Books

Jail Him! Jail Him!

There\’s a proposed new law in Germany which is really, well, rather remarkable actually:

Germany\’s parliament is to debate a new law that would effectively ban displays of public affection between under-18s.

The Bill was drawn up to protect children against sexual predators. However, critics fear that it will deprive teenagers of natural experiences and the fun of adolescent relationships.

For example, a 17-year-old boy caught "fondling" someone younger would be liable to prosecution, regardless of whether he has consent.

If the offence happened in a cinema, he would be deemed to have planned the assault by paying for a ticket.

Artists and writers could face up to three months in jail if they create "realistic descriptions of sex among young people".

So that\’s Laurie Lee ready to be jailed then (yes, I know he\’s dead).

You have to wonder whether people think through the implications of the laws they try and pass.

Getting Greg Clark Wrong.

Via both Sullivan and Lost Legacy, this review in the NY Times of Greg Clark\’s " A Farewell to Alms".

Second, Darwinian evolution is usually seen as a process that works over very long periods of time, with consequences for humans that we can observe only by looking far into the past.

Well, yes, but Clark is careful not to insist that it is Darwinian evolution which is the mechanism by which the change came about.

One frustrating aspect of Clark’s argument is that while he insists on the “biological basis” of the mechanism by which the survival of the richest fostered new human attributes and insists on the Darwinian nature of this process, he repeatedly shies away from saying whether the changes he has in mind are actually genetic. “Just as people were shaping economies,” he writes in a typical formulation, “the economy of the preindustrial era was shaping people, at least culturally and perhaps also genetically” (emphasis added). Nor does he introduce any evidence, of the kind that normally lies at the core of such debates, that traits like the capacity for hard work are heritable in the sense in which biologists use the term.

Quite, so he\’s not in fact talking about Darwinian evolution then, so why blame him for not proving that it was caused by Darwinian evolution?

The issue here is not merely a matter of too often writing “perhaps” or “maybe.” If the traits to which Clark assigns primary importance in bringing about the Industrial Revolution are acquired traits, rather than inherited ones, there are many non-Darwinian mechanisms by which a society can impart them, ranging from schools and churches to legal institutions and informal social practices.

Indeed, and we\’ll come to that.

But if the traits on which his story hinges are genetic, his account of differential childbearing and survival is necessarily central.

Ah, and there is the central error in Friedman\’s argument. For Darwinian evolution is not in fact the only sort of evolution that has been posited, nor is it the only form of evolution which we can argue actually works.

Now, let me back up slightly here. I\’m not about to get all kooky on you and insist that because your father learnt to play the guitar then so can you already play the guitar via your genes. But there has been another form of evolution posited, Lamarckian. As it turns out, with the genetic attributes of humans and other animals it turns out to be wrong. But in Deirdrie McCloskey\’s review of the same book, the issue is indeed nailed as being entirely central to the thesis (and no, she doesn\’t agree with it):

…unless they fit his notion of the material if social inheritance of acquired characteristics (“and perhaps even the genes,” says he).

The inheritance of acquired characteristics is, in evolutionary terms, referred to as Lamarckian: and as above, with reference to genes, it\’s wrong. However, with reference to culture it most certainly is not wrong.

No, I\’m not going to try and prove that culture is transmitted in a Lamarckian manner. Rather, I\’m going to prove that you and everyone else already believe it is.

For I think we all agree that the children of teenage mothers are more likely to themselves become teenage parents? That is the inheritance of an acquired characteristic. We note that children who grow up in a home without books do badly at school: and then go on to note that those who do badly at school tend to have few books at home to instruct their own children. We note that the middle classes tend to transmit their social success across the generations: it\’s most unfashionable these days to attribute that to genes, rather, to social networks, to the privilege that a secure upbringing and a decent education provide. We note that children whose parents have a university education are more likely to get a university education themselves. Anyone pondering the family networks that infest UK journalism, or the Law, will be observing exactly the same thing. No, we don\’t believe that the ability to write leader columns has been genetically transmitted from Lord Rees Mogg to Annunziata Rees Mogg (he at The Times, she at The Telegraph: and having once read one of hers where she refers to "sclerosis of the liver", if we did I\’d be expecting someone to be having a very serious and intimate chat with Lady Rees Mogg sometime soon) but we do indeed believe that a combination of education and the extended network of the family have contributed to the daughter following in the old man\’s footsteps.

