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March 26, 2005
Carl posts about differences between the babies of foragers and farmers/moderns. These sort of shifts of infant behavior dependent on the input that parents (and the ability of the babies to manipulate said parents) provide contingent upon social-environmental constraints make me cautious about assuming an overpowering EEA across a host of variables. Additionally, babies also likely differ in intrinsic temperament, as do the sexes, and according to Jerome Kagan infants of different populations also exhibit variant modal personalities. All this suggests a dynamism on a variety of levels, from the proximate behavorial context all the way to the microevolutionary scale, which is underemphasized by fixating on monomorphic universal traits.
Related: John Hawks also comments.
March 25, 2005
Responses to Leroi
Male brain ~ more sons vs. female brain ~ more daughters?
Doing some reading on the Trivers-Willard hypothesis I found this: Engineers have more sons, nurses have more daughters: an evolutionary psychological extension of Baron–Cohen's extreme male brain theory of autism:
I don't have access to the whole article, so be forewarned (I don't know if the authors are simply observing a correlation between "male brain" professions with high SES, which would tend correlate with a male-skewed sex ratio according to the Trivers-Willard hypothesis).
Support for the Trivers-Willard hypothesis seems stronger in animals, especially in those that are highly polygynous (greater male reproductive variance, so a bigger payoff for mothers who can "invest" well in sons so they exhibit more attractive phenotypes).
Update Well...since someone asked, I did remember this paper: Offspring sex ratio in women with android body fat distribution:
Baron-Cohen says that the "male brain" is correlated with lower-than-median levels of testosterone in males and higher-than-median levels of testosterone in females. High Waist-Hip-Ratio (WHR) tends to be found in women with higher relative rates of testosterone. The research above (which has been disputed!) suggests that there is a male bias in sex ratio at birth for women who have higher WHR, ergo, higher testosterone levels. Of course this leaves the males out of the equation, but the Trivers-Willard hypothesis is generally concerned with female parental strategies in any case. And don't discount sex-selective abortions....
Addendum: Testosterone probably plays a role in sex drive as well, so don't discount the orgasm result being connected to the WHR.
Related: The essential difference.
Ray Kurzweil Interview
"In this expanded interview transcript, inventor Ray Kurzweil discusses birth, death, and the potential offered by non-biological thinking processes."
Clades or Clines?
I don’t recall where I found this recent paper by David Serre and Svante Pääbo, so my apologies if it has already been linked to.
Here’s the abstract:
Evidence for Gradients of Human Genetic Diversity Within and Among Continents Genetic variation in humans is sometimes described as being discontinuous among continents or among groups of individuals, and by some this has been interpreted as genetic support for "races." A recent study in which >350 microsatellites were studied in a global sample of humans showed that they could be grouped according to their continental origin, and this was widely interpreted as evidence for a discrete distribution of human genetic diversity. Here, we investigate how study design can influence such conclusions. Our results show that when individuals are sampled homogeneously from around the globe, the pattern seen is one of gradients of allele frequencies that extend over the entire world, rather than discrete clusters. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that major genetic discontinuities exist between different continents or "races."
The full paper is published in Genome Research, 14:1679-1685, 2004. A pdf may be available here.
I’m not qualified to judge the technical issues, but presumably the authors’ approach is not obviously wrong, or the paper would not have passed peer review. My only thought is that if the aim is to infer patterns of human genetic history before, say, the last 3,000 years, then the choice of samples should not be influenced by present-day patterns of population density, since these are the result of post-Neolithic population changes.
Women Bloggers at Political Animal
Kevin Drum, after taking a shellacking for having the temerity to ask about the lack of influential women bloggers, has invited some female journalists to post on topics relevant to women bloggers. Talk about navel gazing. I'm not sure if Kevin's offering of penance is a solitary burden that he's bearing or if he's shifted the burden on to his readership. I favor the latter viewpoint, for I'm definitely feeling that it's my eyes that are glazing over while Kevin thinks he's achieved redemption. The first two posts by his guests had a normal amount of comments but as they beat this horse to death the readership seems to be showing a lack of interest.
