Tag Archives: John Derbyshire

Review of “Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream,” by John Derbyshire

Mr. Derbyshire admits to sharing many of his narrator’s thoughts. The author, too, becomes obsessed with “dead thinkers” from time to time. His latest is Bellini, the 19th-century composer of opera, which is one of Mr. Derbyshire’s passions and the subject of his next novel.
The New York Times

Try to kill it all away,
but I remember everything.
What have I become,
my sweetest friend?
– Johnny Cash, “Hurt

I’ve read through all the reviews of Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream I could find. I think my impressions of it are different from theirs. Because I read it an order different from theirs.

John Derbyshire’s “Bellini” novel, teased in the New York Times review of Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream, is Fire from the Sun. Calling it a “Bellini” novel is like mentionin that Ayn Rand’s follow-up to Night of January 16th (The Fountainhead) was going to be about architecture.

The difference between Rand and Derbyshire, though is that Rand is an idealistic and ideologue who presents a pathway to an ideal society. Derbyshire’s view of life is less romatantic:

I can remember being profoundly shocked, around age 25, reading James Boswell’s London Diaries, the bit where Bozzy encounters a very old aristocrat and asks him whether, looking back on life, he can discern any pattern or purpose to it. No, says the old boy, it has all been “a chaos of nothing.” I’m not quite ready to agree with that, but it doesn’t shock me any more, not at all. Perhaps the old nobleman was right.

Fire from the Sun is about two Chinese immigrants, Weilan and Yuezhu, who experience that chaos of nothing. Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream seems to revolve around the same two characters, with only minor changes in their back-stories, lead less chaotic (and less meaningful?) lives. But instead of the sweep of history — instead of a book I described as “Heartbreaking. Inspiring. Moving. One-thousand pages.” — in this earlier iteration the characters star in a quite clever domestic comedy.

Think of the characters of Schindler’s List. In the UK version of The Office.

(For the curious, most American sitcoms can be classified as “domestic comedies.” All feature the adventures of a male lead who desires to get up to mischief, and a more intelligent female lead who appears to be walked all over, but in fact controls the unfolding of events. The Big Bang Theory, Family Guy, and The Simpsons, are examples of domestic comedies. It was fascinating to read this set-up in book form though, especially this well done.)

I also learned a lot about Calvin Coolidge — or at least more than I did before! — from this short novel.

I read Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream in hardback. I bought my copy from Barnes & Noble, but it is also available from Amazon.com.

Go-Up or Go-Next?

The idea that there are two cultures in academic life, a culture focused on the humanities and another on science, is not a new one. The famous “Two Cultures” lecture is more than fifty years old, and Brother Guy Consolmagno identifies instances of the two cultures in medieval Catholic Europe in his book of adventures.

Jason Lee Steorts, a writer for the National Review Online, defended NRO’s dismissal of John Derbyshire, demonstrates that by criticizing Derbyshire’s controversial article for being hypocritical. In 2012, Derbyshire writes in paragraph 4:

The default principle in everyday personal encounters is, that as a fellow citizen, with the same rights and obligations as yourself, any individual black is entitled to the same courtesies you would extend to a nonblack citizen. That is basic good manners and good citizenship. In some unusual circumstances, however—e.g., paragraph (10h) below—this default principle should be overridden by considerations of personal safety.

While two years previously, in a speech on race relations, he said

Group differences are statistical truths. They exist in an abstract realm quite far removed from our everyday personal experience. They tell you nothing about the person you just met.

This would be hypocracy, unless you believe the fundemental principles of statistics have undergone a revolution in the past two years. Which, of course, they have.


There are two ways of understanding statistics. The terms “Frequentist” and “Probabilistic” are thrown around here, but to me those words are more confusing than helpful. So I will call them the go-up and go-next views of statistics.

The Go-Up view of statistics is that statistics measures the population from which an observation comes from. The appropriate way to go-up is to wait until you have a sufficient number of observations. and then generalize about the population from our observations. This is the method that Derbyshire was describing in 2010. A large number of observations of academic performance show consistent gaps between black and white learners. Because we’re “going-up” from observations to populations, we can conclude some things about the population, and how outcomes in the population should work-out over all, but it makes no sense to try to predict any given student’s success based on this. We’re going-up, not going-next.

