On attentiveness and names.

On attentiveness and names.

When a scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name it.  Sometimes these names seem reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or “cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,” etc.

Fruit fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other scientists.  There’s the gene “cheap date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable to process ethanol and  so quickly passes out.  Another genetic mutation produced male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,” because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.

Yup, some gene names were bad.  One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.

Other gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying. 

A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog.  It seemed funny at the time!  See?  The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it?  You get it, right?

 Okay, so this Sonic Hedgehog protein doesn’t look all that much like Sonic the Hedgehog.  But spend enough time staring at something like protein crystal structures and you’ll experience pareidolia, like seeing animal shapes in irregularly dappled plaster ceilings, or anthropomorphic gods amongst the twinklings of the stars.

Well, the Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells to recognize their spatial position in a developing body.  If a human fetus comes to term despite having a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain defects.

And then a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog mutation.”

And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes.  Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.

Words have power, after all.


Some people are more attentive to their environments than others.  During evolutionary time, this trait was obviously good for humanity.  If your tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody around who is paying attention to the world.  A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion about to leap out and attack.  Maybe we should take a different path.  Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

Other people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem.  During evolutionary time, this trait was surely good for humanity, too.  It’s helpful to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously.  But it’s also helpful to have somebody who might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets.  A way of cooking mud into pottery that could carry or store water.

Image by Herb Roe on Wikimedia Commons.

Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself.  Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges.  Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish.  A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.

Left to our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at different times.  Some brains are primed to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night.  And that’s good.  It reduces the amount of time that a tribe would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.

But in the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity that allowed our species to thrive.  The high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag themselves through morning classes like zombies.  They’ll be midway through first period before the sun rises.  Their teachers glance derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.


Eventually, humans invented language.  Much later, we invented writing.  Much, much later, we invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.

Of course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.

If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait.  When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away.  When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to. 

People like me, or this kid at a library, totally would’ve been lion bait.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then.  Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success.  People like me become medical doctors.  Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.

And so, when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit disorder.

Identifying those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead, we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.

I’ve never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.”


Childhood trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit disorder.”  Which makes sense – if you’ve gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should learn to be more aware of your environment.  It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven itself to be dangerous.

Even for somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling grizzly fifteen meters away.

Some children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly.  And if it can happen to him, why not other grown-ups, too?  Best to stay on high alert around the teacher.  She’s trying to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?


Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world.  They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).

Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad.  And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds.  Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.

In poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.

I groaned.

“I know, I know,” he said.  “But I might be out on Monday.”

“What happened?”

“Failed a urine screen.  But I was doing good.  Out for six months, and they were screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”

“With … ?”

“Meth,” he said, nodding.  “But I wasn’t hitting it bad, this time.  I know I look like I lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was hard getting enough to eat.  Wasn’t like last time.  I don’t know if you remember, like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in.  But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “

This is apparently a common phenomenon.  When we incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the world.  Inside the jail, there is a set routine.  Somebody is often barking orders, telling people exactly what to do.  There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan CO shirts and dark brown pants.

The world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make.  Will you sit and try to listen to the TV?  (The screen is visible from three or four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.)  Try, against all odds, to read a book?  Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?

After spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in a cast.

And these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.

“ … so I vape a lot, outside.  I step out of this place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette.  And, every now and then … “

He feels physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings.  And so he doses himself with chemicals that let him ignore the world as well as I can.

And, yes.  He grew up with an abusive stepfather.  This led to his acting squirrelly in school.  And so, at ten years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.

Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing.  The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.


Words have power.

We can’t know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?

On prayer, diversity among deities, and ADHD.

On prayer, diversity among deities, and ADHD.

My new favorite computer game begins each round as a real-time strategy game like Starcraft.  You command your little empire to build temples and offer up various sorts of psalms – will you praise your deity’s ever-gathering hands, its watchful vigilance, its fiery vengeance?

After you feel that you’ve done enough to celebrate your deity, you can command your priests to summon it – at which point the gameplay switches to a third-person adventure mode vaguely reminiscent of the old arcade classic Rampage.  You must attempt to destroy opposing civilizations with your deity … but there’s a twist.  The attributes of your deity reflect the way it was prayed to.  With too much emphasis on its “ever-gathering hands,” your god’s hands become massive. Those unwieldy appendages drag behind you as you walk, plowing deep furrows into the ground.

In this phase of the game, the controls can seem laggy and loose.  It turns out that this is intentional; as in the game Octodad, an inability to control your creation is an essential part of the game.  Certain types of prayer might make your deity more powerful but also more difficult to manage.

John_Martin_-_The_Great_Day_of_His_Wrath_-_Google_Art_Project

Presumably you’d avoid this sort of self-destructive excess – like praising wrath to the extent that your god destroys your own kingdom promptly after being summoned – but opposing players can infiltrate your civilization with heretics, and the way they pray will affect your god as well.

Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas ends with the idea that “everyone gets the devil he deserves.”  This is the underlying concept of the game, but for gods instead of demons.

First Coming includes elements of both real-time strategy and arcade smash-em-up.  And the idea of human prayer sculpting physically-manifest deities is intriguing.  I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the greatest game, flawed only in that it doesn’t live up to the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.