Rather than playing into the stereotype that women bloggers only write about women's issues and that this narrow focus is a snore to most people, hence the lack of female influence in the blogosphere, Kevin should have followed the practice we have at this blog, which is not to stereotype our female colleagues in such a fashion. Far better for Kevin's guests to have a free hand in the choice of topics so that Kevin's readership could be exposed to the true interests and voices of these women. If they wanted to write about being women in the blogosphere, well then, Kevin would be free of the charge of abetting the crime of gender stereotyping for the women would have been hoisted by their own petard. As it is now, Kevin's just dug himself deeper into the hole by reinforcing the stereotype that women simply write about women's issues.
For your analytic pleasure, I've gathered the data on this experiment. All of the women's posts since this adventure began are listed below the fold, with the comments highlighted. To establish a yardstick I've used all of Kevin's posts that were on his front page.
Data Below the Fold.
March 24, 2005
Two Interesting Phenomena, No Data
Over at my blog, I've made two postings regarding interesting trends in the growth of religious minorities in two countries on the European Union's doorstep. It seems certain that Ukraine's Muslims are rapidly growing in number through migration; Algerian Christians, while still rarer, may also be growing sharply in number, not through immigration but through conversions. Unfortunately, hard data on both situations is rare.
If anyone has any data on either situation, I'd be exceedingly grateful to see it, in the comments thread or via private E-mail.
(Micro)evolution at work....
I stumbled on this research via a popular article which to me smells of neo-saltationist rhetoric. Interesting, certainly it seems a structural constraint of human cognitive architecture that variations in frequencies across populations are repackaged as essential typological jumps or jerks. If paleontologists examined fossils of sticklebacks they might conclude that they were two separate species with a common ancestor. In the open ocean whatever "costs" accrued by the generation of armor-plating are more than compensated for by the survival benefits that are conferred. It seems (on first glance) that the "low-plated" phenotype emerges as the dominant morph because of the release of functional constraint on that locus.
Related A Bird’s Eye View:Biological Categorization and Reasoning Within and Across Cultures. I don't use the term "cognitive architecture" as a figure of speech.
T. Rex Soft Tissue Found Preserved. The only caution I would offer is that I recall claims that T-Rex DNA was extracted back in 1994...though the consensus now seems to be that that was contamination.
GFA adds: Here is Gary Hurd's review of the last time rex molecules made headlines.
On a related note, the journal Acta Zoologica Sinca has a new issue devoted to dinosaurish things, including an astoundingly bad critique of the theropod hypothesis of bird origins by pseudoscientist Larry Martin. The entire issue can be seen here.
Speaking of quackery....
Over the past few days I have addressed the topic of intellectual due diligence twice, first, in a somewhat esoteric evaluation of the "situation" in cognitive science in relation to the public's perception of paradigm acceptance within the field being at variance with the opinions of professionals, then, I moved to a more concrete critique of the abuses of facts in the service of ideology & values.
In both of these cases quibbling matters can be important indicator values of due diligence. That is, if someone uses Evolutionary Psychology as a catchall for biologistic thinking about human nature, then you need to take a step back and evaluate the knowledge base the other individual is working with. If someone makes basic errors of chronology on matters of history it is a strong clue that their knowledge base is fragmented, incoherent, and driven by their need for confirmation of their hypothesis and so warped by selection bias.
So, when someone conflates abiogenesis and evolution, you know they are an idiot, so end the discussion. If you are inclined to expose yourself to such creatures of intellectual sloth, follow the trackbacks....
Tales from the blank slate
Are you a director planning on filming your latest cinematic masterpiece up here in Sweden? Then you better stock up on women first.
In order to receive state funding, (which pretty much 100 percent of Swedish films depend on, go figure...), at least 40% of your producers, directors and script-writers better be women - otherwise there will be no cash forthcoming.
So, if any of our female readers are interested in getting into the movie business, a move to Sweden might be advisable. Sure, you'll be doing incomprehensible relational drama more than you would like, but demand for your services is certain to be brisk.
March 23, 2005
Keeping the record straight....
I have a diary over at Redstate.org as well as entry at Dean Nation on the need for those who revere and hew to the Western tradition to actually read history with a fidelity, depth and joy in keeping with the scholarship of that tradition. I'd appreciate if GNXP readers could "rate up" my Redstate.org entry.
Chris against the evolutionary psychologists....
