Dr. Malthus, Call Your Office

Monday, October 26th, 2009

Dr. Malthus, call your office:

I’m reading this story about a refugee camp in Kenya. The refugees are from Somalia. The interviewer finds one of the earliest arrivals, Mohamed Nur Hajin, who’s been in the camp since 1991.
I have no hope of returning now. I have to stay here. Every day there are 500 new arrivals, so it shows you that there is nothing to go back to.

Things are rough in the camp.

Our life here in the camp is peaceful, but it is still very difficult … There is a severe shortage of water, and the food ration is not enough for everyone. It is very hard here.

There are consolations, though:

When I came here, my family consisted of three, but thanks to God, I have had six more children so now we are nine.

Holiday in Cambodia

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

It’s amazing what falls down the memory hole:

My daughter, a high school junior, has a classmate whose parents are attracted to Buddhism. They accordingly went off to some Buddhist countries for their summer vacation. One of those countries was Cambodia. The classmate came back and told Nellie about the trip, then Nellie told me: “She said it was so poor, she couldn’t believe it. People begging everywhere …”

Well, I said, in view of what happened there in the 1970s, it’s not surprising they’re still poor.

“Why?” asked Nellie, puzzled. “What happened there?”

Subsequent enquiries revealed that at no point in her eleven years of public schooling had my daughter been told about the Khmer Rouge dictatorship of Cambodia. All right, it’s a small and inconsequential country: but this was one of the great horrors of the past forty years. It doesn’t even get a mention? The lowest estimates of deaths in the killing fields are of 20 percent of Cambodia’s population being murdered. Some other scholarly estimates go up to 32 percent — one Cambodian in three. This, in the name of a revolutionary peasant socialism not far removed from that preached by current leftist icons like Che Guevara.

And you can graduate from a good-quality public high school without knowing anything about it? Good grief.

It’s Complicated

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

The Flynn effect, the observation that IQs have been steadily rising, enough that the tests must be regularly recalibrated, likely stems from the fact that life’s more complicated now:

In England 40 years ago, my father was paid, in cash, every Thursday, and was broke by the following Wednesday. He had a quarterly gas bill and a quarterly electricity bill. He paid weekly rent on a property owned by the town. Since he did not believe in life insurance, own a bank account or invest in the stock market, that was the entire extent of his financial concerns.

He read one newspaper, Cecil King’s Daily Mirror. He had two TV channels available to him, both of course black and white. He owned one suit, and I think no more than three sets of underwear. My wife, growing up in mainland China in the 1960s, had an even more spare existence. She had just one toy, which of course she adored.

Now look at us. I have just spent three days doing my income taxes. My financial affairs — the affairs of a modest working family — occupy an entire drawer in a set of filing cabinets. (Filing cabinets! In my house!) Never mind a generation: just in the past eight years I have gone from having one telephone bill to having five: one for a wireless service and two for fixed lines — each of which, for reasons I cannot be bothered to understand, is served by both Verizon and AT&T.

With the help of the Internet I read, or at least skim through, about twenty newspapers or news-websites every morning, ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the Taipei Times. My house contains four working computers. My kids’ bedrooms are silted up with toys, to which they pay little attention. When we take them to McDonald’s, their place-mats are decked out with puzzles, mazes and word games. A stimulating environment? You could say so.

Three Prevalent Views of Human Nature

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

John Derbyshire offers up three prevalent views of human nature, in chronological order by origin:

The “Abrahamic” view is the one promoted by the big old Western faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Darwinian view is the one implied (though not dispositively proved) by Darwinism. The third view I have labeled “Boasian” after anthropologist Franz Boas, who was the first to use it as basis for a comprehensive modern account of human nature.
Abrahamic: Our species homo sapiens is the special creation of God, either as a one-off miracle or by God-guided evolution. Human nature is a mix of attributes, some biological, some inserted by God. The God-given attributes are unique to our species. They are the same in all human populations, forming the foundation of our essential equality. Their existence is independent of our biological nature, even to the degree that they can continue to exist after our deaths. Being non-biological, they certainly do not evolve, even if other features of the living world do, so that our evolution, if it ever took place, ended (except perhaps for some incidental biological features) when God decreed we have these attributes. God rules!

