“A Troublesome Inheritance” still provokes controversy, but over eons environment does affect the genetics of different peoples

Nicholas Wade (science reporter for the New York Times) created controversy and anger with his 2014 book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History”.  Right away, I wonder if this is the conservative-to-libertarian answer to Al Gore’s idea of “An Inconvenient Truth” as a book and movie title.

Let’s go over his basic argument.  Mankind originated in Africa (we are all “black”), and a mass migration north split off into two groups:  one group, gradually becoming Caucasian, settled Europe, the Middle East, and India. Another, becoming “oriental” settled East Asia, centered on China.  More recently further splits led to separate groups in Australia (aborigine), and the Americas (across the Bering Strait).

Mankind started out living in tribal groups with very close association with biological kin, as is common among other primates and many social animals.  First in Asia, and later in Europe, as populations increased and faced a “Malthusian trap”, populations had to organize into larger social and political groups (sometimes mediated by religion) to feed themselves.  Gradually, as social structures became more complex, society started to reward deferred gratification and individual problem solving. Families who were good at these skills, compared to using short term use of force and tribal violence, tended to prosper, especially as commerce developed. They had more children.  So in some parts of the world people are better adapted to modern civilized living than in others.

Africa, by comparison, did not have the population growth and geography that favored the growth of modern states, and colonialism intervened before it had time to catch up.  Likewise, smaller populations in the Americas and Australia did not have as much population mass to build modern states, although it seems to me that the Incas and Maya indeed built impressive civilizations.

For other reasons having to do with geography and the relative safety from invaders, Europe went through a second wave of innovation and developed openness to modern science (and balancing the power of the centralized state with other institutions) that led to technological superiority.  This is not always connected to “white people”.  Muslim populations in the Middle East often maintained tribal ways for geographical reasons, and tended support religious fundamentalism in a tribal context.  In China, innovation did not continue as quickly because the state became too centralized and conformist.

Wade has a lot of discussion of genes, alleles, and the statistical nature of how these are distributed.  At an individual level race may mean nothing as to innate capacity.  But in the aggregate, aggregate small differences in some psychological traits associated with genetics can wind up having profound political consequences.

Some reviewers have criticized Wade’s analysis of genetics (like on a final exam in Biology 101).  He gets into the issue of IQ, and notes that by some measures East Asians measure the highest, then Europeans, and then Africans.  But the work of others “A Path Appears” by Nicholas Kirstoff, would claim that the relative intelligence of groups in different parts of the world has a lot to do with child medical care and the availability of early learning. But Wade maintains that it is not easy to teach “western values” to tribal populations.

Wade also goes into detail on the relative success of Jewish populations in intellectual and artistic pursuits, and hints why western classical music sounds richer and more nuances than tribal or folk music of many parts of the world.

I think that Wade’s comments on the values of tribal societies are very interesting. Tribal groups (most of all, hunter-gatherer) are both egalitarian within and authoritarian. The values behind some kinds of religious social conservatism (like “The Natural Family” by Carlson and Mero) reflect extended familial or tribal values.  In tribal culture the nuclear and extended families develop slowly as social constructs, with many rigid rules about gender.  It takes many generations for nuclear families to develop and it may venture toward polygamy, favoring more powerful alpha males; in the beginning, most men interact with women and protect them from rival tribes collectively.  Sexual intercourse is strictly about procreation and, when in marriage, is connected to local privilege over the lives of others in the family.  Family values evolve from a system where most men had to be good at warrior behavior to protect the women and children in the tribe.  The refusal for a man to sacrifice himself when required to do so for the tribe is considered cowardly, and Wade bluntly points this out.  That relates to the practice of military conscription of men by more advanced states. It also helps explain “homophobia” (and now “transphobia”) and why modern gay rights seems so recent and so dependent on modern civilization.  But the practices of some native tribes would refute that claim.  In any case, personal morality is about a lot more than just making wise choices according to consequentialism.

