Back by Popular Demand


One of the interesting things about the growing enthusiasm for transgenerational epigenetics – the kind where your grandfather was poor or discriminated against which somehow makes you terrible at algebra today, except not if you’re Korean – is that it has been bottom-up.  It has not been driven by convincing experimental results – of course there haven’t been any.  Instead, it was an idea that appealed: more and more people in certain circles talked about it, convinced each other by the most powerful of all arguments (“Wouldn’t it be nice if ?”) and that eventually drove bullshit experiments and publications.  Looking at Google’s Ngram Viewer, it looks as if this particular mental fungus sprouted around 2003.

There may have been a particular article or book that started this wave of nonsense, but I haven’t found it yet. Even if there was, it only succeeded because the soil was fertile. It was a bad idea whose time had come.  One can understand some of the motivation: gaps persisted and persisted in spite of many costly interventions. It must have been frustrating.

Back in 1940, the Soviet powers that be wanted more wheat (and more dead kulaks, of course) .  Today, our most desired product is excuses.

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78 Responses to Back by Popular Demand

  1. j says:

    Lysenko’s argument was that science must serve politics. Maybe something changed in US politics that Lysenko’s approach is back.

  2. Maciano says:

    Actually, I know how I became familiar with it, there was a PBS docu “Ghost in your genes”, produced in 2005. Its central theme was epigenetics. It was a well-made interesting documentary with vivid examples. The case was based on the multigenerational effect of a Swedish famine in the 19th century.

    One researcher (Pembry) interviewed deduced from epigenetic research how you should be careful about smoking or getting fat, because you’re not the only one who’s impacted by the decision. They also made a big deal about pregnant mothers during 9/11 and how this cortisol shock event might trigger ADD type symptoms (or something like it) among the newborns.

  3. Problem with Swedish famines is that they led to a cornucopia of Swedish statistics. The data set is a maze of tricky adjustments. I gave up on it about 10 years ago, saying to myself “If there is anything in it then we will get better data out of the Dutch famine” (which as far as I know has not shown that effect, nor many very big effects.

  4. MawBTS says:

    Unlike Lysenkoism it’s hard to see the exact political motive behind epigenetics. Is “my genes were damaged before my birth” any less deterministic or any more fair than “my genes suck and always have”? It doesn’t seem that way to me.

    Maybe people like epigenetics because it seems sexy and hip, while regular genetics is the intellectual equivalent of dad rock.

    • Sarmange says:

      Epigenetics is the old dream of Homo Sovieticus; take away all harm from the society and coming generations will be lucky, intelligent (all at the same level of course) and well adjusted.

    • j says:

      MawBTS – Think again and you will see that defective genes are what in legalese is called Act of God or Force Majeure, with no human cause, while epigenetics can be attributed to human agency, that is bad social arrangements – famine, bad parental care, etc. that could be avoided by improved social policies. In other words, epigenetics opens a window of hope for turning Detroit into Shanghai.

      BTW, I was born about a year after my mother was liberated from Auschwitz with less than 40 kg. weight and my father also suffered severe trauma and famine during the war. I feel that I dont suffer from epigenetic damages nor any do other second generation Holocaust survivors and we have been exhaustively studied.

      • “In other words, epigenetics opens a window of hope for turning Detroit into Shanghai.”

        PGD already opens a window for that.

        The problem with that window is that it necessitates acknowledging that Bad People with Bad Ideology who Had To Be Defeated – people like Galton – were right the whole time.

        Is actually helping Detroiters worth an ideological setback?
        Bottom line: is it good for the Lewontins?

        Lysenko and his supporters worked tirelessly to have their ideological opponent, Vavilov, Watsoned and gulagged, where he rapidly died of exposure and disease. Vavilov’s work on genetically improved strains of wheat and barley was undermined and discarded, while Lysenko’s research on “vitrification” (a variant on epigenetics/Lamarkianism) was faked up with sociology-type research. Consequently, millions of Russians, mostly in Ukraine, died of starvation. And even as that starvation was ongoing, for years at a time, essentially no-one in Lysenko’s camp admitted that the geneticists had been completely right the whole time, or that the brave and noble Vavilov had been Watsoned. Lysenko could not be removed until Stalin (and the protection of Stalin’s steel fist) was gone, and probably left fingernail gouges on the frame of the office door when he was removed.

