Hopefully Anonymous started a discussion with me over the Great Man theory of history vs materialism, which I’m getting tired of trackbacks from my own blog. You can find it from this SB GNXP post on the recent anthrax suicide (the one with the hilarious drunk brother interview on CNN). That post also served as a teaser to the subject of cliodynamics, which is elaborated based on the work of Peter Turchin in this GNXP original post. The post itself is sizable enough, but there’s also a comment storm. Steve Sailer makes his old point that interesting things are hard to predict while obvious things are boring, while Mencius and John Emerson rail against scientism intruding on their beloved subject. I say bring on the scientism. I think it’s ridiculous to consider history a branch of literature, and anybody who does hold that belief should stick to arguing canon at fanpages and leave reality to realists. Also, the commission of poetry should be at least a misdemeanor.

The Nurture Assumption is great writing (the best I’ve read in any pop-sci book) but it isn’t literature. Though kicked out of academia, Judith Harris is as guilty of scientism as any social scientist and reacts to bad studies not by throwing up her hands but looking for better designed studies. Hoo-ahh! I’m unsure about part of her book though. In chapter 9 “The Transmission of Culture” in the section “Welcome to the Neighborhood” she discusses how moving kids from bad neighborhoods to good neighborhoods works wonders because it is peer groups rather than families that shape kids. She references studies on London boys moving out of city (even with their families) and one in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology that said “When African American youths and white youths were compared without regard to neighborhood context, African American youths were more frequently and more seriously delinquent than white youths. When African American youths did not live in underclass neighborhoods, their delinquent behavior was similar to that of the white youths.” I haven’t read the JQC study, but I had read other data saying that the crime rate among blacks in middle class family was higher than those of whites under the poverty line, though I forget if it was closer to the average black or white rate. That idea is not too surprising which is why it has motivated a number of programs to end the cycle of poverty. There’s some info in that link on programs of population dispersal contrasted with neighborhood rejuvenation, and while I agree with Ed Glaeser that Buffalo should be allowed to die, I’m not enthusiastic about the alternative. Freakonomics reports that vouchers transferring kids to good schools doesn’t make a difference, as the kids that apply do just as well even if they don’t get removed from their lousy schools. As Hannah Rosin reports, section 8 and gentrification has resulted in crime increases in many midsize cities. Steve Sailer says, like Harris, that it’s questionable whether moving underclass kids into middle class households will make things worse or better. A school full of underclass kids is likely to socialize kids into underclass behavior, but historically black and all womens’ colleges output larger numbers of scientists in part because there isn’t the same stigma against acting like “them” and there’s more space for kids to get the meagre social benefits of high nerd status if they don’t have to compete with Chang Q Einstein. Harris asks in the next chapter “If two’s company, how many does it take to make a crowd?”. What’s the optimal number or proportion? The answer is that we don’t know. More data is needed, not more literature.

There’s another point of tension in the book. Harris likes to repeat that children are not aspiring adults but aspiring to be competent children, just as prisoners must act according to the code of prisoners rather than guards until they are released. Harris also places great importance on what Freud called the “latent” period as actually the most formative years. But if the years when a child is socialized by a parent don’t seem to have much durable effect and from childhood there is another great transition to adulthood, why should the effects of peers at that age endure? Shouldn’t they be free to adapt to the very different situations they will be in as adults? Maybe there’s an answer after chapter 14 (my current position) or maybe I missed it earlier. Comments are welcome.