational value in the key domains of family, friends, lovers, group and self, feeling depressed in this context is EXACTLY like feeling pain from a broken arm, feeling cold being outside in the cold, and feeling hungry after going 24 hours without food.

“It is worth noting that, given the current structure of society, depression often serves not to help reboot the system and enlist social support, but instead contributes to the further isolation of the individual, which creates a nasty, vicious spiral of shutting down, doing less, feeling more isolated, turning against the self, and thus getting even more depressed. As such, depressive symptoms often do contribute to the problem, and folks do suffer from Negative Affect Syndromes, where extreme negative moods are definitely part of the problem.

“BUT, everyone should be clear, first and foremost, that anxiety and depression are symptoms of psychosocial needs and threats. They should NOT be, first and foremost, considered alien feelings that need to be eliminated or fixed, any more than we would treat pain from a broken arm, coldness and hunger primarily with pills that takes away the feelings, as opposed to fixing the arm, getting warmer or feeding the hungry individual.”

It’s a pretty good article. The focus on symptoms seems like the right way to frame it. This touch upon larger issues. I’d widen the scope even further. Once we consider the symptoms, it opens up a whole slew of possibilities.

There is the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. The author discusses the rat park research, showing that addiction isn’t an individual disease but a social problem. Change the conditions and the results change. Basically, people are healthier, happier, and more well-adjusted in environments that are conducive to satisfying basic needs.

Then there is James Gilligan’s Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, an even more hard-hitting book. It shows (among other things) suicide rates go up when Republicans are elected. As I recall, other data shows that suicide rates go up in other societies as well, when conservatives are elected.

There are other factors that are directly correlated to depression rates and other mental health issues.

Some are purely physical. Toxoplasmosis is an example of that, and its related parasitic load that stunts brain development. Many examples could be added, from malnutrition to lack of healthcare.

Plus, there are problems that involve both the physical environment and social environment. Lead toxicity causes mental health problems, including depression. The rates of lead toxicity depend on how strong and effective are regulations, which in turn depends on the type of government and who is in power.

A wide variety of research and data is pointing to a basic conclusion. Environmental conditions (physical, social, political, and economic) are of penultimate importance. So, why do we treat as sick individuals those who suffer the consequences of the externalized costs of society?

Here is the sticking point. Systemic and collective problems in some ways are the easiest to deal with. The problems, once understood, are essentially simple and their solutions tend to be straightforward. Even so, the very largeness of these problems make them hard for us to confront. We want someone to blame. But who do we blame when the entire society is dysfunctional?

If we recognize the problems as symptoms, we are forced to acknowledge our collective agency and shared fate. For those who understand this, they are up against countervailing forces that maintain the status quo. Even if a psychiatrist realizes that their patient is experiencing the symptoms of larger social issues, how is that psychiatrist supposed to help the patient? Who is going to diagnose the entire society and demand it seek rehabilitation?

To Grow Up Fast

There are many questions that should be asked and answered. For example:

Why does it suck so much to be forced to miss having a childhood in order to grow up fast?

And related to it:

Why are people who grow up in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods different than those who have coddled childhoods? Why do those living in violent, war-torn communities struggle so much? Why is it so hard for those without freedom, opportunity, and resources to live up to their full potential?

Why do desperate people act desperately? Why do isolated, stressed people become addicts? Why do unhealthy conditions create unhealthy people? Why does poisoning children lead to dysfunction and violence?

Many, many questions. But the most important question of all: Why do the privileged and comfortable so rarely ask these questions?

* * *

Young Mice, Like Children, Can Grow Up Too Fast
by Alison Gopnik, WSJ

In the new experiment, published in 2015 in the same journal, the researchers looked at how the young mice reacted to early stress. Some of the mice were separated from their mothers for 60 or 180 minutes a day, although the youngsters were kept warm and fed just like the other mice. Mice normally get all their care from their mother, so even this brief separation is very stressful.

The stressed mice actually developed more quickly than the secure mice. As adolescents they looked more like adults: They were less exploratory and flexible, and not as good at reversal learning. It seemed that they grew up too fast. And they were distinctive in another way. They were more likely to drink large quantities of ethanol—thus, more vulnerable to the mouse equivalent of alcoholism.

These results fit with an emerging evolutionary approach to early stress. Childhood is a kind of luxury, for mice as well as men, a protected period in which animals can learn, experiment and explore, while caregivers look after their immediate needs.

