November 12, 2010


One thing worth noting about Anthony Burgess's 1962 book A Clockwork Orange is how prescient it was about a future England of high crime, home invasions and, especially, about how the Government's response would be technocratic. When New Labour came into office 35 years later, it pursued a largely sci-fi approach to fighting crime, putting up millions of surveillance cameras. If the Ludovico Technique actually worked, I suspect Blair would have used it.

Art talk

Not having much to say,  I realized I might as well post these comments from Ray Sawhill that were buried deep in the comments:
Hey, Steve's comment about Annie Liebovitz -- "Sure, Annie Liebowitz is an airhead, but she's made more people look cool over the last 40 years than anybody else" -- highlights a little hobbyhorse theme of mine, namely that art-talent and IQ have little or nothing to do with each other! Fun.

If anyone's interested and open to the idea ... As someone who's led the arts-and-media life for more than 30 years, I suggest that you'll find it far more useful to think of art-talent as something that resembles athletic talent than it is to think of it as something having anything to do with IQ-style brainpower. The work of art-and-entertainment world people is sometimes worth paying attention to not because these are such smart people who are conferring their brainpower on us but because they're gifted people who've managed to find ways to turn their often bizarre talents into products that the rest of us can enjoy.

Creative artsworld people are often seriously unimpressive intellectually. But they're also often gifted in ways that can make your jaw drop.

And ...
Which to my mind brings up a whole other topic: How much fabulous art is out there that you've never heard of (and never will hear of), because editors, critics and profs are ignorant, or resistant, or copycats? In my experience, ANY time I poked around a little corner of art history on my own (in other words, any time I bore down on a little corner of art history hard enough to get by the usual masterpieces and landmarks and do a little investigating of my own), I found work that I thought was great, in fact often greater than what the profs, critics, historians etc had told me about.

Another question: Let's face it, historians, critics, editors and such -- the people who write and publish the articles and books, and who teach the classes -- are a peculiar bunch. They're a lot more scholarly and intellectual than most people are, for one thing. To what extent has this shared temperament shaped our view of art history? Maybe the version of it they pass along is best understood as "a history of the art that intellectuals approve of"? Should we -- we non-scholar types -- maybe be a little more challenging of (and wary of) their tastes and their lists?

I would add that a lot of the art of the past that gets left out of the standard art history textbooks wasn't obscure outsider art, it's stuff that was a really big deal in its time.  We all like to think that great artists like Van Gogh and Kafka are dropping dead unheeded all the time, only to be discovered much later. But the reality is that most of the artists who get rediscovered were stars in their own day, or would have been if they'd only lived their three score and ten. 

It's kind of depressing to think of all the talent that gets forgotten. For example, compare Borges and Burgess. Today, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is seen as one of the giants of 20th Century literature. Google comes up with 2,340,000 pages for his name. Back in the 1970s, however, Borges was probably no more famous than Anthony Burgess (1917-1993), who is little mentioned today except in conjunction with his novel A Clockwork Orange, which was made into a celebrated movie by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. ("Anthony Burgess" has only 463,000 pages on Google today). Borges, an ardent Anglophile and admirer of Burgess, wrote that he hoped that he and Burgess were relatives. 

Today, Burgess's reputation is in one of those lulls that follows the death of a writer who lived a long time, wrote a gigantic amount, and whose later novels weren't as strong as his earlier ones. It's like how a lot of basketball fans remember the fortyish Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of 1989 more than the force of nature Kareem of 1972. 

Burgess mostly pursued music composition and teaching as a young man, then started publishing books around age 39 and wouldn't stop, publishing something like 50 books over the rest of his life.

Like Burgess, Borges had a long decline phase (not surprising, because he went blind), but that was masked in the English-speaking world because it took place in a different language. With Borges, you only need to read about his best 100 pages (and there is a pretty clear consensus on his ten or twenty best short stories), so he's easy to get into. Burgess, in contrast, was so prolific, and it's hard to tell what was his best stuff, so he's kind of daunting and easy to ignore.

Was Burgess as good as everybody assumed he was in the 1970s? I don't know. In the mid-1970s I was hugely impressed by his 1974 novel The Napoleon Symphony, a historical novel about Bonaparte structured to follow Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (which had originally been dedicated to Bonaparte until he crowned himself Emperor). But, I was a callow youth, so what do I know? I read quite a few more of his books, but they became progressively less dazzling.

