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August 01, 2003

Genes & Math-two subjects & two books

A few weeks ago I read two books in quick succession, Born That Way: Genes, Behavior & Personality and The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan. Below are two short book reviews & summations....

William Wright's book, Born That Way, takes Thomas Bouchard's study of twins raised apart as the jumping off point for an engaging and vicious broadside into the collapsing dogma of the tabula rasa. Unlike Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, this is not a magisterial survey of human nature from the perspective of a scientist & insider, but an enthusiastic journalist's tale of the rise of biology once more in the wilderness of psychology. Wright himself had a passing interest in psychology in college, but abandoned his interest due to what he perceived as the nonsensical anti-biological orientation of most of the professors of the age.

Wright's book seems a big disorganized sometimes, and I felt some chapters had less focus than others, especially the ones chronicalling the rise & fall of Freudianism, where the author's contempt for the field seemed to drip across the pages [1]. The last chapter ends in something of a wimper, as Wright commits the same sins of underplaying the importance of the research that he accuses scientists like Bouchard of doing on occassion. But the author clearly developed a good rapport with individuals like Bouchard, Sandra Scarr and Jerome Kagan, though he does not hide his distaste for what he percieves to be the personal & ideological crusades of Leon Kamin.

The basic sketch of the book is familiar to many GNXP readers-Bouchard found rather high heritabilities for many traits in twins that had not been raised together. The sniping from the critics is also recounted in exquisite detail-in all its folly & dishonesty. Wright explains how a common objection is that twins had some contact, or were adopted by similar families, and that Bouchard et al. respond by noting that studies of twins raised together show very similar heritabilities as twins raised apart-a rather odd coincidence if parental environment is so crucial [2]. The book notes that many of the critics of Bouchard et al. simply ignore this finding and launch into point by point refutations that have been addressed by Bouchard and his defenders ad nauseum. Somewhere the science has ended and the politics have begun.

The technical details are fascinating, but they can be distilled more neatly in a survey of the literature, it is the political machinations that Wright exposes that we might not normally see [3]. Here is an excerpt from a chapter titled Oh So Political Science:

The antigenes critics seek to deny behavorial geneticists even this degree of a hearing and do not always wait for papers to appear for launching their negative campaigns. Dean Hamer told me that when he was setting up his major study on genetical links to homosexuality the gene police at Harvard got wind of it through a pamphlet Hamer issued to enlist volunteers. He received an immediate letter for biolgoist Ruth Hubbard...Hubbard told Hamer that his planned study was not the way to go about finding linkage....A Harvard colleague, she told, was in fact using the pamphlet in a course as an example of how not to conduct linkage studies.

Hamer next got a letter from the colleage, Evan Balaban, asking Hamer for methodological details about his study. With less candor than Hubbar, Balaban said that his aim was to survey "conceptual advances" in behaviorial genetics research...Hamer receieved yet another letter from Richard Lewontin, who was co-teaching the stamp-outgenes course with Balaban and was, he said, writing at the suggestiong of Ruth Hubbard.

There is plenty of science, biological & social, in this book. From current advances in behavorial genetics, population genetics, the "Jensen furor," the Margaret Mead "controversy," Jerome Kagan's frank acknowledgement of different innate temperaments in infants and a deluge of twin concordances, this book can serve as a good introduction to the neophyte. But the typical GNXP reader? I'm not so sure. If you have some free time, the book is a window into the politics that seems to simmer in American psychology, and certainly it has good play-by-play of the battles that Leon Kamin and his soldiers have been engaging in against the invading army of Bouchard & Scarr (I judge that they are losing this war except on the pages of The New York Review of Books).

The next book I read was about the Indian mathematician Ramanujan. The first thing I would like to note is that this picture:

Is very deceptive-it was taken when he was suffering from tuberculosis and had lost a great deal of weight. The real Ramanujan was a notoriously corpulent man, if not obese because of his strict vegetarian diet.

Unlike most "biographies" of great scientists, it does cover the science of Ramanujan, at least his contributions to number theory. This is good, though as the book winds down, the math gets less play, perhaps because its deepest implications will escape the lay reader. Here is a paragraph from the end of the book:

Because it lies on a cool, ethereal plane beyond the everyday passions of human life, and because it can be fully grasped only through a language in which most people are unschooled, Ramanujan's work grants direct pleasure to only a few-a few hundred pure mathematicians around the world, perhaps a few thousand.....

Yes, the author covers the myriad applications of Ramanujan's math to modern science and engineering, but in the end that is beside the point of the book. The point of the book is the math and the men. When I say men, this is as much a book about G. H. Harding, Ramanujan's mentor and interface with the "normal" world of Oxbridge Acamedia, as it is about the Indian genius. On a scale of 100, Hardy rated himself a 25, David Hilbert an 80, and Ramanujan a 100, when it came to pure mathematical ability. But it is clear that Hardy revelled in his role as John the Baptist and took greater joy in that then in the more prosaic contributions he made to science, foremost among them, the Hardy-Weinberg Equation , which he found banal.