The Go-Next view of statistics is that statistics gives us the likelihood of something being true, based on what has come before. In Go-Next statistics, population-averages are besides the point. What matters is guessing what’s going to happen, next, based on what you’ve seen before. The whole point is to guess what’s going to work for individuals you know only a few things about, based on your experience with other individuals who shared some things with the new strangers.

Both the Go-Up and Go-Next interpretations of statistics are hundreds of years old. Go-Up statisitcs strikes many as more beautiful. Go-Next as, perhaps, more practical, more commercial, more technical. Astronomers use go-up statistics. Weathermen use go-next statistics.

The Internet changed everything.


Academics pay attention to reality. Professors, like most people, respond to the incentives of power, influence, and money. Companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and my employer do not care much about abstract ideas like “What can we infer about internet users in general based on the observations we collect.” Instead, they care, very, very deeply, about making you delighted. Because people will spend money to be delighted.

When you log onto your Facebook screen, or type a search into Google, or click the genius buttons in iTunes, you want it to just work. You want the perfect update, the perfect site, the perfect song. Advertisers want the perfect ad for you.

In this context, the view of statistics that Derbyshire outlined in 2010:

Group differences are statistical truths. They exist in an abstract realm quite far removed from our everyday personal experience. They tell you nothing about the person you just met.

Is just stupid. Facebook doesn’t care about the group differences between men and women. It cares that when you log in, it can give you an update from your favorite sports team, or gossip from your favorite celebrity, or whatever. Never before in history has so much math been used to make you happy.

It’s all about you.

It’s all about guessing, based on what has come before, what’s best for you.

It’s all about guessing, based on prior observations, who you are, what you will do, and what you will like.

These major companies have been hiring those with statistical literacy very heavily for more than a decade. Professors, who seek, money, fame, and power, know what these large potential sources of money, fame, and power want, and teach their products — their students –accordingly.

The superstructure of science changes as the infrastructure of the economy changes. The Go-Next philosophy of statistics, once the peasant stepchild of the serene Go-Up interpretation, now reigns supreme.

The unfolding victory of Go-Next Statistics matters much, much more than, say, the Copernican Revolution. The number of people whose daily conversations were actually impacted by Copernicus may have been a few dozen, all involved in the Papal-Academic complex.

How many times a day does Facebook’s decision of which news to share impact you?

How many times a day does Google’s decision of what sites to show impact you?

How many times a day does your iPod’s decision of what music to play impact you?


Now, back to Derbyshire.

Mr. Derbyshire was born in 1945. His training is in Go-Up statistics. It took a complete revolution in statistics to change his view of it. That view clearly changed in the last 2 years.

We’ve all lived thru the revolution of Go-Next statistics. Derbyshire realizes it. Steorts, clearly, does not.

There are two cultures of knowledge, the humanities and the sciences. Part of Derbyshire’s intention of writing “The Talk – Nonblack Version” appears to have been to highlight this. If so, I think he succeeded.

Some Notes on the Development of Our Species

In recent days there has been a bru-haha in the conservative blogosphere as a result of Rich Lowry dismissing John Derbyshire from his position as a writer for National Review Online. The occasion was an controversial article on race relations written by Mr. Derbyshire.

The fight is basically political. Rich Lowry is associated with the Catholic, classically-establishment Establishment, wing of the conservative moment. John Derbyshire is associated with the atheist, scientifically-educated, insurgent wing of the conservative movement.

I want to talk about this in some upcoming posts, but as the occasion for the fight relates to the science of human origins, I thought I would share a brief history of our species. Much is tentative and subject to possible revision, but this should provide some context to the discussion. (As both Catholics and atheists tend to view Creationism derisively, this should not be controversial, either).

