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More from the New York Times: Toward a Unified Theory of Black America, from Stephen J. Dubner.  Interesting article about Economist Roland G. Fryer, an assistant professor at Harvard who has some pretty outspoken views.

“I want to have an honest discussion about race in a time and a place where I don’t think we can,” he says. ”Blacks and whites are both to blame.  As soon as you say something like, ‘Well, could the black-white test-score gap be genetics?’ everybody gets tensed up.  But why shouldn’t that be on the table?”

In addition to quoting Fryer’s controversial views, Dubner’s article itself has some:

The very issue of black-white inequality has, in recent years, been practically driven from public view.  But according to the data that Fryer lives with, the inequality itself hasn’t gone away.  There have been countless distractions — wars, economic gyrations, political turmoil — and, perhaps just as significantly, fatigue.  The proven voices and standard ideologies have lost much of their power.

Interesting especially in view of the Larry Summers flap, wherein the president of Harvard wondered aloud if genetics might explain why women are underrepresented in the sciences.

I’m not sure what is more interesting, Fryer, or the fact that the Times ran this article…

Posted by ole at 07:27 AM

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What do we make of this?  A listing of states, IQs, and how they voted. Looks like I’ll have to move to Mississippi :)

Aficionados of this stuff might enjoy this and this as well…

Update from Thras: Hoax. See here

Posted by ole at 10:02 AM

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CNN reports “Judge Orders Couple Not to Have Children“. Amazing.

Monroe County Family Court Judge Marilyn O’Connor ruled March 31 that both parents “should not have yet another child which must be cared for at public expense.”

“The facts of this case and the reality of parenthood cry out for family planning education,” she ruled. “This court believes the constitutional right to have children is overcome when society must bear the financial and everyday burden of care.” [ emphasis added ]

When I was working on Unnatural Selection, I ruled out this sort of government action as politically impossible.

Attorney Chris Affronti, who chairs the family law section of the Monroe County Bar Association, said he’s not sure how the ruling could be enforced. “I think what the judge is trying to do is kind of have a wake-up call for society,” he said.

Wake up call? Let’s hope so. I know people will comment that one of this couple’s children could be the next Mozart, but let’s be realistic; isn’t it statistically far more likely that this couple’s children will end up just like them, having lots of kids which have to be raised by society…

GNXPers – comments?

Posted by ole at 12:03 PM

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the Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore I’m going to have more to say about this later, but for now let me recommend The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore.  This is an important book.  Any book recommended by Richard Dawkins is going to be good, but in addition to being interesting and entertaining, this book paves new ground in a very productive direction.  Armed with this new hammer, all sorts of things start looking like nails.  I’ve recently found myself explaining the behavior of people, business strategy, even my own emotions in terms of memetics.

One might even suggest – and I hereby do so – that blogging is essentially driven by memes’ desire for reproduction.  After the evolution of the human brain, the Internet has been the best thing ever to happen for memes…

Very apropos, razib discussed a gene for controlling brain size.  Part of Blackmore’s argument is that evolution of our big brains was driven by memetic selection, essentially driving genetic selection (in much the same way that peacock’s have evolved huge ungainly tails).

Some overt memetic sexual selection: the NYTimes reports on Different Sizes for Different Regions.  Why evolve attractive physical characteristics when you can simply modify yourself?  People are reshaping themselves, poking holes and branding themselves, even changing their gender, all for what?  Genetic fulfillment?  No.  Memetic fulfillment.

This is the best answer, by the way, to the question of why homosexuality doesn’t simply die out, since most gay people don’t have children.  It isn’t selected for genetically, it is selected memetically.  And from that standpoint, it is a very competitive replicator.

These days, memes rule.

And the fallout is just beginning.  FuturePundit wonders Aging Or Sex Ratio Bigger Demographic Problem For China?  In the near future, China will become much older, and much more male.  These are both memetic effects which will have far-reaching societal consequences.  Remember, China has five times the population of the U.S. 