Likewise, was Burgess a good critic? God knows he was a prolific critic. In the 1970s, his reviews were highly prestigious, but by the 1990s, he was increasingly seen as a hack.

Was Burgess a hack who deserves to be forgotten? Perhaps. He certainly liked making money from writing. But, it's also possible that the reputation he enjoyed in the 1970s was reasonable.

Hopefully, some consensus will emerge on what was Burgess's best stuff, and his influence will come into better view.

Anyway, it's more likely that Burgess will be rediscovered by a new generation than that some dead writer who was obscure all his life will be discovered for the first time.

November 11, 2010

Not by me

I'd like to thank everybody who sent me this late-breaking news from the New York Times:

College Admissions in America v. Canada

Here's an article from the Toronto Star that got me wondering about something else:

Long admired for raising academic superstars, parents of Asian background are coming under fire from their own community for pushing their children into university programs for which many have no real interest or talent and often quit in distress.

At a recent conference hosted by and for the [Greater Toronto Area’s] Asian community, Chinese-Canadian educators and professionals warned some 300 parents in Mandarin, Cantonese and English to stop giving their children no other choice than professional courses such as engineering, medicine, accounting or pharmacy — programs for which some are so ill-equipped and uninterested they drop out, fail, get suspended for cheating or suffer depression and acute anxiety.

This is the kind of article that you'd read in Los Angeles back in the 1970s: "Mellow Out, Chinese Dudes." 

Since then, however, American parents in LA have largely decided that 1400 years of Chinese test prep (the first Chinese civil service exams were held in 605 A.D.) can't be wrong, and have since switched their tunes to the Chinese one: getting into a fancy college is the most important thing ever.

But that Canadians are just now finally getting around to this raises a different question, one about differences between America and Canada. Granted, I don't know very much about Canada. Most of the time I've spent in Canada was in Holiday Inn Crowne Plazas, but I can say that Canada looked a lot like America (or at least its Crowne Plazas did). The main difference I noticed on business trips in the 1990s was that everybody drove around during the day with their headlights on, like they were on their way to some national funeral. "Did Wayne Gretzky die?" I asked, but it just turned out to be a safety regulation. 

Anyway, my point is that because America and Canada are so similar, it's interesting when they differ, especially when they differ in something that we Americans assume is just an inevitability of 21st Century life, like College Admissions Mania. In 2010, Chinese immigrants in LA and Toronto apparently feel the same way about getting into college, but Americans and Canadians evidently don't.

I just realized that I have no idea if Canadians get all worked up over getting into college the way Americans do.

If Canadians do, you sure don't hear about it much. Off the top of my head, I can name all of four colleges in Canada (Simon Fraser, McGill, U. of Toronto, and U. of Western Ontario). I guess that Canadian colleges must not employ the vast number of publicists and promoters that American colleges do. For example, to pick small liberal arts college at random, Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, PA has an Admissions Staff of 13, while Grinnell College in Iowa (1600 students) has an Admissions staff of 19. They spend the first few months of the year reading applications, but most of the rest of the year promoting their respective colleges. 

To an American by now, that just seems like the natural order of things. How can you have a modern civilization of Holiday Inn Crowne Plazas and automobile safety regulators without having a vast pyramid of increasingly exclusive colleges all expensively elbowing each other for the spotlight?

But, does it seem inevitable to a Canadian? The only thing I've ever read about college admissions in Canada was a Malcolm Gladwell article about his own extremely low-key experience getting into college, which made Canada in the 1980s sound like America in a Heinlein novel in the 1950s: You know, when it's Labor Day Weekend and the 18-year-old hero of the book still hasn't decided where he's going to go to college: "I don't know, I guess I'll take the bus down to State U. on Tuesday and register for some classes."

So, if you know anything about college admissions in Canada, please let me know.

November 10, 2010

White Flight from MySpace to Facebook

Here's a scholarly article by danah boyd (e.e. cumming-like lack of capitalization intentional) called White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook. It's based on a lot of interviews with teens. For example, one white boy pointed out that MySpace's tools for customization to bling up their sites drove off more cultured teens:
"These tools gave MySpacers the freedom to annoy as much as they pleased. Facebook was nice because it stymied such annoyance, by limiting individuality. ... The MySpace crowd felt caged and held back because they weren't able to make their page unique."

