Circulated to the Human Behavior & Evolution Mailing List on 4/17/98
by Steve Sailer
Copyright by Steve Sailer 1999
|Nerdishness is of great interest to the public today; after all, the
richest man in the world is a nerd. Yet, the human sciences have never touched
the subject: I have been unable to find anywhere on the Internet any reference
to a single scientific paper on the subject. Whether this disregard is in
spite or because of so many scientists being nerdish themselves remains a
Nerdishness appears to me to be one of the main manifestations of masculinity, although radically different from the more famous hunter/warrior/jock/leader mode (let's use a term from African politics and designate representatives of the better known form of masculinity as "Big Men"). Certain fundamental trade-offs tend to distinguish nerds from Big Men In the realm of intellectual traits:
1. Nerds are more "object-oriented," Big Men are more people-oriented.
2. Nerds tend to focus narrowly but deeply (single-tasking), Big Men broadly but shallowly (multitasking). Nerds lack the "situational awareness" that the Air Force prizes in fighter pilots, but their ability to concentrate obsessively makes them good at designing the planes that pilots fly.
3. Nerds work best asynchronously (as Howard says, they never say the right thing at the right time -- I can vividly recall walking along after a college history class, thinking about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when some black friend passing by said, "Hey, what's happening?" "Hmmhmmh????," I thought to myself in consternation, "What exactly is happening? Well, the Austro-Hungarian Empire is definitely not happening, but what is?" About five minutes later, I came up with a clever, but by now useless, reply, which later I could never seem to remember the next time somebody asked me "What's happening?). In contrast, Big Men are better when they are "in the flow" (of the discussion, the hunt, the battle, the basketball game, or whatever).
Interestingly, in terms of cerebral skills, nerds tend to be more stereotypically masculine than Big Men, who benefit from stereotypically female mental skills like emotional intuition and multi-tasking. In contrast, nerds tend to be less traditionally masculine than Big Men in physical/emotional traits like muscularity, self-confidence, aggressiveness, etc.
As Mike Waller points out, cave-nerds probably made the stone axes for early cave-Big Men to hunt with. I suspect that nerdishness has been symbiotically related to the prosperity of communities. (Howard Bloom makes a similar point.) In nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, nerds' object-orientation would not be very useful since objects tend to be heavy to carry. Similarly, in tribes that need just about every man to hunt, nerds' ineptness at making correct split-second decisions would tend to get them eaten by wild beasts, or at least shunned by women who want men who bring home meat. On the other hand, sedentary communities that have been able to free some men up from food provisioning or war-making, make greater degrees of specialization possible, allowing nerds to flourish as craftsmen. In turn, these nerdy technologists make the tools that allow even more men to stop hunting and farming and turn to nerd-work. Thus begins a virtuous cycle of economic growth.
A year ago, I reviewed Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" for National Review, but that book has nagged at me ever since. Diamond won a lot of media plaudits for claiming that his research into the substantial geographic differences in domesticatable plant and livestock food resources somehow "refuted the Bell Curve," by showing that every culture did the best it could with its radically unequal alottment of natural resources. Realistically, though, it presented an even more gloomy picture: although some countries that missed out on the Industrial Revolution (like Japan and Korea) could catch up in a generation or two, ethnic groups like Diamond's beloved New Guineans that didn't have the luck to possess enough of the domesticatable grains and animals to participate early and fully in the Agricultural Revolution seem to have a much harder time catching up today.
I suspect that one thing holding back the economic progress of some ethnic groups that weren't favored by nature with easily domesticatable plants and animals is a lack of nerds. If you live in a physical environment where almost every man must be a hunter or warrior, well that's not conducive to the development of nerd-encouraging cultural institutions or to nerdish genes getting passed along.