The post excerpts a book by Valerie Hudson: “In 2020 it may seem to China that it would be worth it to have a very bloody battle in which a lot of their young men could die in some glorious cause.”  Entirely plausible, and therefore quite scary.

There are equally profound demographic changes taking place in India, which by 2020 will be more populous than China.

If this seems like weird disconnected stuff, please stay tuned.  I plan to discuss memetics in more detail…

Posted by ole at 01:18 AM

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Hey, guess what?  Welfare reform is working.  Check out this article by the Brookings Institution, regarding the behavioral changes in never-married mothers during the past recession.  [ via Micky Kaus, who summarizes: "The [welfare] rolls didn’t rise in the recession because single mothers kept on working.” ]  There is hope yet; you can influence people’s behaviour with economic incentives.

Posted by ole at 11:36 PM

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Dalton Conley in Slate: Two is Enough:”The U.S. government encourages families to have children, as many of them as possible. The pro-child policies are based partly on romantic notions about mom, family, and apple pie, but they also have a rational goal: We subsidize kids so that our next generation of workers is ready to win in the global economy. Problem is, these two goals – more kids and better-prepared kids – are at odds. If we really care about kids’ welfare and accomplishment, the United States should scrap policies that encourage parents to have lots of children.”Amen. Posted by ole at 01:32 AM

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Sometimes a picture is worth much more than 1,000 words.  Take this one:

graph: global economic inequality

The Economist ran a great story recently about global economic inequality: More or Less Equal?  These graphs accompany the story.

The graph plots a circle for each country in the world.  The X axis is the current [1980] GDP per person, and the Y axis is the growth rate of the GDP per person.  Anyone looking at the top graph would conclude that the gap between rich countries and poor countries is getting larger; on average the rich are getting richer, faster.  But now look at the bottom graph, where the size of each country’s population is reflected in the size of its circle.  China and India are poor, but their growth rate leads the world, and they are also the two most populous countries.  By considering population, now you might draw the opposite conclusion; that [on average] the poor are getting less poor, faster than the rich are getting richer. 

Now notice one more thing – the horizontal red line signifying 0% growth.  The countries below this line are not only poor, but they are getting poorer.  The large poor country at the lower left is Nigeria, a sad situation if there ever was one.  In fact for most of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa (beige shading) the standard of living is getting worse.  This is due to AIDS and politics and wars and poor leaders and many other factors.  Clearly the third world is separating; Southeast Asia is very different from Africa.

Anyway it is a great graph, very thought provoking.  Edward Tufte would love it.

Posted by ole at 06:20 PM

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Of possible interest, check out Gapminder.  Great visual displays of various global statistics, including human development trends, income distribution, health, etc.  A picture is worth a 1,000 numbers :)  [ via Joi Ito ]

Posted by ole at 03:54 PM

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Here’s a fabuous speech by author Michael Crichton given about a year ago at Caltech, to remind us about “fake science”, and the difficulty of predicting the future.

I just came across it and thought GNXP readers would enjoy it.

Posted by ole at 03:48 PM

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Today’s survey: In the next 100 years, will people be more intelligent, or less intelligent?

A few weeks ago I posed a series of “order of magnitude” thought experiments about the future of people.  I didn’t get much response, probably because they were thought experiments, and not multiple-choice surveys where people could just click to vote.  Also asking people to think rationally between Thanksgiving and Christmas is always a challenge :)

But let’s consider them together.  They all have the following schema: What if x?  Would things be better for you, or worse?  Choices for x included:

What if the world had {2X, 4X, 10X} more people in it?What if everyone made {2X, 4X, 10X} more money?What if everyone was {2X, 4X} bigger?What if everyone was {10%, 20%} smarter?

What’s interesting about these questions is that although there were posed hypothetically, there are definite trends.  From the recent past (say 100 years) through today, the following are unequivocally true:

The world has far more people in it (about 8X in the last 100 years).  The trend is that in the next 100 years, this growth will continue but at a slower pace.The world is far more productive (about 4X in the last 100 years).  The trend is that in the next 100 years, this growth will continue and perhaps even accelerate. People are much larger (about 30% by weight and 20% by height, in the last 100 years).  The trend is that in the next 100 years, this growth will continue but at a slower pace.