Darwinian: Our species homo sapiens arose, like all other species, from the ordinary processes of evolution, which have continued to the present day. Human nature is a collection of characteristics all susceptible to biological explanation. These characteristics show variation in any one population. A human population that breeds mostly within itself for many generations will develop distinctive profiles of variation, as a result of ordinary biological laws, causing it to diverge from other such populations. Neither individual human beings nor human populations are equal. Some human-nature characteristics can be shaped to some degree by “cultural” (i.e. social or environmental) forces; some cannot. Biology rules!

Boasian: Our species homo sapiens arose, like all other species, from the ordinary processes of evolution. However, these processes ceased in the very early history of the species, leaving us with a human nature uniform across all populations and unchanging over time, forming the foundation of our essential equality. This human nature is infinitely resilient, like a water-filled balloon. Any of its characteristics can be pushed into almost any shape by “cultural” forces (see above), but will submit to radical re-shaping if different forces are applied. Observed variations in human-nature characteristics have probably (in the case of individuals) and certainly (in the case of populations) no biological foundation. Culture rules!

A thing you notice when these three views of human nature are lined up is how far the Darwinian explanation stands from the other two. I have worked my phrasing somewhat to bring this out, but it wasn’t difficult to do so. A Darwinian view of human nature really is quite sensationally revolutionary. In particular, it makes a hash of intrinsic human equality. We may of course — and we should, and I hope we ever shall! — hold equal treatment under the law to be an organizing principle of our civilization; but that is a social agreement, like driving on the right, not a pre-existing fact in the world.

We might even speculate that the Abrahamic and the Boasian views are really the same, or that the second is a scientistic nineteenth-century derivative of the first, as Marxism was of traditional religious millenarianism. As the authors of math textbooks say: I leave this as an exercise for the reader.

We’d really rather just not think about it

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

We’d really rather just not think about it, John Derbyshire says, referring to racial inequality:

Fifty years ago it all seemed cut and dried. Just strike down old unjust laws, give the minority a helping hand, give the non-minority some education about civil rights and past disgraces, and in a few years things will come right.

We coasted along under those assumptions for a generation. When it became obvious that things were not coming right in the matter of equal test results, scholars and jurists got to work on the problem.

Liberals [...] naturally assumed it was just a matter of spending more money on schools. This theory was tested to destruction in several places, most sensationally in Kansas City from 1985–97. Under a judge’s order, the school district spent two billion dollars over twelve years, pretty much rebuilding the school system — and the actual schools themselves — from the ground up. The new, lavish facilities included “an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal.” The experiment was a complete failure. Drop-out rates rose and test scores fell across the entire twelve years.

Conservatives, thoroughly race-whipped by the liberal media elites, preferred to go along with whatever liberals said, except that they made, and still make, mild throat-clearing noises about school vouchers. It has turned out in practice, however, that the only people keen on school vouchers are the striving poor, a small (and dwindling) demographic with no political weight, and whom nobody in the media or academic elites gives a fig about. The non-striving underclass has zero interest in education; middle-class suburbanites like their schools the way they are, thanks all the same; and teacher unions see vouchers as threats to the public-education gravy train their members ride to well-padded retirement.

As test gaps persisted and lawsuits multiplied, the scholars retreated into metaphysics. The word “culture” was wafted around a lot. It seemed to denote a sort of phlogiston or luminiferous aether, pervading and determining everything, but via mechanisms nobody could explain. We heard about self-esteem issues, “the burden of ‘acting white’,” “stereotype threat,” and a whole raft of other sunbeams-from-cucumbers hypotheses. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, two distinguished scholars in the field, produced a much-praised book about test-score gaps with a conclusion in which nothing was concluded. “Choice [of where to live] should not be a class-based privilege.” Where, in a free society, has it ever not been? How will you stop people moving, if they can afford to? “Families must help their children to the best of their ability.” Oh. “Vouchers are a matter of basic equity.” See above. “Big-city superintendents and principals operate in a bureaucratic and political straitjacket.” True, no doubt; but New Haven, pop. 124,000, is not a big city. Test-score gaps are in plain sight out here in the ‘burbs. John Ogbu wrote a book about it. Six years ago.

