"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Nature-Nurture And The Hard Facts Of Genetic Determination

Bobby Lucca got his mother’s red hair, his father’s oversized lips, Uncle Harry’s long, Roman nose, and Aunt Betty’s ears.  Every Easter when the family got together at Tilly’s for antipasto, lasagna, pork roast and ham pie, the family marveled at how much Bobby looked like just about everyone around the table.

“Let’s hope it stops right there”, said Lou Lehman, the next door neighbor, referring to Harry Grillo’s temper, Leona Petrucci’s drinking, and Joe Bello’s womanizing.  Lou had seen generations of Luccas come and go, chips off the old block, clones of wayward fathers and flighty mothers, and collages of the second and third cousins who sat in Tilly’s living room, gossiping about their men and how this irresponsible, wayward strain would someday have to peter out.  Lou doubted that the men would ever change, and that as caring and pleasant as the women were, there would always be a succubus in the bunch.

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Angie Panto, for example, was an apple from a different orchard, and as much as the Luccas tried to figure out where this nasty, brutish, harridan came from, they came up empty. Genes and heredity being what they are, searching in a more distant past might be revealing.  Bits and pieces of genetic material come down through the generations, get twisted and gnarled and show up in the most unusual places in the most surprising forms.

Of course memories of anyone that far back had been so distorted by telling and retelling that after two generations of false recollections resembled nothing like what they might have been; but she had to have come from somewhere, so the Luccas pinned Angie on ‘The Fat Lady From Silver City’.  In fact, in Lou Lehman’s opinion she was a lot like Tilly’s sister, but no one had ever brought that up.

In any case, everyone knew where Bobby came from, but, given the vagaries of genetic code, they watched him carefully to see how closely his DNA matched that of his parents, aunts, and uncles.  There were early signs of stubbornness and inattention, and later a certain moroseness and funk, all of which traits were unfortunately recognizable.  He got none of the intelligence of his father’s side of the family, and certainly none of the looks and charm of his mother’s; and his personality was just as jumbled and Francis Bacon-looking as his face. 

The argument over Nature-Nurture goes back and forth depending on socio-political zeitgeist.  In a more progressive era, few want to nail anything down.  There can be no such thing as an immutable, predictable human nature, for if there such a thing one would have to accept territorialism, aggression, and implacable self-interest as givens in human society.  If, on the other hand, human nature was only genetic predisposition – a predilection for putting one’s family first, expanding one’s horizons and fields, and guarding against one’s enemies – then it could be tinkered with and reconfigured to fit the time’s utopian vision.

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In a conservative era, few want to accept any kind of genetic weak wiring.  We are as we have always been, and better off for it.  Competition between weak and strong always end up in evolutionary progress.  Wars may be unpleasant but necessary to clear the chaff from the wheat.  There is no such thing as the best of all possible worlds, just worlds as they are.

Yet it is hard to understand how, with only a cursory look at history's wars, empires, territorialism, and concentration of wealth; internecine warfare between competing tribes, religions, and regions; and the family battles for wealth, influence, and power, that anyone can dismiss a hardwired, genetically-programmed, immutable and ineluctable human nature - one that is fundamentally self-interested, protective, territorial, and aggressive.

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It is equally hard to understand why there is such a reluctance to attribute personal traits to DNA.  If it is absolutely clear and uncontested that physical traits are passed on through the genetic material of mothers, fathers, uncles, and ancestors, then why not non-physical attributes? Scientific work on shyness has determined that whereas there may not be one specific gene for the trait, there are certainly others which facilitate its emergence.  Twin studies of adult individuals have found a heritability of IQ between 57% and 73% with the most recent studies showing heritability for IQ as high as 80% (Ploman and Deary). 

What then to make of the high performance of Asians in America? Over 80 percent of talent schools like Stuyvesant High School in New York which admit students on the basis of test results only are Asian.  In previous decades Jews were similarly disproportionately represented.  While it is likely that the Confucian ethic in China, the rigorous family standards in India, and the importance given to the Torah and to learning are largely responsible for such performance, might not genetics play a role?  That is, a social selection process where intelligence is valued, marriages are based in part on it and thus its predisposition is strengthened.

