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90% Perspiration

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Before I start, I have to say this:

Blasting Gustav Leonhardt playing The Goldberg Variations first thing in the morning before you’ve had your caffeine…does very strange things to the mind.

Anyway.  I’ve got tea now, and Gustav is still blaring away.  It’s a good thing I like harpsichords at any time.

Yesterday I talked about differences in the environment that might cause differences in the outcomes of people’s lives.

Today I want to look at the genetic and innate, the fact that some of us are born talented in ways that others of us are not, and that some of us are not born talented at all.

I think most of us think that this is the easiest case, if the most recalcitrant one.   There is a very real sense in which it is “not fair” that some of us are simply born better equipped than others of us are.  Some of us are born smarter. Some of us are born prettier.  Some of us are born with more athletic ability.

There’s a reason why every Olympic gold medalist in certain track events has been, for decades now, not only of African descent, but of East African descent.  These are people the muscles of whose legs are literally different than yours and mine–and so much better at making you run fast that people who lack that particular muscle structure might as well give up before they try.  No amount of training and hard work will compensate.

The same is true of the genes that go to make a face like Gene Tierney’s at twenty.  Plastic surgery can help some, but it is limited.  It will not take a lumpy, pie-faced girl and turn her into a supermodel.

The first thing that is obvious here is that inheriting talent, or not inheriting it, is a lot like inheriting money.  The person who so inherits did nothing to deserve his good fortune. 

What’s more, inheriting talent is much  more strongly correlated with later success in life than inheriting money.  For one thing, lots of people who do not inherit money go on to make smashing successes of themselves in many different fields, international and national and local.  Nobody who does not inherit a good voice goes on to success as an opera singer.  Nobody who does not inherit athletic talent makes the NBA.  Or, hell, even most high school teams.

Interestingly enough, although the people of the 18th century–and the 19th, and the early 20th–knew about this, it did not, at the time, appear to be an instance of “unfairness.”    This may have had something to do with religion.  God gave each of us our unique talents, and the only “unfairness” was in a society where rank and wealth prevented the naturall talented from exercising those talents. 

It was “unfair” if the King’s daughter got to sing the lead in Carmen because she was the King’s daughter, when the butcher’s daughter had a much better voice.  It was not “unfair” that the King’s daughter had been born unable to achieve the vocal quality of the butcher’s.

This was Jefferson’s idea of a “natural aristocracy.”  The country would open up opportunities to all its citizens, rich and poor.  The cream would rise to the top.

In more recent times, though, the idea that there’s nothing “unfair” about the unequal distribution of talent has been less and less in favor, and I think that’s for two reasons.

For one thing there is the continual problem of people born so completely without talents–mentally handicapped, I think we say now–that they will never be in a position even to make their own livings without help. 

This is, as I said, nothing new, and the idea that society should take care of such people is not particularly controversial.   Anybody short of a doctrinaire Randian sees nothing problematic about taxing the populace to make sure there is some provision for such people.

The other concern is more interesting, although I think it is misplaced.

It’s the idea that we are developing a world in which such differences in inherited talent will be fixed by heredity in certain classes.  Smart people will marry smart people while stupid people will marry stupid people.  Their smart children will marry other smart children while the stupid children will marry other stupid children.   In five or nine or fifteen generations, there will be a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between the two sets of people, never to be bridged.  If  you are born to the stupid people, there’s no chance that you will be able to compensate for your lack of inborn smarts.  Welcome to the world of the “cognitive elite.”

I think that what most people find so frightening and repellant about this scenario is that it sounds so plausible.  It is, after all, nothing but evolution in action.

It is also something about which we seem to be able to do little or nothing, at least in our present state of technology.

And imagining a world in which we can do something about it doesn’t make us any happier.  We imagine rich and smart people running off to get their children’s genes “fixed” while poor and stupid people have no access to gene therapy, therefore making their children further and further behind in intelligence and talent.

But to anyone who looks at the actual historical record of what has happened over the last century, or even just the last 30 years, there is no shortage of evidence that cream is still rising out of the bottom of the barrel.

And that cream is not all made up of people with special innate talents.  Some people are simply born without the ability to be Michael Jordan.  Nobody–except the mentally or severely physically handicapped–is born without the ability to be Sonny Bono, or my immigrant Chinese family with their ever-more numerous local businesses.

It is, in fact, not the case that everybody who is born with a special talent is successful because of that talent, or successful at all.  Even exceptionally talented people have to work at it, or they will be bested by people with less talent but more drive. That’s how Michael Jordan ended up not making his high school basketball team one year. 

There are thousands of geniuses out there who have done nothing in particular with their lives, because they just wouldn’t work at it.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what a brilliant literary talent you are if you never finish a book.  It doesn’t matter what a brilliant actor you are if you never prepare for auditions.  It doesn’t matter if you’re Michael Jordan if you won’t practice and spend all your time on the court hot dogging as if you’re the only one there.

