Overweening Generalist

Monday, January 20, 2014

Irritate In Chic Bug: Notes on Four Articles

I. A year ago in National Geographic David Dobbs published a piece on "Restless Genes" in human history, and I recently re-read it. What marvelous science writing. Two models of "genes" and the expression of curiosity, restlessness, and risk-taking in history are put forth: a gene called DRD-4 has been implicated in learning and reward and it modulates dopamine, the most basic endogenous "reward" neurotransmitter. We all want a little dopamine fix every now and then. Actually, closer to now.

But researchers have repeatedly noted a variant on the gene, DRD-7R, seems highly correlated with history's risk-takers: people who are eager to explore new places and drugs, try new relationships, including sexual ones. They seem more eager to try new foods and ideas. They seek change and adventure and they were the ones who lit out for the frontier, the new territory. In non-human animals the maverick gene DRD-7R relates to more exploration of territory and novelty-seeking. In humans it's also related to ADHD. Chuaseng Chen of UC-Irvine has done research showing the DRD-7Rs are found more concentrated in migratory cultures than in settled ones. Other research suggests that DRD-7Rs wither in settled cultures: they need a cultural outlet for their expression of restlessness and neophilia.

                                      four explorers on the Nimrod expedition to the
                                      South Pole. Harrowing! Shackleton is the second
                                      from the left.

But it's not that simple: the macro-version of the gene story here is explained in Dobbs's article by evolution and population geneticist Kenneth Dodd of Yale, who was part of the team that first isolated the DRD-7R variant 20 years ago. He says the picture is far more complex than one gene variant giving rise to the various Ages of Exploration. There must be a group of genes involved, and furthermore: for the pioneering types to do their thing, the culture needs to have produced tools and incorporated other traits for the novelty-seekers first, which has led to this macro picture of human innovation and exploration: DRD-7R is an exciting feature in the story of human derring-do, but we first needed genes that built limbs and brains like we have! If you're going to be the first to mount an expedition to walk out of the known territory and over those hills in the distance to see what other tribes may live there, you needed long legs (like we have) and hips configured and conducive to long walks (like we have). It helps to have dextrous hands to grasp and manipulate tools (like we have), and it no doubt helped to have a very large but slow-growing brain that spent a lot of time imagining possible behaviors and playing games between 3-18 years old. (That's all of us, virtually.) As Dobbs writes, "Our conceptual imagination greatly magnifies the effect of our mobility and dexterity, which in turn stirs our imagination further." Feedback loops inside of feedback loops, churning and seeking, spreading information and firing more imaginations.

But read the article if you haven't already. You'll get accounts of Captain Cook and Ernest Shackleton, mutant genes for tolerating lactose, and pioneering Quebec logging communities. And what was most fascinating to me: the latest research on how people who live on all those tiny islands in the South Pacific got there. I was used to reading Out of Africa stories that headed north and "made a left" toward southern Europe...probably because of my ego? That would be my ancestors's earliest route out of Africa. But others made a right, and that has made all the difference.

II. In May of 2013 a study in Psychological Science appeared, conducted by researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark and UC Santa Barbara, which studied attitudes about redistribution of wealth among men in Denmark, Unistat, and Argentina, all of which have welfare systems very different from each other. A high correlation was found between men with strong upper body strength who disliked redistributive schemes (welfare ideas) and men with less upper body strength, who favored more redistribution. The researchers think there may be something quite ancient (and unconscious?) in political ideology. When I read the piece I realized I had intuited their findings a long time ago, but it was only intuition. John Tooby and Leda Cosmides were involved in the study, and I still find their book The Adapted Mind most interesting among the books that Stephen Jay Gould charged were "Darwinian Fundamentalism." An earlier version of this study appeared in late 2012, and Natasha Lennard, one of writers at Salon that I find not-execrable, articulated my thinking fairly accurately HERE.

                                         So. Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where a
                                         disagreement over Kant led to a shooting

III. Last September, a story appeared out of southern Russia which appealed to a dank corner of my own sense of mordant humor: two guys in their twenties were waiting in line for beer at an outdoor event in a beautiful city, Rostov-on-Don. The topic of Immanuel Kant came up and there was a fierce disagreement over some aspect of the philosopher well-known for his writings on ethics and a universal morality within humankind. Things escalated and one guy shot the other in the head with an air gun, sending him to the hospital but not killing him. The assailant faces 20 years, and the author of this brief article suggests 20 years is a long time to better get to know Kant's ideas about ethics and morality. The short piece is HERE.

