Bryan Caplan  

What I've Been Reading

M3 Plummeting... If Capitalists Ran the Schools...
1. Cheaper By the Dozen.  The true story of a turn-of-the-century efficiency expert who combines his two passions - time and motion studies and his twelve kids.  Recommended by Joshua Gan.

2. La Perdida. Graphic novel about a (half)-Mexican American leftist poseur who moves to Mexico, meets actual Mexican Marxists, and discovers their true nature... the hard way.  It's also a nice illustration of adverse selection in love and friendship; the emotionally abusive and economically parasitic lead gradually alienates everyone she knows, except the people who are even more emotionally abusive and economically parasitic than she is.

3. Francis Galton's Hereditary Genius.  This behavioral genetic classic shows that exceptional achievements run in families - in law, science, music, athletics, and much more.  Contrary to my expectation, though, it makes only the feeblest efforts to distinguish nature and nurture.  Galton's one pertinent argument is that the biological nephews of childless Popes are much less distinguished than the biological sons of similarly accomplished men - even though Pope's nephews and great men's sons enjoy comparable nepotistic advantages.

4. Monster.  This is an 18-volume graphic novel about a Japanese doctor living in Germany who tries to make sense of a mysterious series of murders.  It all leads back to a pre-1989 East German plot... or does it?  In the end, ten volumes would have sufficed, but I never wanted to stop.

5. The 10,000 Year ExplosionThis book tries to sell a genocentric vision of human history in just 227 pages of actual text.  Contrary to a lot of wishful thinking, human evolution has radically accelerated over time, and it's easy to demonstrate that genes for traits like lactose tolerance and disease resistance had massive historical effects.  But ultimately the book feels evasive.  At several points, the authors seem like they're about to reinvent Rushton's wheel (they never cite him), but stop short.  Instead of trying to explain the achievement gaps between the world's main peoples during the last two centuries, they retreat to the fascinating but tangential subject of the evolution of Jewish intelligence.  It was hard to put this book down, but it felt rushed.  The authors should have gathered stronger evidence, tackled harder cases, then put all their cards on the table.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
pandaemoni writes:

Monster also has a very good (cartoon) TV series tied to it, that also ran about 1/3 too long (but was very good despite the excess). I was unaware it was a comic, but that makes sense. I am not a big fan of cartoons, but I was surprised by the darkness of the storyline and relative depth.

Kind of Boys from Brazil meets the Fugitive.

agnostic writes:

If Cochran and Harpending had said that the reason American blacks do worse than whites is a result of genetic natural selection, there would have been another storm of ignorance like those who attacked The Bell Curve.

The main point of the latter book was that class and IQ are associated and seem to be more strongly so over time -- what does this portend for social stratification? Race was the tiniest part of the book, but it was taboo so it became the only thesis in the popular mind. The same would have happened to C&H's main point about fast, recent natural selection in human beings.

Plus, the point about contemporary achievement gaps reflecting in part the groups' evolutionary histories is already made with the Ashkenazi example, for anyone who reads between the lines -- if one group difference (between Ashkenazi Jews and other whites) may reflect natural selection that took place within 1000 years, why not for other group differences? By transitivity, group differences that have operated for longer and where the environments (natural and cultural) have been even wider could just as well reflect natural selection.

But the way they framed it, no one from the peanut gallery noticed. If you say that group A is smarter than average because of natural selection, that's OK because it has a positive frame. But saying that group B is below-average because of natural selection is forbidden because it sounds mean.

Anyone who thinks about it dispassionately will get what C&H's Jewish example suggests about other group differences; they're formally equivalent. So no inquiring minds lost there. You just have to worry what the screaming fools are going to say, and framing it positively lets you fly under the commissariat's radar.

Steve Z writes:

Ah, Monster. I quite agree about it being too long, but the climax is nice when it comes. I particularly enjoyed Grimmer's story arc. I'd say the real villain is Klaus Poppe. It's fun to view the whole work as an extended essay on novus actus interveniens -- just how much can you set in motion while retaining responsibility?

You might also enjoy 21st Century Boys, by the same author. Based on enjoying Monster, you'd probably also like the works of Satoshi Kon. He's never made a bad one.

jsalvati writes:

LessWrong has a large discussion on the 10k year explosion, including Q&A with the authors.

hacs writes:

There are controversial books in this list. An outdated book about eugenics, and an heterodox book about evolution. Good luck!

gcochran writes:

We talked about the Ashkenazim because we thought we had enough information - lots of genetic data and a story that unfolds during historical times. And because it was interesting, of course. Alfred Knudsen suggested a similar effort aimed at explaining the flowering of the Ionian Greeks - which I thought sounded intriguing but impossibly difficult, since we would have had to develop a coherent picture of the course of natural selection during the dark age following the fall of Mycenaean civilization. There are no written records of the Greeks in those times. I complained: Knudsen laughed.

The problem is worse when you consider larger regions that had no written history until fairly recently (like most of sub-Saharan Africa) or times that go back tens of thousands of years or more.

Did selection operate in those regions, over those long time spans? Did it affect cognition and personality? Sure - but we don't know much about the course of events. We're going to to have to dig the clues out of the genome and archaeology - history isn't much help.

I know about psychometric differences between groups, and suspect that most are biological - and when I have more info, enough clues, I'll try to explain them. I know about the idea that harsh northern climates selected for intelligence and low time preference: I don't consider it crazy, but my problem is that I can think of a number of other possible explanations of the observed patterns, most operating more recently (the Holocene), and one or two over _longer_ time spans than Rushton considered.

We tried to answer the questions we could with the clues and tools available at the time - tactics wasn't a consideration.

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