Indeed, this is one of the arguments forcefully put forward againt the existence of private schools in the UK: that they permit the transmission of exactly this form of cultural inheritance and thus privileged positions.

So we believe this about our society now: that attitudes, mindsets, extended networks, are indeed transmitted across the generations, not via Darwinian evolution, but in a way that can best be described as Lamarckian. The inheritance by the next generation of characteristics acquired by the previous one.

So we all already actually agree that Clark\’s mechanism is indeed a possible one (I personally regard it, now that\’s he\’s written the book to explain it, as obvious, but as I didn\’t see it before I read the book perhaps not that obvious.): all he needs to really prove is that the people who were transmitting the petit- and not so petit- bourgeois cultural values were indeed outbreeding those who didn\’t and the basic argument seems secure. Those bourgeois cultural values were indeed spreading through society via an evolutionary mechanism, just that of Lamarck, not Darwin.

Now, whether that actually caused the Industrial Revolution is another matter, but the transmission mechanism is one that, as above, we all already think is true.

Update. One further thought. I\’m really not sure where that idea that Darwinian evolution is only evident in humans over very long periods of time comes from. We need to divide evolution into two different things. The first is the accumulation of random mutations which lead to diversity in the population (which in itself can be divided into two. Those that kill the fetus or child, which are most of them, and those that don\’t). This does indeed take a long time and it happens at a reasonably well known rate. So much so that we actually use the existence of such diversity to count backwards and tell us when populations split in the past. Now most such mutations (those that don\’t kill) make very little or no difference at all to reproductive success. Others do make a difference. But there\’s a third set and those are those that make no difference now, but might at some point in the future. Yes, the accumulation of these mutations does indeed take a long time.

Well, you might ask, how can something not make a difference to reproductive success now but do so in the future? This brings us to our second "thing" about evolution. It\’s the changing environment which determines which traits lead to that increased reproductive success. Sure, things like melanin enhancement in skin to deal with sunnier climes take a long time to become evident. But environments can change rather rapidly.

For example, what if there were some random mutation that conferred immunity (or an increased chance of survival) to smallpox? Or bubonic plague? I\’ve no idea whether there is or has been (that there are such mutations for better immune systems is obvious, but they proffer immediate increased success, except where they don\’t) but I wouldn\’t be at all surprised if there had been. And then in Justinian\’s time (around 500 AD, for smallpox) or the 1350s, for bubonic plague, possession or not of those genes becomes very evident in a very short period of time. Those with them are still alive, those without are not.

Yes, OK, it\’s a quibble, but it\’s a boring Monday afternoon here.

 

 

Nick Cohen Paperback

The paperback of Nick Cohen\’s book on the left is now out, with the postcript up at his site.

Cohen is something of a friend of this blog: I\’m absolutely certain that at some point in the not too far distant future we\’ll get him from being librul to classically liberal.

Bookish Things.

I\’m reading, inter alia, Things Unborn.

Highly recommended. Sort of a mix between alternative history, sci-fi and a damn good detective story.

Hmmm. That might not get the punters rolling in but still.

(And please note, no, no payment for this, not even a free copy, this is from me buying and reading.)

Well worth it.

One of the back bits is that the son of a character is a jazz musician. They\’re out in Bristol, on the Severn Estuary actually, looking at said father\’s grave (complicated, I know, read the book for the set up to this) and son says to father:

"But they\’re African Americans….(…) I want to make African British music.

As did, say, Portishead.