        It’s fortunate that we have the internet this time around. Because these guys will fight PGD every step of the way.

        • L says:

          There is only one hope for Detroit. His name is Robocop = )

          • Patrick Boyle says:

            Actually it’s relatively easy to resuscitate Detroit. We could begin tomorrow. it would only take a few signs and a couple security guards. Oh yes I forgot, an army of lawyers.

            The main problem we have domestically is that we have been going in the wrong direction for so long that we can’t admit that our policies have failed. If we just stopped digging deeper we could see the beginning of a turn around by Christmas.

            The Soviets had crop failures. We have city failures.

          • One can dream.

            The thing is, solving this via Tough Love is sadly as much a fantasy as solving it via epigenetics. Not because Tough Love wouldn’t do the job, but because we have lost the capacity for robocopping. Even our infusion of tough East Asians has acquired our liberalisms by the third generation.

            Meanwhile, PGD is doable. After we fight for it, and defeat the Lysenko school.

        • Janon says:

          There aren’t enough jobs for the moderately smart people we already have, and many middle class and upper middle class jobs are likely to be automated within the next 20 to 50 years. At best, wouldn’t your proposal likely produce more unemployed or underemployed moderately smart people?

          • I agree that replacing epigenetics-treatments with treatments that actually work would not solve everything.

            Yet, solving many-but-not-all things is better than expensively solving no things.

            A world where PGD’ed Detroiters perhaps still are somewhat superfluous to the high-tech sector, but at least don’t induce loathing and flight wherever they go, and are able to create and participate in loving and safe communities, is a vastly improved world – not least for the Detroiters themselves. And compassion is reason enough to do it, just as it was reason enough for our predecessors a hundred or two years ago.

            Outliers aside… as a group, for better or worse, we don’t have it in us to callously stand by. Just how it is, it’s uplift or bust.

          • William O. B'Livion says:

            There are more jobs out there than most people think, and the smarter you are the more work there is.

            The problem is there isn’t enough “high paying” work for high school dropouts that isn’t dirty, strenuous or dangerous, and none of it’s high-status.

    • setstamov says:

      “Unlike Lysenkoism it’s hard to see the exact political motive” -you mean that USA 2015 and USSR 1940 differ ideologically so much that they need different motives – or different kind of demagogy for the same politics? The motive is to empower the bottom 25% of the society and use them as a muscle power against the middle 75% -which are presented as “oppressors” by the top 1% in their small slide show, dedicated to both enrage and inspire the bottom 25%. While self advertised as “worker’s republic”, USSR was run entirely by a third-world intelligentsia, with no single worker presented in the politburo or in the governing class. In order to step in the shoes of the managerial class and nobility as a state ruler, russian small-time intelligentsia used marxist ideology (with all its epigenetics) as a tool and worker’s class as a muscle power – they needed someone to do the dirty job (dismissing the kulaks and whoever’s needed, 80-100 millions with the collaterals from the wars in total, I think) in the process . Lenin was aristocrat and Stalin was aspiring poet and priest, dropped out from Tbilisi Parish School. No single “worker” in politburo – only aristocrats and third class urban intelligentsia turned state managers after dumping the “kulaks”. But the workers disappointed them -they were dreaming about becoming middle class owners themselves, not about dying heroically in a world revolution – so it seems that the US intelligentsia picked another favorite for its own project – the minorities (all kinds – racial, ethnic, sexual etc.) are the new “oppressed”, that cultural marxists will “save”. It seems that minorities entered the shoes that marxists once assigned to the workers class – the oppressed, to whom the future belongs. Just wait to have their brains nourished and unshrunk .