You’re far more likely to fail through no fault of your own than you are to succeed that way.

But although lack of inborn natural talent will prevent you from doing certain things, it won’t prevent you from doing everything.  My Chinese family is not made up of Einsteins and Rudolph Nureyevs.  It is simply willing to do what it takes to put themselves on a safe financial and social footing–and that, I think, is open to almost everyone.

The question then becomes:  what does it mean that somebody “can’t” take care of himself, and what should we do about it?

I’ll get there tomorrow.

I need to go back to the harpsichords.

Written by janeh

August 6th, 2011 at 9:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to '90% Perspiration'

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  1. I think what’s significant about genetic differences is not that they exist but that we place value on them in different ways. Our society seems to value athletic ability far above intellectual ability. The pro athlete is financially valued and rewarded far more than the medical researcher or the college professor. We value our perception of beauty over others’ perceptions of beauty. The size 6 woman is valued more than the size 16 woman in the US. In other cultures, where size (which is to a certain degree determined by genetics) indicates wealth, the size 16 woman is valued over the size 6.

    Our valuation of the ‘fairness’ of these differences seems to depend on the relative benefit those differences can garner. The genetics can’t be changed. What can be changed is how we choose to value and treat people differently based on that genetic ‘luck of the draw.’


    6 Aug 11 at 9:46 am

  2. I’ve read some of those stories based in a dystopia with the smart rulers and the stupid underclass, and I’m not much impressed. First of all, they often make a mistake Jane has pointed out before – they tend to assume that ALL jobs are high-tech and require brilliance. I’m sure robotics will improve, and I’m sure we’ll still need people for low-skill jobs for a long, long time to come.

    Genetics isn’t everything, anyway. As Charlou pointed out a while back about her gifted students, bright kids can get used to coasting and not even learn to use their brains. Those kids are going to be out-competed eventually by somewhat stupider ones who are willing to work. And although there is a genetic influence on intelligence, it doesn’t explain all the variance (I can’t remember the figures). I’m sure a lot of us know (or maybe even belong to) families in which the same basic genetic inheritance is expressed, ummm, differently. The basic genetic gifts are still there in the layabout, the addict, the ‘underachiever’ and will be passed on to any descendants. People forget this. I’m reminded of a character in one of Bujold’s books who shocks everyone on a rather backward planet by pointing out that the local underclass, being genetically the same as the ruling class, presumably had the same distribution of talents and gifts.

    I’m not really convinced that smart people always marry smart people and stupid people always marry stupid people – and even if it’s true, you also have other types – people who are mentally slow marrying people who are bright enough but dis-functional failures for some other reason, for example. And in any case, we don’t seem to be breeding in nice neat little families that much any more, so you get kids being raised by those who aren’t genetically their parents, and the whole picture gets much more complicated with the influence of non-related people who themselves may be bright and hardworking, bright and lazy, not so bright and hardworking and so on and so forth.

    I think part of the reason we sometimes like the idea of genetic bestowal of gifts is that it fits so nicely into a rather mechanistic view of the world in which everyone gets what is automatically handed out to them. It’s a kind of no-personal-responsibility view. Nothing’s my fault or responsibility; it’s all down to genetics, and the only reason I’m in a job I hate and look and act the way I do is because I was born this way, and if I’d been born different, I’d be a Hollywood star or a multi-millionaire. Or both.


    6 Aug 11 at 10:58 am

  3. Something longer later. Just a hedge for now that even “richly talented, lucky and hardworking” isn’t necessarily “rich.” I count nine sports in which a reasonably talented individual can earn a living, and I’m probably low–but almost every chess player in the world needs a day job. Most of the world’s generals–even the war-winners–wind up with pensions a big-league ballplayer would scorn. That too, is chance. Good luck to those who would balance it out.

    “Can’t take care of themselves” will take a LOT more thought.


    6 Aug 11 at 11:15 am

  4. ‘”Can’t take care of themselves” will take a LOT more thought.’

    I’m old enough to remember when people took care of their own. No, they often didn’t do it as well as some might have wished and, yes, there were some who fell through the cracks and were treated very badly. But, on the whole, people were not as carefully trained as they are today to believe that they were especially disadvantaged if they didn’t do so well in school because of learning difficulties, and few if any believed that it was the governments’ job to look after them. There were no massive bureaucracies as there are today the primary purposes of which seem to be to create even more make-work jobs for an increasing swarm of graduates from the caring-industries’ schools just itching to “help” people to stop doing what they like to do and to start doing what the do-gooders think they ought to be doing.

    In the meantime, our menial jobs are no longer seen to be good enough for our low-intelligence/low-skilled people, but are quite good enough for Jane’s enterprising immigrant Chinese (or Mexicans) or, in the case of Australia, Pacific Islanders.