Early stress may act as a signal to animals that this special period is not a luxury that they can afford—they are in a world where they can’t rely on care. Animals may then adopt a “live fast, die young” strategy, racing to achieve enough adult competence to survive and reproduce, even at the cost of less flexibility, fewer opportunities for learning and more vulnerability to alcohol.

This may be as true for human children as it is for mouse pups. Early life stress is associated with earlier puberty, and a 2013 study by Nim Tottenham and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that children who spent their early years in orphanages prematurely developed adultlike circuitry in the parts of the brain that govern fear and anxiety.

Of Mice and Men and Environments

Here is one of the most important issues we face. It effects a wide array of scientific research. But it also has vast implications for our lives and our entire society. It is about the power of environments, including even the slightest of differences.

A mouse’s house may ruin experiments
Environmental factors lie behind many irreproducible rodent experiments.
by Sara Reardon, Nature Journal

It’s no secret that therapies that look promising in mice rarely work in people. But too often, experimental treatments that succeed in one mouse population do not even work in other mice, suggesting that many rodent studies may be flawed from the start.

“We say mice are simpler, but I think the problem is deeper than that,” says Caroline Zeiss, a veterinary neuropathologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Researchers rarely report on subtle environmental factors such as their mice’s food, bedding or exposure to light; as a result, conditions vary widely across labs despite an enormous body of research showing that these factors can significantly affect the animals’ biology.

“It’s sort of surprising how many people are surprised by the extent of the variation” between mice that receive different care, says Cory Brayton, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. At a meeting on mouse models at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Hinxton, UK, on 9–11 February, she and others explored the many biological factors that prevent mouse studies from being reproduced.

I came across this issue in a book by David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us. The book is about genetics and IQ. But he brings up many other issues, such as the difficulties and problems of research.

He discusses a mouse study that demonstrates the power of environmental factors. It is far worse than the above article indicates. Even when all known factors are carefully controlled, the results can still be far different, to the point of being divergent in particular areas.

Below is the passage from Shenk’s book (Kindle Locations 1624-1657). I’ve shared before, but it bears repeating.

To say that there is much we don’t control in our lives is a dramatic understatement, roughly on the order of saying that the universe is a somewhat large place. To begin with, there are many influences we can’t even detect. In 1999 , Oregon neuroscientist John C . Crabbe led a study on how mice reacted to alcohol and cocaine. Crabbe was already an expert on the subject and had run many similar studies, but this one had a special twist: he conducted the exact same study at the same time in three different locations (Portland , Oregon; Albany, New York; and Edmonton, Alberta) in order to gauge the reliability of the results. The researchers went to “extraordinary lengths” to standardize equipment, methods, and lab environment: identical genetic mouse strains, identical food, identical bedding, identical cages, identical light schedule, etc. They did virtually everything they could think of to make the environments of the mice the same in all three labs.

Somehow, though, invisible influences intervened. With the scientists controlling for nearly everything they could control, mice with the exact same genes behaved differently depending on where they lived. And even more surprising: the differences were not consistent, but zigged and zagged across different genetic strains and different locations. In Portland, one strain was especially sensitive to cocaine and one especially insensitive , compared to the same strains in other cities. In Albany, one particular strain— just the one— was especially lazy. In Edmonton , the genetically altered mice tended to be just as active as the wild mice, whereas they were more active than the wild mice in Portland and less active than the wild mice in Albany. It was a major hodgepodge.

There were also predictable results. Crabbe did see many expected similarities across each genetic strain and consistent differences between the strains. These were, after all, perfect genetic copies being raised in painstakingly identical environments. But it was the unpredicted differences that caught everyone’s attention. “Despite our efforts to equate laboratory environments, significant and, in some cases, large effects of site were found for nearly all variables,” Crabbe concluded. “Furthermore, the pattern of strain differences varied substantially among the sites for several tests.”

Wow. This was unforeseen, and it turned heads . Modern science is built on standardization; new experiments change one tiny variable from a previous study or a control group, and any changes in outcome point crisply to cause and effect. The notion of hidden, undetectable differences throws all of that into disarray. How many assumptions of environmental sameness have been built right into conclusions over the decades?

What if there really is no such thing? What if the environment turns out to be less like a snowball that one can examine all around and more like the tip of an iceberg with lurking unknowables? How does that alter the way we think about biological causes and effects?

Something else stood out in Crabbe’s three-city experiment : gene-environment interplay . It wasn’t just that hidden environmental differences had significantly affected the results. It was also clear that these hidden environments had affected different mouse strains in different ways— clear evidence of genes interacting dynamically with environmental forces.

