Mirage

(just some quick notes, hopefully in the spirit of delightfully quirky symmetry-breaking)

In her little 2010 book The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture, Evelyn Fox Keller examines some of the eternal conceptual confusions surrounding the perennially popular nature/nurture question. Like, it's both, and everyone knows it's both, so why can't the discourse move on to more interesting and well-specified questions? That the oppositional form of the question isn't well-specified can be easily seen just from simple thought experiments. One such from the book: if one person has PKU, a high-phenylalanine diet, and a low IQ, and another person doesn't have PKU, eats a low-phenylalanine diet, and has a normal IQ, we can't attribute the IQ difference to either diet or genetics alone; the question dissolves once you understand the causal mechanism. Keller argues that the very idea of distinguishing heredity and environment as distinct, separable, exclusive alternatives whose relative contributions can be compared is a historically recent one that we can probably blame on Francis Galton.

The "Bay Area" was ostensibly hosting the big game this year. They blocked off a big swath around the Embarcadero this last week to put on Super Bowl City, "a free-to-the-public fan village [...] with activities, concerts, and more." I really don't see how much sense this makes, given that the actual game was 45 miles away in Santa Clara, just as I don't think we (can I still say we if I only work in the city?) really have a football team anymore; I like to imagine someone just forgot to rename them the Santa Clara 49ers. Even you don't think Santa Clara is big enough to be a real city—and it's bigger than Green Bay—then why not San Jose, which is a lot closer? I think I would forgive it if the marketers had at least taken advantage of the golden (sic) opportunity to flaunt the single-"digit" Roman numeral L (so graceful! so succinct!), but for some dumb reason they went Arabic this year and called it Super Bowl 50. Anyway, on a whim, I toured through Super Bowl City after work on Friday. It was as boring as it was packed, and it was packed. I wasn't sure if my whimsy was worth waiting in the throng of people to get in the obvious entrance on Market Street (the metal-detection security theater really took its toll on throughput), but I happened to hear a docent shouting that there was a less-crowded entrance if you went around and took a left each on Beale and Mission, so I did that. There were attractions, I guess?—if you could call them that. There were rooms with corporate exhibits, and an enormous line to try some be-the-quarterback VR game, and loud recorded music, and a stage with live music, and an empty stage where TV broadcasts would presumably be filmed later. There was a big statue of a football made out of cut-up beer cans near one of the stands where they were selling beer for $8, which sounded really expensive to me, although admittedly I don't have much of a sense for how much beer normally costs. In summary, I didn't see the appeal of the "fan village," although I do understand what it feels like to be enthusiastic about the game itself—I really do, even if I haven't been paying much attention in recent years.

Even when it doesn't make sense to talk about nature and nurture as separable components of the cause of a trait in an individual, Keller emphasizes that we often can say things about how differences in genetics or environment relate to differences in traits in a population. This is a pretty standard disclaimer in behavioral genetics: heritability is a technical term about how variation in genotypes relates to variation in phenotypes; it's not a catch-all notion of "geneticness," and it depends on the population and environment studied; most of the variation in the trait "number of hands" is due to horrible accidents, which are "nurture" (well ... you know what I mean), so the heritability (proportion of variation associated with variation in genotypes) is near-zero, but we don't want to say that humans having two hands has nothing to do with human genetics. Keller thinks that a lot of behavioral geneticists end up performing a motte-and-bailey maneuver here, falling back to the technical definition when questioned, but casually letting tinges of the everyday understanding of the word heritable slip in to the discourse—and that we probably can't just blame Jay Laurence Lush for not having chosen a different word in 1936.

I didn't watch much of the game. The few plays I did see looked bad for the Panthers. Cam Newton was sacked from behind a few yards from his own goal line and the Broncos recovered it for a touchdown. Later there was this play where one of the Broncos intercepted a pass and then fumbled it on the return, but another Broncos player recovered it.

Keller argues that a better question to ask than "nature vs. nurture" would be: to what extent are particular traits malleable during which developmental phases? By contrasting prenatal "nature" (that one was "born this way") and postnatal "nurture", many overlook that birth is not the only developmental milestone! But whatever constellation of forces turns out to truly shape who we are today and what we will become tomorrow, we can never escape the truth of what happened yesterday, the irrevocable verdict: Denver 24, Carolina 10.

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