    Our modern world is insane.


    6 Aug 11 at 11:36 am

  5. I believe the whole idea of “unfair” has come from people confusing “equal rights under the law” with “right under the law to be equal.”

    I have lived in 17 states and 5 foreign countries, but most of most of my life I have lived in “fly-over” land, i.e. in the parts of the U.S. that separate the East Coast from the West Coast.

    And in all my years of living here in “Middle America,” I don’t really remember anyone talking about the unfairness of some people being born with more brains or more athletic ability or more physical attractiveness or being born into a family with money. And I’ve got a really, really, REALLY good memory.

    When the subject of unfairness has come up, it has pretty much been parents who treated their kids (especially teenagers–duh!) unfairly, or teachers who treated some of their students unfairly, or managers who treated some of their employees unfairly, or government (local, state, and federal) who passed laws that were unfair to certain groups of their citizens.

    But I don’t remember even a single instance of someone whining about how it was so unfair that they didn’t have the advantages other people were born with or born into. My daughter was just down here, and I asked her that question, and she cannot remember any of her friends ever having a discussion like that either.

    Please note that not all of our friends are above average intelligence, and pretty much none are drop-dead gorgeous, and most do not have any more athletic ability than the vast majority of us. And most are struggling to make ends meet.

    And most of us pretty much get on with our lives without paying much attention to top models and top sports figures and (sadly) top scientists.

    So to Jane’s question of why people think it’s unfair that some people are rich and some aren’t, or some successful and some aren’t–in Kansas and Oklahoma and Illinois and Nebraska and Tennessee and Utah and Idaho and New Mexico I don’t think people do think that way. Or if they do, it’s not an opinion that they share with the rest of us, because if they did, they know what kind of a reaction they’d get from the rest of us.

    On the other hand, I don’t sit around drinking in bars, and maybe bartenders here a lot of that kind of complaining.


    6 Aug 11 at 11:47 am

  6. Mique, thank you for sharing your evaluation of government make-work jobs for the swarm of graduates from caring-industries’ schools. I’ll forward it to the graduates of our program at Morehead State University in Kentucky. I’ll let you know what they say, if they have time left after do-gooding (or doing as well as possible) at child welfare, adult protective services, hospitals, nursing homes, centers for “low intelligence people,” drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers and other institutions designed to “help people stop doing what they like to do and start doing what the do-gooders think they ought to be doing.”


    6 Aug 11 at 12:00 pm

  7. Even today caring for those who can’t care for themselves is often nearly impossible for families. Aging caregivers resort to murder/suicide rather than die naturally knowing their relative would be left to the care of the state – and with smaller more scattered families, that’s seen as the only option, and it’s one that’s been considered worse than death for a generation. In the past, there were institutions, and although they were sometimes abusive (as, indeed, the birth families sometimes were and group homes today sometimes are), they were there, and there was less of a stigma in resorting to their use, temporarily or long-term. I think in the near future, with the continued weakening of belief the value of each individual, we’re going to see more and more use of murder as the solution to the problem of those who cannot support themselves. It’s already happening, in cases in which the next of kin don’t suicide, and can convince the authorities that the death was suicide.

    And, of course, this is going to apply to the ‘temporarily able-bodied’; those who have been able to care for themselves and can no longer. Institutional options are not so easy to come by, funding for home help is too low – locally, an elderly man dying of ALS and living with his family had his home care allowance cut way back – and no one I know could provide care at home for a disabled relative for any length of time without help, especially as they age. There’s no one who’s not working to keep the home going…I’ve forgotten a couple of unmarried siblings who house and care for a relative who can only work in a sheltered workplace. So that’s one case out of my friends and relatives.

    Anyway, that’s one solution to the problem of those unable to take care of themselves – make sure they’re so aware that they’re a burden to their families and society as a whole, and susceptible to abuse and neglect, that they’ll commit suicide, or others will do it for them.

    As for the other type of ‘can’t’, the ones who appear to choose not to work hard and pay their way? Some, we will always have with us, and about all that can be done is to mitigate the damage they do to the rest of society. See that, if possibly, none of them starve or freeze, and that it’s difficult for them to engage in crime to get what they want or need.

    I’m ambivalent leaning to ‘anti’ the various ‘harm reduction strategies’ aimed at the subset of this group which is addicted to drugs and alcohol and not merely the excitement of a wild lifestyle or the temptation of easy money. It sounds like a good idea, but I think it may make it more difficult for those who want to quit to do so, both because it provides a reminder of the drugs and lifestyles in their prison or neighbourhood, and because it legitimizes their use right when the users are most vulnerable to relapse. I’d rather reduce harm by encouraging people to quit abusing drugs and alcohol rather than making it slightly safer for them to do so.