Unfortunately, it's one of those academic articles which could be about 50% shorter if danah didn't have to constantly puff up the possibility that the universally perceived differences on average between the races might just be one giant mass delusion. We're not talking about reality, you see, just perceptions of reality and perceptions of perceptions of reality.

Like the lack of bling on Facebook, that kind of Occam's Butterknife talk is a marker of respectable academic discourse about race: No, we don't find race interesting, we find our perceptions of other people's perceptions about race interesting. We try to make our interest in it as uninteresting as possible by padding our writing out with endless meta-ness. (We wouldn't want any MySpacers reading our articles, now would we?)

How Obama could improve the economy

How could Obama boost U.S. productivity during this economic downturn? Well, the President could announce that so long as he's President, he's suspending all federal disparate impact discrimination lawsuits. If the country is non-discriminatory enough to elect him President, it's probably non-discriminatory enough to go about the rest of its business without the heavy hand of the EEOC and Justice Departments looking for statistical evidence of discrimination under the Four-Fifths Rule.

Cognitive Abilities and Household Financial Decision Making

Having spent an inordinate amount of time earlier this year figuring out an optimal family cell phone plan, it strikes me that an awful lot of American corporate activity these days consists of figuring out ways to nickel and dime people over complex monthly charges. It's like a never-ending low intensity war between MBAs with computers versus customers, half of whom will be below average in intelligence, energy, or experience. 

The MBA holy grail now is to figure out a way to get people to agree to pay an extra $9.99 per month for something they won't use -- especially, if the original process of coming up with their bill of $173.41 per month was so arduous that they won't bother to go through all the work it would take to have it reduced to $163.42.

My impression is that American business has gotten more chisely over the years, probably because it's now so easy for MBAs to model complicated variations of payment plans on spreadsheets and then have them coded into the software used by the $10/hour people at the customer service phone bank. In the old days, it was too complicated for a business to concoct and (especially) administer a whole bunch of different payment options, so corporations offered the equivalent of vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry, and didn't change them too often. Hence, customers had a fighting chance to figure them out.

Nowadays, though, every MBA can whip up on his PC a million different options. That sounds good for consumers, right?

In theory, it's also gotten easier for customers to whip up a spreadsheet of their own to figure out their optimal choice. Yet, what percentage of the public is proficient with Excel? Ten percent, maybe? 

When I was a young MBA in 1984, the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet was the first piece of software I used on my $9,000 IBM PC-XT (10 meg hard disk). It was awesome. I figured at the time that half the public would be spreadsheet mavens within a decade.

I was wrong. Although spreadsheets were the glamor software in the mid-1980s, they rather quickly hit a ceiling in popularity and were supplanted by words and pictures software.

This trend toward complexity led us to disaster in the mortgage meltdown as the complexity of the new products covered up their implausibility. As products became more complicated, customers and investors became more dependents upon professional experts, whether mortgage brokers, appraisers, ratings firms, or investment bankers. Simultaneously, however, the various players figured out how to corrupt the people who were supposed to be the independent, neutral professional advisers. For example, mortgage brokers were offered payments to put their clients into higher interest products.

As daily business becomes more complicated, the intelligent and energetic, the ones who can figure out how to cut their bill to $163.42, benefit at the expense of the tired and dumb who can't. 
Here's a new paper by two Chicago Fed researchers who looked up the military's Armed Forces Qualifying Test entrance exam scores for people who had a chance to make two common mistakes with their finances.

We analyze the impact of cognitive skills on two specific examples of consumer financial decisions where suboptimal behavior is well defined: first, the use of a credit card for a transaction after making a balance transfer on the account, and second, cases where individuals are penalized for inaccurate estimation of the value of one’s home on home equity loan or line of credit application. We match individuals from the US military for whom we have detailed test scores from the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test (ASVAB), to administrative datasets of retail credit from a large financial institution. Our results show that consumers with higher overall composite test scores, and specifically those with higher math scores, are substantially less likely to make a financial mistake. Importantly no such effects are found for verbal or for most other component scores.