The last question is less clear; have people become {less intelligent, more intelligent} in the last 100 years?  An open question, I would say; the Flynn effect indicates “more intelligent”, while population analysis suggests “less intelligent”.  And in the next 100 years, will the trend be up, or down?

You know what I think, but what do you think? 

Here’s today’s survey:

In the next 100 years, will people be more intelligent, or less intelligent?

(The survey is on my blog because I don’t know how to host one on GNXP :)

Posted by ole at 11:09 AM

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pentagonal cubic bisection

The other day I asked:

Can a cube be sectioned in such a way as to create a regular pentagon?
It appears the regular hexagonal section has the greatest area of all possible sections.  Can you prove it?

I know you’ve been breathlessly waiting for the answers, so here you go.

First, no, a cube cannot be sectioned to create a regular pentagon.  The closest you can do is the figure shown above.  This is a “full house” pentagon; three of the sides are the same length, and the other two sides are the same length as each other, but longer than the other three.  {Note: it is not necessary that one of the pentagon’s vertices be coincident with a vertex of the cube.}

Second, the regular hexagon is not the section with the greatest area.  I didn’t mean for this to be a trick question, but I guess it was.  The section with the greatest area is this one:

maximal cubic bisection

The diagonal of each face is √2

Area: √2 = 1.41

Here’s the regular hexagon again:

hexagonal cubic bisection

The diagonal of each face is √2

Each side of the hexagon is √2/2

Triangles are equilateral with area √3/8

Area: ¾√3 = 1.30

There are some other candidates as well.  In the two figures above, consider rotating the section about the dashed line as an axis.  That yields the following section (a diamond, not a square):

diamondal cubic bisection

Each side is √5/2

One chord is √2, the other is √3

Area: ½√2√3 = 1.22

And continuing the rotation, this section, a square with the minimum area of any section which passes through the center of the cube:

square cubic bisection

Section same as cube face

Area: 1

Another interesting section is this one, the largest triangular section:

triangular cubic bisection

The diagonal of each face is √2

Triangles are equilateral with area √3/8

Area: ½√3 = 0.87

Finally, here’s today’s bonus question:

What is the area of the “full house” pentagonal section?

Posted by ole at 06:20 PM

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David B. posted a nice puzzle the other day, asking you to imagine cutting a plane through a cube in such as way as to create a regular hexagon.  I’m sure you had fun with that one.

I have a couple of extra credit questions:

Can a cube be sectioned in such as way as to create a regular pentagon? It appears the hexagonal section has the greatest area of all possible sections.  Can you prove it?


Posted by ole at 10:25 PM

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Want to know whether you’re male or female? Among other ways to tell, you can use the Gender Genie. Enter a block of text and it will tell you the likely gender of the author. Cool.

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Please check out the Fellowship Baptist Creation Science Fair website.

High School Level, 1st Place:  Eileen Hyde and Lynda Morgan (grades 10 & 11) did a project showing how the power of prayer can unlock the latent genes in bacteria, allowing them to microevolve antibiotic resistance.  Escherichia coli bacteria cultured in agar filled petri dishes were subjected to the antibiotics tetracycline and chlorotetracycline.  The bacteria cultures were divided into two groups, one group (A) received prayer while the other (B) didn’t.  The prayer was as follows: “Dear Lord, please allow the bacteria in Group A to unlock the antibiotic-resistant genes that You saw fit to give them at the time of Creation.  Amen.”  The process was repeated for five generations, with the prayer being given at the start of each generation. In the end, Group A was significantly more resistant than Group B to both antibiotics.

You may also enjoy the Dawkins Watch.

Amazingly, it appears from the comments in the guestbook that less than half of the visitors realized this was a parody.  Terrific!

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Are you bright?  Do you know what the question is asking? 

A Bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview

These days “bright” is like “gay”, an ordinary adjective pressed into service to paper over an earlier, less-flattering term.  Being gay sounds better than being homosexual, more normal, less scientific, more acceptable.  And being bright sounds better than being atheist or agnostic for the same reasons.  A significant number of people are coming “out of the closet” and admitting they are bright.

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At the moment I am reading three different books, all great, and I want to share them with you.  Well, to be specific I am not actually reading any of them right now, I’m typing, but you know what I mean.

In the Blink of an Eye First up we have In the Blink of an Eye, by Andrew Parker.  This is a fantastic presentation of Parker’s theories about the Cambrian explosion.  First he explains that all the animal phyla currently on earth actually evolved before the Cambrian period (about 525M years ago).  The “explosion” was actually a sudden evolution of “hard” parts by animals in many different phyla, with a consequent huge increase in the number of species.  He suggests this evolution was triggered by the strong selective pressure caused by the development of eyes, which made predators suddenly more effective.  In the process he takes us through a wonderful tour of the history of life on Earth, spiced with delightful anecdotes about ancient animals and the humans who tried to figure them out.  Parker doesn’t write very well – he is a scientist, not a novelist – but the overall effect is charming rather than deterring, and his style doesn’t get in the way of the facts.  You can tell he had to really work to avoid diving into too much scientific detail, but he made it.  (He also an Aussie, and that comes through in his style, too; I can just about hear his accent…)  There are also lots of great diagrams of animals and their various strategies for survival.  Highly recommended.

A Short History of Nearly Everything Next we have A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson.  Where Parker is a scientist but not a great writer, Bryson is a great writer but not a scientist.  Rather than struggling to contain the level of detail, Bryson works hard to avoid too shallow a treatment, but his wonderful folksy style and thorough research make the book work.  This book is essentially a tour through the development of the universe, picking up as many random facts about as many physical things as possible.  Bryson takes a delight not only in the facts themselves, but in the intricate chains of reasoning required to find them, and the people who did the finding.  Means of quantification are particularly treasured (e.g. just how hot is the center of the Earth, and how do we know?)  I’m enjoying this book a lot, Bryson’s obvious enthusiasm carries me along even when the subject matter gets a bit dry.

I am actually reading this as an e-book, using Microsoft Reader; the first time I have ever done so.  Overall I don’t like the on-screen reading experience as much as a “real” book (it is tough to take my monitor into the bathroom), but the software works and I found myself basically disappearing into the book.  This is the wave of the future, we just need better reading devices…

A Traveler's Guide to Mars Finally we have A Traveler’s Guide to Mars, by William Hartmann.  This is really three books in one, deftly woven together.  First there’s a data dump of everything which is known about Mars, including the history of what we knew and when we knew it (and why).  There are tons of great maps and photographs, including many in full color from the recent Mars Global Surveyor Spacecraft mission.  Second there is a whimsical series of sidebars patterned on a standard travelogue; “What to Wear: Martian Weather”, “Telling Time on Mars”, “How Ice Behaves on Mars”, etc.  These are great because they really emphasize the differences between Earth and Mars, and ironically make the possibility of near-term human landings on Mars seem less remote.  Finally there is Hartmann’s personal series of anecdotes (“My Martian Chronicles”); in addition to livening up the story, they give him a real sense of authority.  I’m enjoying this book on two levels, first, I am learning a lot about Mars, and second, I am excited by the prospect of human planetary travel.  As Hartmann says, viewing the Earth from Mars makes you realize that with all our cultural differences and problems, we’re one species alone in a vast universe.  Inter-planetary travel may ultimately be our greatest accomplishment.

Posted by ole at 09:11 PM

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Earlier godless posted about the fascinating new study which appears to show that IQ heritability varies significantly with socioeconomic status (SES). Here are my thoughts…

Back-to-school pop quiz: Why do poor children, and especially black poor children, score lower on average than their middle-class and white counterparts on IQ tests and other measures of cognitive performance?