Modern neuroscience does support the idea that various personality traits are influenced by genetics (and for sexual orientation and sometimes gender identity, epigenetics — I won’t get into how traits that seem to hinder procreation remain persistent here).  Sometimes these can become pathological or destructive, as in various recent violent events related to mental illness and probably somewhat to genetics.   Indeed, the existential “combativeness” of young men in tribal cultures seems hard-wired to a degree shocking to people who have grown used to openness.  So it seems reasonable that over time, characteristics that promote individual competiveness in an open society, rather than just following the group, could be favored and become more common in an advanced culture.

There’s one other thing to say “in favor” of tribalism, as it occurs in nature.  I think there are reasons that it may connect to “the afterlife” (through genetics) better than a self-directed individual’s own “soul”.  I’ve covered this recently on my News Commentary blog. Ponder again, the big cats: lions are social, tigers are not, and in a pride the alpha male lion guards his own lineage first.

Author: Nicholas Wade
Title, Subtitle: “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History”
publication date 2014, 2015
ISBN 978-0-14-312716-1
Publication: Penguin, 278 page, paper, indexed, 10 chapters
Link: Charles Murray review

(Posted: Saturday, June 24, 2017 at 3:45 PM EDT)

“Born in China”: in an alien world, animals behave like people in a primitive civilization

Born in China,” directed by Chuan Lu for Disney Nature (obviously intended for large markets in both the US and China) takes us, for the most part, to the high mountain plateaus of western China, just north of Tibet, and very much giving the look of being on another planet.  In fact, traveling to China, for most Americans, would probably be as close as it gets to space travel to an alien world.

John Krasinski narrates intersecting morality tales of five wild animal characters, covering a spring to the following spring, a marathon effort to film (the filmmakers show how they did it in the epilogue during the closing credits of a 76 minute feature).

He actually starts with cranes in the lowlands, before moving on to the Tibetan antelope (chiru), a panda with her daughter, a snow leopard with her two cubs, and a young rebellious male in a close-knit sub nose red monkey family.

The female snow leopard lives in the most alien-looking landscape, right out of one of Clive Barker’s Imajica dominions (the Fourth, probably). In an early scene she faces off a competitor for hunting territory and prevails. But later he hurts her paw in a chase and is less able to hunt, as her two kids are just getting old enough to start hunting for themselves.  Out of desperation, she takes on a herd of chiru and apparently reaches the end of her career.

The little boy monkey is jealous of the birth of a baby sister, and with the gender-based social discipline of the family structure that rather resembles Islamic polygamy. (The film does not say what happens to the unattached males, but it probably is not pretty.) Failure to protect younger siblings can leave then vulnerable to their one enemy, a huge hawk that snoops down and takes his sacrifice. A bird eating a primate, very bizarre.

The monkey community lives on the verge of civilization. We understand how animals live in a world of survival of the fittest, but social organization, however authoritarian in moral tone, that assigns risks and responsibilities within the herd or extended family, is a step toward more complex social and political organization, as in human society.  This is what we would probably find on other planets.

Tibet scene similar to film (wiki).

Name: Born in China
Director, writer: Chuan Lu
Released: 2017/4/21
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed: Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/4/22, 6 PM, fair crowd
Length: 76
Rating:  G
Companies: Disney Nature
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, April 22, 2017 t 11:45 PM EDT)

“Finding Altamira”: discovery of prehistoric cave art in Spain in 19th century triggers a science v. religion controversy

Finding Altamira” (2016), directed by Henry Hudson, about challenging religious precepts with science, something quite daring in the 19th Century.

In 1879, explorer Marcelino Sanz de Sautuloa y de la Pedrueca (Antonio Banderas), an amateur explorer, investigates a vaguely known cave in northern Spain.  His daughter Maria (Allegra Allen) notices the prehistoric paintings and in time makes the discovery known.

The local Catholic church establishment sees this as a threat, as personified by the Monsignor (Rupert Everett).  Pretty soon Marcelino is pilloried and “unpopular” in a way common today for people who don’t go along with their peers.  This film certainly seems timely given Donald Trump’s populist strategy and his apparent disdain for science as privileged and elitist.