    6 Aug 11 at 12:01 pm

  8. Thank you Cheryl, particularly for “appear to choose.” Pride is an issue. Better to appear to choose not to work than to admit that no sensible employer would hire you.

    I too am ambivalent about harm reduction strategies. Harm reduction helps. Not as much as being clean and sober, but then there are an amazing number of people who foil the efforts of do-gooders to help them stop drinking and using – even when those people actually would like to stop drinking and using.

    Perhaps voluntary suicide could be marketed with a free trip to sit on polar ice and become one with an endangered polar bear.


    6 Aug 11 at 2:50 pm

  9. Cheryl, my congratulations. Anyone reading BARAYAR (or CORDELIA’S HONOR) is showing first-rate taste.

    Doing good–and doing well. One should always be a little careful about people who want to get credit for virtuous behavior and get paid for it at the same time. And keep in mind Pournelle’s observation that over the long term the people who want to promote the organization always seem to have the edge over people who want to promote the organization’s mission. This doesn’t mean there aren’t good professional caregivers–or soldiers, teachers or firemen, come to that. But soldiers don’t get to decide who the enemy is, nor teachers what is to be taught. The terrible danger in the “caring professions” is that the bureaucratic advantage is in helping as many people as possible–sometimes by broadening the standards of those needing help, or by making sure they can’t refuse it. Again, when someone tells you he needs more money and power to do his job, he isn’t necessarily wrong. But you should be a little careful in how you respond. (Pay VERY close attention to the reverse case. You won’t run into it very often.)

    As for long-term patterns, like brains marrying brains, I’d not worry too much just yet. We’re talking time on an evolutionary scale here, and a problem perhaps 50 or 60 years old. Would anyone place bets on our present social and political arrangements lasting another three generations? (And who gets to hold the bets, by the way?)

    I think Jane’s overall point remains valid. Certainly good choice of DNA and breeding can help, but most of us–even the vast majority–arrive at the starting line in some sort of running order, and since the length of the race and the condition of the track keep changing, it’s not even clear where the advantage lies. Until fairly recently, a man who was 7’4″ and well-coordinated would just have bumped his head on low doorways. Now it’s a combination worth a fortune. And does the bright child of wealthy parents, who never had to struggle for anything really have the edge over one whose life was “a struggle from the start?” Plenty of history to argue otherwise.

    We can sort out and look after the truly helpless, but I’m not sure we can even honestly rank the rest.


    6 Aug 11 at 6:28 pm

  10. mmjust is more than welcome to put my cat in among the pigeons down there in Kentucky. If it leads any of them question their motivation for entering such a “profession”, my work here will be done. Do they want a good career, or do they want a career doing good? That’s the problem.

    Those most interested in a “rewarding” career will love it in bureaucratic heaven. The others, those genuinely motivated towards helping others, will hate it, because they will be frustrated at every turn, most of all by their own bureaucracy.

    I’m always a bit suspicious about sending children to do adults work and, from what I can see, and from what I’m told – mainly by my brother who has been in this business as a supervisor and administrator (lo, the evil bureaucracy!) – those closest to the coalface are most likely to be young, recent recruits who inevitably, and through no fault of their own, lack maturity and experience in situations where those two assets are the qualities most needed. The news media here in Australia are loaded with stories almost every day about social welfare disasters which might have been averted with less of an emotional response and more of a mature, commonsense approach by hard-headed realists. (The best social worker I’ve ever known was such a person. She had spent her career working for Veterans’ Affairs, dealing with veterans and their multifarious post-traumatic problems since when it was still called shell-shock, and nobody’s soft touch was she.)

    I wonder if any of them are ever encouraged to read Theodore Dalrymple’s cautionary tales about his lifetime journey as a physician and psychiatrist along Good Intentions Highway in various nasty places. As Robert says, there are good programmes, good people and good outcomes along the way, but then there are the highly bureacratised mainly government programmes where ends and means are often indistinguishable.

    If you haven’t done so already, try Theodore Dalrymple’s “Romancing Opiates” for persuasive arguments about how and why the best-intentioned helpers often do more harm than good. His “Life at the Bottom” is also instructive about how the fiercely proud and independent British “working class” have been turned into the needy and utterly dependent “under class” in scarcely two generations by well-meaning but poorly targeted policies.

    What really worries me, although fortunately I probably won’t be around to see it reach its almost inevitable apex, is the apparent rise and rise of eugenics among those most well-intentioned, but frequently naive, modern “environmentalists”. We’ve been around the euthanasia buoys in RAM many times and have, I think, generally agreed that it’s a bad thing. But I fear that popular opinion is moving rapidly towards making it an easy option for those who are unwilling, or who see themselves unable, to care for their aged or otherwise incapacitated loved ones. Watching my mother and her siblings dying by millimetres in recent times has focussed my mind wonderfully on those issues.


    6 Aug 11 at 8:08 pm

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