And the test-score gaps just sat there, and sat there, and sat there, grinning back at us impudently.

At last, we just stopped thinking about the whole disagreeable business. Unfortunately, by that time a great body of law had been built on the theories and pseudotheories of the preceding decades, and couldn’t be wished away. Hence Ricci v. DeStefano.

Laboriously achieved but only precariously defended

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Rudyard Kipling was “representative of a cast of mind which later generations came to deplore,” John Derbyshire notes, but his “larger political views need to be seen in the context of the great social disturbances that roiled his country in the years before World War One”:

Female suffrage: Irish republican agitation: the rising power of labor unions and the first stirrings of the welfare state: none of it made sense to Kipling and he expressed his feelings in public speeches, and in poems like “The City of Brass”:
They said: “Who has hate in his soul? Who has envied his neighbour? / Let him arise and control both that man and his labour.”
They said: “Who is eaten by sloth? Whose unthrift has destroyed him? / He shall levy a tribute from all because none have employed him.”

Evelyn Waugh said it exactly: “[Kipling] was a conservative in the sense that he believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defences fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.”

Football is a mysterious thing

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Football is a mysterious thing to those not raised in these United States:

I have attended just one football game in my life. It was a college game, and furthermore was in the South, where, if you try out the cliché about college ball being a religion down there, people tell you, without smiling, that it is much more serious than that. What a spectacle that game was! The colors; the chants; the erotic prancing of the cheerleaders; the masked and padded players, their size grotesquely exaggerated, like Polynesian warriors; the guttural war cries; the fenced-off areas of the stands with strange and distinctive populations — one contained nothing but young men in blazers. I felt like an anthropologist watching the Ghost Dance of the Sioux. If a foreigner should tell you that a nation as young as this one has had no time to develop a unique culture, take him to a college football game.

The ferocity of the coaches took John Derbyshire by surprise:

From exposure to the sensitized, feminized, sissified, litigation-whipped culture of the public schools, I had come to suppose that the sterner kinds of pedagogic verbal chastisement had gone the way of switch and tawse. Not here at junior-league football practice. The coaches barked and roared like Marine Corps drill instructors. Inattentive boys had their inattention terminated with great prejudice, often with a set of push-ups or a lap around the field added to drive the point home. When Coach got tired of yelling, the whole team was sent off to do laps, marking pace with military-style antiphons in which the word “kumbaya” seemed not to figure at all. It was wonderful to see, especially from the comfort of a folding chair in the shade, with a cup of iced coffee close at hand.

Old School Tie

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

John Derbyshire confesses to a certain cynical fatalism about his children’s public-school education:

Having beggared ourselves to buy a house in a decent school district, I feel we have done most of what we can do. The kids will learn, or not, according mainly to their own inclinations and abilities. The teachers, when we meet them, seem like decent types, but a child needs to be well-nigh homicidal before the teacher will say anything negative about him.

At our children’s level — intermediate and middle school — education is a caucus race, in which every child is wonderful and all will get prizes. Somewhat later they will take an IQ test (it is called the SAT, but IQ and SAT scores correlate at around the 0.82 level), then be decanted into precisely the appropriate tier of the great American meritocracy as indicated by the result of that test. For the time being, though, everyone is equal and No Child will be Left Behind.

Thus are reconciled two cherished, but unfortunately contradictory, American ideals: the first, that ability should be fully employed and fairly rewarded, and the second, that all are metaphysically equal in ability, the observed differences being mere illusions, most likely arising from some malign intent on the part of the observer.

I sometimes wonder to myself, quietly, what will be the psychological effect on my kids of this faux-egalitarianism. Cynicism, or double-think?

Ski for Pleasure

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

The skill of skiing comes quickly back:

Skiing is one of those pastimes — like ten-pin bowling or skeet shooting, but unlike swimming or tennis — that is pleasurable even at a low level of ability. A sedentary and ill-coordinated person, I can ski for pleasure, but swim only for survival.

Does the sty make the pig?