In the spirit of following up on my post in relation to Chris of Mixing Memory, here is his critique of Evolutionary Psychology.™ I added the "trademark" superscript because Chris is assailing the paradigm put forward by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. It is conventionally asserted that EP is just a rebranding of the sociobiological tradition, but in reality it is a specific cognitive orientation which focuses on human universals and assumes a particular paleoanthropological model as normative (Out-of-Africa-Replacement). Alternative sociobiological disciplines like Human Ethology and Behavorial Ecology, as well as the alphabet soup of fields explicitly associated with zoology but not necessarily disjoint with the human sciences, still flourish and do not necessarily imply particular positions about the architecture of the mind. In other words, a rejection of EP as bad science does not imply that by default the tabula rasa and its cousins as null hypotheses which must be accepted.
Addendum: If you are curious, my skepticism with Tooby and Cosmides model emerges from my concerns about the plausibility of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) and the concomitant prevelance of monomorphism in relation to complex behavorial adaptations.
Flores remains damaged
Someone's managed to damage the Homo floresiensis remains.
Recall that there was a dispute over the bones when Indonesian paleoanthropologist, Teuku Jacob, 'borrowed' them apparently without the permission of the Australian discoverers. Well, Dr. Jacob returned the bones and now the Autralian team have claimed that he damaged them whilst making casts of the bones. Dr. Jacob denies having damaged the remains -- or even having made casts of them. He suggests the bones were damaged when being transported back to the Australian team.
In any case, they do appear to be pretty badly damaged -- John Hawks has posted some before-and-after photographs. Appalling.
March 22, 2005
Race [an invited post]. Famous last words: "After reading the article, it turns out that Leroi is playing word games."
This sounds amazingly bad. Algis Kuliukas tells me that Elaine Morgan, leading spokesperson for the horrid "Aquatic Ape Theory", has a new book out that, in his words, "takes on the accepted wisdom which has lead to each and every aspect of neo-Darwinism being accepted without question in some circles. From E O Wilson's 'Sociobiology: The New Synthesis' through to Hamilton's Kin Selection and Triver's Reciprocal Altruism and associated game theories, she turns them over and revisits our assumptions about them. From Dawkins' meme to 'The Natural History of Rape' and from Evolutionary Psychology to 'The Blank Slate', Elaine reminds us of anomalies and problems and provides tough, hard-nosed reasons not to get too carried away with all the hype."
Morgan vs. Trivers and Hamilton. Can you imagine a debate thats anymore intellectually lopsided?
Consciousness After Descartes
My inital reaction to the virtual lesbian threeway depicted in the second edition of Masamune Shirow's manga Ghost in the Shell, back when I first read it in January, was that it was just a throwaway scene aimed at a teenage male market. I'm not so sure now.
To be sure, the teenage-male demographic does play a major role. Consider the plausibility of a government that allows Motoko Kusanagi--an elite agent from a top-secret rapid response team--to prostitute herself in exchange for proscribed sensory technologies. The fact of her apparent heterosexuality isn't such a major issue, considering the relative pliability of many people's sexual orientations. The thing that redeemed this ménage à trois, even partially, was the reaction of an uninvolved fourth party to the affair. An onlooker, the male Bato, is sent to interrupt the virtual scenario, tapping into the mind-to-mind transmissions to and from Motoko, data streams which (of course) reflect the ways in which these three women feel and relate to their bodies. Bato finds himself sickened, since things aren't supposed to feel that way, things feel wrong.
Descartes' mind-body dualism--his separation of mind from body--seems radically untenable, given what we know in the 21st century about the ways in which human consciousness is determined by human physicality. The writings of Oliver Sacks, to name a single author of many, go into enough detail to make the Cartesian ideal of a mind detached from material reality certainly inachievable. The final failure of this ideal, though, leaves wide open the question of just how portable human experiences actually are, and how much for human personality is determined by the specific form of one's physical self.
I've often wondered what it would be like to invert my sexual orientation with some future medical treatment, to shift from 5.0-5.5 on the Kinsey scale to 0.5-1.0. Four necessary qualifiers: reality-based (not be a simple redefinition like that of ex-gays); safe; inexpensive; and, reversible. What is it like to feel heterosexual? I wonder. Not the least interesting possibility would be the question of how I'd relate to previous homosedxual encounters and relationships.
Three questions for further debate.
Plant Is Found to Correct Its Own Mutated Gene. Over at Nature Genome-wide non-mendelian inheritance of extra-genomic information in Arabidopsis. Echoes of the RNA world?