That’s the lead question in a Washington Post article about a new study by researchers at the University of Virginia. This study appears to show that IQ heritability varies significantly with socioeconomic status (SES):

Until recently, [lead researcher Eric] Turkheimer and others said, research had indicated that the “heritability” of IQ – that is, the degree to which genes can explain the differences in IQ scores – completely dominated environmental influences.

But it turned out that virtually all those studies on the heritability of IQ had been done on middle-class and wealthy families. Only when Turkheimer tested that assumption in a population of poor and mostly black children did it become clear that, in fact, the influence of genes on IQ was significantly lower in conditions of poverty, where environmental deficits overwhelm genetic potential.

Specifically, the heritability of IQ at the low end of the wealth spectrum was just 0.10 on a scale of zero to one, while it was 0.72 for families of high socioeconomic status.

The study itself used 320 pairs of twins. Twin studies are great for this kind of research, because comparing the correlation of IQ between identical twins, which share environment and genes, with fraternal twins, which share environment but not genes, allows the degree of heritability to be accurately determined.

This would be a very important finding if true – and would go a long way toward explaining the surprisingly low average IQs of many third-world countries (see IQ and Populations for more). It would also give hope to those who feel improving living conditions in poor countries would enable them to become competitive in the global workforce.

However, it is worth pointing out that this study contradicts earlier studies looking for the same thing. The WP article mentions Robert Plomin, a behavioral geneticist with the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College of London, who has been seeking genes linked specifically to intelligence. Plomin said his own unpublished work involving 4,000 pairs of twins has not produced the same results as Turkheimer’s. Similarly, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth study famously used as the basis for many of the conclusions drawn in Richard Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s classic book The Bell Curve did not find these correlations, despite specific efforts to correlate SES with IQ.

The U of V study does differ from other work in one important aspect. Instead of seeking correlation between SES and IQ directly, the researchers were seeking correlation between SES and the heritability of IQ. Why is this different?

Well, if SES and IQ correlate, and IQ is substantially heritable, then it implies that poor populations are stuck in a sort of vicious circle. Their poorness implies low average IQ, and their low average IQ implies a low average IQ among their children, which in turn implies their children will be poor. (That’s an over-simplification, but first-order this is the result.) That’s a pretty tough circle to exit, especially if the poor populations also have a higher-than-average birthrate.

On the other hand, if SES and heritability of IQ correlate, then in poor populations IQ is not significantly heritable (the heritability figure of 0.10 means essentially there is no correlation from one generation to the next). This would break the vicious circle. Poor populations might indeed have a low average IQ, but their children need not if their socioeconomic conditions are improved. This conclusion supports efforts such as Project Head Start, which attempts to improve the lot of poor young children by giving them food, books, and exposure to positive learning environments.

Despite this hopeful conclusion, it should be noted that studies which have attempted to validate the effect of Project Head Start have invariably suggested it is not helpful. But again, these studies have measured correlation to IQ, not correlation to heritability of IQ.

As the article indicates, this research suggests a fruitful avenue for future study:

The next big challenge is to find out what it is about socioeconomic status – a measure that includes not only income but also parental education and occupational status – that contributes to [heritability of ] IQ, so social programs can more effectively boost those factors.

The WP article is balanced and well worth a read. I’m going to try to get the study itself to learn more…

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If you found IQ and Populations interesting, and especially if you’re curious about the derivations of the National IQ figures, please see this post from Steve Sailer in which he discusses “IQ and the Wealth of Nations”…

The IQ structures of the two giga-countries, China and India, demand more intense study, in part because the future history of the world will hinge in no small part on their endowments of human capital.  The demography of India is especially complex due to its caste system, which resembles Jim Crow on steroids and acid.  By discouraging intermarriage, caste has subdivided the Indian people into an incredible number of micro-races.&nbsp In India, according to the dean of population genetics, L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, “The total number of endogamous communities today is around 43,000…”  We know that some of those communities – such as the Zoroastrian Parsees of Bombay – are exceptionally intelligent.