But the biggest lesson of all was how much complexity emerged from such a simple model. These were genetically pure mice in standard lab cages. Only a handful of known variables existed between groups. Imagine the implications for vastly more complex animals— animals with highly developed reasoning capability, complex syntax, elaborate tools, living in vastly intricate and starkly distinct cultures and jumbled genetically into billions of unique identities. You’d have a degree of GxE volatility that would boggle any scientific mind— a world where, from the very first hours of life, young ones experienced so many hidden and unpredictable influences from genes, environment, and culture that there’d be simply no telling what they would turn out like.

Such is our world. Each human child is his/ her own unique genetic entity conceived in his/ her own distinctive environment , immediately spinning out his/ her own unique interactions and behaviors. Who among these children born today will become great pianists, novelists, botanists , or marathoners? Who will live a life of utter mediocrity? Who will struggle to get by? We do not know.

Self, Other, & World

The New Science of the Mind:
From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology
by Mark Rowlands
Kindle Locations 54-62

The new way of thinking about the mind is inspired by, and organized around, not the brain but some combination of the ideas that mental processes are (1) embodied, (2) embedded, (3) enacted, and (4) extended. Shaun Gallagher has referred to this, in conversation, as the 4e conception of the mind.4 The idea that mental processes are embodied is, very roughly, the idea that they are partly constituted by, partly made up of, wider (i.e., extraneural) bodily structures and processes. The idea that mental processes cesses are embedded is, again roughly, the idea that mental processes have been designed to function only in tandem with a certain environment that lies outside the brain of the subject. In the absence of the right environmental mental scaffolding, mental processes cannot do what they are supposed to do, or can only do what they are supposed to so less than optimally. The idea that mental processes are enacted is the idea that they are made up not just of neural processes but also of things that the organism does more generally-that they are constituted in part by the ways in which an organism ism acts on the world and the ways in which world, as a result, acts back on that organism. The idea that mental processes are extended is the idea that they are not located exclusively inside an organism’s head but extend out, in various ways, into the organism’s environment.

On animism, multinaturalism, & cosmopolitics
by Adrian J Ivakhiv

If, as Latour argues, we are no longer to rely on the singular foundation of a nature that speaks to us through the singular voice of science, then we are thrown into a world in which humans are thought to resemble, in some measure, all other entities (think Darwin alongside Amazonian shamanism) and to radically differ, though in ways that are bridgeable through translation. This would be a world that demands an ontological politics, or a cosmopolitics, by which the choices open to us with respect to the different ways we can entangle ourselves with places, non-humans, technologies, and the material world as a whole, become ethically inflected open questions.

Can “Late Antiquity” Be Saved?
by Philip Rousseau

This issue of a Eurocentric “take” on the late Roman world now finds itself swept up into what has been termed the “ontological turn,” which I suppose is where the “new humanities” come in. More and more people are becoming familiar with this debate. It centers chiefly on a conviction that, in any one place at any one time, the people alive there and then had a sense of “reality” — a word we’re quite rightly not entirely happy with — that was unique to themselves. Indeed, more than a sense: their understanding of “that which is the case” was not simply a symbolizing reaction to a set of experiences that we otherwise share with them although respond to differently — that is, the material, anthropocentric, individualized world that we tend to suppose has always been “out there.” They (like many now) lived in a world (rather than just in a frame of mind) that was itself totally different from the world that we (whoever “we” are) experience. Actually (another tell-tale word), phenomenology, cognitive science, and quantum physics, if nothing else, have shown us what a far from enduring particularity the “out there” world is.

Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past:
The Case for an Ontological Turn
by Greg Anderson

Our discipline’s grand historicist project, its commitment to producing a kind of cumulative biography of our species, imposes strict limits on the kinds of stories we can tell about the past. Most immediately, our histories must locate all of humanity’s diverse lifeworlds within the bounds of a single, universal “real world” of time, space, and experience. To do this, they must render experiences in all those past lifeworlds duly commensurable and mutually intelligible. And to do this, our histories must use certain commonly accepted models and categories, techniques and methods. The fundamental problem here is that all of these tools of our practice presuppose a knowledge of experience that is far from universal, as postcolonial theorists and historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty have so well observed. In effect, these devices require us to “translate” the experiences of all past lifeworlds into the experiences of just one lifeworld, namely those of a post-Enlightenment “Europe,” the world of our own secular, capitalist modernity. In so doing, they actively limit our ability to represent the past’s many non-secular, non-capitalist, non-modern “ways of being
human.” […]