      So what is the objective of the cultural marxists and their awkward epigenetic agenda in, say, Nature? The power, of course. Some actors are different and methods are more refined. But objectives stay same. Do cultural marxist care about things like science and epigenetics, what would they say or what would they write on the topic? No way. As long as it serves the objectives. Smart people like the authors of Nature’s article can smell that.
      Lissenko is both mediocre pseudoscientist, making excuse for his own mediocrity by the hypothetical malnourishment of his parents – and thus giving redemption to myriads of people like him among the ruling commies and at the same time a clever guy who knows that his “discoveries” must go in alignment with the principles of marxist ideology – otherwise there will be no career for him. Funny to see him reincarnated in 21st century America, guided by the same drives and going the same paths as once.

      Appologies to the blog owner for the unnecessarily long post.

    • Jim says:

      You’re right. It’s a ittle strange that leftist are attracted by it. They usually like optimistic theoreis indicating that with a little more spending on social engineering utopia is just around the corner. Stress induced genetic damage inherited by one’s descendents is really a pretty gloomy theory.

      • gcochran9 says:

        It’s not a real theory, like saying that the wet spot on the kitchen floor is caused by a hole in the roof. All the implications of a real theory are taken seriously (like that hole in the roof will make it cold in the winter). In this kind of pseudo-theory, only the implications that you like exist.

        • Jim says:

          Yes, it doesn’t seem to occur to them that if inherited genetic damage is the problem then why expect that more spending on pre-K will fix that up.

        • Immigrant from former USSR says:

          In 1964, physicist Andrei Sakharov spoke out
          against Lysenko in the General Assembly of the Academy of Sciences:
          He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular,
          for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism,
          for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists. Source:

          At the same Assembly another physicist successfully persuaded the audience of members of Academy in falsity of Lysenko’s statements (epygenetics in modern terms) by giving this example:
          “For more than 3 millennia almost all Jewish boys were circumscribed.
          Still the science has not reported about even a single boy that was born already circumscribed.”

          • Discard says:

            “Circumcised”, not “circumscribed”. To circumscribe is to draw (scribe) a line around something.

          • Immigrant from former USSR says:

            Thank you, Discard. Sorry for wrong word.
            Not being myself “circumcised”, I was not sure about the spelling.
            I knew original story in Russian language.
            Confused with definition by military, what ellipse is (joke):
            “Ellipse is a circle, inscribed into a square 3 by 4.”

      • BurplesonAFB says:

        There’s a growing cynicism as evidence piles up that those social programs have no positive effect on long term outcomes, which is why the turn to Lysenkoism has been so enthusiastically supported. We’re just not intervening early enough. As Steve Sailer puts it “the race to 9 months prenatal”

        The prescription is the same though: We need to intervene drastically and expensively to fix the problem, after which the underclass will go on to act just like your accountant does.

    • Anonymous says:

      Some people like it because they assume that the damage could be undone in subsequent generations (somehow). But even if we treat this as impossible and suppose that epigenetics and stress have cursed the affected lineages into perpetuity, there would still be a political motive: white guilt.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      It’s a retreat position from blank slate so the reason for it is what caused the retreat i.e. the other argument winning.

      And that was inevitable as soon as the impact of genetics on medical treatment became obvious enough because although the ideologue wing of PC could ignore the potentially massive health benefits the “nice” liberal wing couldn’t

      (and nor could the billionaires standing to gain an extra ten, twenty years from the research into genetically tailored medicine).

      • “Genetics” started gaining impact before “epigenetics”; people like it because it’s believed to give some wiggle room. I also think it’s an attractive idea to many because it combines a sort of story-telling aspect to one’s background, and most modern people believe that their background has no bearing to their current life (“what does it matter, how does it really affect ME,” etc).

        There’s a silent understanding that people are screwier or sicker than usual, and that’s a population looking for answers, even if they’re wrong answers. I’ve heard that psychoanalysis only gained mainstream acceptance after WWII, because it seemed likely that experiences could radically affect a personality, and it seemed to work.

        • ^ I put “genetics” in quotes because I don’t think most people know how they work, and then the “epigenetics” comes in because it seems sort of how one could give birth to a werewolf if the full moon is out, or somebody looked at them funny.

