A Season of Naughty Books

February 06, 2014

Multiple Pages
A Season of Naughty Books

The university I attended was (and still is) in west-central London. A fifteen-minute walk from the main campus got you to Tottenham Court Road tube station, with Charing Cross Road heading off to the south toward the theater district and the National Gallery.

I was not much of a theater- or gallery-goer, but I did love books, and Charing Cross Road meant bookstores. The first half-mile, down to Leicester Square and somewhat beyond, was lined with bookstores (including this one). The legendary Foyles, halfway down on the right, was the biggest and best known, but there were many others, with all kinds of specialties.

That included some naughty specialties. Charing Cross Road is the eastern boundary of Soho, still grungily bohemian at that time. I am speaking here of the remote past: the last days of the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who said: “…we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty”; and also the last days of the prime ministership of Harold Macmillan, who said: “If people want a sense of purpose they should get it from their archbishop. They should certainly not get it from their politicians.” I’m on Supermac‘s side of that difference…but hey, to-may-to, to-mah-to, and I digress.

“My interest in naughty books has continued to the present day, although the definition of ‘naughty’ has gone through some changes.“

Please don’t think it was only the naughty books that interested me. I’m bookish, always have been, and I cast my net wide. Still, as a geeky 18-year-old provincial lad alone in the metropolis in an era when nice girls’ knickers were made of steel-reinforced asbestos, the naughty books had a natural appeal. I confess I purchased several. There was a lot to learn. You think the “trans” business just came up yesterday? Around the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, I was the owner—not the proud owner, just the owner—of a racy photo-biography of Coccinelle.

My interest in naughty books has continued to the present day, although the definition of “naughty” has gone through some changes. I mention this because we seem to be in a season of naughty books this winter-spring of 2014.

So at the weekend I was reading the scandalized review in The Economist of Greg Clark’s forthcoming (February 23rd) book The Son Also Rises. Clark is an economic historian, or a historical economist, originally from Scotland but now teaching at UC Davis. His new book is about social mobility. What determines it?

Genes, that’s what. Social mobility, says Clark (says the reviewer—I haven’t yet seen the book) is driven by social competence—a highly heritable trait. The world is apparently a pretty fair place. People don’t get ahead much by luck or chicanery, but by being capable, and capability travels on the genes.

Hence The Economist‘s scandalized reaction:

One inescapable judgment is, as Mr Clark says, that “a completely meritocratic society would most likely also be one with limited social mobility.” He does not say that American blacks are poor because they are black. His work implies, however, that poor blacks remain so because they are descended from people with low social competence; discrimination is irrelevant, except to the extent that it limits intermarriage with other groups. “The Son Also Rises” may not be a racist book, but it certainly traffics in genetic determinism.

Genetic determinism—eek! The Economist, in case you are not familiar with the magazine, cleaves unerringly to the absolutist see-no-genes, hear-no-genes, speak-no-genes model of human nature favored—indeed, angrily insisted upon—by all our liberal-arts, economics, and law-school elites.

A few weeks later in publication date— gives May 6th—will come the latest from Old Etonian polymath and New York Times human-sciences reporter Nicholas Wade: A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History.

The most provocative claims in this book involve the genetic basis of human social habits. What we might call middle-class social traits—thrift, docility, nonviolence—have been slowly but surely inculcated genetically within agrarian societies, Wade argues.

I should very much like to get advance galleys of Wade’s book for review here at Taki’s Magazine, but the literary editors I’ve pleaded with tell me that publishers don’t do galleys anymore, so I must wait until they’ve got the thing bound up and ready for sale.

Wade’s book is ahead of Clark’s. Behind Clark, published last December 23, is Race and Sex Differences in Intelligence and Personality: A Tribute to Richard Lynn at Eighty. This one I have read: The publishers were kind enough to send me a copy. The book’s first chapter is a Q&A with Lynn; the other 14 chapters are essays by various scholars on topics where Lynn has done significant work.

Lynn is a cheerful Englishman with a very long career in psychometry: He graduated from Cambridge University in 1953. What is generally called the Flynn Effect—the overall rise in IQ scores across the 20th century—was earlier spotted by Lynn and is more formally called the Lynn-Flynn Effect. Later he collaborated with Finnish psychometrist Tatu Vanhanen on IQ and the Wealth of Nations.

All three of these books are very naughty indeed—naughtier, relative to our dominant social attitudes, than anything available in 1963 Soho. The topics they discuss are radioactive. “Discrimination is irrelevant”? “Middle-class social traits…inculcated genetically”? “Race and sex differences in intelligence and personality”? Good grief! Pass the smelling salts, Lucy.
However, as with the stock of low-end Charing Cross Road bookstores fifty years ago, the topics dealt with here are of wide, if guilty, interest. How much social mobility would there be in a perfectly meritocratic society? How has human genetics helped shape human history? Why are some nations richer and more orderly than others? Every thoughtful person has pondered these things at some point. Why not find out what has been learned by scholars who have spent their lives elbow-deep in the data? I predict good sales.

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