There is plenty of dialogue about the tension between individualistic rationalism and the ability to “love people”.  There are lines to the effect, that God made the world, and created it for his own glory; to maintain otherwise (including questioning the virgin birth) is anathema, to demand excommunication from the church.  Even Picasso would see this as “decadent”.  Marcelino’s wife, Conchita (Golshifteh Farahani) challenges the monsignor, saying she will place her husband before God but not before “you”.

The cave art is thought to be 35000 years old, maybe Neanderthal.

The piano music background includes Mozart (Sonata 15), Scarlatti (who draws comment), and a transcription of the Prelude to Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”.

The film has some interesting animation sequences of the bison in the drawings as the child dreams.

Wiki picture from cave.

Wiki picture of Bilbao, east of caves, which I visited in April  2001.

Name:  “Finding Altamira”
Director, writer:  Henry Hudson
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD 2017/3/28
Length:  93
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Samuel Goldwyn
Link:  official;   NY Times

(Posted: Wednesday, March 29, 2017 at 11:15 PM EST)

“Kedi”: documentary from Turkey gives more than equal time for cats

Kedi”, directed by Ceyda Torun, gives us a look at Istanbul through the eyes of the city’s alley cats.  Well, these are cats that invite themselves into people’s homes and especially restaurants.  It’s very clear that the cat looks at human civilization as here to meet the cat’s needs.  The cats in the film seem to see themselves as superior to people’s dogs.

In the opening sequence, a female goes out an hunts, and returns home (with very detailed memory) to her kittens, regarding the human “owner” as part of her pride.  A large part of a later part of the film deals with a particular unaltered male stands in front of a restaurant front and paws until the owner sees him and lets him in for a “free fish” supper.

The cats often climb trees or onto balconies and roofs in order to return to their owner’s apartments, or find new people to adopt.  The film pretty much shows the biological concept of mutualism as explaining cat interaction with humans, as essentially wild animals who benefit from behaving well with humans.

There is one scene filmed in infrared black and white to show what a cat sees when hunting mice in alleys.

It’s remarkable how apolitical the film is, regarding Islam and the flow of refugees in Turkey, as well as the controversies over Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

I was adopted by a cat, Timmy, an unaltered male, when living in a garden apartment in Dallas in early 1979.  He would recognize the sound of my car and run to the apartment door and try to open it as I returned home.  He would head for the refrigerator.  He would sit in my lap during dinner, or on newspapers.  If he wanted something at night he would knead the pillow near me, or sometimes keand directly.

Istanbul skyline picture on Wikipedia.

Name:  “Kedi”
Director, writer:  Ceyda Torun
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Landmark E Street, 2017/2/27, fairly good crowd for a weekday
Length:  80
Rating:  G
Companies:  Oscilloscope
Link:  official

(Posted: Monday, February 27, 2017 at 8 PM EST)

“The Space Between Us”: the first boy born on Mars is almost Christ-like

The Space Between Us”, in this sweet sci-fi fable by Peter Chelsom (story was a group effort of Stewart Schill, Richard Barton Lewis and Allan Loeb) is probably about 15 light-minutes, the based on the time it would take for light (or an Internet message in a chat room) to get from Earth to Mars – it can vary a lot with orbital positions.

In fact, a similar concept motivates one of my own screenplay scripts, “69 Minutes to Titan”, about which I’ve actually gotten one call.

That’s the one serious flaw in the setup of this rooting-interest film.  While still on Mars, Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), now 16, and the first human born on Mars, chats with Tulsa (Britt Robertson) on Earth. No problem with the idea that Mark Zuckerberg (rather than running for president) has set up Facebook on Mars;  but it would have to follow the laws of physics, which would slow down communications.

The movie is a bit hokey as it set up the situation.  But astronaut Sarah Elliott (Janet Montgomery) had a hidden fling before leaving for Mars, and experiences her first “morning sickness” on the voyage.  They really have a first rate clinic on Mars already, but she dies in giving birth, maybe because of low gravity. Gardner will be raised by colleagues, including at least one woman who has said she had never intended to have or raise children.  Point well taken.