Here's their description of the first of two potential mistakes they can track versus AFQT scores that consumers often make:
Credit card holders frequently receive offers to transfer account balances on their current cards to a new card. Borrowers pay substantially lower APRs on the balances transferred to the new card for a sixto-nine-month period (a “teaser” rate). However, new purchases on the new card have high APRs. The catch is that payments on the new card first pay down the (low interest) transferred balances, and only subsequently pay down the (high interest) debt accumulated from new purchases.

The optimal strategy during the teaser-rate period, is for the borrower to only make new purchases on the old credit card and to make all payments to the old card. To be clear, this implies that the borrower should make no new purchases with the new card to which balances have been transferred (unless she has already repaid her transferred balances on that card). Some borrowers will identify this optimal strategy immediately and will not make any new purchases using the new card. Some borrowers may not initially identify the optimal strategy, but will discover it after one or more pay cycles as they observe their (surprisingly) high interest charges. Those borrowers will make purchases for one or more months, then have what we refer to as a “eureka” moment, after which they will implement the optimal strategy. Some borrowers will never identify the optimal strategy.

Got that?

This is the kind of puzzle I would have been fascinated by in 1984. I would have fired up Lotus 1-2-3 and worked it out. Today, though, it just makes my brain feel tired merely to start reading the above description. I just immediately get the impression "Somebody with a fresher MBA than mine has put a huge amount of energy into trying to confuse me into paying more," and I want to go lie down.

Conversely, in 1984, would I have fired up my PC to figure a way to chisel our customers out of an extra $9.99 per month? Well, in 1984 my customer was P&G, my employer's biggest client, and we were all terrified of offending them in any way, so I wouldn't have done it. But, if my customers were just a bunch of nobody consumers, well, yeah, I probably would have done it and then justified it to myself with some libertarian spiel. But now, I'm old, tired, not as smart, and not as persuaded by libertarian theories of ethics. Anyway, the difference in 1984 was that the natural response to getting a PC was: "What problems can I solve with this?" By 2010, most of the obvious problems solvable with a PC and a spreadsheet have been solved already, so more energy is devoted to creating new problems.

Not surprisingly, it's easier to chisel people with two digit IQs than people with three digit IQs:
We find that among those with AFQT scores above 70 [i.e., the 70th percentile], everybody ultimately identifies the optimal strategy. In contrast, among those with an AFQT score below 50 [50th percentile, i.e., two-digit IQs], the majority will not identify the optimal strategy. ...

Interestingly, verbal intelligence doesn't help much:
In columns (5) through (8) we use the four component scores (arithmetic reasoning, math knowledge, paragraph comprehension and word knowledge) that are used to calculate the AFQT score. In all four specifications the two math scores are both highly significant suggesting that quantitative skills are critical for avoiding suboptimal behavior. In contrast, we estimate that the effects of the two verbal test scores are a fairly precisely estimated 0. For example, the largest point estimate for a verbal score suggests that a one standard deviation increase in word knowledge would only increase the incidence of “eureka” moments by a little more than a tenth of a percentage point.

By the way, this should provide a cautionary note for using the ten-word vocabulary test score in the General Social Survey (GSS) as an automatic proxy for IQ. It's often a decent proxy, no doubt, but there are certain situations in which it's not.

November 9, 2010

The evolution of extraversion

Anthropologist Peter Frost blogs:
This has long been the case with simple ‘horticultural’ societies in the tropical zone. The women feed themselves and their children with minimal male assistance because they can grow food year-round. And this food production is not appropriated by a State or a land-owning class.

Such societies remain simple in large part because intense sexual competition keeps them from evolving into more complex entities. The surplus males stir up endless conflict, if only because their sole access to women is through warfare, i.e., rape and abduction. There can never be pacification and, therefore, the formation of larger, more advanced societies.

A high incidence of polygyny favors men with a different toolkit of physical and mental traits. Some personality traits, for instance, will be more advantageous than others. Such is the finding of a series of studies from rural Senegal, where 48% of men over 40 are polygynous.

Alvergne et al. (2009, 2010a, 2010b) found no correlation among Senegalese men between mating success and most personality traits, i.e., neuroticism, openness, and agreeableness. One trait, however, showed a strong correlation. This was extraversion, defined as “pro-social behavior which reflects sociability, assertiveness, activity, dominance and positive emotions.” Men with above-medium extraversion were 40% more likely to have more than one wife than those with below-medium extraversion, after controlling for age. Furthermore, this personality trait correlated with higher testosterone levels. Such a linkage suggests that extraversion is part of the male toolkit for mating success in a high-polygyny environment.