IV. So there was apparently this star male philosophy professor who seduced a beautiful and brilliant student. Rumors and gossip raged, then she began to show her pregnancy. It was a huge scandal, and the student's uncle's anger was boiling at the professor. The professor thought the best thing to do would be to marry the student. She was against this. But they did anyway, in secret. The results of improprieties around sex were so scandalous the professor hid his new bride in a nunnery. Then the uncle had some thugs break in to the professor's house and cut off his penis while he was sleeping; an earlier version of Bobbitizing a guy. (The most unkindest cut of all. But of course I'm horribly, clangingly biased.) The professor, now a eunuch, took up a life in a monastery. He and his wife exchanged letters for the rest of their lives and these letters have kept scholars busy ever since.

You may have heard of the professor and his student: they were Abelard and Heloise, and the action took place 900 years ago. I mention it because I enjoyed reading this book review by Barbara Newman of a new edition of versions of the letters. I hadn't known about dificilio lectio, which says, when faced with anomalous and competing versions of the "same" text that had been copied by hand by scribes, choose the "more difficult" one, because it's more likely to be authentic. This seems like a proto-inchoate intuition about information theory, in which longer messages, when passed from person to person via memory, get shorter.

I find it very intriguing that Heloise may have been a sort of 21st century feminist, according to one reading of translations of her letters.


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece, as usual. Shackleton fascinates David Thomson; he wrote a book about him.

Have you seen "True Detective" on HBO? I absolutely love it. Thomson raved about it over at the New Republic, and once again I fully agree with him. Mr. Clore might find it interesting. Episode two mentions Carcossa and the King in Yellow.

michael said...

Thanks, Eric.

Hey: what book by Thomson would you recommend to someone who likes McLuhan and competing media theories?

I have not even heard of "True Detective." I don't have HBO, although I do have horrendous body odor, if that will help. (Wha?)

If it's as good as it sounds I'll probably wait for the series to end, hope one of the libraries I frequent buys the entire series on DVD, then binge-watch.

That's what I did with "Breaking Bad," and it was...hold on...bad example: I meant to write about my 32 days of watching all of "Breaking Bad" but I wasn't sure if it was OG stuff. I'll just say here that I'm afraid that show ruined all following TV series for me. I was wrecked by "Breaking Bad." Just thinking about that short window of time when I was watching it makes a shiver go down my spine. The idea that some show will come along and I'll say, "Jeez! I thought Breaking Bad was great, but this is way better!..." seems unthinkable to me.

Sorry I went off there. Thanks for being one of the six people who landed on - and read! - something as ridiculously titled as "Irritate in Chic Bug." It's not the way you title an article to get hits, obviously.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Didn't Robert Anton Wilson believe he was descended from Vikings? And didn't he talk about people who had a propensity for new ideas and new experiences, vs. folks who did not? This might be a new theory for why western Europe became so dominant -- it was settled by waves of people who had a genetic propensity to seek new places and new ideas -- although obviously genetic explanations for history are always dangerous.

I just heard about a crazy genetic theorist in the 1920s who insisted that Caucasian people in western Europe were more advanced than darker Mediterranean people. Of course, he had to struggle to explain those underachieving Greeks, Romans etc.

phodecidus said...

I thought part III would end with that tired old joke where a man pisses in a beer bottle and Immanuel Kant says, "that's against the categorical imperative!"

And that's all I gotta contribute to tha OG for now.

S.W. Thompson said...

I. In the miraculous genes boat, perhaps lactose tolerance proved crucial as the west was won through superior application of organized violence? http://www.nature.com/news/archaeology-the-milk-revolution-1.13471

II. Having lived in a number of locales, the correlation btwn meatheadedness and mechanistic materialism confirms many a long held suspicion despite the shoddy methodology behind it.

III. Somebody had to use a headline similar to 'You Kant Be Serious,' right? Terrible puns make this world a better place. Stephan Pastis proves it on a near-daily basis.

IV. The bit about the scholar-student seduction for some reason reminded me of Tom Robbin's Jitterbug Perfume, though I'm still not quite sure why.

Tom Jackson: I remember R.A.W. commenting on the preponderance of lice combs at Nordic archaeological sites, but he always seemed staunchly, almost obstinately Irish when outside the Fullerian dream world of open borders. Vikings, after all, relish in ax-murder. A few years ago you posted about a blogger chap who apparently considered the whole Viking bit in Nature's God an anti-immigration spew... (Not quite sure why that's floating up the ol' memory hole now.) Perhaps you're thinking of the Hyperborean analogy?

michael said...


Yea, RAW and/or Arlen did some poking around in their genealogies and RAW found he was descended from Olav the Black, a Norwegian pirate. Among others.

My current main model for genes and migration and why some areas did so well centers around the info-matrices introduced by Jared Diamond in his magisterial Guns, Germs and Steel.

As far as crazy genetic theorists in Europe in the 1920s: yea: their theories were crazy and some were even genocidal. I won't name names, for I have too much respect for Godwin's Law.