Around six million years ago, the ancestors of human beings, chimpanzees, and bonobos (“dwarf chimps”) were part of the same ancestral population. As the modern populations feature behaviors such as murder, suicide, warfare, terrorism, bisexuality, care for the injured, tool making, and purposeful deception, it seems sensible that the ancient population from which humans, chimps, and bonobos derive did, too.

The three populations began to diverge after an environmental catastrophe associated with a shift in the Congo River. This catastrophe also impacted gorillas. Chimps evolved in an area where they were in competition with gorillas. They became the most interpersonally vicious of the populations. Bonobos evolved in a forested environment without gorillas. They became the most interpersonally peaceful. Our ancestors seem to have left the forest to compete with wild hogs in the woodlands.

As the old saying goes, “Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Only pigs treat us as equals.”

While our ancestral population remained small in absolute terms, their ability to move in woodlands allowed them to spread out over much of Africa.

Humans slowly evolved. The general trend appears to have been an increase in absolute size (important for woodland competition), a decrease in sexual dimorphism (a not-fully-understood development that may have been cause by an increase willingness of human “betas” to murder “alphas” for perceived unjust behavior), and a darkening of skin color (chimps and bonobos both have white skin). These trends continued until all human populations were larger than bonobo or chimp populations, all human populations featured a smaller relative size difference between males and females than any bonobo or chimp population, and all human populations had brown-to-black skin tone.

Ancestral humans left Africa in multiple waves. Different waves were adapted to different conditions. Finally, hundreds of thousands of years ago, all of Eurasia was patrolled by human populations. Three important ones were Neanderthals (based in Europe and west Eurasia), “Peking Men,” (based in Asia), and Anatomically Modern Humans (based in Africa and the Near East). These populations overlapped in the way that other megafauna do.

All modern populations derive from some combination of these ancient populations. All modern populations appear to be primarily descended from Anatomically Modern Humans. Europeans contain a measurable degree of Neanderthal admixture. Asian populations contains measurable degrees of Peking Men admixture. African populations appear to be exclusively descended from Anatomically Modern Humans.

Some time after the mixture-and-replacement of other populations with Anatomically Modern Humans and their hybrid descendents, Behaviorally Modern Humans emerged in the Near East. The oldest cities, such as Jericho, are older than agriculture. From this is seems clear that the major advantage of Behaviorally Modern Humans against ancient populations was the ability to live in large coordinated groups, or “eusociality.” Behaviorally Modern Humans appear to be about as eusocial as ants or bees.

The eusociality of Behaviorally Modern Humans allowed them to develop caste systems of leaders, warriors, and slaves, just like other eusocial animals. With the advent of slavery farming became possible, and with the advent of a distinct military caste (that is, the first gradient of modern warfare) military campaigns became possible.

Behaviorally Modern Humans created a new form of war in which a military caste, led by a leadership caste and fed by a farmer caste, would invade neighboring communities, exterminate males and children, and rape and impregnate females. This led to rapid hybridization and spread, such that Behaviorally Modern Humans soon replaced nearly all Anatomically Modern Human communities.

Resource competition between Behaviorally Modern Human societies led to an increase in the rate of human evolution. Humans have evolved more in the past 10,000 years than in any other 10,000 year period of our species.

Traits in which there is a ‘correct’ number of expressions are soon fixed in a population. Humans have 2 eyes, 1 nose, and 10 fingers, for example.Traits which are generally unimportant (or are basically social traits which exist in some equilibrium) follow a normal distribution. General intelligence, time-orientation, and the five factors of personality follow normal distributions. From this we can conclude that for most of our accelerated period of evolution, there was no ‘right’ amount of these traits to have.

These traits are both inherited and culturally transmitted. It makes no sense to talk of ‘nature vs. nurture.’ Our cultural environment determines how these inherited traits are expressed. A better phrase might be “nature via nurture.”

Human populations differ in terms of the averages in these traits. For instance, newborn (1 day old) Chinese are more afraid of strangers (more “introverted”) than newborn Kenyans. Likewise, there is variation within these populations. There is more variation within populations than between population. There are, for example, a very many extroverted Chinese, and a very many introverted Kenyans. People talk of differences in “averages,” but this is a misleading way to talk. The difference between the 50th percentile and the 53rd percentile in extroversion, for example, is likely to be barely noticeable.