  5. setstamov says:

    According to Ngram viewer ( the first to employ “epigenetics” is C. H. Waddington in 1952; (from wikipedia): “C. H. Waddington(8 November 1905 – 26 September 1975) was a British developmental biologist, paleontologist, geneticist, embryologist and philosopher who laid the foundations for systems biology. He had wide interests that included poetry and painting, as well as left-wing political leanings. In his book The Scientific Attitude (1941), he touched on political topics such as central planning and praised marxism as a “profound scientific philosophy”.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      “he touched on political topics such as central planning and praised marxism as a “profound scientific philosophy”.”

      What a surprise. Locate a stupid destructive theory, dig deep enough, and sooner or later you’ll unearth a long-dead commie…

  6. Anonymous says:

    You are clearly talking about environmentally influenced transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, for which the evidence in humans is slim (although very rare cases of Prader-Willi Syndrome, or other abnormalities of parent-specific imprinting, could possibly be transgenerational).

    However, your N gram is for just epigenetics, which is a real thing. It is not pseudoscience.

    Real people have disorders caused by the lack of expression of genes, for which they have a perfectly good copy just sitting there, epigenetically silenced.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I’m pretty sure that popular nonsense, rather than scientific usage, dominates those Ngram numbers.

    • Beyond Anon says:

      Real people have disorders caused by the lack of expression of genes, for which they have a perfectly good copy just sitting there, epigenetically silenced.

      So what is the mechanism of that silencing? You know, what is it that knows to silence just those genes, and in the case of sex-of-origin silencing, when does it occur and how?

      • Anonymous says:

        If you are interested, then read the Wikipedia page about genomic imprinting. Also look up Prader-Willi Syndrome and Angelman Syndrome. These different disorders can be caused by a deletion of the same chromosome region, but which one depends on whether it comes from the mother or the father.

  7. sirtyrionlannister says:

    “The kind where your grandfather was poor or discriminated against which somehow makes you terrible at algebra today”

    I don’t know how quantify the variability in the IQ response to either enriched or impoverished environmental conditions. I guess cognitive abilities are mainly correlated to individual genetic background, and less influenced by environmental factors. But sure some of these influences are mediated by epigenetic mechanisms.

    I’d say that some of the technologies for quantitating identify DNA methylation variable positions (MVPs) and histones, and about interactions between distant sections of chromatin are evolving quickly, for example keep in mind “The roadmap Epigenomics Project”, which has a package of papers researching on functional regulatory elements in genomes that have been obtained from human tissue samples and cell lines:


    DNA methylation is only one among dozens of epigenetic mechanisms that alters the gene expression states or genetic messages in cells and tissues. The epigenome is an ever-changing, ever-evolving entity; there being potentially as many epigenomes as cells or tissues within a single organism, depending on the micro-environmental contexts.

    My main point is that I think there is far more potential wins in this alternate approach, especially considering how we know that epigenetic profiles can be changed with lifestyle choices and drug interventions. If we better understand how the evolving epigenetic map interacts with the genetic landscape, this would represent a huge new target for improving our ability to diagnose and treat disease.

    • JayMan says:

      What changes the “epigenome”?

      • sirtyrionlannister says:

        The best known epigenetic modifications occur on the regulation of embryonic stem cell (80.5 % of all CpG sites are methylated in a newborn). Moreover global DNA methylation pattern changes with age, reaching the maximum in adolescence, stabilizing at age of 25 (77.8% methylated). While individuals over 50 show a decreased DNA methylation.

        It may occur as a consequence of environmental factors (eating certain diets, being exposed to pollutants, drugs, stress, can change methylation patterns) and aging, and result from interactions with the altered immune pathways (see Francis Collins, Manolis Kellis, Wolf Reik, John Stamatoyannopoulos, Anshul Kundaje,etc)

  8. Greying Wanderer says:

    “Looking at Google’s Ngram Viewer, it looks as if this particular mental fungus sprouted around 2003. There may have been a particular article or book that started this wave of nonsense, but I haven’t found it yet.”

    Other way round imo. Epigenetics is a retreat position so the genetic argument must have started winning around 2003.

    • I am persuaded that you are correct that this is a retreat position. That would suggest it is temporary, but another equally pernicious idea could spring up quickly.

      • gcochran9 says:

        I don’t really think it is, but I could be wrong.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        “That would suggest it is temporary”

        Yes although “temporary” can last decades if the people supporting it have all the power.