Just about any country that has enough wealth to support a thinking class will have a subset of those thinkers advocating that They are the descendants of the the superior genes. Lately in Unistat I've seen white-trash "Aryans," Jews, Africans, and Chinese make claims along these lines, each in a very different rhetorical style.

Meanwhile, like Woody Allen, I realize I don't have an Inferiority Complex: I truly am inferior.

michael said...


I left "Kant" jokes out to create a vacuum for which you and others could throw that stuff in, but the beer and Categorical Imperative riff was perfect for the story, and I wish I had beaten you to the punch, or used an air gun, something!

Thanks for adding to general mirth. What a ridiculous story that was, if true.

Hey: if, in Discordian atheology, our catmas are relativistic meta-beliefs, then it seems comparatively that the Categorical Imperative is dogma.

Someone once said that "Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable;
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar who could think you under the table."

Bertrand Russell? No.

Hannah Arendt? No.

michael said...

S.W. Thompson-

I find the mutation that made milk products a source of protein and therefore underrated in widely known ideas about history and conquering: fascinating!

Stephen Pastis is a known paranomast. Watch your children when he's around.

Jitterbug Perfume! Yea. I hadn't thought of that. The dynamic, brilliant, wild professor and the wild, brilliant student - their relationship - is a theme that's endlessly fascinating to me, from corrupting the youth of Athens to corrupting the youth at Harvard, and beyond, into "fiction."

Anonymous said...

The only Celts who aren't related
to vikings are those whose women
anscestors were fast women.
The most hilarious of the Greek
myths is the corruption of a lad
named Alcibiades.

The real source of the Viking spread
was their elders saying why don't
you obnoxious teenagers make a boat
and go bother someone else for a
change. Teens full of themself make
lousy farmhands.

Humans love tragic love stories
unless they are living in them as
one of the chosen duo. Recycling
the epics is what makes great
literature in any age, making the
origin hard to discern is what
makes great authors.

I have Shackletons book South on
my pile of next reads now. It has
a bunch of pictures too.

I keep hoping another TV series
will match Twin Peaks for being
worth watching multiple times.

I wonder if RAW ever saw Brasil,
that was to me the predictor of
our current situation.

I also see the Vatican Banksters
are back in the limelight of bad
publicity again.

I do like the idea of blaming a
gene for whatever faults or
virtues you have available.

Eric Wagner said...

I wrote this little guide to David Thomson's books: http://www.amazon.com/lm/R2KUUG3PJA3P69/ref=cm_lm_pthnk_view?ie=UTF8&lm_bb= .

Thomson recommendations re: McLuhan: I thought of you when reading Thomson's latest book, Moments That Made the Movies. You could read it in a few hours. It has mostly pictures, with fascinating comments on the role of movies in society.

Thomson's childhood memoir Try to Tell the Story... has great discussions of changing media, from books to live theatre to radio to film to TV to live sports.

The Whole Picture, A History of Hollywood, has some great discussions of film vis a vis other arts: Mahler's Ninth vs. Intolerance, Virginia Woolf, Edward Hopper, etc.

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film seems his masterpiece. I've read the fourth and fifth editions. The sixth edition comes out next May.

His novel Suspects takes characters from a bunch of films and has them interact. I suspect you'd love it.

The Big Screen deals with how screens have shaped our culture. It might best satisfy in terms of McLuhan and competing ideas about media.

I loved Breaking Bad, but The Wire had a bigger impact on me. All other cop shows seem fake to me now (except True Detective). I watched The Wire all the way through twice, and it occurred to me this morning I wouldn't mind watching it again.

michael said...

Anon- great riffs on fast women and obnoxious Viking youth. Alcibiades is one of the most beautiful, glorious fuck-ups in all of literature...and he was "real"! Even Socrates wanted to "do" him, as the kidz today say. When that "American Taliban" kid from Marin County, Johnny Walker Lind, got busted, I thought of Alcibiades.

I watched a gripping doc on Shackleton with a friend, then two weeks later I went to Edinburgh and the room we had booked was covered with a mural of Shackleton's most harrowing expedition. A mere coincidence, I guess.

Yea, Twin Peaks was/is indeed great. I even loved Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, though it seems only confirmed Lynchians are with me on that.

I'm almost positive RAW saw Brazil and thought if great, even if it didn't show up on that Top 100 list that Tom Jackson linked to recently at RAWIllumination.net

michael said...


THANX loads for the rundown on Thompson books. His New Biographical Dictionary of Film books keep coming out, 100 pages longer than the previous edition. You've read the 5th ed? It's what? 1100 pages? Now I really want to read Moments That Made the Movies (my library has it), and Suspects.

A week or so ago I was in a room in Berkeley with five other beings of curious breathing laughing flesh, and the topic of TV series came up and one lady said what you said about The Wire.