Update: Much more at Carl's.
"Divisive" Ethnic Species Names
Earlier this month, Turkey's Ministry of Environment and Forestry altered the Latin names of three mammal species to expunge "divisive" reference to two of the country's ethnic minorities -- the Armenians and Kurds.
The Turkish red fox subspecies Vulpes vulpes kurdistanica will have its name cut down to just Vulpes vulpes, the deer Capreolus capreolus armenius will be Capreolus capreolus capreolus, and the sheep Ovis armeniana becomes Ovis orientalis anatolicus.
The Ministry's statement alleges the names were handed out with "ill intent," and although the official body of animal Linnean nomenclature, the ICZN, does not allow name changes for political reasons, spokespeople say this one might stick because the changes are "scientifically acceptable."
[via Science (subscription required)]
Innate Primate Behaviors
See this news report on research into 'hard-wired' behavio(u)r patterns among primates, some of which go far back into evolutionary history.
The headline describes this as 'surprising', but it is only surprising if you start from the position of a 'blank slate' dogma.
UK Social Trends
The UK's Office for National Statistics has just published the annual survey of Social Trends in the UK. This provides (relatively) easily digested statistics and analysis on all aspects of the UK's population and social life. The ONS website provides full access to the book here, either in bite-sized chunks or as the complete text. The latter is over 5Mb of pdf, so it takes a while to download (and a lot of disk space), but as the printed book costs £45, a free download is quite a bargain!
I would be interested to know whether the US (and other countries) have anything comparable.
March 21, 2005
Authority & quackery
Over at Mixing Memory Chris expresses frustration at the gap between the general public's perception of cognitive science and the state of affairs within the discipline. It seems pretty clear that enemy #1 in the battle against disinformation in Chris' mind is Steven Pinker, though he seems to view Ray Jackendoff positively, who just happened to recently co-author a paper with Pinker, indicating that the "problem" with Steven Pinker is his outsized influence in the field of public exposition rather than his science within the discipline.
Nevertheless, Chris' concern is a serious point. Ideas from cognitive science like massive modularity (promoted by Pinker) have shaped the discourse in other areas. For example, I am a big fan of the work of Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber, who all presuppose massive modularity in their work, but, they are all anthropologists by training! The problem seems to be that in interdisciplinary work there is a risk when you "borrow" paradigms from other fields, and make a selection out of the range of paradigms which are still competing as alternative hypotheses and simply assume one as a given. The acceptance of massive modularity by the authors above makes sense in light of the phenomena they are trying to explain (culture, religion, etc.). If massive modularity is correct then their narratives are highly persuasive to me, but, if it is found to be not supported by the consensus within cognitive science then it seems that they will have to start from ground zero.
Due to the complexity of some interdisciplinary scholarly endeavours I think that it is acceptable for thinkers to borrow theories which have not necessarily fixed themselves as orthodoxy in an affinal field. Science is by its nature contingent and most hypotheses will be found to be wanting. You are certainly increasing the probability of falsification if the conditions which your hypotheses assumes to be true are themselves less than certain, but as long as as the tenuousness of some of the conditions are made clear I do not see it as problematic. The sciences are not hermetically sealed intellectual exercises, and the utility of paradigm A borrowed from field y in field x might even have implications for the acceptance of paradigm A in field y. Consider for example Darwin's theory of evolution, it presupposed an exceedingly ancient earth for natural selection to do its work, but physicists estimated that Darwin and the geologists had overestimated by an order of magnitude. With the discovery of radioactivity the objections of physicists disappeared, but, it is a good thing that the biologists and geologists did not give due reverence to physics as the Queen of the Sciences.
Update: Chris has a semi-follow up.
The evolution of Mormons
Deseret News has a long piece titled "Utah's non-war over evolution." It is somewhat rambling, but it should be viewed in light of the fact Ronald L. Numbers in The Creationists recounts that 'In 1935 only 36 percent of the students at the Mormon's Brighman Young University denied that humans have been "created in a process of evolution from lower forms." By 1973 the figure had risen sharply to 81....' The results at BYU might be due to decreased sample biasing as the student body increased in size, but, I think there is a real sociological process going on here: between 1930 and 1970 Mormons became, more or less, part of the American mainstream.1 And, to some extent they identified sociologically with conservative Protestants, who have been at the forefront of the "War against Evolution" since the rise of Darwinism in the United States.