This ontological individualism would have been scarcely intelligible to, say, the inhabitants of precolonial Bali or Hawai’i, where the divine king or chief, the visible incarnation of the god Lono, was “the condition of possibility of the community,” and thus “encompasse[d] the people in his own person, as a projection of his own being,” such that his subjects were all “particular instances of the chief’s existence.”
12 It would have been barely imaginable, for that matter, in the world of medieval Europe, where conventional wisdom proverbially figured sovereign and subjects as the head and limbs of a single, primordial “body politic” or corpus mysticum. 13 And the idea of a natural, presocial individual would be wholly confounding to, say, traditional Hindus and the Hagen people of Papua New Guinea, who objectify all persons as permeable, partible “dividuals” or “social microcosms,” as provisional embodiments of all the actions, gifts, and accomplishments of others that have made their lives possible.1

We alone in the modern capitalist west, it seems, regard individuality as the true, primordial estate of the human person. We alone believe that humans are always already unitary, integrated selves, all born with a natural, presocial disposition to pursue a rationally calculated self-interest and act competitively upon our no less natural, no less presocial rights to life, liberty, and private property. We alone are thus inclined to see forms of sociality, like relations of kinship, nationality, ritual, class, and so forth, as somehow contingent, exogenous phenomena, not as essential constituents of our very subjectivity, of who or what we really are as beings. And we alone believe that social being exists to serve individual being, rather than the other way round. Because we alone imagine that individual humans are free-standing units in the first place, “unsocially sociable” beings who ontologically precede whatever “society” our self-interest prompts us to form at any given time.

Beyond Nature and Culture
by Philippe Descola
Kindle Locations 241-262.

Not so very long ago one could delight in the curiosities of the world without making any distinction between the information obtained from observing animals and that which the mores of antiquity or the customs of distant lands presented. “Nature was one” and reigned everywhere, distributing equally among humans and nonhumans a multitude of technical skills, ways of life, and modes of reasoning. Among the educated at least, that age came to an end a few decades after Montaigne’s death, when nature ceased to be a unifying arrangement of things, however disparate, and became a domain of objects that were subject to autonomous laws that formed a background against which the arbitrariness of human activities could exert its many-faceted fascination. A new cosmology had emerged, a prodigious collective invention that provided an unprecedented framework for the development of scientific thought and that we, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, continue, in a rather offhand way, to protect. The price to be paid for that simplification included one aspect that it has been possible to overlook, given that we have not been made to account for it: while the Moderns were discovering the lazy propensity of barbaric and savage peoples to judge everything according to their own particular norms, they were masking their own ethnocentricity behind a rational approach to knowledge, the errors of which at that time escaped notice. It was claimed that everywhere and in every age, an unchanging mute and impersonal nature established its grip, a nature that human beings strove to interpret more or less plausibly and from which they endeavored to profit, with varying degrees of success. Their widely diverse conventions and customs could now make sense only if they were related to natural regularities that were more or less well understood by those affected by them. It was decreed, but with exemplary discretion, that our way of dividing up beings and things was a norm to which there were no exceptions. Carrying forward the work of philosophy, of whose predominance it was perhaps somewhat envious, the fledgling discipline of anthropology ratified the reduction of the multitude of existing things to two heterogeneous orders of reality and, on the strength of a plethora of facts gathered from every latitude, even bestowed upon that reduction the guarantee of universality that it still lacked. Almost without noticing, anthropology committed itself to this way of proceeding, such was the fascination exerted by the shimmering vision of “cultural diversity,” the listing and study of which now provided it with its raison d’être. The profusion of institutions and modes of thought was rendered less formidable and its contingency more bearable if one took the view that all these practices— the logic of which was sometimes so hard to discover— constituted so many singular responses to a universal challenge: namely, that of disciplining and profiting from the biophysical potentialities offered by bodies and their environment.

What Kinship Is-And Is Not
by Marshall Sahlins
p. 2

In brief, the idea of kinship in question is “mutuality of being”: people who are intrinsic to one another’s existence— thus “mutual person(s),” “life itself,” “intersubjective belonging,” “transbodily being,” and the like. I argue that “mutuality of being” will cover the variety of ethnographically documented ways that kinship is locally constituted, whether by procreation, social construction, or some combination of these. Moreover, it will apply equally to interpersonal kinship relations, whether “consanguineal” or “affinal,” as well as to group arrangements of descent. Finally, “mutuality of being” will logically motivate certain otherwise enigmatic effects of kinship bonds— of the kind often called “mystical”— whereby what one person does or suffers also happens to others. Like the biblical sins of the father that descend on the sons, where being is mutual, there experience is more than individual.