At the same time Asian academic success is more than likely due to a highly-disciplined society which values intellectual achievement; and the natural selection of the most ambitious families and the genetic predisposition to intellectual ability within them account for the rest.

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American Jews have always been represented disproportionately in academia, science, the arts, and other professions requiring intellectual ability, mental discipline, and insight.  The situation may not be little different from that of high-performing Asian Americans - a combination of a millennia-old tradition of intellectual excellence and highly selective marriages. Whatever the reason, these high-achieving, ambitious groups leave other ethnic groups far behind.

Black athletes have always been outstanding for their athletic preeminence. There have been no white Olympic gold medalists in the 100 yard dash since 1980 – and black athletes who have won come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds as diverse as low-income African countries to highly developed Western countries like America, Canada, France, and the UK, suggesting at least some genetic link.  Any such excellence valued by society is sure to gain and hold ground through successive generations, a fertile, accommodating environment, and socio-cultural homogeneity.

Such physical genetic predisposition is found in many ethnic groups. Recent physio-ethnic studies have shown that Ethiopian children born to Ethiopian parents but raised in Europe consistently outperform white children in long distance running events, a phenomenon laid to a genetic ability to more efficiently use oxygen.  It is no wonder that Ethiopians, Somalians, and Eritreans are consistent winners in international marathons.

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We live in an era which defies and challenges common sense.  Everyone in the Lucca family could see right before their eyes where Bobby came from.  His narrow eyes, hanging ears, large mouth, and long nose shouted ‘Lucca!’; and as he grew older and out of the range of the meddlesome aunts and uncles of his childhood but well within the radar of very different, equally eccentric, unique friends and colleagues, he still retained the same fortunate and unfortunate personality, character, and cognitive traits of his family.  ‘Once a Lucca always a Lucca’ went the refrain around Tilly’s Easter dinner table; and no one ever doubted it.

There is no multivariate equation to determine the balance between nature and nurture; but while there is no doubt that environmental factors influence personality, character, response, and ability; it is hard to dismiss the essential traits that come with the human package.  Physical characteristics are clearly inherited; but more subtle, complex, and hard-to-measure traits like intellectual ability, psychological makeup (shyness, will, confidence), or temperament may also be.

Most importantly of all, human nature itself seems to be hardwired - an inescapable drive for self-preservation and -protection; the survival of the species through garnered wealth, territory, and influence; and the spread of culture as an influential ancillary.

Does this genetic determinism deny individuality, free choice, and flexibility? To the degree that genetic make-up predisposes one to certain behavior, excellence, or failure, yes; but it is the illusion of free choice that makes us human.  The two have always existed.

Perhaps most importantly genetic predisposition does not obviate anomalous talent.  Anyone from any group can excel in any enterprise.  Predisposition only suggests outcomes.  Assuming otherwise is wrong and dangerous.

Last but not least, the pluralism of American society, and the increasing wealth, mobility, and opportunity of all groups assure that any and all ethnic groups that have existed in the past will soon disappear.  Inter-ethnic marriage will assure a society where the discussion of group characteristics is moot.

It is the denial of genetics which is most problematic.  An understanding of the role of human nature in history can temper futile, idealistic, progressive aspirations to progress.  Competition between people, societies, or countries is not a bad things; and while it may not produce a better world, it is the only proven way to arrange resources.

Recognizing the genetic role in human ability and behavior can encourage excellence.  Why should time, energy, and resources be wasted on insufficient or inadequate talent?  It can also help to understand the nature of such inefficiencies, and help create a more tolerant, just, and promising society.

So there was a point to Tilly's Easter dinners, and everyone around the table realized it, understood it, and accepted it.  Bobby Lucca would only go so far.