Perhaps this goes along with the notion of a mid-latitude Jealousy Belt (Sicily, Lebanon, Afghanistan, etc.), where life is full of interest because men tend to be extraverted and on the prowl but women remain major investments.

Creative Women

David Brooks explains that America will do swell economically in the 21st Century:
The crucial fact about the new epoch is that creativity needs hubs. Information networks need junction points. The nation that can make itself the crossroads to the world will have tremendous economic and political power. ... In fact, the U.S. is well situated to be the crossroads nation.

Okay, but, that raises the paradox that in 2010 the American state that is the biggest drag on the economy at present, California, is also the one blessed with two vast creative hubs, Silicon Valley and Hollywood, both of which are doing reasonably well right now. (Here's Apple's balance sheet, which is a lot better looking than mine.)

Yet, California, as a whole, isn't doing well.

A population cannot live by creativity alone.

Yet, what really struck  me about Brooks' column was this section:
Howard Gardner of Harvard once put together a composite picture of the extraordinarily creative person: She comes from a little place somewhat removed from the center of power and influence. As an adolescent, she feels herself outgrowing her own small circle. She moves to a metropolis and finds a group of people who share her passions and interests. She gets involved with a team to create something amazing.

Then, at some point, she finds her own problem, which is related to and yet different from the problems that concern others in her group. She breaks off and struggles and finally emerges with some new thing. She brings it back to her circle. It is tested, refined and improved.

Is this self-parody or self-abasement? My impression is that Brooks tends to get the joke, and that he does this kind of thing on purpose to ingratiate himself with the huge audience of Gladwellians who don't get the joke. As an officially designated "conservative," it's particularly necessary for Brooks to periodically humiliate himself like this to assuage suspicions that he might get the joke. Perhaps I'm wrong, though.

Obviously, the first thing anybody would notice when drawing up a composite picture of the "extraordinarily creative person" is that she isn't a she. 

I mean, isn't that a theme in The Social Network: 21st Century Silicon Valley is overwhelmingly dominated by guys? By the way, the creators of The Social Network are named David and Aaron, so Hollywood isn't that different from Silicon Valley.

Further, my vague impression of extremely creative women is that they are less likely than extremely creative men to come from somewhere "removed from the center of power and influence." I don't have a good database of creative women right at hand, but let's take as examples the two women who have been nominated for a Best Director Oscar over the last decade (out of 50 nominees): Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow. The former is the daughter of the man who made The Godfather and the latter used to be married to the man who made Terminator and Titanic. That's about as close as you can get to the center of power and influence in the filmmaking.

My general impression is that women who have made a big splash in a creative (artistic or scientific) field are more likely, on average, to have had strong support from loved ones than their male peers enjoyed. For example, the two most famous female painters of the 18th Century, Angelica Kauffman (left) and Louise Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun (above) were daughters of professional painters, married into artistic families, and were both adorable-looking. The first major female painter, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was the daughter of a follower of Caravaggio, although she was of more Rubenseque proportions than her Rococco heiresses.

I went to look up some of my favorite female creative artists of the late 20th Century to see if this trend continues. Choreographer Twyla Tharp -- here's a minute of Baryshnikov in her witty 1975 ballet, Push Comes to Shove, about how much fun it is to be a heterosexual male ballet god -- turns out to have been born on a farm in Indiana. Her parents then moved to the San  Bernardino area and bought a drive-in movie theatre. So, that's one strike against my theory.

How about portrait photographer Annie Liebowitz? (Here's a sneering British article about how she's broke because she won't play along with galleries and museums in artificially restricting the supply of her pictures. But, so what? If you had the chance to pick the photographer who would take the picture by which you would -- or wouldn't -- be remembered, who wouldn't make Liebowitz your number one draft choice?) She turns out to be a military brat, the daughter of an Air Force Lt. Colonel. As with Tharp, that's an above average background, but it's not like being Sofia Coppola.

So, my impression went 0-2 with my more recent examples. Perhaps it's becoming less true.