The Habitus Process
A Biopsychosocial Conception
By Andreas Pickel

The habitus-personality complex is linked (at the top) to a social system. As I have proposed earlier, habitus is an emergent property of a social system. The habitus-personality complex is also linked (at the bottom) to a biopsychic system which generates a personality as an emergent property. Thus there is a bottom-up causality and a top-down causality at work. The habitus-personality complex, while composed of two emergent properties (bottom-up: personality; top down: habitus), can also be seen as a process. In this view, the habitus mechanism refers to the working of system-specific patterns of wanting, feeling, thinking, doing and interacting, while the personality mechanism refers to individual forms of wanting, feeling, thinking, doing and interacting. The two simultaneously operating mechanisms produce self-consciousness and identity, and what Elias calls the “we”-“I” balance in a personality (Elias 1991).

How Forests Think:
Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human
By Eduardo Kohn
p. 6

Attending to our relations with those beings that exist in some way beyond the human forces us to question our tidy answers about the human. The goal here is neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it but to open it. In rethinking the human we must also rethink the kind of anthropology that would be adequate to this task. Sociocultural anthropology in its various forms as it is practiced today takes those attributes that are distinctive to humans— language, culture, society, and history— and uses them to fashion the tools to understand humans. In this process the analytical object becomes isomorphic with the analytics. As a result we are not able to see the myriad ways in which people are connected to a broader world of life, or how this fundamental connection changes what it might mean to be human. And this is why expanding ethnography to reach beyond the human is so important. An ethnographic focus not just on humans or only on animals but also on how humans and animals relate breaks open the circular closure that otherwise confines us when we seek to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans.

Vibrant Matter:
A Political Ecology of Things
by Jane Bennett
pp. 8-10

I may have met a relative of Odradek while serving on a jury, again in Baltimore, for a man on trial for attempted homicide. It was a small glass vial with an adhesive-covered metal lid: the Gunpowder Residue Sampler. This object/ witness had been dabbed on the accused’s hand hours after the shooting and now offered to the jury its microscopic evidence that the hand had either fired a gun or been within three feet of a gun firing. Expert witnesses showed the sampler to the jury several times, and with each appearance it exercised more force, until it became vital to the verdict. This composite of glass, skin cells, glue, words, laws, metals, and human emotions had become an actant. Actant, recall, is Bruno Latour’s term for a source of action; an actant can be human or not, or, most likely, a combination of both. Latour defines it as “something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general.” 24 An actant is neither an object nor a subject but an “intervener,” 25 akin to the Deleuzean “quasi-causal operator.” 26 An operator is that which, by virtue of its particular location in an assemblage and the fortuity of being in the right place at the right time, makes the difference, makes things happen, becomes the decisive force catalyzing an event. Actant and operator are substitute words for what in a more subject-centered vocabulary are called agents. Agentic capacity is now seen as differentially distributed across a wider range of ontological types. This idea is also expressed in the notion of “deodand,” a figure of English law from about 1200 until it was abolished in 1846. In cases of accidental death or injury to a human, the nonhuman actant, for example, the carving knife that fell into human flesh or the carriage that trampled the leg of a pedestrian— became deodand (literally, “that which must be given to God”). In recognition of its peculiar efficacy (a power that is less masterful than agency but more active than recalcitrance), the deodand, a materiality “suspended between human and thing,” 27 was surrendered to the crown to be used (or sold) to compensate for the harm done. According to William Pietz, “any culture must establish some procedure of compensation, expiation, or punishment to settle the debt created by unintended human deaths whose direct cause is not a morally accountable person, but a nonhuman material object. This was the issue thematized in public discourse by . . . the law of deodand.” 28

There are of course differences between the knife that impales and the man impaled, between the technician who dabs the sampler and the sampler, between the array of items in the gutter of Cold Spring Lane and me, the narrator of their vitality. But I agree with John Frow that these differences need “to be flattened, read horizontally as a juxtaposition rather than vertically as a hierarchy of being. It’s a feature of our world that we can and do distinguish . . . things from persons. But the sort of world we live in makes it constantly possible for these two sets of kinds to exchange properties.” 29 And to note this fact explicitly, which is also to begin to experience the relationship between persons and other materialities more horizontally, is to take a step toward a more ecological sensibility.