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Retirement Years Of A Washington Lawyer–Bringing Blood Sport To The Good Life

Finchley Booth was a lawyer who had litigated civil cases – breach of contract, discrimination, and the occasional wrongful death claim – for over forty years; but who now felt, once the exhilaration of Washington’s hyper-macho K Street battles began to fade, that it was time to let up on the gas and get off the express.

For the first month or so he was indeed happy.  Nothing could have been more pleasing than to wake up to the morning sun instead of the alarm clock, flapping about in his slippers and bathrobe, taking an hour to read the morning paper, and going about his routine of bank, post office, hardware store, and library. There was something pleasing about a day marked by nothing in particular, a life of quiet predictability. The lives of ordinary people, now that he was one of them, was not so bad after all.  There was no shame in shopping at Target, paying the bills, and calling the grandchildren.  Such activity, as far as it was from the Roman Circus of K Street, as devoid as it was of energy, will, desire, and purpose, was satisfying.  The way the world should  be, a Grover’s Corners of simplicity, good friendship, family, and quiet times.

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As might be expected, this tranquil, disengaged phase of Finch’s retirement was short lived; and it wasn’t long before he was restive, impatient, and critical.  How could a man of his drive, ambition, brains, and ability have so misjudged life?  Magnitude – that indefinable sense of power, importance, and respect – should never have been given up so easily.  Even if the gladiatorial life of the law no longer appealed to him, there must be other ways to impose his will and exert his influence.  Many of his colleagues volunteered as teachers, docents, and resource persons on university-sponsored trips to Turkey and the Levant.  They had found seams of coal in what they had thought was a depleted mine. 

Yet these options seemed weak and flimsy excuses for filling time.  Such occupations were little more than accommodations to a life made longer through technology than ever intended or needed.  Why not fight in the trenches and take an honorable bullet rather than die in a chaise lounge after teaching poetry?  There was no retirement age at Parker, Hodge, and Lanier; and Finch could have gone on fighting the enemy.  More bodies hanging from the gibbet, fields laid waste, plunder and spoils.  As long as the bodies kept piling up and the gold in the treasury kept increasing, there was no reason for a lawyer to retire from the arena.  Far better was it to die in one’s traces.

Of course there were public interest lawyers – environmental defense fund, civil rights, and immigration attorneys – who after retirement easily made the transition to non-paid volunteer assistance to the same good causes they had defended for a living; but these were not Finch’s kind of lawyers.  They could not smell the scent of blood in the ring, or have license to kill.  They were faux lawyers, desk lawyers, indeterminate lawyers.

He made a few indirect inquiries about returning to Parker Hodge, but his colleagues demurred.  Life in the fast lane also meant that one was quickly passed by and lost in the dust.  Yes, Finchley Booth had been one of the firm’s best attorneys, but things change quickly in Washington, and in the nearly one year since his retirement, the firm had recruited some young bucks out of Harvard and Yale who were even more ambitious and bloodthirsty than he had been.

So shunned by his own profession, disaffected by the whiny do-goodism of his former colleagues, and yet full of energy and ready to ‘do some damage’, he decided to spend his money with as much of a vengeance as he had earned it.  Fuck ‘em, he said to K Street, global warming, and volunteerism.  Get me a first class ticket to Paris and reservations at La Rochefoucauld.  No one would know that he was retired, living off his investments.  Dressed in Armani, flying in the front of the plane, eating at the finest restaurants, he could well be taken for an international financier, a man of wealth and importance.  It mattered little that he had no taste for French cuisine nor aptitude for great wine, but with his usual confidence and command, his deference to the sommelier and the maître d’ were taken as signs of sophistication and culture, not ignorance. 

So he travelled through Europe like an American viscount, all arrangements made by a small personal service firm in Washington that catered to wealthy Americans who had little experience with the sophistication of Europe but a great desire not only to taste the best but to be treated no differently than their fey European counterparts.  The travel firm had been in business for years and knew the owners and headwaiters at all the best restaurants in Europe who knew that the company would not be sending over American bumpkins and rubes but men and women who, even if they did not understand European sophistication, cuisine, and culture, would never let it show.  In return the maître d’s got a generous compensation. 