November 8, 2010

"Four Lions"

From my movie review in Taki's Magazine:
In WWII and the Cold War, we faced enemies of the caliber of Wernher von Braun and Andrei Sakharov. In the War on Terror, however, a strikingly large fraction of Muslim would-be terrorists, such as the recent Underpants Bomber and the Times Square Fizzler, are screwups. ...

Directed by Chris Morris, who is apparently legendary in Britain for his TV satires (I confess to never having heard of him before), Four Lions is a British buddy comedy about five Muslim yobbos in Sheffield peer-pressuring each other into staging a terrorist attack on “unbelieving Kafir slags.” (The quintet is culled to the titular four when one, carrying explosives made from hydrogen peroxide purchased at the corner shop, trips over a sheep. CNN subsequently headlines: “ASIAN MAN’S HEAD FALLS OUT OF TREE.”)

Read the whole thing there.

The movie reminds me of when Greg Cochran would tell me, "Terrorists are idiots. Now, if I were a terrorist --" and I would exclaim, "No, don't tell me! I don't want to know. Don't even say it out loud! Echelon could be listening in."

Obama's view of Asians

With the President visiting his old home, Indonesia, it's worth noting that one of the funnier themes in Dreams from My Father (granted, I'm using "funny" pretty relativistically here) is how little attention Obama pays to Asians in his book's black-white conceptual framework, despite having lived amidst many Asians in Hawaii, Indonesia, Hawaii, Occidental and Columbia. If they're Muslim Asians, like his friends in college, he's for them, but otherwise, he barely notices them. In Dreams, Obama's attitude toward people who aren't black or white is much like the Rev. Lovejoy's attitude on The Simpsons towards people who aren't Christian or Jewish:
Rev. Lovejoy: No, Homer, God didn't burn your house down, but he was working in the hearts of your friends, be they [points to Ned Flanders] Christian, [points to Krusty the Klown] Jew, or [glances at Apu with lack of interest] ... miscellaneous.

Apu: Hindu. There are seven hundred million of us.

Rev. Lovejoy: Aww, that's super. 

In Dreams, Obama's feelings toward non-Muslim Asians are like those of a New York Yankees-obsessed Boston Red Sox fan regarding the Milwaukee Brewers: "Which league are they in these days?"

Group Selection, Again

The "Level of Selection" debate in evolutionary theory has been going on for decades, with the advocates of lower levels (e.g., the Selfish Gene) usually drubbing, through better math, the advocates of significant amounts of selection at the group level. 

Personally, I've always found the arguments for group selection plausible (although that probably just shows how bad at math I am). Think of two tribes in prehistoric northern Europe squaring off militarily along the river that divides their traditional territories. They each covet the others' lands, but both groups have been afraid to attempt a river crossing under archery fire. One tribe is mostly lactose tolerant, the other tribe is mostly not. The leaders of the lactose tolerant tribe decide to send their cavalry, without their grain wagons, on a multiday sweep up the river in an attempt to turn the enemies' flank. They can drink mare's milk on their expedition. The lactose intolerant tribe's cavalry attempts to follow them, but gets slowed down by their food wagons. The milk-drinking cavalry outdistances the non-milk drinking cavalry to the point where they can get a full day free to cross the river.

In the next generation, the women of the lactose intolerant former tribe have many children who are lactose tolerant. The men don't have many children at all.

Now, that seems to me like group selection with a bang. Membership in the group -- outflankers or outflankees -- determines much about the fate of your genes in future generations.

But, it's often been explained to me that that's not real group selection, which can't happen because cheaters would undermine the evolution of altruism. 

Okay, but, I've  long had the hunch that this debate isn't framed as productively as it could be.

In recent years, Edward O. Wilson, the ant expert and author of Sociobiology, has taken up the the cudgels for the concept of group selection, which has widely been seen as evidence of imminent senility. A commenter, however, offers an interesting perspective.
Many here have missed the terms of this controversy. EO Wilson & co's change of mind was forced by 1999 work by James Hunt who studied multiple origins of sociality in a wasp phylogeny in which all the species had about the same “kin selection potential” and found that sociality evolved when there were strong “ecological” incentives (Hunt JH 1999. Trait mapping and salience in the evolution of eusocial vespid wasps. Evolution 53: 225-237). But since ~2005 Wilson, Hoelldobler, etc, have hijacked the controversy.