pp. 20-21

Thing-power perhaps has the rhetorical advantage of calling to mind a childhood sense of the world as filled with all sorts of animate beings, some human, some not, some organic, some not. It draws attention to an efficacy of objects in excess of the human meanings, designs, or purposes they express or serve. Thing-power may thus be a good starting point for thinking beyond the life-matter binary, the dominant organizational principle of adult experience. The term’s disadvantage, however, is that it also tends to overstate the thinginess or fixed stability of materiality, whereas my goal is to theorize a materiality that is as much force as entity, as much energy as matter, as much intensity as extension. Here the term out-side may prove more apt. Spinoza’s stones, an absolute Wild, the oozing Meadowlands, the nimble Odradek, the moving deodand, a processual minerality, an incalculable nonidentity— none of these are passive objects or stable entities (though neither are they intentional subjects). 1 They allude instead to vibrant materials.

A second, related disadvantage of thing-power is its latent individualism, by which I mean the way in which the figure of “thing” lends itself to an atomistic rather than a congregational understanding of agency While the smallest or simplest body or bit may indeed express a vital impetus, conatus or clinamen, an actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces. A lot happens to the concept of agency once nonhuman things are figured less as social constructions and more as actors, and once humans themselves are assessed not as autonoms but as vital materialities.

Animism – The Seed Of Religion
by Edward Clodd
Kindle Locations 363-369

In the court held in ancient times in the Prytaneum at Athens to try any object, such as an axe or a piece of wood or stone which, independent of any human agency, had caused death, the offending thing was condemned and cast in solemn form beyond the border. Dr. Frazer cites the amusing instance of a cock which was tried at Basle in 1474 for having laid an egg, and which, being found guilty, was burnt as a sorcerer. ” The recorded pleadings in the case are said to be very voluminous.” And only as recently as 1846 there was abolished in England the law of deodand, whereby not only a beast that kills a man, but a cart-wheel that runs over him, or a tree that crushes him, were deo dandus, or ” given to God,” being forfeited and sold for the poor. The adult who, in momentary rage, kicks over the chair against which he has stumbled, is one with the child who beats the door against which he knocks his head, or who whips the ” naughty ” rocking-horse that throws him.

Architectural Agents:
The Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings
by Annabel Jane Wharton
Kindle Locations 148-155

The deodand was common in medieval legal proceedings. Before the recognition of mitigating circumstances and degrees of murder and manslaughter, causing the death of a person was a capital offense. At that time the deodand may well have functioned as a legal ploy by which the liability for a death might be assessed in a just manner. Although the deodand seems to have almost disappeared in England by the eighteenth century, the law was revived in the nineteenth century. With industrialization the deodand was redeployed as a means of levying penalties for the many deaths caused by mechanical devices, particularly locomotives. 9 Legislation was passed to protect industrial interests, and the deodand was eliminated by an act of Parliament in 1846. Premodern intuitions about the animation of things allowed those things a semblance of the moral agency associated with culpability. With the rational repression of that intuition in modernity, the legal system required revision.

Kindle Locations 245-253

Now, as in the past, buildings may be immobile, but they are by no means passive. Our habitus— the way we live in the world— is certainly informed by our relations with other human beings. 24 But spatial objects also model our lives. Some structures, like Bentham’s infamous Panopticon, are insidiously manipulative. 25 But most buildings, like most people, can both confirm our familiar patterns of behavior and modify them. We build a classroom to accommodate a certain kind of learning; the classroom in turn molds the kind of learning that we do or even that we can imagine. Modifications in the room might lead to innovations in teaching practices. Buildings, in this sense, certainly have social agency. Indeed, the acts of buildings may be compared with the acts of their human counterparts insofar as those acts are similarly overdetermined— that is, fraught with more conditions in their social circumstances or individual histories than are necessary to account for the ways in which they work.

Hyperobjects:
Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
by Timothy Morton
Kindle Locations 547-568

While hyperobjects are near, they are also very uncanny. Some days, global warming fails to heat me up. It is strangely cool or violently stormy. My intimate sensation of prickling heat at the back of my neck is only a distorted print of the hot hand of global warming. I do not feel “at home” in the biosphere. Yet it surrounds me and penetrates me, like the Force in Star Wars. The more I know about global warming, the more I realize how pervasive it is. The more I discover about evolution, the more I realize how my entire physical being is caught in its meshwork. Immediate, intimate symptoms of hyperobjects are vivid and often painful, yet they carry with them a trace of unreality. I am not sure where I am anymore. I am at home in feeling not at home. Hyperobjects, not some hobbit hole, not some national myth of the homeland, have finally forced me to see the truth in Heidegger.