        I think the key factor will be medicine. If tailored medicine is destined to become a very big thing – which I think it will – then both goodie types (who might otherwise oppose genetic research on other grounds) and billionaires will want it.

        • gcochran9 says:

          Tailored medicine is economically infeasible.

          • Peter Lund says:

            So were pocket supercomputers.

            • gcochran9 says:

              Do I have to spell out everything? Phase III trials cost a lot: if the targeted users are a small subset of the general population, it’ll never pay.

              If we could freely use slaves and POWs in medical experiments, and each of them cost a quarter, it would still be unaffordable, because we’d have to feed them and pay for the procedures and examinations.

              The only way you could have individualized medicine would be if you had a complete predictive theory of human biochemistry and physiology: in practice, that would mean an accurate computer simulation
              that showed what the outcomes (short-term and long-term) of the drug or procedure would be, over years of pseudo (but incredibly realistic) life. In-silico , fast-forwarded humans for use in trials.

  9. teageegeepea says:

    You guys have referenced Greg Clark’s work on intergenerational mobility (and “moxie”), so I wondered what you thought of this critique.

  10. Robert Ford says:

    I simply feel compelled to post this now

    Professor Robin Allshire

  11. Romain Sato says:

    Epigenetic Stress:

    Female Brain Maintained by Methylation:

    Do Fetal Androgens Affect Human Sexual Orientation?:

    Jumping Genes in the Brain Ensure That Even Identical Twins Are Different:

    Click to access 201203.pdf

    Disputing Lamarckian epigenetic inheritance in mammals:

    Click to access s13059-015-0626-0.pdf

  12. mindfuldrone says:

    Greg, you own university website has extensive material on epigenetics. I’m not sure what the issue is–epigenetics is just another way of saying “adaptation” isnt it?

    • candid_observer says:

      But think a little bit about the contexts in which epigenetics is brought up these days — namely, to explain poor performance, or depression, or other negative traits in certain people or groups of people. What can possibly be the evolutionary advantage to such negative traits? Why would organisms which perpetuated negative traits across generations possibly have an advantage over organisms which didn’t? Why wouldn’t any such capacity, if it existed, be eliminated over the eons?

    • gcochran9 says:

      Nope. Look, I shouldn’t have to explain this to you. But for some mysterious reason I will anyhow. Look, essentially every cell has the same DNA, but skin cells act differently from brain cells. When skin cells reproduce, they produce more skin cells. There are chemical modifications to DNA (methylation, for example) that make a skin cell act like a skin cell, and those modifications are passed on when skin cells divide to make more skin cells.

      However, when a new organism is created, these epigenetic modifications are reset to the standard zygotic values. Things that happened to the previous generation don’t change the genetics of the next generation. You could cut a cat’s tail off, but her kittens will have tails. You could brand her, but the brand won’t show up in the next generation. Somatic injuries are not transmitted to the next generation. You could put that cat on a treadmill and build up her muscles, but her kittens will not have those built-up muscles. You could teach her to use the toilet and even flush it, but her offspring won’t know how unless you teach them too. Memories are not transmitted to the next generation. Lamarck thought that this kind of thing drove adaptation: but he was wrong.

      So how do we get adaptation? As far as we know, that involves random genetic changes. Some do little, some cause harm, a few give an advantage. Over a long time, cats change in ways that better fit them to their environment, because the genetic accidents that work well increase and those that don’t decrease. The ultimate sources of those changes are mutations, not cutting off the tail.

      There are rare cases in mammals in which the epigenetic states are not properly reset in the next generation: most famous example is agouti mice. There are not many known cases and most seem to involve recent genetic insertions.

      OK: in recent years, liberals have spontaneously convinced themselves that various groups that do poorly in school do so because someone cut their ancestors’ tails off. We even see a few, never-replicated articles from people of that sort claiming that teaching mice to fear a particular chemical can make their descendants fear that chemical: which is a lie, of course.