Friday, October 16th, 2009

New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon interviewed Charles Murray (Real Education), and they disagreed on some things:

DS: Europeans have historically defined themselves through inherited traits and titles, but isn’t America a country where we are supposed to define ourselves through acts of will?

CM: I wonder if there is a single, solitary, real-live public-school teacher who agrees with the proposition that it’s all a matter of will. To me, the fact that ability varies — and varies in ways that are impossible to change — is a fact that we learn in first grade.

DS: I believe that given the opportunity, most people could do most anything.

CM: You’re out of touch with reality in that regard.

John Derbyshire recalls his own experience teaching boys in England in the 1960s:

The stories we heard from the school nurse (who went to boys’ homes) and the local police station’s Juvenile Liaison Officer (frequently at the school) were grim. Was it really the case, in prosperous late-1960s England, that a father would supplement the family’s supply of firewood by removing alternate boards from the stairs? Or that a twelve-year-old boy should not know the function of toilet paper? My colleagues, the nurse, and our policeman, assured me that such things were quite normal.

Though rough, the boys were surprisingly easy to handle. In part this was because, as my colleagues said bluntly, they were so slow-witted, it was easy to outfox them. They were given tests every year, including a frank IQ test, on which most scored in the 70s or low 80s. There was nothing wrong with any of them, and many were cheerful and pleasant boys, but there was no mistaking the fact of their being … dim. Dimness also helped weed out the really hard cases, who would embark on a criminal career at age 13 or 14. Too clueless to evade detection, they would be caught at once and whisked off to Juvenile Hall to be someone else’s problem.

Why were they so dim, though? We discussed this endlessly in the staff room. A young idealist, I very much wanted it to be nurture. Such awful environments! And missing so much primary schooling, as most of them had! My colleagues — dedicated men all, and a couple of them close to saintly in their determination to find what could be found in these lads, and to do what could be done for them — were pretty solidly for nature. In the pungent Liverpool manner, the topic was discussed as: “Does the pig make the sty; or the sty, the pig?”

It was depressing work, with little to show for months of effort. Perhaps the most depressing thing of all was that none of the boys was very capable at anything. To play soccer, for example, needs a modicum of thought as well as some minimal physical fitness. Our boys could not rise to it. The masters-boys soccer match was a rout of them, strapping 15- and 16-year-olds, by us, wheezy desk-wallahs with a median age around 40. Up to that point I had assumed that even seriously un-intellectual people must have some ability at something. That this is not necessarily the case, is one of the saddest true things I ever learned.

Charles Murray is right. Ability varies, and not much can be done to change it.

Dust and Rocks

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

When men landed on the moon 40 years ago, John Derbyshire thought the world had changed for ever:

How naïve! Nothing changed at all. The Arabs and Israelis had gone at each other hammer and tongs two years before: Four years later they did so again. The mainland Chinese, in the throes of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, were told nothing of the event. (So our newspapers reported. However, several urban Chinese have told me they knew about the Moon landing within a few hours.) Americans themselves were at least as interested in Chappaquiddick as in Tranquility Base.

Forty years on, what does it look like, really, but another TV special? Nothing followed from the Moon landing, other than, of course, five more Moon landings and the wretched, pointless, homicidal Space Shuttle program. It made nothing happen. It did not stir new thoughts in the minds of civilized men, as the great 15th- and 16th-century sea voyages did. It has brought us no potatoes, no tobacco, no Noble Savagery speculations on human nature, no Tempest. It made no dramatic new fortunes (though I suppose some shareholders in the aerospace companies did well). It did not make poor, inconsequential nations into world powers. Nothing unexpected turned up. The voyages, Apollo 13‘s malfunction aside, went rigidly as planned. We found what we expected to find: dust and rocks.

Summertime Blues

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Summer vacation is a relic of the time when farmers needed the youngsters to help bring in the harvest, or so we’re told:

Historians, however, pooh-pooh this. Fear of summertime disease transmission, unavailability of air conditioning, and downward influence from the vacation habits of the rich, seem to have had more to do with it.