But, note that the reporter is careful to highlight that the Latter Day Church's teaching on the topic of evolutionary theory is far more circumspect and constrained than the perception of the seminary teachers who provide Mormon youth with their religious education. I have posted about Mormon peculiarities in the realm of belief when Protestantism is taken as normative before, but, I think the attitude toward evolution among the Mormon laity2 is a reflection of sociological forces buffetting them in the sea of American culture in which their peculiar beliefs have no great impact. Many of my classmates in high school were Mormon, and when I discussed evolutionary theory with them I would generally encounter less hostility than from my evangelical peers, but overall they were "unbelievers." But, when I pressed them for theological or doctrinal justification for their position they could not produce anything, in contrast with evangelicals who often encountered Creationists literature at their church and so were ready with prefab talking points intelligible in their literalist worldview. My Mormon friends often ended up somewhat confused as to why they rejected evolutionary theory in the context of their religion, but I think the reality that my inquiries were exposing was that the Latter Day Saints are far more affected by the zeitgeist than they themselves are aware of.
This is I think part of a greater process of the canalization of various religious sects and denominations into a few broad rivers of practice and outlook in the United States. Because most Mormons have placed themselves within the "religious conservative" camp they have absorbed some talking points reflexively without further reflection as to whether it is truly in keeping with their explicitly stated religious beliefs. Over time I would not be surprised if the Creationist bent of the some of the laity percolates upward toward the Church Hierarchy (generally drawn from successful businessmen). The individualistic orientation of many American Roman Catholics also reflects their shaping by the American sociological landscape, and even relatively exotic religions like Islam are being stamped by the spirit of the times.
Update: Ex-Mormon A Clear Voice responds to my post. The response implies that the move toward Creationism among Mormons might be the result of their move toward assimilation into self-identification as mainstream Christians. I would like to point out that that Creationism is only strongly identified with conservative Protestants. Most American Catholics and mainline Christians are theistic evolutionists. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, historically related to the more numerous Mormons, has basically morphed into a moderate Protestant denomination for operational purposes. So the Mormon move toward Creationism is not just identification with Christianity and a shift away from their pride in deviance from the norms of worldwide Christian faith, but an identification with conservative Protestanism. Additionally, I would argue that Creationism is often relatively ancillary to conservative Protestant thought, that is, it is implied by their literalist beliefs, but, it is not a pillar of their faith. The Mormon shift toward implicit Creationism to me suggests that cultural undercurrents have reshaped the Latter Day Saints zeitgeist without their full knowledge.
A Clear Voice seems to put more emphasis on the hierarchy and a top-down concept of religious worldview. This certainly makes sense, and it is more appropriate in the Mormon context than in the Protestant one (where schism is socially acceptable and almost inevitable). It seems likely that structural constraints of Mormon theology might always prevent their full assimilation into the conservative Protestant subculture, for unlike the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, Mormons reject the Trinity, a key item of belief for nearly all the world's Christians. In contrast, Creationism is a point of commonality which is not obstructed by the peculiarity of the Mormon theology, a way to bridge the chasm between conservative Protestants and themselves.
Mormons are an important illustration of the salience of both explicit and implicit religious beliefs and doctrines in the shaping of a community.
1 - The growth of the Mormon religion in this period also was driven partly by conversion of non-Mormons who may not have shed all their prior preconceptions or values.
2 - Since Mormons do not have a professional priesthood I use the term loosely.
Advent of the Hive-mind
My friend Dymphna sent me this pdf, (one of her irish cousins is a co-author), on Constructing an Animat Mind Using 505 Sub-Minds from 234 Different Authors. Coolio. Animat looks like an excellent paradigm for growing a hive mind on the internet. Perhaps the Singularity is already underway. ;)
NaturalMotion, a startup founded by former Oxford researchers Torsten Reil and Colm Massey, is ushering in a new age of digital animation. The company's sole app, Endorphin, employs neural networks and artificial evolution to produce self-animating software robots that walk and run and fly with startling verisimilitude.
FYI, most of the 15,000 horses in LOTR:Return of the King were generated by Natural Motion, which is especially good at modelling cg horses. If we can now use the strong paradigms of evolutionary biology to create excellent cg horses, can excellent hive minds and brains be far behind?