      They are increasingly fans of a kind of retarded Lamarckianism. Lamarck imagined that a giraffe straining to reach a higher branch somehow had offspring with longer necks. The new version is apparently there just to fuck you up: if bad things happened to your grandparents, makes you dumb. And with strange qualifications: this doesn’t apply if you’re Chinese. In that case, starvation and oppression and atrocity over the past few generations have no bad effects, just like water rolling off a Peking duck’s back.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        However, when a new organism is created, these epigenetic modifications are reset to the standard zygotic values.

        Isn’t it the case that the epigenetic modifications are not made to the germ-line cells in the first place, so they would seem to never have to be reset?

        The thing I don’t yet understand is how those parent of origin silencing or up regulating is supposed to happen …

        • Anonymous says:

          No, they are actually reset. And DNA from the father is reset differently than DNA from the mother, after entering the egg.

          This is why uni-parental disomy causes problems, and also why it is difficult to make viable offspring from the germ cells of two females or two males.

          • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

            Sigh. I guess I should not have put two different thoughts in one comment.

            What is reset? At what point is it reset. What is the mechanism where the ovum can tell the difference between chromosomes/DNA that was there from the beginning and chromosomes/DNA that just entered? If something is reset, how did it get set in the germ-line cells in the first place?

            Also, for those claiming epigenetic inheritance of things that happen to the parent, how do those things get transferred from the DNA in non-germ-line cells to germ-line cells?

            • gcochran9 says:

              “how do those things get transferred from the DNA in non-germ-line cells to germ-line cells?”

              What an interesting question.

              But after a little thought, the answer’s obvious: Wi-Fi.

          • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

            But after a little thought, the answer’s obvious: Wi-Fi.

            You mean wild finagling?

      • Jim says:

        I suspect that for most people in our culture knowledge of DNA begins and ends with how to spell it. They haven’t got the faintest conception of the physical mechanisms underlying living things. Of course this was true of absolutely everybody a few centuries ago. Since then science has produced an astonishing explosion of biological knowledge but for most people their mental conception of how life works has not yet been affected. So magical ideas like Lyshenkoism flourish in popular culture.

        • Jim says:

          The average person in our culture doesn’t know anything more about how living cells or genetics works than Lamark himself did. Probably less.

  13. Asher says:

    Best header on a blog post I’ve seen in a long while.

  14. Steve Sailer says:

    A dialogue on epigenetics:

    Me: If you analyze a host of real world outcomes using adoption studies, fraternal v. identical twin studies, twins-raised-apart studies, the history of early childhood intervention research, naturally-occurring experiments, differences between societies, changes over history, and so forth, you tend to come up with nature and nurture as being about equally important: maybe fifty-fifty. The glass is roughly half-full and half-empty.

    The Latest Conventional Wisdom: You are so out of date! You see, the new science of epigenetics has proven that genes are even more powerful than you think. It’s really three-fourths genes. But, the study of epigenetics also proves that one-third of the power of genes is under control of the environment!

    Me: Okay, but that’s what I just said: fifty-fifty. Two-thirds of three-quarters is one-half. I mean, whatever the precise mechanism under the hood, it’s got to translate into what we see where the rubber hits the road, which is about fifty-fifty nature and nurture.

    The Latest Conventional Wisdom: Whatever. Your fuzzy math can hardly shake my faith in the TED talk I saw about epigenetics or that article in the NYT Magazine. Where are your Powerpoints, huh? Where is your heartwarming example of a poor child winning a chess tournament due to epigenetics? Where is your galvanizing anecdote about how epigenetics caused Bob Dylan to write Like a Rolling Stone?

    • MawBTS says:

      I wasn’t aware it was “fifty percent nature and fifty percent nurture”. I thought it was more like “fifty percent nature and fifty percent something we’re still trying to understand”.

  15. ghazisiz says:

    James Heckman is a big part of the problem: he never gave up on his ethnocentric dream of turning little black children into little white children. Early childhood education became his preferred policy, and epigenetics came in as a concept scientific enough to give his ideas credibility.

    • Harold says:

      I believe the correct term is ‘transmute’ little black children into little white children.

    • candid_observer says:

      I find this amazing passage in your link:

      “James Heckman: Let me give you a startling finding about achievement gaps. Suppose you pay children in the 5th and 6th grades, right when you think of the achievement gap opening up between blacks and whites, to take an IQ test.