Finchley was delighted at the elegance, décor, and attentive service of fine restaurants; and he never looked at the bill.  A $700 bottle of fine Burgundy was nothing to him, nor a $1500 tab.  In fact, so pleased was he with his new-found retirement life, that he photographed everything, and uploaded pictures of the Grands Echezeaux, Charmes Chambertin, and Lafitte Rothschild.  He sent around pictures of foie gras, fines de claires, the finest foraged sea grasses and periwinkles from the North Sea, and the hen breast with yellow wine, crayfishes, sweets of giblets and chanterelles, legs cooked in a broth of leek, potatoes and black truffle, the signature dish of Chef Eric Frechon at Epicure.  He wanted to be sure that not only his colleagues at Parker Hodge but his Yale classmates would see them as well.  It did no good for him alone to be served these elegant meals.  Everyone who mattered should either dine at Epicure in absentia, or more than likely, dine there only in their dreams.

He took suites at the Gritti Palace in Venice, the George V in Paris, and the Bulgari in London; and again took pictures from his windows of the Concorde, the canals, and Bond Street. 

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At home he was equally occupied.  He expanded and remodeled his kitchen, installed a multi-purpose, industrial Viking stove, high-intensity track lighting, butcher block counters and work space, and the most up-to-date food processors, thermometers, hygrometers, and Japanese tempered steel knives.  His most prized purchase was the Garth XL50-500 outdoor grill, a $9000 investment with wi-fi temperature monitoring and control, three sous-vide installations, two convection, forced air and one radiant heat oven, electronic sensory software designed to gauge temperature, porosity, and doneness through hyper-accurate visual recognition and 3-D imaging.  Once again, pictures of Finchley at the 500, in chef’s toque and Dehillerin apron. grilling lamb, duck, or Zimbabwean ostrich.  

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Despite the European fol-de-rol, the fancy restaurants, five-star cuisine, and his top-of-the-line kitchen and outdoor grill, Finchely’s taste never matured.  He had never been in it for the taste anyway.  His ambitious, demanding, and showy display of wealth and influence in the food game was no different from that in the courtroom.  Everything Finchley had ever done was to impress, to intimidate, and to demean.  He never was nor ever would be a gourmet.

He got desultory comments on his Facebook Group site.  “Nice….Looks delicious….Wow!”, all of which notes were more than enough for him.  Had anyone actually asked for details about the preparation of ‘Wild Montana Hare And Sorrel’, or the reduction and combination of the three sauces for ‘Pan Seared Sweetbreads In A Veloute de Fraises et Chataignes’ he would have been lost. 

He knew how the faux-foodies would react to his food-inspired retirement -  ‘fake news, a poseur, bourgeois, a man with money and no taste’, but he had no second thoughts.  He knew precisely why he did what he did, and was proud of it.  In fact he considered himself more American than those who criticized him.  Wasn’t the making, spending, and display of wealth part of the American ethos? Weren’t all these organic, locally-sourced, farm-fresh, pan-Asian-American inclusive, respectful restaurants; the Garth grills, the remodeled kitchens, and haute cuisine European tours only the latest expressions of middle-class upward mobility, Thorsten Veblen-esque displays of wealth, and expressions of success? Wasn’t the money the only point?

Retirement with a vengeance felt good, really good.  And wasn’t creating this worldly image of sophistication, little different from his magnificent theatrical performances in the courtroom, worth every penny?  In fact, it was worth even more.  Although he might not have cared much for the food, his fellow patrons were worth the price of the meal, especially the beautiful, elegant, slim, bejeweled, Dior- attired women seated around him.

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His love affairs are another story altogether, but derived from the same ambitious impulse as from the law, international travel, or haute cuisine.  He was no more an arm-candy squiring, misogynist, women-as-playthings man than Donald Trump.  Both shared shameless ambition, theatrics, show, and confidence and were, as such true Americans.  The faux-foodies and docent-dependent appreciators of ‘fine’ anything had nothing on him.  He did it the right way.