David Chart's Japan Diary

April 4th 2006

The last couple of weeks have been rather bitty. This is, of course, work's fault. First, my latest book, Knights of the Grail, has been released, and can now be bought at Amazon. Actually, it could be bought at Amazon rather before it was officially released, thanks to some communication failures about street dates, but it's officially out now.

Teaching continues to go well. I have students who range from wanting to know how to ask where missing luggage has gone, to wanting to know how to correctly use 'discursive' in a sociological context. This makes things interesting, but also prevents the English teaching from having any sort of unity; tonight will be a combination of neuroscience and philosophy of science, tomorrow morning business conversation, tomorrow evening academic writing about English teaching, and so on. I have enough students now, although I could take a couple more, so I'm not hunting hard any longer.

Writing and editing have been spread among lots of different projects. I'm trying to do final edits on one book, check the proofs on another two, get a fourth ready for first playtest, and keep an eye on the drafting of a fifth. Oh, and a sixth has just come out of first playtest, so I have to integrate the comments on that and discuss necessary revisions with the authors. On top of that, I'm writing part of another book for a different company, so I have to write that and co-ordinate with the other authors. This is quite a lot of work, although probably not quite as much as it sounds. The central point is that each bit is very different, so things are very different from a month or so ago, where I was very busy, but basically with getting one book finished before deadline.

As evidence that I'm not quite as busy as I was, I've continued being able to take time off at weekends. Last week, Yuriko and I went for another walk in the local area, a short distance to the west of here. Again, there were a suprising number of open areas for a built-up part of the Tokyo metroplex, and the final section was a very pleasant walk along a river. We visited a couple of shrines and a temple, but they weren't as interesting as the shrines and temples on the last walk. We plan to do more of the walks in the guidebook to Miyamae Ward over the coming weeks; they're cheap, interesting, and it's good to know the area where you live.

This week, the cherry trees were in flower, so on Sunday we walked over to a Cherry Blossom Festival near the sports club Yuriko goes to. The trees, lining a shopping street, were spectacular, but we were a bit late for most of the festival, and we got rained on walking home. After we got home, there was a full-on thunderstorm. Monday (yesterday) was clear and warm, but with a really strong wind; I had to do some shopping, and making forward progress against the wind was not as easy as I might have like. Today is warm, calmer, and also fairly clear; it looks as though spring is really here.

I've also finally caught up with Nature. There's an interesting article in the current issue, but the most interesting thing about it is that it is described as "controversial", and probably will be. The article reports the result of a long-term study of IQ and brain structure in children and adolescents, and the results indicate that there are brain structures correlated with higher IQ. It's not as simple as 'bigger brain, cleverer child', though. Rather, the more intelligent children tended to have thinner neocortices when young, which got thicker than average very quickly, and then thinned back out to average thickness.

The thing is, it isn't the particular results that are likely to be controversial (they seem very plausible given what we know about brain function); it's the link between intelligence and brain structure. The weird thing about that is: what else would it be linked to? Shoe size? This doesn't even have much of a relationship to the old debate over the degree to which intelligence is inherited. Neural connections in the brain are made and destroyed in response to environmental stimuli, so the recorded results could stem entirely from environmental differences. That is, it might depend entirely on how the children in question were educated.

On the other hand, there probably is a genetic component. No-one can really deny that there is a genetic component to intelligence; no matter how much money you spend on schooling, a chimpanzee is never going to win a Nobel Prize, and the difference there is "merely" genetic. It is just possible that there is absolutely no genetically-linked variation in human intelligence, but that's wildly unlikely, given that there is genetically-linked variation in just about everything else.

Thus, I think people claiming that there is no genetic component to intelligence are likely to find themselves arguing with the facts, which is a bad position to be in. Even now, they are committed to a highly implausible position. However, very few people really want to oppose the idea of a genetic link to intelligence. They want to oppose the stratification of society based on birth, and the idea that certain groups of people are inescapably inferior.

Fortunately, that's really easy to do. Even the most genetically-determinist studies of IQ only have about 30% of the variation accounted for by genetics. That means that genetic variations are completely swamped by environmental, educational, variations. Similar considerations apply to most things; the Japanese are not, in fact, genetically shorter than Westerners, they just didn't eat the sort of diet that allowed them to grow. (Neither did Westerners until quite recently.) This means that, on a personal level, it doesn't matter what a child's 'genetic intelligence' might be; good education will still make her much more intellectually able, and variations in education will have more effect than the genes.

When it comes to groups, the situation is even better. Not only is genetic variation swamped by environmental variation on an individual level, genetic variation within groups swamps that between groups. Thus, even if the most notorious 'blacks are less intelligent than whites' studies were entirely accurate, the possibility that the most intelligent dozen people in the world are all black would remain open. And given the degree to which environmental factors outweigh genetic ones on the individual level, any conclusions based on tests done in contemporary Western societies must be regarded as highly dubious; particularly in the US, the environment in which black people have been raised has been (and generally still is) significantly less conducive to intellectual pursuits than that for white people. Even controlling for family wealth (which may or may not have been done) would not eliminate all the confounding factors.

Thus, the evidence we have is pretty conclusive in favour of the position that it never makes sense to assess a child's intellect on the basis of their racial, national, social, or sexual group. It also strongly suggests that good education is always worthwhile, no matter what the genetic basis, even in cases of severe mental retardation. (There have been a number of studies showing that the right education can make a massive difference to people with clear mental defects. It doesn't make them into brilliant scientists, but it does make the difference between someone who needs constant care in an institution, and someone who lives independently and makes an independent living.) This seems to be all that social progressives need. The further claim that there are no genetic variations in intellectual ability looks unnecessary as well as probably false.