He also considers the Flynn Effect, nutrition, and the remarkable gap in IQ figures between Americans of African descent and present-day Africans.


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The other day I came across this table of National IQs for all the countries in the world.  (Drawn from Richard Lynn’s and Tatu Vanhanen’s “Intelligence and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations“, via Gweilo, via razib.)  This is fascinating information, particularly when combined with population growth rates.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s stipulate that someone’s IQ is just something you can measure, which may or may not have some correlation to anything else you can measure.  Whether it has anything to do with intelligence or any particular cognitive ability will not be addressed.

The U.S. Census Bureau has a terrific website called the International Data Base (IDB).  This includes a facility to create a table of National populations for any year between 1950 and 2050.  Let’s assume that countries are (first-order) self-breeding and that measured IQ was/will be stable in each country during the 100 year period.  Combining all these data yields the following graph:

world IQ over time

The dark blue line is the average IQ of the world.  I’ve also plotted the population growth of the five most populous countries, India, China, the U.S., Indonesia, and Nigeria; the average IQ of each of these countries is in parenthesis.  (Nigeria is currently ninth, with Brazil (87), Pakistan (81), Russia (96), and Bangladesh (81) intervening, but by 2050 it will be fifth.)  As you can see, in a 100 year period the world’s average IQ will have dropped from 92 to 86, a change of 6%.  That is pretty darn significant.  And all because of differential population growth.

I extrapolated the population growth of each country another 50 years to the year 2100 (lightly shaded region of graph).  At that time the world’s average IQ will have dropped below 84.  Within this time period of 150 years, extremely short by any evolutionary standard, an incredibly significant change in this key metric will have occurred.  And there is no sign of the trend bottoming out, because the growth rate of countries with lower IQs exceeds the growth rate of countries with higher IQs.  The most populous country today is China, which has a high IQ (100), but its growth is actually projected to be negative because of their “one child” policy.  After about 2030 India will be the most populous country, and it has relatively low IQ (81).  At current growth rates by 2100 Nigeria will be the third most populous country, and it has a low IQ (67).

If you’re interested in playing with these numbers yourself, here’s the Excel spreadsheet with all these data.  If you publish further analysis or commentary, I would appreciate it if you’d link back to this page.

There were two assumptions we made up front, and I’d like to revisit them.  First, we assumed countries are self-breeding.  With modern vehicles and opportunities for travel this is becoming less and less true, but for the bulk of the world’s population it is definitely a safe assumption.  The two largest countries, China and India, are both relatively undeveloped and by-and-large people do not travel in or out of them.  The third largest country, the U.S., is the only possible exception to this assumption, because so many people immigrate into the U.S. (in 1990 8% of the U.S. population was foreign-born).

The second assumption is more interesting; we assumed measured IQ was/will be stable in each country.  The Flynn Effect predicts this is false, and that measured IQ will increase over time.  (Historical data provide significant evidence for this.)  Many explanations have been offered for this effect, including steady improvement in testing procedures, and there is some evidence that in recent years the Flynn Effect has diminished.  If the overall world IQ changes due to differential birth rates among populations with different IQs (that is, separate countries), then it seems plausible that a country’s IQ could change due to differential birth rates within its sub-populations as well.  In most countries and under most circumstances the birth rate of poorer and less educated people is significantly higher than the birth rate among wealthier and more educated people.  (China is the primary exception; due to their “one child” policies the birth rate within all sub-populations is essentially the same.)  Given the positive correlation between measured IQ and wealth, and between measured IQ and education, these differential birth rates would suggest that individual countries’ IQs would decrease as populations expand.  If true, this would obviously accelerate the overall decrease in world IQ over time.

There are other factors at work.  For example, AIDS is presently the most common cause of death in Nigeria, which is one of the most populous and fastest growing countries.  Wealthier and more educated people are less likely to become infected by AIDS, because of awareness of the known transmission mechanisms and available protections, and also more likely to survive infection, because of availability of treatment (at least to the point of having and raising healthy children).  Because of this the effective birth rate among wealthier and more educated people in Nigeria is probably higher than poorer, less educated people.  There is a substantial correlation between wealth, education, and measured IQ.  Thus the AIDS epidemic may have the effect of raising the average IQ of Nigerians.