The End of Hardbacks

So it looks as if the era of a literary novel being printed in hardback before paperback is over. It\’s really rather odd that they don\’t actually explain what is really happening though.

Hardback then paperback is in fact simply a method of price discrimination. The publisher is trying to charge a higher price to those who really want the work and then a lower price to those prepared to wait a year for the paperback. If publishers are now to stop doing this, it will be because this form of price discrimination no longer works. The reason it doesn\’t is explained:

Libraries, which used to in effect underwrite the hardback market by guaranteeing to buy almost every new literary novel, have diverted resources to music, computers and DVDs.

Isn\’t that lovely? The literary fiction market, all those arty types writing and reading the most incredibly boring codswallop, has been subsidised by your tax money all these years. Good that it\’s ended then, isn\’t it?

The Wisdom of Crowds

Another confirmation that distributed knowledge is indeed right on certain points.

Lloyd, however, adds a coda that will depress Britain’s publishers, especially Random House. “In my experience,” he said, “the public generally think that politicians are at best hypocrites or simply a bunch of lying bastards.”

Who could possibly argue that they\’re wrong?

Coren and Pinter

*

On occasion he took it as well as dished it out: at a grand party at Cliveden he murmured to Harold Pinter, another working-class Jewish Londoner, “Well, Harold, we’re assimilating, eh?” and Pinter decked him.

Yes, I think this is Exactly Right

Alan Coren\’s writing in a nutshell:

Coren senior, a humorous writer from an early age, was a distorted prism. Shine a fact, the more trivial the better, at one side and out of the other would come a refracted rainbow of lateral thinking that would take wing on an updraught of preposterous imagination.

Alan Coren RIP

Very sad to hear of his death. Almost certainly the finest comic writer of the generation.

For me the best stuff was the essays he did at Punch, while he was editor there. This is a book of the best of them.

From that book, this is the one that I remember the most. (You might have to fiddle about to see it. Put "Moses" into the see inside bit and it starts on page 28. Fiddle about and you can read the whole of it.)

He aready has his monument I would say.

RIP.

 

Sex Blogging

Rootling around the web for examples to put into this directory of sex blogs I find that this is certainly true:

All sex is bad sex in fiction; wise writers leave us at the bedroom door. AS Byatt once pouted, "I do sex very well because I don\’t do it at any great length" – and Bronte, Austen and Tolstoy all left us at the door. Now I admire Norman Mailer but I don\’t want to put my hand down his trousers: not in life, and not in fiction.

There\’s not much really good writing out there on the subject, certainly not in the way that political, or economic, or food, or sports blogging throws up some excellent pieces and writers.

Title Competition

OK; so I need your help again.

This directory of sex blogs. 100 pages, blog a page, al blogs being about sex in some manner.

So, what should we call it? One Track Minds? Onanist\’s Corner?

If we use the title I\’ll send along a freebie copy.

AN Wilson and VS Naipaul

A very negative review of VS Naipaul here by AN Wilson.

Fans of Naughtie got a double delight last week when, just before the eight o\’clock news, he was interviewing Sir Vidia Naipaul. Since being awarded the Nobel Prize, Naipaul seems to have slipped from being a great writer who is occasionally idiotic into being an old bore who does not know when he is making a fool of himself.

Writing and reading are very different arts, and relationships between writers themselves are always fraught. Envy distorts his discussion of his fellow-Caribbean Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott. "I had looked at a few of the later poems. They did not stir me."

He does not so much as name Omeros or Tiepolo Hound, two of the most remarkable works of literature in our time. Any dispassionate reader can see that Naipaul is incapable of reading a great poet because his own ego is getting in the way.

OK, bad review, nothing unusual….but I don\’t think we should expect anything else from this reviewer on this writer. I\’ve forgotten (if I ever understood them) the details but there\’s been a decades long spat between the two anyway. This is just the latest installment and it\’s a bit like academic arguments. They\’re so vicious because there\’s nothing really at stake.