April 12, 2006

Are immigrants hypomanic marvels or mentally ill or nothing special?

Psychiatrist John D. Gartner, whose book on hypomania I wrote about last year, has a dubious op-ed in the Washington Post:

"A Nation Built on Immigrant Genes"
By John D. Gartner

If you've been following the big immigration debate, you might get the impression that the primary economic advantage of liberal economic immigration policies is that they supply America with low-wage workers willing to do grueling, unskilled jobs that native-born Americans won't touch. Not true: They are the source of America's success.

The secret to America's wealth is that we were settled by restless, driven, overconfident, risk-taking dreamers. As I have explained in a book on the subject, these traits are all signs of a genetically based, mildly manic temperament, which is not a mental illness, called hypomania.

Hypomanic traits have been part of the American character since the country's beginning. In the 1830s, Tocqueville noted that Americans were "restless in the midst of abundance," always moving, always working and perpetually hurling themselves into one new business venture after another. Not coincidentally, in my research, I found that entrepreneurs have these same traits.

This is one of these Rube Goldberg theories that has a whole of lot of moving parts that all have to be in sync for it to be true.

- Is hypomania associated with economic dynamism? We don't know, but his theory isn't too implausible.

- But is hypomania -- that knife-edge balance between mania and depression that only a few people like Teddy Roosevelt enjoy for most of their lives -- highly heritable? Or do descendents tend to suffer manic-depression? Or do descendents quickly regress back toward the mediocre mean?

I've read Gartner's book and he doesn't know. His best chapter is on the family of MGM mogul Louis Mayer, who may have been a legitimate hypomanic, and his son-in-law David O. Selznick, who, during a manic high several years in length, made "Gone with the Wind" and "Rebecca," but then crashed into a depression that lasted the final 25 years of his life until his death at 63, in which he didn't get much done. Their descendents have been talented people, but not particularly productive, burdened as they are by inherited mental illness.

My guess is that the optimal form of hypomania (the kind not associated with manic depression), if it even exists (see below), is not driven by a particular gene that can be inherited, but that it's an "emergent" property of the lucky combination of a lot of different genes, and that it tends to get shuffled away in future generations.

- Are immigrant countries particularly blessed with economically dynamic genes? The U.S. is hardly the only immigrant country in the world. Does Argentina have a dynamic economy because it has lots of immigrant genes? Oh, wait, it doesn't have a dynamic economy. How about France? That has always been the most immigrant-friendly country in Europe, as names like Zola and Sarkozy suggest. How about Canada? New Zealand?

What's the fastest growing economy in the world? China. What percentage of China's population are immigrants? 0.0001%?

The most economically dynamic country in Europe over the last decade has been Ireland, which, under Gartner's theory, should have been more depleted of good genes by massive emigration than any other country on earth.

- Do the most dynamic people immigrate? Or do they stay home and succeed while the failures immigrate?

We actually know quite a lot about immigrants from Mexico, which is what the current political controversy is largely about. In the view of Mexicans in Mexico, on the whole, those who emigrate to America are people who don't have what it takes to make it in Mexico. So, they come to America where life is easier. In contrast, almost nobody from the middle or upper classes in Mexico leaves Mexico. They like it there.

- Does hypomania really exist? Gartner lists the following as hypomanics: Christopher Columbus, John Winthrop, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie, and Louis B. Mayer. But, it's very hard to tell the difference between hypomanics and people who are simply superior in energy and health to you and me. It's reasonable to call people hypomanic who are normally highly energetic but sane, but now and then go over the edge into depression, like Ross Perot, did when he suddenly disappeared for several months while leading the race for President in 1992, or as the normally energetic but self-disciplined Tom Cruise did when he notoriously "jumped the couch" last year when he went all manic about his engagement to Katie Holmes. In other words, these are people with manic-depressive tendencies, but who most of the time are high-functioning.

But, what about people who are highly energetic all the time, without ever breaking down? Unlike the many comedians who are depressive, Bob Hope was up all the time. But does that make him hypomanic or just extremely healthy? Hope was touring as a stand-up comedian when he was 90 and lived to be 100.

Was Ben Franklin hypomanic or was he "just" a great man?

Energy is perhaps the most important characteristic shared by most celebrities. Consider why Britney Spears is a huge celebrity. My wife saw her sister on a TV talk show. She came out and sang a song in a voice just like Britney's, but then the hosts just wanted to talk about her sister. She said something revealing, "Britney just has so much more energy than I do. She goes to bed later and gets up earlier. Nothing wears her down." And that's the last I ever heard of her sister, who just has a normal amount of energy.

So, I would argue that the term hypomania should be restricted to people who are doing great at present but have had tendencies toward manic-depression.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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