Monday, June 06, 2005

Much Food for Thought

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution points to a paper by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. and graduate student Paul Torelli, "An Empirical Analysis of 'Acting White'." The Washington Post's Richard Morin summarizes:

As commonly understood, acting white is a pejorative term used to describe black students who engage in behaviors viewed as characteristic of whites, such as making good grades, reading books or having an interest in the fine arts.

The phenomenon is one reason some social thinkers give to help explain at least a portion of the persistent black-white achievement gap in school and in later life. Popularity-conscious young blacks, afraid of being seen as acting white, steer clear of behaviors that could pay dividends in the future, including doing well in school, Fryer said. At the same time, the desire to be popular pushes many whites to excel in the classroom, enhancing their future prospects....

Among white teens, Fryer and Torelli found that better grades equaled greater popularity, with straight-A students having far more same-race friends than those who were B students, who in turn had more friends than C or D students. But among blacks and especially Hispanics who attend public schools with a mix of racial and ethnic groups, that pattern was reversed: The best and brightest academically were significantly less popular than classmates of their race or ethnic group with lower grade point averages [emphasis mine: ED].

"For blacks, higher achievement is associated with modestly higher popularity until a grade point average of 3.5 [a B+ average], then the slope turns negative," Fryer and Torelli wrote in a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. A black student who's gotten all A's has, on average, 1.5 fewer same-race friends than a straight-A white student. Among Hispanics, there is little change in popularity until a student's average rises above a C+, at which point it plummets. A Hispanic student with all A's is the least popular of all Hispanic students, and has three fewer friends than a typical white student with a 4.0 grade point average....

They also found that more blacks "acted white" [i.e., denigrated scholarly achievement: ED] in schools where less than 20 percent of the students were African American, while hardly any did in predominantly black schools or in private schools. "These findings suggest the achievement gap is not about cultural dysfunctionality," Fryer said, and that contrary to conventional wisdom, the phenomenon may be more prevalent among blacks living in the more affluent suburbs than among those living in the inner city. (There were no majority-Hispanic schools in the study.)

Why is "acting white" absent in mostly black schools?

That's easy, said Fryer, who is African American. He recalled his own experience growing up and attending predominantly black schools in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Dallas. "We didn't act white -- we didn't know what that was," he said, stressing that he prefers data to anecdote. "There were no white kids around."

Now we turn to Randall Parker, writing at FuturePundit, who links to and discusses "Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence," by three researchers at the University of Utah, anthropologist Henry Harpending, Gregory Cochran (a Ph.D. physicist turned genetic theorist), and Jason Hardy. Parker's take:

Ashkenazi Jews pose two mysteries for biological science. First, why do they have so many genetic diseases that fall into just a few categories of metabolic function....The second mystery is why are Jews so smart?...

Nicholas Wade of the New York Times has written one of the two news stories about [the University of Utah paper] to date. The proposed hypothesis holds that Jews developed their genetic diseases as a side effect of strong selective pressures for higher intelligence during the Middle Ages as they were forced to work mainly in occupations that required greater cognitive ability....

A team of scientists at the University of Utah has proposed that the unusual pattern of genetic diseases seen among Jews of central or northern European origin, or Ashkenazim, is the result of natural selection for enhanced intellectual ability.

The selective force was the restriction of Ashkenazim in medieval Europe to occupations that required more than usual mental agility, the researchers say in a paper that has been accepted by the Journal of Biosocial Science, published by Cambridge University Press in England.

The Economist has the other article about this research paper. The distribution of the Jewish genetic diseases is clustered too much into a few areas of genetic functionality This concentration of mutations argues for selective pressures as the logical expanation for rate of occurrence of these mutations in Ashkenazi Jews.

What can, however, be shown from the historical records is that European Jews at the top of their professions in the Middle Ages raised more children to adulthood than those at the bottom. Of course, that was true of successful gentiles as well. But in the Middle Ages, success in Christian society tended to be violently aristocratic (warfare and land), rather than peacefully meritocratic (banking and trade).

Put these two things together—a correlation of intelligence and success, and a correlation of success and fecundity—and you have circumstances that favour the spread of genes that enhance intelligence. The questions are, do such genes exist, and what are they if they do? Dr Cochran thinks they do exist, and that they are exactly the genes that cause the inherited diseases which afflict Ashkenazi society.

Cochran, Harpending, and Hardy claim higher intelligence increased reproductive fitness for Jews in medieval Europe who were legally prevented from performing in occupations that had lower need for intelligence. Simultaneously Jews were allowed to work in more cognitively demanding occupations involving money handling even as the Catholic Church banned Christians from many of those same occupations....

If this hypothesis is correct (and I believe it is) then it is problematic for efforts to raise human intelligence. How many of the intelligence raising genetic variants bring undesirable side effects? Some scientists speculate that assortive mating of high IQ people is contributing to a rising incidence of autism and Asperger's Syndrome. As smart people become more likely to breed with other smart people the odds increase that pairs of autosomal recessives or other problematic combinations of intelligence boosting genes will given to offspring....

Step back and look at Jewish and European history from the context of this hypothesis. A few things come to mind. First off, Middle Ages bans on Christian money lending created an environmental niche in which high IQ was selected for in Jews. This led to a few important historical consequences. First off, it led to financial and reproductive success of urban Jews and hence resentment against them by both elites and masses in Europe. This resentment of course led to pogroms and Hitler's "Final Solution". There's an old Japanese saying that comes to mind: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down". Well, smart Jews stood out and the response of jealousy and resentment against the more successful "other" is a recurring theme in human history....

The bottom line:

  • The second paper adds to the body of evidence that intelligence is strongly determined by genetic inheritance and, therefore, highly correlated with race.
  • Both papers underscore the destructive potential of envy. The less able -- who too often seek the social, economic, and even corporal abasement of the more able -- do so at their own expense. For it is the accomplishments of the more able that, by and large, fuel economic growth. And economic growth benefits the less able as well as the more able.