Focused on these two figures, the author, Robert Kanigel, engages in a bit of social science, framing Ramanujan and Hardy's origins both in ancestry and location. The detail that Ramanujan was an Iyengar Tamil Brahmin, Vaishnavites, rather than an Iyer, a Shaivite Tamil Brahmin, seems irrelevant, but this is an author that dots all his i's. Hardy was himself the son of teachers, who were the scions of yeoman farmers, common-folk at the extreme. And yet these two individuals shot like meteors into the world of math, where by accomplishment alone one is judged. They both had their idiosyncracies, Ramanujan was an orthodox Brahmin who believed sincerely in the local godess of his region as the source of his genius, while Hardy had a cultish devotion to cricket and a literary flair that would have served him in good stead if he had become a historian, as he had once considered.

In a way, both were asectic outliers in a conventional world only slowly shaking off the dress of Victorianism, Ramanujan was so absorbed in his math that he did not work for many years and his relationship with his wife was tenuous at best. Hardy remained a "confirmed bachelor" and a likely homosexual, who like many Oxford dons had little contact with women who were not blood relatives (his sister also remained unmarried and the two lived together for many years). While Hardy's parents were teachers, Ramanujan's Brahmin background meant that his social equals praised and valued his "genius," and there was not the sort of pressure to find a trade that might have occurred had he been of another caste. Like the Jews of old, Ramanujan's parents allowed him to cloister himself in his room for years on end, pursuing his passion for math in a fashion reminiscent of a Talmudic scholar searching for kabbalistic wisdom and Oneness with God.

Peculiar as it may seem, Ramanujan's brothers showed no great mathematical skill and became conventional civil servants. His life, and that of Hardy, surely makes one wonder as to the "relative fitness" of those whose minds shine the most brightly on our intellectual horizons. The author notes that a survey of great British scientists of the time indicated that more than 1/4 were bachelors that never married, a rather high percentage in the late Victorian age for men who could surely have afforded a reasonable household. Like a eunuch class they emerged just as other men, but the teleology of their life were not children of flesh, but power embodied in ideas.

There are many mines to tap in the story of Ramanujan. The physicist Subramanian Chandrasekhar held him up as a role model and idol, as did all of India. Ramanujan's mystical & religious beliefs are something the author uses as a cudgel against Hardy's aggressive atheism-while the Indian mathematician's un-tutored and original mind is contrasted implicitly with the horrid Tripos test that nearly drove Hardy from math to history. In some ways, the book reads like a fantasy, except the story is known, and it is true. An obscure clerk who could not summon the concentration to pass any classes outside of math in college without a bachelor's degree became a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Cambridge Fellow, all based on his raw ability, that transcended any piece of paper he had no possession of.

[1] A contempt that is richly deserved in my opinion nonetheless.
[2] Even if parental environment for adoptees is similar, it stands to reason that they would diverge more than twins raised together in the same household.
[3] One point that I think Wright covers well is the idea that a minimum floor of nutrition and stimuli are all that is needed for a child's genes to take over and shape their personality. Once above the threshold, pyschologists such as Sandra Scarr assert that parents have little long term effect. I personally believe that much of the Third World is below that critical threshold and not living up to their biological potential, but most populations in the First World are above it, ergo, the failure of Head Start to attain lasting parity of its "disadvantaged" youth.

Posted by razib at 04:48 AM

"the teleology of their life were not children of flesh, but power embodied in ideas."

I really enjoy your writing.

Posted by: eric at August 1, 2003 06:08 AM

I quote large portions of Born That Way here. The book even had some good racial difference stuff.

Razib did you notice a part that talked about temperament differences in Scandanavian children? Shyer. I wonder if Rushton's rule is operating in some part (on a reduced scale) within Europe as well?? I would be interested in seeing mathematical profiles for Northern and Southern Europe.

Posted by: Jason M. at August 1, 2003 08:11 AM

Funny, after I wrote that I scrolled down to see Godless' post on the German penis! :D

Posted by: Jason M. at August 1, 2003 08:21 AM

"Ramanujan was an orthodox Brahmin who believed sincerely in the local godess of his region as the source of his genius"

That's very interesting. It's curious that many can hail the scientific contributions of a genius while readily dismissing their religious predilections as mere eccentricity (e.g. Newton, Pasteur).
I see no reason not to similarly defer to Ramanujan's superior intellect on this point as well. OTOH:

"a survey of great British scientists of the time indicated that more than 1/4 were bachelors that never married"

maybe they all really are dumbasses.

Posted by: martin at August 1, 2003 09:17 AM

No one who has raised stepchildren alonside their own children can believe that (aside from gross abuse or starvation) environment is more important than genetics in determining behavior.

Posted by: markm at August 3, 2003 09:29 AM

As we all should know by now, the relative contribution of genes and environment to a trait are functions of their relative variences. e.g. in Denmark it's mostly genes, on Earth it's mostly environment, and in the Brave New World it's 100% both because genes correlate perfectly with environment.

Posted by: michael vassar at August 3, 2003 12:05 PM