NYT - Toward a Unified Theory of Black America
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.
In addition to quoting Fryer's controversial views, Dubner's article itself has some:
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...
Race Does Exist -- New York Times
Steve's latest VDARE column is, in my opinion, a marvel of exposition. Nothing new, but like a fine wine you can move past the lack of novelty and appreciate the familiar but richly nuanced flavors.
One point that I think should be highlighted, especially in the context of Steve's article which does much to strike a balance between stark typologies and the erasure of all variation due to clinal gradients, is the significance of "Wallace's Line," which putatively separates Asian and Australasian fauna in the popular imagination. In reality the chasm is not quite so stark, and many have suggested that between the Indo-Malayan and Oceanian biogeographic realms there is a transitional "Wallacean Realm." Wallacea is bounded by Wallace's Line on its west and Lydekker's Line on its east, roughly the intersection of Indo-Malayan and Oceanian fauna. Wallacea's existence as an intermediate region between Oceania and Indo-Malaya does not render the latter classifications invalid, rather, it reenforces the reality that nature does not conform to Platonic Ideals.1 Variation might be continuous, but, the rate of variation need not be constant.
1 - Recall that biologists actually dispute species concepts. The species is fundamental taxonomic unit, and yet even here there is an un-Platonic mess.
March 20, 2005
fMRI detects Gene Expression
“Ahrens' new approach uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to monitor gene expression in real-time. Because MRI images deep tissues non-invasively and at high resolution, investigators don't need to sacrifice animals and perform laborious and costly analysis.
To trigger living cells into producing their own contrast agent, Ahrens gave them a gene that produces a form of ferritin, a protein that normally stores iron in a non-toxic form. This metalloprotein acts like a nano-magnet and a potent MRI "reporter."”
“Ahrens and his colleagues constructed a gene carrier, or vector, that contained a gene for the MRI reporter. They used a widely studied vector called a replication-defective adenovirus that readily enters cells but doesn't reproduce itself. Ahrens injected the vector carrying the MRI reporter gene into brains of living mice and imaged the MRI reporter expression periodically for over a month in the same cohort of animals. The research showed no overt toxicity in the mouse brain from the MRI reporter.”
Education and Poverty
In recent posts here and here I looked at the data on educational achievement by ethnic groups in England. This showed substantial differences in attainment by different groups, from Black Caribbeans at the bottom to Chinese at the top, as well as the familiar superiority of girls over boys.
I didn’t say much about the causes of these differences, for the simple reason that I don’t know the answer.
However, others are more confident, and the Economist magazine on [correction] 10 March (this issue no longer available free online) gave its own analysis, saying:
Why do black children do so badly at school? … Poverty of aspirations probably counts for less than simple poverty. Last year, 26% of Afro-Caribbean children received free school meals because their parents were poor or on benefits. They did better in exams than the 11% of white British children in the same situation. Blacks seem to do badly largely because they tend to live in bad neighbourhoods with bad schools. In Lambeth and Lewisham—the two districts with the highest concentrations of Afro-Caribbeans in Britain—just 35% of white children earned five or more good GCSEs in 2003. That was 16 points below the English average and not much better than the 30% of Afro-Caribbean and mixed-race children who achieved the same in those areas. Black children do not perform nearly as well as other ethnic minority groups, nor as well as they should. But the explanations—and, hence, the solutions—have less to do with bad attitudes among teachers and pupils and more to do with the old difficulties of poverty and place.
But let’s look more closely at the data on free school meals (FSMs)...
FSMs are available to children whose parents are receiving social security benefits or otherwise are below a certain threshold of household income. FSMs are the standard criterion of ’poverty’ in English educational statistics, and the Education Department provides data on performance by FSM and non-FSM children in various age groups as an Excel file available here (click on the second Excel file of ‘Additional Information’ and save to disk). I have extracted the following data for the proportion of children attaining the target level of achievement in GCSEs at age 15/16 - the figures used by the Economist.
