Friday, February 20, 2009

Geek Mating and Aspergers Kids

Susan Pinker, in The Sexual Paradox, shows that there is evidence that math ability and the single-mindedness of Asperger's syndrome are both heritable. She speculates that the computer industry, which has been a haven for both kinds of people, brings together men and women with these traits as never before. Perhaps one of the reasons that there are many more cases of Asperger's reported now that before is because people inclined to produce Aspergery kids are more likely to find and marry one another than they used to.

This puts me in mind of one of the most interesting things I have read this year. This extract is from an essay in Best Australian Essays 2008 from a mom who appreciates her son's math-savant autism, and wonders if her mathematician parents made her kids a higher risk.

“When my parents talked about mathematics they often stood in the kitchen. Or rather, my mother moved around preparing dinner, and my father bounced up and down on a small square of floor in front of the most useful cupboard. As they talked about quadratic equations or topological vector spaces, my mother would gently push my father to one side so that she could reach inside the cupboard, and after she closed the cupboard, he would hop back in front of it. If he was only mildly excited or interested, he would just do this hop, balancing first on his right foot and then moving back to the left again. If the conversation was going well, my father would occasionally tap his forehead with the back of his right hand. When things heated up, he would add a left-hand slap to the back of his head just before the right hand hit the forehead, creating a kind of chain reaction. As the dinner neared preparation, there would be a flurry of activity in that kitchen, my mother stirring pots and lifting things out of the oven (she was feeding seven every night), and my father bouncing and hopping, slapping and tapping. Just when the conversation and the dinner were reaching a head, my mother would dash out into the passage and ring an old cow’s bell she’d picked up in Switzerland, and one of us kids would dart into the kitchen, dodging wordlessly between my parents to collect the cutlery to lay the dining-room table. A few minutes later, the bell would go again, signaling time to eat and a temporary end to the mathematical dialogue.” (136)

“Reaching One Thousand,” by Rachel Robertson

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Empathy is a Great Strength in Women - But it Costs Money

Women, as a rule, are more empathetic than men. This is a robust finding, which even researchers who didn't believe it -- didn't want to believe it -- have been convinced by. It is a very good thing for human beings, especially for mothers dealing with children who can't explain themselves very well. Empathy helps you read other people's emotions and understand their motives.

High-powered careers are stressful. They take long hours, often require frequent travel and even household moves, and usually entail continuous competition with other people. Mothers in high-powered careers are likely to feel the stress that their jobs cause to other people - especially their children. Mothers' empathy is a very good thing. But it does mean that mothers are more likely to find their family's pain more painful than fathers do. They are also more likely to feel more stress themselves, which they transfer to others in their families. Feeling others' distress is not just social conditioning, it is a biological strength of women.

The cost of empathy, though, is that women are more likely to leave high-stress jobs if they can for the benefit of their families. They calculate that the greater money, power, and status that they and their families might get is not worth the greater distress to the family. This hurts them more than it does men. It is not that men are oblivious, it is that men are generally built differently. They don't feel as much stress, so they don't pass on as much stress. For them, a stressful job is a gift to their families, which they endure for the good of others. For women, a stressful job is a cost to their families, which they leave for the good of others if they can.

As a result, empathetic women are less likely to be found in the most stressful jobs -- which also tend to be the highest paying and highest status jobs. Empathy is a great good for human society. But it can cost money.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Women Leave Math and Science for a More Meaningful Life

There are many women who start math and science careers - almost as many as men. There are many programs designed to draw women to math and science careers, including paying them more, providing mentors, providing family support, giving faster promotions, and giving high status. Many women at the highest levels of math and science in the younger generations report that the men in their lives, colleagues as well as family, are very supportive of their careers. The world has changed for women in math and science.

Yet women also leave math and science careers 2.8 times more than men do. Women in math and science are 13 times more likely to leave the workforce altogether. They are not leaving for higher-paying jobs -- they have the highest-paying jobs already. And women are more likely than men to leave math and science careers even if they do not have children.

Susan Pinker reports that even women who are very good at math and science are likely to leave good jobs because they want to do work that they find more meaningful. And the more freedom that women have to choose, the more likely they are to leave demanding math and science careers to work with people, for a more immediate social good, and part time.