Whatever its origins, the long school vacation is now a fixture in our culture. Since our teachers’ unions have armed themselves with thermonuclear weapons and captured one of our major political parties, it is likely to remain so, though if there is any rational pedagogical justification for twelve weeks’ juvenile idleness, I should very much like to hear it.

Until recently it could at least be said that summer vacation gave all kids the opportunity for some out-of-school socializing, and older kids a chance to get early work experience. Both rationales are now dead. The first was killed off by a combination of hyper-vigilant modern parenting styles and the home computer, the second by the J-1 visa, with which foreign students can work in the U.S. for up to four months. Why hire a surly, litigious American 16-year-old when, for the same price, you can get a Bulgarian, Ghanaian, or Malaysian 19-year-old keen to improve his English and innocent of trial lawyers?

And so we are stuck with the darn kids for twelve weeks. Few of them seem to have any idea what to do with themselves. Running off to play in the woods Tom Sawyer-style is out of the question: They might encounter poison ivy or Lyme disease. Hanging out in the town is discouraged: pedophiles, drugs, gangs. The district has summer programs, but they are not popular with the mid-teen set, to which my kids (ages 16 and 14) now belong, and in any case they are disappearing as budgets are cut.

What the kids want to do is play computer games. Years of striving to lead them into worthwhile hobbies have yielded only partial, tepid returns. They — boys, especially — yearn for those flickering screens. When deprived of them, they yawn and doze, unable to summon up enthusiasm for anything much else.

It’s the same all over. A friend raised in rural Ireland went back for a visit after some years. A little river runs through his home town; in summer, he tells me, he and his friends would be in it, or by it, all day and every day — swimming if the weather was warm, fishing if not. Yet on this recent visit he was surprised, on a fine summer afternoon, to see no children at all near the river. Where were they? “At home playing Doom,” he was told.

You can believe that if you want to

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

John Derbyshire recently visited the “pleasantly inaccessible” monument to Captain Cook on the western side of Kealakekua Bay, on the big island of Hawaii:

I can’t claim any real familiarity with Cook, never having even read a full biography, but I long ago absorbed the sentiment, universal among his countrymen, that he was what Bertie Wooster would have called a very good egg. My 1911 Britannica concurs: “Along with a commanding personal presence, and with sagacity, decision and perseverance quite extraordinary, went other qualities not less useful to his work. He won the affection of those who served under him by sympathy, kindness and unselfish care of others as noteworthy as his gifts of intellect.”

Cook was clubbed and/or speared to death on this remote, lovely spot on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day, 1779. He was leading a shore party in an attempt to capture the local ruler, to hold him hostage for the return of a stolen longboat. After killing Cook, the Hawaiians dragged his body away. Only fragmentary remains were ever recovered. Modern Hawaiians insist that Cook was not eaten. You can believe that if you want to.

The Cold Eye

Friday, October 9th, 2009

Sinclair Lewis possessed the Cold Eye, and this, John Derbyshire argues, made him more conservative than he would have admitted:

The one organ indispensable to a social novelist — much more so than, for example, a brain — is the Cold Eye: the ability to see one’s characters in all their folly and self-absorption, from a detached point of view — and yet with cynicism kept always at bay by some tenderness and a little envy. In that respect, at least, Sinclair Lewis was a great social novelist, which is of course a much higher thing than a mere satirist. The Cold Eye is everywhere in his books: he could not be sentimental if he wanted to — which, of course, he didn’t.

The passage I always remember in Main Street is the one where Carol decides that:

[I]n the history of the pioneers was the panacea for Gopher Prairie, for all of America. We have lost their sturdiness, she told herself. We must restore the last of the veterans to power and follow them on the backward path to the integrity of Lincoln, to the gaiety of settlers dancing in a saw-mill … This smug in-between town, which had exchanged ‘Money Musk’ for phonographs grinding out ragtime, it was neither the heroic old nor the sophisticated new. Couldn’t she somehow, some yet unimagined how, turn it back to simplicity?

She therefore seeks out the Perrys, elderly survivors from the pioneer days when the town was founded.