      “Say you have unmotivated black kids living in the middle of the ghetto and white kids from Scarsdale or some other upper-class neighborhood. You give each kid who gets a successful answer one M&M — just give them an M&M — and you say for each point extra on the IQ test, each correct answer, I’ll give you one more M&M. It turns out that the gap between the black and white student in the IQ test scores vanishes — vanishes completely.”

      What in God’s name is this finding Heckman is citing?

      And do Skittles work better?

      • Anonymous says:

        His claim is so patently silly that I still vividly remember reading that article when it was first published. I emailed it to a few friends with the comment that it was the most ludicrous thing I’d read in quite some time.

        Good news everyone! After decades of futile efforts, James Heckman has finally eliminated The Gap! The answer? M&Ms!

  16. setstamov says:

    The idea that “our grandfather was poor or discriminated against which somehow makes you terrible at algebra today” – is a multidimensional non-sense. If anything the so called “coloring restriction” -euphemism for living on the verge of starvation – is the single most powerful tool for life extension – and against cognitive decline. Curious if Nature departments talk to each other. Ever. So what we are going to do with this then?:”Hunger in the Absence of Caloric Restriction Improves Cognition and Attenuates Alzheimer’s Disease Pathology in a Mouse Model” – “Biomarkers of Caloric Restriction May Predict Longevity in Humans”(
    “Sirtuin activators mimic caloric restriction and delay ageing in metazoans” -via Nature (???, hello…)
    “Low Calorie Diet Protects Brain Cells” -
    “Caloric restriction and human longevity: what can we learn from the Okinawans?” -
    “Cognitive effects of a long-term weight reducing diet” –
    “Starving for life: what animal studies can and cannot tell us about the use of caloric restriction to prolong human lifespan.” –
    “Caloric restriction improves memory in elderly humans”
    “Examination of Cognitive Function During Six Months of Calorie Restriction: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial”

    So, what is going on here? Reversing the food shortage does not make you smarter – it only makes you fat.
    Living on the edge of starvation does not shrinks your brain – it does the opposite, makes you smarter and extends your life. Which is, by the way, part of the explanation why the brains of the East Asian children do not shrink -if anything, poverty and the tradition of living in condition of caloric restrictions helps cognitive abilities – helps big time. As a specie, we have been living – and dealing with caloric restrictions for millions of years. All the time. It is our normal condition for most of the history of our kind. And it definitely did not shrink our brains. In fact, they got larger with time. Much larger and smarter. Via evolution, say.

    • Jaim Jota says:

      You went to far with …the brains of the East Asian children do not shrink -if anything, poverty and the tradition of living in condition of caloric restrictions helps cognitive abilities – helps big time.. East Asians have no such tradition: they overeat and get fat just as we do. They love ice cream too. I never heard that the misery and the trauma of the Boxer Rebellion or the Cultural Revolution had increased their intelligence, certainly not when compared with overseas Chinese. It makes apparent sense that poverty and hunger should be powerful motivators and successful people like to imagine so, but it doesnt work that way. If it did, one could calibrate the exact degree of caloric restriction required to transmute Detroit children into Shanghai wunderkinder.

      • setstamov says:

        No, it doesn’t work this way. Because it’s genetics.. Lysenko’s been wrong. Always will be. Caloric restriction slows down metabolism, which does not shrink the brain – it delays aging, reduces oxidative stress and delays nerve cells lose.
        And it’s not about motivation. It’s about our brain releasing sirtuin during starvation. Sirtuin makes it work better (and repairs some of our DNA, BTW). You might want to try it one day. Works miracles. It is an evolutionary mechanism – until very recently, the times were hard and we were living in a nearly permanent state of starvation. The mechanism of releasing sirtuin proteins and other cognition enhancing chemical has been designed by evolution (took it few million years) and guided by genes. Noting epigenetic. At all.

  17. AllenM says:

    Um, yeah, epigenetic. Again. Sigh:

    How about dead brain cells instead?

    The brain is plastic, but science is hard, ain’t it.