Women in general are likely to use financial freedom to work less, but on things they value more. Men, by contrast, are more likely to seek higher pay and more responsibility for their own sake. Creating a male-model career path for women has not resulted in women pursuing those careers like men. With ability, money, and freedom, women pursue careers more like women.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Boys are More Likely to Be Dyslexic, But Are More Likely to Make Good, Anyway

One of Susan Pinker's themes in The Sexual Paradox is that boys are more fragile than girls from conception to old age. However, Pinker has been in clinical psychological practice long enough to see some of her patients turn from fragile boys to successful men. They still have the handicaps they had, but they have developed work-arounds. The key is the single-mindedness that men are also more likely to show than are women.

Boys are at least twice as likely as girls to be dyslexic. Girls do better than boys in school anyway; dyslexic boys find themselves doubly behind in school. Yet dyslexic boys often find other ways to succeed. The building trades are full of dyslexic men who are good with spatial relations, a skill that favors men. Pinker's example is a young man who was doing well as a chef. A big-time kitchen is a highly competitive, aggressive, hands-on, and visual place -- all male skills that can compensate for trouble reading.

Dyslexic girls do better in school than dyslexic boys, though worse than other students without reading problems. They are likely to go the other route in working around reading, by emphasizing talking, empathy, and the people skills that women are generally better at.

The bottom line, as Pinker reports it, is that dyslexic men make more as adults than dyslexic women, even though the women did better in school. In fact, the dyslexic men worked so hard that they made more, on average, than women without reading problems.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Men and Women Are the Same in the Middle, But Men Are More Extreme

Susan Pinker, in The Sexual Paradox, reports that men's and women's IQ curves have the same middle, but the tails of the men's curve are longer - on both sides. There are more men at the highest levels, and more at the lowest. This is how both of these things can be true: men and women have the same average intelligence, and there are many more men at the highest levels of math achievement.

There are other reasons why there would be more men at the top levels of public achievement, especially in power hierarchies. Pinker treats them in the book, and I will talk about them in the next few posts. But it helps to keep some perspective on what else this means. There are also fewer women at the bottom levels of public achievement. Pinker quotes the ever-colorful Camille Paglia: “There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lincoln/Darwin: Providential Gifts or Survivors of Struggle?

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born two hundred years ago this week, within hours of one another. They are both, in my estimation, great men who made essential acts at a crucial moment in history. Lincoln saved the American union and refounded the country. Darwin showed how billions of micro-competitions in the whole integrated living world produce the great macro-outcomes that we see in lineages, species, and the entire ecology.

Some Darwinists today think that Darwin's insight requires that we believe that there are only material forces shaping these competitions. We evolve, but we don't progress. We change through time, but not in a meaningful way. Nature "selects," but there is no Providence guiding the selection. By this logic, the great intellectual achievement of Darwin and Darwinism itself is ultimately meaningless; it is just another change, not better or worse than any other idea with social consequences.

Lincoln, on the other hand, believed that Providence had a plan for the world. He was a humble man, and did not think that he was forcing Providence to follow his plan. On the contrary, Lincoln thought the American nation had a destiny, in which he was but one humble worker in it.

In the great competition to produce scientific theories, someone would have come up with some kind of evolutionary synthesis eventually. Wallace almost did, which spurred Darwin to publish the work he had in a drawer for years. In the great competition of politics, someone will get elected president. The election of 1860 produced a very rich crop of men with great gifts - and great flaws - who came close to winning. If the Democrats had not split, surely their nominee, Douglas or Breckenridge, would have been president that year. Lincoln's rivals within the Republican Party likewise had many serious contenders to win the election. It is part of Lincoln's genius that he not only prevailed in that competition, but then united many of his rivals for the worse competition, the civil war, that followed.

Perhaps Darwin and Lincoln were just the guys who happened to win the particular competition of their day. If not them, then someone else; if someone else, then history takes some other turn. And if we take materialist views seriously, those other turns of history would have been just as meaningful, and meaningless, as the history we turned out to have.

But as for me and my house, I believe the Lincoln -- and Darwin too -- were helped to become the right people for their time in history by the Providence that ultimately superintends nations and species, with and sometimes the despite the choices we make in our micro-competitions.