- Even after allowing for FSM status, there are big differences in performance between different ethnic groups, whether we look at those receiving FSMs or those who are not. For example, Chinese children on FSMs do much better than all other groups on FSMs, and indeed better than most children not on FSMs. Indians and Bangladeshis on FSMs also do respectably well - almost as well as the average for all whites, and better than Black Caribbeans who are not on FSMs. While FSM is a relatively crude measure, which may conceal wide differences of income and living standards, it is the only measure we have, and the onus of proof is on those who rely on poverty as the explanation of low attainment to show that these differences can be accounted for.
- There are also large differences in the proportions of children in different ethnic groups who are receiving FSMs. This should at least raise the question whether the causes of poverty are the same across all groups, and whether the ability range of children covered by FSMs varies according to the causes of poverty.
- There also seem to be differences in the impact of poverty (if any) in different groups, as judged by the difference between columns 2 and 3. For example FSM status makes a very big difference in the case of whites, but comparatively little in the case of Chinese and Bangladeshis. If poverty were all-powerful, we would expect its impact to be more uniform.
I don’t have a confident alternative explanation for differences in attainment, but I suggest the following speculative points:
1. There is a loose correlation between educational attainment and parental income, both between and within ethnic groups. Within each group, those who are on FSMs will have below average attainment, but since the correlation is not perfect, there will be regression toward the mean: that is, the attainment of FSM children will be closer to the mean of their ethnic group than the mean of their parents’ income is to the mean of all parental income in that group.
2. The strength of the correlation within a group will vary according to the range of children receiving FSMs. In cases where FSM children make up a large proportion of the ethnic group, the difference between FSM and non-FSM children is likely to be relatively small. Conversely, when FSM children are a small proportion of the ethnic group, we would expect the difference to be relatively large. In other words, there should be a negative correlation between the proportions in column (1) and the difference between columns (2) and (3). I have calculated that there is in fact a negative correlation of about -.5. However, I would not put much weight on this, as the negative covariance comes mainly from just two groups: White and Bangladeshis. If we omitted Bangladeshis from the analysis the correlation would be much smaller. Also, the Chinese group goes against the trend: it has a small proportion of children on FSMs, but also a small difference between FSM and non-FSM children. This is awkward for my hypothesis.
3. The causes of poverty in the different groups are probably different. This would need proper sociological investigation, but I suggest that in the White group FSM status (which covers only 11.6% of White children) is usually associated with personal problems and deficiencies of the parents. The parents are likely (no doubt with many exceptions) to have such problems as alcoholism, drug abuse, low IQ, lack of educational qualifications, mental illness, criminal records, and violent and abusive behaviour. The mother will often be a single parent (single parents account for about half of all ‘child poverty‘ in Britain), and the father unknown or absent. To some extent these factors will apply also in the Black Caribbean group, but there is a Caribbean culture of matriarchal single-parent families, and Caribbean single mothers may still be well-qualified, hard-working and aspirational. FSM status among Black Caribbeans is therefore a weaker indicator of ’underclass’ qualities than among Whites. It is probably an even weaker indicator among Asians. I would guess that FSM children among Asians usually come from families with two married parents, several children, and the father either ill, disabled, or in a low-paid job - poor but honest. I do not know much about Black Africans in England (themselves a very diverse group), but I speculate that they are closer to the Asian groups in this respect. As for the Chinese, there is the complication that recent Chinese immigrants are often asylum seekers, whose children would get FSMs automatically. If these speculations are anywhere near the mark, it is pointless to generalise about the effects of 'poverty' on these children in different groups, as 'poverty' is a very diverse phenomenon.
4. I also suggest that the direction of causation is not simply from poverty to low educational attainment. The key causal variable is not poverty as such but parental characteristics, which affect the children by both nature and nurture.
This leaves unresolved the question how far poor school performance is due to factors of heredity and environment. What I dispute is the facile assumption that it can be explained simply by poverty. In modern western countries poverty is seldom a random blow of fate, but rather a consequence of individual characteristics, which in turn affect the child and his or her educational prospects.
In The Nurture Assumption Judith Rich Harris spends many pages on detailing the ethnographic results from a study of a children's social hierarchies. I believe she stated that male hierarchies tended to be more stable than female hierarchies. I remember thinking at the time that "masculine" forms of impersonal and somewhat simplistic pecking orders with relatively static grades would "scale" more efficiently than nuanced female social systems which have more fluidity and detailed texture. My recollection of the ethnographic literature also suggests that hypergamy where females move up the social ladder tends to be more common than the reverse (see Trivers-Willard Effect).