The more I struggle to understand hyperobjects, the more I discover that I am stuck to them. They are all over me. They are me. I feel like Neo in The Matrix, lifting to his face in horrified wonder his hand coated in the mirrorlike substance into which the doorknob has dissolved, as his virtual body begins to disintegrate. “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” The mirror itself has become part of my flesh. Or rather, I have become part of the mirror’s flesh, reflecting hyperobjects everywhere. I can see data on the mercury and other toxins in my blood. At Taipei Airport, a few weeks after the Fukushima disaster, I am scanned for radiation since I have just transited in Tokyo. Every attempt to pull myself free by some act of cognition renders me more hopelessly stuck to hyperobjects. Why?

They are already here. I come across them later, I find myself poisoned with them, I find my hair falling out. Like an evil character in a David Lynch production, or a ghost in M. Knight Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, hyperobjects haunt my social and psychic space with an always-already. My normal sense of time as a container, or a racetrack, or a street, prevents me from noticing this always-already, from which time oozes and flows, as I shall discuss in a later section (“ Temporal Undulation”). What the demonic Twin Peaks character Bob reveals, for our purposes, is something about hyperobjects, perhaps about objects in general. 2 Hyperobjects are agents. 3 They are indeed more than a little demonic, in the sense that they appear to straddle worlds and times, like fiber optic cables or electromagnetic fields. And they are demonic in that through them causalities flow like electricity.

We haven’t thought this way about things since the days of Plato.

The Bouncing Basketball of Race Realism

There is a blog, Occidentalist, I’ve been occasionally commenting at this past month or so. The blogger, Chuck, is a race realist. He is fairly typical in holding a human biodiversity perspective, a semi-deterministic model of genetics. He is somewhat of true believer, but he occasionally expresses some niggling doubts about standard race realist beliefs. It is too bad he doesn’t take his own doubts seriously.

He also doesn’t take seriously some of the most interesting recent data. That is the strangest thing about this type of person. They are intellectual and knowledgeable to an extent, but they are committed to a particular worldview in a quite unscientific way. Science is used merely to express their certainty and so used selectively, instead of as a pathway of curiosity and learning.

I shared an analysis of some recent research that is paradigm-shattering (which I’ve previously posted about in my blog). None of the old theories can explain much of it, partly because it isn’t clear exactly what is in need of explanation, the unknowns being unknown. I highlighted one study in particular:

“Somehow, though, invisible influences intervened. With the scientists controlling for nearly everything they could control, mice with the exact same genes behaved differently depending on where they lived. And even more surprising: the differences were not consistent, but zigged and zagged across different genetic strains and different locations. In Portland, one strain was especially sensitive to cocaine and one especially insensitive , compared to the same strains in other cities. In Albany, one particular strain— just the one— was especially lazy. In Edmonton , the genetically altered mice tended to be just as active as the wild mice, whereas they were more active than the wild mice in Portland and less active than the wild mice in Albany. It was a major hodgepodge”

I made three basic points about this and the other studies:

1) We can no longer honestly claim percentage estimates about genetic vs environmental influence. It isn’t just that past research wasn’t controlling for all confounding factors. Genetic researchers are beginning to realize they don’t even know how to control for all confounding factors because quite a few apparently are unknown at present. We don’t even know how to attempt to disentangle these factors so as to isolate them all. More importantly, we can’t figure out how to separate genetics from the environmental background of this complex web of confounding factors.

2) It has typically been assumed that if researchers controlled for all obvious genetic and environmental factors it should lead to the same basic results. Slight variances are to be expected, but nothing to the extreme differences as found in that mouse study. It demonstrates possibly very minor differences, so small as to be presently undetectable, can lead to major alterations in end results. It demonstrates how powerful environmental conditions can be, even when they are being controlled for with the best methods researchers know how to use.

3) In the uncontrolled conditions of human lives, the environmental influences would be even more powerful. No human study of genetics has come even close to how well controlled this mouse study was done. Even most animal studies aren’t that well controlled. This relates to the issue of the poor quality of much medical research, specifically in terms of race realism.

His response was dismissal, as if it meant very little, just a mild curiosity at best:

“None of this is to say that epigenetics isn’t marginally interesting.”

Ho-hum… *yawn*… nothing interesting here, folks… just move along.

