Sunday, 14 December 2003

Nature, Nurture, and Nazis

As the parent of a 2-year-old son, I have a more-than-passing interest in the development of small children. My studies of the Human Central Nervous System seen as a computational device lead me to believe that the differences between the most intelligent of us, and the most "developmentally challenged" are relatively small. Not exactly "lost in the noise", but not far off that.

Yet my experiences at school and University lead me to the opposite conclusion: that there is a very large difference in capability between the A-students and what we used to call the "Duhh Division". People who were quite bright, just not educationally gifted nor intellectually inclined.

Now why should this be so? The Human brain starts off with rather more grey cells than it needs - so much so that many of them die off before puberty completes. What's important is not the number of neurons, but the richness of the connectivity, how they self-organise. While the number of components decreases with age, the interconnections increase, and the behaviour becomes "richer". To take an analogy, it's not the power of the computer you have on your desk, it's whether you're on the Internet or not.

So much for the computer-science view.

From the pediatric behaviour view, I've observed that some kids are just natural learners, from age Nought. You can't stop them from exploring, getting into things, examining books ( OK, so it's mostly by taste..) and sampling other interesting items. At least one toddler of my acquaintance is a real handful, and has managed to destroy or damage several hundred dollars worth of electrical equipment (fortunately most of it was repairable).

Others are quiet, curious but not overly-so, and seem content with examining computers without wishing to disassemble them to see how they work.

So my hypothesis in the great "Nature vs Nurture" debate is that some kids will excell, regardless of any environmental difficulty that besets them. Too poor to own books? They'll find a Library for themselves. School a dead loss? Well, they'll just get themselves an education despite the Teachers, outside of school hours.

Other children of equal potential ability require a more benign environment. One where there is a Social Reward for study. A society which looks up to and respects Scholarship, rather than one where material Wealth is the only route to respect. Without peer or parental pressure, they'll just go-with-the-flow, gaining "street smarts" but nothing else. And if the wealthiest, most respected people in the neighbourhood are the Crack dealers, then why should they be any different? (And by the way, don't disparage street-smarts. Those of us with a touch of Asperger's Syndrome have great difficulty reading people. Computers and Rocket Science is so much easier, take it from me... )

Nazi Propaganda Poster

All of these thoughts were inspired by a post I read over at Little Green Footballs, about how a section of the German "Peace" Movement is raising funds for the Ba'athist thugs in Iraq. You know, the people who not only kill US soldiers, but also Red Cross workers etc and generally try to make everyone as poor as possible so they can regain power. The Ba'ath, or to give it its official title, the Arab National Socialist Party.

My immediate reaction was "Ah, the Germans keeping up the fine old tradition of National Socialism". I was reminded of a poster I'd quoted in an earlier post on this blog. The one that reads "Check the Warmongers of the World". It seems apt for this new German National Socialist "Peace" movement. Then I thought about it for a while. You see, I spent about 5 years working in Germany, at Atlas Electronik GmbH. I should be the last person to engage in even midly racist German-bashing. I really enjoyed my time there, I met a lot of people who I both liked personally and had immense professional respect for. I liked Bremen.

And yet... Bremen is a nice place, but there was something missing. It took me a while to figure it out. Eventually, it was a memorial near Domsheide ( Cathedral Heath ), near the statue of Roland by the Schnoorviertel (Schnoor quarter - a remnant of Medieval Bremen) that clued me in. It was to a group of Bremers who had been beaten to death on that spot for the crime of being Jewish. What was missing were the Synagogues, the Kosher Delicatessens and Butcheries, a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that had been lost, maiming the whole social body.

In the 30's the German Nation and People had gone mad, and blown their own brains out. Even the late-and-unlamented Dr Haber, who did so much to ensure that Prussia was able to first use Poison Gas in World War One, had been persecuted for being a Jew. A large slice of the Doctors, Intellectuals, Scientists and Engineers in Germany had been ... liquidated. Converted to Soap, Lampshades, and Soot. But how come so many of the Best and Brightest were Jewish?

That led me to think about what it means to be a Jew. I'm not a Red Sea pedestrian myself (though with one Jewish Great-Grandmother I may well have qualified for Auschwitz). I don't have the right to consider myself an heir to the victims of the Holocaust - except inasmuch as I'm a Human Being, just like them. But is Judaism a Religion? Yes, but I know several Israeli Jews who are convinced atheists. In fact, Atheism seems to be the norm for many. Is it a Race? I've met Jews who were "Black as the Ace of Spades" to use a very non-PC phrase, and others who were purebred Han Chinese. So that one can be discarded. Is it a Nationality? Perhaps.. but if so, it's separate from the state of Israel. There are plenty of Israeli Bedouins and Druze, and plenty more Jews who are anti-Zionists. Israel as a state did not exist from 70 AD to 1949 AD, but Judaism most certainly did.

One stereotype about Jews that from my own experience is more true than not is that they're Swots. Nerds. Not exactly teacher's pets, but more likely to get A's than D's. Now this may come from the tradition of Talmudaic disputation (much like the Jesuit tradition of acedemic excellence due to theological disputation). But I think it's more than that. Scholarship is admired in every Jewish tradition I'm aware of, be it the Kibutznik Socialist Atheist one, or the Ecstatic Ultra-Orthodox and Hassidic varieties.

The High School I went to had a large contingent of Jews - about 30% were absent during Jewish holidays. I spent many a happy hour at school in the Debating team (I was the token Goy), and in Germany, when I worked alongside a bunch of Israelis, I had a whale of a time discussing philosophy, religion, politics, science... Damn, I miss that.

And that's what brought me to the "Nature vs Nurture" bit. A kid who's got potential, yet not the somewhat abnormal ultra-curiousity of the compulsive learner will do best when put in such a Scholarship-admiring environment. The compulsive learner will do well in almost any circumstances, but even he (or she) will benefit, and certainly be a lot happier if it's not considered "weird" to want to stay up past midnight reading.

So there you have it - and possibly an insight into my somewhat rambling thought processes. It's not the number of neurons, it's the richness of the connections.

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