Their heroism and simplicity, however, seen up close, repel her. The Perrys are, in fact, narrow-minded fundamentalists who believe that: “What we need is to get back to the true Word of God, and a good sound belief in hell, like we used to have it preached to us … All socialists ought to be hanged … People who make more than ten thousand a year or less than eight hundred are wicked …”

Carol’s hero-worship dwindled to polite nodding, and the nodding dwindled to a desire to escape, and she went home with a headache.

There is endless scope for sentimentality in a passage like that one: sentimentality of all sorts, from Old Left romanticizing of the hardihood and courage of common folk to New Left tongue-clicking about the wickedness of white Christians pushing aside colorful, soulful aborigines. Lewis succumbs to none of the available temptations. He shows the pioneers as they undoubtedly were, and sends his sentimental heroine home with a headache.

As a child of the Midwest himself, Lewis knew of course that the nation could not have been made without the dull-witted, slightly fanatical sturdiness of the pioneers. He lets you know it, too. This is the America that is, that we must somehow come to terms with, as Carol eventually comes to terms, somehow, with her town and her marriage, as George Babbitt comes to terms with his city and his work. For those of us who think that wishful thinking is the defining characteristic of the Left, Sinclair Lewis is a friendly spirit.

Jules Verne: Father of Science Fiction?

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Reviewing four of Jules Verne’s later works leads John Derbyshire to question his title as the father of science fiction:

You could make a case, in fact, that Verne was not really interested in science at all, so much as in technology. Certainly he was a magpie for curious technological and biological factoids, and had a fairly good head for numbers. The imaginative side of science, though — the side that actually propels science forward — was a thing he had no acquaintance with. I am sure he would have been baffled by Vladimir Nabokov’s remark about “the precision of the artist, the passion of the scientist.” The great pure-science advances of his time made no impression on him. I do not know of anything in Verne’s works that would be different if Maxwell’s equations had not appeared in 1865. About Darwin’s theory he seems to have been utterly confused, employing a sort of crude pop-Darwinism in books like The Aerial Village (1901), yet declaring himself “entirely opposed to the theories of Darwin” in an interview he gave at about the same time. This was not likely an opposition based on religious belief. Though he always, when asked, described himself as a “believer,” this was part of the bourgeois façade that Verne chose to live behind after some youthful dabbling in la vie Bohème. He actually gave up attending Mass in the 1880s, and probably died an agnostic.

Though a gifted storyteller, in fact, at any rate in his early years, Verne had not sufficient powers of imagination, or scientific understanding, to rise to true science fiction. Here the contrast with his much younger (by 39 years) competitor for the “father of science fiction” title, H.G. Wells, is most striking. The concept of a fourth dimension, for example, first took mathematical form in the 1840s. By 1870 it was, according to the mathematician Felix Klein, part of “the general property of the advancing young generation [of mathematicians].” Wells grasped the imaginative power of this notion and used it to produce one of the greatest of all science fiction stories, The Time Machine (1895). Verne never used it at all, and would probably have found the notion of a fourth dimension absurd.

Gifted storytellers are rare enough that we should welcome them when they appear, especially if they have a strong appeal to young readers. The Mollweide projection of the earth’s surface in my grandfather’s 1922 Atlas-Guide to the British Commonwealth of Nations and Foreign Countries still has a jagged blue-ballpoint line running across it, made by the hand of a fascinated small boy circa 1956, to trace the progress of Phileas Fogg on his eighty-day journey. The point of science fiction, however, is something more than to offer engrossing narrative. As was stated by Kingsley Amis in his survey of the field (New Maps of Hell, 1960), science fiction exists “to arouse wonder, terror, and excitement” in its readers. Verne rose to this challenge once or twice in his early books, but it is not met, nor even glimpsed, in these four Wesleyan translations of later works.

“Father of Tech Fi” is a title for which I would rate Verne a very strong contender. One of the blurbs on the Wesleyan edition of The Mighty Orinoco, taken from the New York Times, calls Verne “the Michael Crichton of the 19th century,” which I think is very precise, and conveys the same idea. True science fiction, however, began twenty years later than the masterpieces of Verne’s youth, and on the other side of the English Channel. I can’t say that I found it visible at all in these four later books of Verne’s.