These trade-offs between nerdishness vs. charismatic masculine leadership are readily apparent among different ethnic groups in industrial world, too. Allow me to quote a section from my review of Harvard economic historian David Landes' "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why some are so rich and some so poor," which appeared in National Review on 4/6/98. In it I launched the following trial balloon:
"Interestingly, many of the most striking racial differences can be thought of as resembling faint sex differences. For example, contrast the triumph of Japanese manufacturing with Japan's near-total failure in the brutally competitive global market for celebrities. (A recent survey revealed that Americans believe the most famous living Japanese person is Bruce Lee, a dead Chinese guy.) It's the mirror image of African-Americans' undistinguished technological achievements versus their outstanding performance in producing media personalities.
"Why? Japanese talents include a set of extremely masculine intellectual skills. Tests show they tend to excel at objective abilities like mathematics and mentally manipulating 3-d objects through "single-tasking" (focusing deeply upon a single impersonal logical problem). Blacks, on the other hand, are often better at typically feminine, more subjective cerebral skills like verbalization, emotional intuition and expression, sense of rhythm, sense of style, improvisation, situational awareness, and mental multi-tasking. Michael Jordan's brain, for instance, enables him to anticipate his opponent's every move while simultaneously demoralizing his foe with nonstop trash-talking. (Try it sometime. It's not easy.)
"Next, think about physical and emotional/personality traits. Here the races are arrayed in the opposite order. Blacks tend to display more of typically male qualities like muscularity, aggressiveness, self-esteem, need for dominance, and impulsiveness. In contrast, the Japanese economy benefits from a male workforce endowed with more typically feminine virtues like small fingers and fine motor skills, cooperativeness, humility and anxiety, loyalty, long-term orientation, diligence, and carefulness. Combined with their first-rate masculine mental skills, these make Japanese companies powerhouses at exporting superbly engineered machinery.
"Compared to Japanese organizations, black communities tend to be physically and psychologically masculine, sometimes to the point of disorderliness. Yet a relatively high percentage of individual black men achieve fame by possessing charismatically masculine looks and personalities, without the nerdishness that Dilbert-style male intellectual skills often induce."
One important but often-overlooked point to keep in mind is that the increasing ethnic diversity and integration of our society makes racial differences more apparent and more important than in earlier, more segregated times. For example, when professional baseball was segregated, there were no racial patterns in what positions each race played. In every game in the Negro Leagues, 1/9th of black players played catcher, 1/9th played pitcher, 1/9th played 3rd base, etc. In today's integrated major leagues, however, blacks are highly concentrated in the outfield, where their innate advantage in footspeed is most valuable. Similarly, nobody knew blacks tended to be better basketball players than whites, until they started playing together.
This fact has major impact on culture. For example, we've seen African-Americans largely abandon their former favorite game, baseball, where their innate average superiorities over whites are not particularly valuable, for football, where they possess major natural advantages over whites, and especially for basketball, where blacks possess huge advantages over whites, especially in mental skills like in-the-flow interpersonal improvisation (the same skill behind black domination of jazz). As blacks focus increasingly on those sports where possess the greatest innate advantages, they also develop cultural traits (like playing huge amounts of pick-up basketball and talking basketball all the time) that make them even better in basketball and football, while becoming increasingly uneducated in baseball. (E.g., none of the black kids from the housing project in my neighborhood knows that a batter should turn his left shoulder toward the pitcher. Their grandfathers all knew this.) Finally, basketball becomes increasingly part of self-defined black identity, while baseball is increasingly seen as part of the white or Hispanic identities.
Thus, integration and immigration has made blacks increasingly aware that they tend not to be as nerdish as whites (or East Asians). Thus, black nerds, who might have been encouraged as a source of community pride in a segregated black community 50 years ago, are increasingly seen as "acting white."
While no doubt it will be denounced as racist, it may ultimately prove somewhat more politically palatable, and more realistic, than earlier analyses that focused excessively on IQ. These always ran into a major credibility problem: they seemed to imply that African-Americans must, on the whole, be a race of talentless dullards, when it has become increasingly clear throughout the 20th century that blacks are, in many ways, among the most talented and charismatic of all groups.
Ultimately, though, the important question is how well this perspective reflects reality. I invite your comments.
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