The human race has been in existence for approximately 150,000 years, during which time natural selection has incrementally increased human intelligence and cognitive ability.  It is not possible to give IQ tests to humans from 100,000 years ago – at least not yet :) – so we can only surmise that there would have been a corresponding increase in measured IQ as well.  Only recently – within the last 10,000 years or so – has this trend been halted, primarily by organized agriculture which enabled a small group of humans to provide food for a larger group.  It now appears that very recently – within the last 100 years or so – this trend has been reversed.  I call this Unnatural Selection, since it appears that societal rather than evolutionary effects are at work.  The consequences of this overall decrease in world IQ have yet to be quantified, but they are bound to be significant.

More ruminations on this to follow, please stay tuned…


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long-horned beetles
from the Insect Company
(click for larger view)

blind watchmakings
Blind Watchmakings
from Richard Dawkins
(click for larger view)

I recently discovered The Insect Company website, which has fascinating photo galleries of beautiful and interesting insects.  [ via Boing Boing ]  An example is shown at right; Cerambycidae are long-horned beetles, and this gallery shows the variations from different countries.  I was awestruck by these wonderful examples of Darwinism in action; for me this was a religious experience.

In paging through these photos, I was reminded of the amazing software Richard Dawkins wrote to accompany his 1986 classic, “The Blind Watchmaker“.  (If you have not read this book, then STOP, do not pass go, and immediately order it.  You will thank me.)

Chapter 3, Accumulating Small Change, is an in-depth exploration of a synthetic organism-producer Dawkins developed to try out the ideas behind the book.  This is a Macintosh application which generated “biomorphs”, 2D black and white organism-like configurations of pixels which were generated algorithmically from a set of variables (“genes”).  From any biomorph “children” are generated by mutating the variables.  You then select which children survive to generate children themselves, and thereby “breed” generation after generation of evolving biomorphs.

BTW, I just ran the Mac application again.  This 17-year-old program still runs!  (OSX emulating OSn and PowerPC emulating 68000.)  Pretty nice GUI, despite being black and white, and awesome functionality.

An example of biomorphic evolution is shown at right.  Each of these “organisms” differs from the previous by a single mutation in one of the “genes”.  The visual similarity to the beetles is profound, and to my mind not coincidental.

There is one big qualitative difference between the beetles and the biomorphs; the beetles are naturally selected, while the biomorphs are not.  In each generation of beetles the fittest survive to have offspring.  The variation among beetles from different countries presumably reflects different environments (food, predators, habitat, weather, etc.).  In each generation of biomorphs the program user performs the selection, using morphological similarity to actual organisms as a measure of “fitness”.

Or based on visual similarity to some other target; when the book was first published Dawkins offered a $1,000 prize for anyone who could “breed” an image of a chalice, “the Holy Grail”.  To his surprise, a Caltech student claimed the prize within a year.  Subsequently a new prize of $1,000 was offered for breeding an image of a human, but this has not to my knowledge been claimed.

Biomorphs are generated from sixteen variables (“genes”), each with a range of 20 values (“alleles”).  There are thus 16^20 possible biomorphs.  Mimicking biology, one of the genes controls the magnitude of mutation which can occur in one generation (variation in alleles), and another the range (number of genes which mutate).  These genes can of course themselves mutate, so that some biomorph populations are relatively stable from one generation to the next, while another might vary wildly.  The capacity of the program to surprise you from one generation to the next will, er, surprise you.  Fans of Stephen Gould will also note the “hopeful monster” mode, in which an entirely new biomorph is randomly generated!

Great stuff.  What is most amazing is that evolution has resulted in creatures sophisticated enough to generate algorithmic models that mimic evolution!


• Category: Science 
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