Rather, average differences matter in the extremes. If you take 1,000 random Kenyans and 1,000 random Chinese, and you take the top 20 of that group of 2,000 in terms of extroversion, that top 20 will be overwhelmingly Kenyan. Likewise, if you take the top 20 in terms of introversion, that 20 will be overwhelmingly Chinese.

Approximately 2,000 years ago, the leadership caste of China undertook a massive reorganization of society to reduce the military caste to peony and to establish a “Civil Government.” This was the greatest cultural revolution in human affairs since the invention of agricultural slavery 8,000 years previously. Through a trial-and-error process, the Chinese leadership class eliminated the centers of powers of the military caste and replaced it with a standing civil service supported by secured property owners. While the new system naturally attracted barbarian predators, the cultural transformation proved imperious to counter-revolution. Within a millennial the system was being tentatively mimicked from London to Edo.

The emergence of Behaviorally Modern Humans led to an unprecedented acceleration in human evolution. The creation of Civil Government had a likewise world-altering impacted. Society under the Civil Government was strongly downwardly-mobile. It was nearly impossible to improve one’s lot in society, but very easy to make foolish decisions that reduced one to rags. Every generation the foolish would lose property, and poor would starve to death, and the healthy children of the survivors acquired the survival traits of higher general intelligence and longer time orientation.

The increase in the concentration of wealth enabled by Civil Government allowed the new societies to invest massive resources in exploration efforts, in search of further resources to exploit and extract. World-historical empires such as Britain, France, Spain, the Ottoman Empire, and the Great Ming wrecked destruction on their backwards cousins. The mobilizations for war of these societies, and the increase efficiencies of Civil Government, led to greater and greater demand for labor (that is, surplus of capital). The Great Ming solved this by creating the most effective sanitation system in the world, allowing organic population increase to meet its needs. The Ottoman Empire solved this issue through enslaving neighboring populations. The Western European Civil Governments (which had missed out on the economies of scale that come from creating a secure geographic core) established a “triangle trade” that relied on tenuous geographic centers in Europe, Africa, and the Americas to supply their capital, labor, and natural resources requirements, respectively.

The geographically diverse, scattershot nature of the European empires meant that they (unlike Near Eastern, central Eurasian, or East Asian societies) experienced regular sociogenetic shocks. The Western European Civil Governments found that their African client states controlled land that was inhospitable to Europeans, largely because of genetic adaptations against malaria possessed by West Africans but not Europeans. Likewise, the living conditions established by the Central Governments in the New World proved inhospitable to the native populations there. Likewise, the Civil Governments encouraged different groups to settle in different areas, such that (for example) the Yankee core of the future United States was settled by English who had experienced more rapid downward mobility than the Scotch-Irish who settled the future southeastern united States.

This all goes to say that the New World may exhibit the most human diversity on the planet, close only to Africa. The more settled and stable populations of Eurasia, by contrast, are comparatively monocultural with limited genetic diversity.

Americans use the term “race relations” to refer to the cultural and genetic human diversity in their midst. Unsurprisingly, both the cultural and genetic pathways of the populations that settled in the United States remain relevant, often in unexpected ways. Anyone with a naive understanding of psychometric methods would expect East Asians and Western Europeans to have a disproportionate share of wealth in the United States, and of course they do. Who could have expected, however, that much of African-American culture would be a hybrid of west Africa with the highlands of Scotland? Talk of historical contingency!

It is with this context that John Derbyshire wrote his article on Taki Magazine. Every point Derbyshire makes is predictable if one assumes he is writing of a population that did not experience rapid downward mobility in historic times that spent centuries under the leadership of a different population with a different appearence but a similar pre-Civil Government ethic.

To put it slightly less obtusely, John Derbyshire wrote an article describing personal safety in the presence of the descendents of West Africans whose ancestors were controlled by the Scotch-Irish.

To put it even more plainly, Derbyshire wrote about blacks and violence.

And that is why he is no longer employed.