    More fodder for the blog owner.

  18. Matt says:

    On brain volume – a 2015 study comparing Chinese vs American (presumably Euro American) development : 282 samples.

    Interesting facets –

    Differences in brain and head shapes and sizes between Asian and Caucasian groups have also been documented in neuroimaging studies. Kochunov et al. (2003) used MRI to detect differences in brain shape between Caucasians and Asians. Anatomical differences between these two groups were found in the gyri in the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes. Lee et al. (2005) created a MRI brain template based on Korean adults. They found that a standard Korean brain template was 10% shorter in length, 9% lower in height, and 1% greater in width compared to the International Consortium for Brain Mapping (ICBM-152) template using 152 normal North American adult participants (Mazziotta et al., 2001). Similar findings were reported by Tang et al. (2010), who created the Chinese_56, an adult MRI brain template based on 56 male Chinese adult MR images. Tang et al. (2010) found that the Chinese_56 was shorter (168.77 vs. 177.00 mm), wider (144.39 vs. 136.00 mm), and notably lower in height (110.64 vs. 124.00 mm) than the ICBM-152. In addition to these comparisons between the Chinese_56 and the ICBM-152 templates, Tang et al. (2010) performed direct comparisons of brain morphological features (length, width, height) between MRIs of 35 Chinese and 35 North American adult male brains. The 35 Chinese male subjects were randomly chosen from the database (63 Chinese male adults) they used to construct the Chinese_56 template, and the 35 North American male subjects were randomly selected from the ICBM database ( The results from direct comparisons were inconsistent with their measurements of brain templates in terms of the brain height. Direct comparison showed that Chinese adult brain was taller than North American brain while the measurements of height between the Chinese56 and ICBM-152 templates had the inverse result.

    There is a large body of literature examining brain development from early childhood to adolescence in North American populations. Total cerebral volume follows an inverted U-shape developmental trajectory peaking at early adolescence.

    Intracranial and total brain volume showed an inverted U-shaped pattern for Chinese and U.S. children, but peaked at different ages. The overall volume of both GM and WM had similar developmental trajectories for Chinese and U.S. children, with some differences in the peak of the inverted-U function for the two nationalities.

    Measurement – Total brain volume : CN > US who finally caught up by 16. Inverted U for CN and US, but peaking earlier for CN. Male > Female, especially for US. i.e. their US age 16 and Chinese age 16 samples had same volume, younger samples were different. larger brain volume sex difference in US.

    Volumetric comparisons between Chinese and U.S. children showed that more than half (30/50) of these brain structures were significantly different (p < 0.05) between Chinese and U.S. children’s brains. The majority (21/30) of these distinct regions are consistent with Tang et al.’s (2010) study with adults. The gyri in the temporal, occipital, and orbitofrontal regions showed consistent differences in volume between Chinese and U.S. populations for both children and adults. Some structures (e.g., cingulate gyri, insular cortex) were not different for the Chinese and U.S. children in this study, but were different in adults (Tang et al., 2010).

    Some of the brain areas that detected as being anatomically different in this study have shown robust functional differences in language processing between Chinese and Caucasian adult subjects (Kochunov et al., 2003; Kuo et al., 2003).

    The US children had lower GM volumes than Chinese children and higher WM volumes (with differences by age). Differences in volumes and matter may be related to different volumes in different lobes of the brain, which have different growth patterns and different needs to connect these up.

  19. aandrews says:

    Damn. I’d never seen a photo of Lysenko in his prime. He would definitely evoke a “Great idea, boss!” out of an underling.

  20. Rosenmop says:

    In Canada it is “common knowledge” that alcoholism in native Indians is caused by themselves, their parents or their grandparents being in residential schools. The only evidence for this is that a lot of Indians were in residential schools and a lot of Indians are alcoholics. It is repeated over and over because it is the only politically correct explanation of the high rate of alcoholism among Indians. If you try to suggested that alcoholism is actually genetic then you are basically Hitler.

  21. Beyond Anon says:

    Trofim Lysenko was the first of the Epigeneticists.

  22. Pingback: r.i.p. blank slate (and what does “the environment” mean anyway?) | hbd chick

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