People have indeed started realizing that crucial for the existence/persistence –and thus for the evolution– of animal societies is not (or not so much) “kin selection” but rather the very rewarding ecological niches out there in which biomachines that adopt group-approaches to foraging and interference competition are much more effective trophically than are biomachines which adopt “solitary-consumer/fighter/reproducer” strategies.

This means that the evolutionary success of the genetic programs encoding such group behaviors is fully subordinate to the existence of such ecological opportunities!
In other words: people have begun realizing that, e.g., “altruism” is also a winning ecological strategy, rather than just an example of the promotion, or not, of altruism genes and the rejection (or invasion) of cheater genes.

The social-ant colony, e.g., is an ecological machine that out-competes at the foraging- and interference-competition level most other organisms in almost any terrestrial ecological setting, i.e., a social-ant colony in the field cannot be reduced natural-historically and evolutionary-historically to just an example of an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy immune to “selfishness” mutations that may undermine the genetic encoding of its sociality.

Wilson indeed has always made a big deal of the fact that ant species monopolize nearly 70% of the insect biomass on earth, but he did not realize the implications of this until the wasp guy rubbed it in to him and his coterie while they were still happily repeating the empty syllogisms of kin-selection numerologists [who meanwhile have even almost managed to deny Darwin (sic!) the credit for explaining the existence of sterile ants, etc., when he mentioned in the Origin of Species that an individual's sacrifice can benefit the reproduction of relatives, i.e., kin selection].

This 70% means that evolution by “natural selection of individuals” delivers niche-occupancy strategies that suffice to claim only ~30 of the trophic energy monopolized by the insect Bauplan (assuming termites and other social insects are insignificant biomass-wise).

The situation among many mammals is the same. Wild-dog packs and hyenas, e.g., beat the hell out of tigers and lions, and biomass wise they dominate.

It is time for gratuitous faux-aprioristic arguments to be confronted with ultimate natural-historical facts. And it is also time that the applied-math peddlers posturing as evolutionary biologists learn that “natural selection” is not the same as “evolution by natural selection”, that differential fitness is always caused by differential ecological performance (and never by “genes”), and that evolution by natural selection is just something that “may” happen when there is differential ecological performance at some level of biological organization, which however does not “prove” that ecological performance is caused by molecular interactions of genes (or of proteins; genes may suffice but are not necessary for differential performance, but additive genetic variation in performance suffices for evolution driven by differential ecological performance).

In other words, Sober’s 1984 [1984 sic!] book “The Nature of Selection” should be required reading for every evolutionary biologist. Sober showed first that the “kin selection” oxymoron is a muddled verbal construct to refer to that special case of group-level differential ecological performance in which “selected” groups happen to also be kin groups (most of the time but not always... see mutualism, e.g.).

Manny Pacquiao answers my question

I was wondering why the exit poll showed 79 percent of Asians voting for Harry Reid in Nevada. Boxer Manny Pacquiao has an answer, according to Ben Maller:
Manny Pacquiao didn’t make his boxing trainer, Freddie Roach, too happy last week when he announced he’d be leaving after a workout Friday to board a flight to Las Vegas. Pacquiao, a congressman in the Philippines, had some important political work to tend to: campaigning for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “[Reid] was behind 4% in the polls before I got out there ... There’s a lot of Filipinos in Las Vegas.” Population figures show an estimated 30,000 Filipinos in Las Vegas, with perhaps triple that in all of Nevada. Reid defeated Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle by 40,000 votes ...

November 7, 2010

Cuckoo's Egg

I hadn't realized before that Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), the leading French painter of the Romantic Era, was perhaps the illegitimate son of Talleyrand, the most glamorous name in the history of diplomacy. Wikipedia says:
There is reason to believe that his father, Charles-François Delacroix, was infertile at the time of Eugène's conception and that his real father was Talleyrand, who was a friend of the family and successor of Charles Delacroix as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and whom the adult Eugène resembled in appearance and character.[5] Throughout his career as a painter, he was protected by Talleyrand, who served successively the Restoration and king Louis-Philippe, and ultimately as ambassador of France in Great Britain, and later by Talleyrand's grandson, Charles Auguste Louis Joseph, duc de Morny, half-brother of Napoleon III and speaker of the French House of Commons.

Are there other likely examples of one famous person being the secret child of another?