It was like he couldn’t even see it, not really. In his mind, it wasn’t there in some basic sense. He assumed he had seen it all before and so he didn’t need to look at this new data in order to take it seriously, because if he had seen it all before how could new data show him something he hadn’t already seen, right?

It wasn’t just about epigenetics. The study I highlighted brought up other issues about environmental conditions, confounding factors, and scientific controls. It challenges Chuck’s assumptions and conclusions at a fundamental level, and yet he could barely acknowledge what I had shared. He just went on repeating his same basic argument, like he has done a thousand times before.

I’m reminded of a social experiments about inattentional blindness, where focusing one thing makes people unaware of other things. One study had the subjects count the number of times a basketball was dribbled. While they were preoccupied, a person in a gorilla costume came out and began dancing where he was easily seen. When asked about it, most people didn’t remember a dancing gorilla, despite the extreme oddness of such an intrusion. It simply didn’t fit into the parameters of their focus of concern, the bounding basketball. Even if the subject was right about their claim of how many times the basketball bounced, they still missed the most interesting thing that was happening.

Race realists such as Chuck are like this. They share a lot of data that is correct, but the obsession about certain data disallows them from appreciating other data. They know what they know in great detail, and they often love to swamp discussions with a ton of data. The failure is that their knowledge lacks a larger context of understanding. Their opinions can never change, no matter the data, as long as they continue to narrowly focus on that bouncing basketball of race realism.

Unseen Influences: Race, Gender, and Twins

Steven Fraser, in The Bell Curve Wars, discusses the problems with Hernstein and Murray’s genetic argument for IQ.

He points out that the Flynn effect is particularly devastating. For this reason, he finds it puzzling that they don’t recognize or acknowledge the obvious implications. Black people today are on average smarter, as far as IQ tests go, than white people were a few generations ago. By today’s normed IQ tests, white people of a century ago would now be labeled as “retarded”.

I’ve covered that territory before. What caught my attention the other day was what followed his comments on the Flynn effect. He made a further point about the weakness of the genetics hypothesis. He states that a “remarkable phenomenon commented on in the Moynihan Report of thirty years ago goes unnoticed in The Bell Curve–the prevalence of females among blacks who score high on mental tests” (Kindle Locations 914-925); he continues:

“Others who have done studies of high-IQ blacks have found several times as many females as males above the 120 IQ level. Since black males and black females have the same genetic inheritance, this substantial disparity must have some other roots, especially since it is not found in studies of high-IQ individuals in the general society, such as the famous Terman studies of high-IQ children, which followed these children on into adulthood and later life. If IQ differences of this magnitude can occur with no genetic difference at all, then it is more than mere speculation to say that some unusual environmental effects must be at work among blacks.”

This isn’t limited to any race/ethnicity. It is a gender IQ gap found across diverse other populations.

“However, these environmental effects need not be limited to blacks, for other low-IQ groups of European or other ancestries have likewise tended to have females over-represented among their higher scorers, even though the Terman studies of high-IQ individuals from the general population found no such patterns. One possibility is that females are more resistant to bad environmental conditions, as some other studies suggest. In any event, large sexual disparities in high-IQ individuals where there are no genetic-or socioeconomic-differences present a challenge to both the Herrnstein-Murray thesis and to most of their critics.”

This reminds me of the stereotype threat discussed by Claude M. Steele in Whistling Vivaldi. He shows the research about how much simple changes in environment can cause large changes in results, both for tests of academics and other activities. Women tend to test lower on math, for example. However, neutralize stereotype threat and the disparity disappears.

Environments aren’t just different between populations, but also within populations. The environmental factors that will impact a female are different than for a male, including the stereotypes and expectations placed upon genders just as happens with race. Having much shared genetics doesn’t necessarily mean that all influences are being shared.

To emphasize this point, Fraser extends his argument to an even more stark example. Twins also show great differences, something overlooked by early twin studies.

“Black males and black females are not the only groups with significant IQ differences without any genetic differences. Identical twins with significantly different birth weights also have IQ differences, with the heavier twin averaging nearly nine points higher IQ than the lighter one in some studies.’ This effect is not found where the lighter twin weighs at least six and a half pounds, suggesting that deprivation of nutrition must reach some threshold level before it has a permanent effect on the brain during its crucial early development.”

Slight changes in environment can lead to immense differences over the long term. This is because of the cumulative effect of initial conditions. One thing leads to another. Lowered nutrition or increased toxicity has its impact which gets magnified by such things as school tracking. Each effect becoming a cause and all the causal factors combining to form significant differences in end results.