It’s a good question how Gardner grows up not only brilliant (with hacking computers and driving Mars rovers without permission) but sweet and socially well adjusted (even as a robot is his best friend – he tells the robot that it doesn’t have emotions).  He’s learned morality, like his dad had once said, “bravery is about not knowing what to be afraid of, but courage happens when you do know.”  Of course, he wants to move to Earth to have a real young adult life and he doesn’t want to ghost his Facebook girlfriend  Later, before tracking down Tulsa in a California public high school by pretending to be an AP chemistry student (he knows the material well enough to place in college), be befriends a homeless man and then a dog, getting all these creatures to trust him.  Kept in quarantine to protect himself, he escapes and plays “Catch Me If You Can” like a younger DiCaprio.

But the medical issues come back.  Before coming to Earth, Gardner had a procedure to strengthen his bones with carbon nanotubes (I think Jack Andraka –  who inspired his own depiction in a space suit as “Nanoman” on Twitter, had suggested this idea in a tweet once)   But once on Earth, despite running around a lot, his heart enlarged because of having to adjust to Earth’s mass – gravity, making him weigh 2-1/2 times as much as he did on Mars.   The doctors want a heart transplant.

The last twenty minutes give us real cliff-hanging, including a weightlessness ride (which rests his heart) before home-sweet-home.  Mars will need more babies.

The movie does not look at the question of indigenous life on Mars (neither did “The Martian” with Matt Damon).  However, a recent series on NatGeo “Mars” (reviewed on one of my legacy blogs) indeed does so.

I have to come back to Gardner’s charismatic presence.  Gardner is so compelling with his smarts that he seems to be a reincarnation.  His demeanor and speech style resemble the real life Taylor Wilson (the book “The Boy Who Played With Fusion”),, now 22, who invented a fusion reactor in his garage.  (Or, Taylor could have acted in this role with the same effect.)

I could offer one other comparison to the idea of a teenager born on another planet: Clark Kent in the WB series “Smallville“.  You wonder what Clark’s legal rights would be:  unlike Garnder, he is a real alien, but still a person.

Wikipedia link for sources of methane on Mars.


Name: “The Space Between Us”
Director, writer:  Peter Chelsom
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/2/9, afternoon, small audience
Length:  108
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  STX Entertainment
Link:  official

(Posted: Thursday, February 9, 2017 at 8:30 PM EST)

“Into the Inferno”: Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer visit volcanoes around the world, with a detailed look at North Korea

Name: Into the Inferno
Director, writer:  Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer
Released:  2016/11
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play, 2016/12/23
Length:  107
Rating:  PG
Companies:  Netflix Red Envelope
Link:  official site


Into the Inferno” is a moving documentary by Werner Herzog, distributed by Netflix, but grand enough to be an Imax film for the Smithsonian.  There are landscapes in this film that truly look alien.

The documentary is based on the book “Eruptions that Shook the World” by Cambridge University volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who travels around the world narrating his experiences.

The film starts on Tanna Island of Vanuatu, east of Australia, exploring a tribe with a history of cannibalism, as it shows us the bowels of a volcano, before it moves on to Sumatra, Indonesia and Mt. Erebus, Antarctica.  But soon Oppenheimer settles down and stays a while in some places, especially in Ethiopia in a hot plain below sea level, in a tribal area, and actually helps look for fossils. But the high point of the film is his trip to North Korea, and Paektu Mountain,  Herzog insists that filmmakers can only show what the North Korean communist dictatorship wants you to see, but he explains the mythology that the ruling cult family attributes to the volcano.  He also shows some daily life in the Pyongyang subway, where there is no public Internet, no newsstands, no commercial advertising, only statist propaganda, yet everything is clean, showy and orderly.

Oppenheimer then visits Iceland, showing a coastal village buried by ash in in 1973 and impressive volcanic landscapes greening up, before finally returning to Tanna.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Chnagbai, DPRK, by Mates Il, ubder CCSA 3.0.

(Posted: Friday, December 23, 2016 at 12:45 PM EST)