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Bible_primer,_Old_Testament,_for_use_in_the_primary_department_of_Sunday_schools_(1919)_(14595468018)We live in a culture that reveres vengeance.  The majority of the U.S. worships a deity who was praised for his violence.

Sometime around 600 BCE, a kingdom that worshiped a local deity called Yahweh was conquered by Nebuchadnezzer, whose people worshiped the storm god Marduk.  After the surrender, many of the conquered people were deported to Babylon, where they would help make that city the most splendid in the world.

But some of the conquered Hebrews were allowed to remain in Jerusalem, where they still worshiped Yahweh in traditional ways – mostly by ritually killing animals – until they attempted to regain their independence.  Then the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzer sent an army to circle the city.  The people began to starve.  The uprising was crushed.

102.Zedekiah's_Sons_Are_Slaughtered_before_His_EyesThe Hebrew leader was captured.  He was held, struggling, a soldier on either side restraining his arms.  One by one the Babylonian conquerors brought Zedekiah’s children.  The leader surely screamed, begging to die.  The soldiers gripped his arms more tightly.  And (2 Kings 25) they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah.  Those murders were his last sights, lingering in his blinded mind.  His sons bodies spilling blood from their slit necks into the dust.

Many more of the remaining Hebrews were then deported to Babylon, to slave for the greatness of that city.  They carted stones to build monuments to Marduk.  This god’s temples soared into the sky, one some seven stories high.

And the Hebrews saw the ceremonies held to celebrate Marduk.  On the fourth day of the New Year’s festival, priests read from a sacred text, the Enuma Elish, describing the origin of the world.  The old gods had sex; they were murdered by their children; the flesh of their bodies was used to construct heaven and earth.  Other sacred texts included the Atrahasis – which describes the flood that nearly destroyed humanity when we became too noisy and disturbed the gods’ rest – and Gilgamesh which celebrates fraternal love.

The-Rise-and-Fall-of-Adam-and-Eve_Stephen-Greenblatt_coverIn The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblat writes that “These works feature gods – a whole pantheon of them – but Yahweh is nowhere among them, let alone their lord and master.

The Hebrew people were crushed, their god so insignificant that he appeared in none of the victors’ stories.  And so the Hebrews fought back … with words.  They wrote a sacred text of their own, one in which Yahweh reigned supreme and the Babylonian tales were mockingly tweaked.  The glorious temples gave rise to “The Tower of Babel,” symbol of mankind’s unwarranted arrogance.  In the Hebrew flood story, humans were killed because the city people – and none were more urbane than the Babylonians – were corrupt.  Sex did not mark the origin of the world, but rather began after the fall.

And they sang psalms to a deity patiently waiting to enact murderous revenge:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

… and, in answer of their own question, the conquered people begin to sing …

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hath served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

After the siege, Hebrew sons were murdered, daughters were raped, those of able body were made slaves.  They asked of their god revenge.  They prayed to a lord who would kill, and abet their killing, to restore their kingdom.

bible-1623181_640And … several millennia later … our philosophical traditions are rooted in their prayers.  Our nation is embroiled in retributive wars.  Our punitive prisons are overflowing, with those unfortunate enough to land inside often made worse by their time there.

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Yahweh was praised for his patient pursuit of vengeance.  And we celebrate those qualities – in school, especially, we praise those able to dispassionately sit for hours, ingesting knowledge.  Those with difficulty sitting still, we drug.

Which is sad – there are many ways of being smart, even if our culture celebrates only one of them.

Indeed, many cultures have told myths with ADHD heros.  In the Apache myth of the origin of fire, Fox joined a flock of geese in flight … but then forgot the rules for staying in the air.  But that was okay – it was only after he tumbled to earth that he had a chance to steal fire from a tribe of fireflies and bring it to mankind.

In many Polynesian myths of the origin of fire, it was brought by Maui … whose impulsiveness would almost surely lead to an ADHD diagnosis in the contemporary United States.  Each time he received a gift of fire from his ancestor in the underworld – she was pulling off burning finger- or toe-nails and giving them to him – he intentionally quenched them in a nearby stream, just to see what she’d do next.  His curiosity was nearly the death of him.  Irked, she lit the world on fire.

In the Norse pantheon, Loki sometimes plans … but more often pursues whatever rebellious notion pops into his head.  The mutant children he sired will destroy the world.  His penchant for vicious barroom taunting (and impromptu murder) angered all other gods and led to his repeated exile from their kingdom.

But his exploits were still celebrated.

lightning.jpgOr there’s Annabeth in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, a daughter of Athena who helps the protagonist recover after a battle with a minotaur:

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.  Your senses are better than a regular mortal’s.  Of course the teachers want you medicated.  Most of them are monsters.  They don’t want you seeing them for what they are.”

On Akerlof & Shiller’s ‘Phishing for Phools’ and the increasing heterogeneity of the United States.

On Akerlof & Shiller’s ‘Phishing for Phools’ and the increasing heterogeneity of the United States.

At the public library the other evening, N was playing trains alongside another child. In the chair-slumped way of parents too tired to fully engage with the world, that boy’s father and I began to talk. He was a bit older than me and sounded to be well traveled, having worked for a few years in many different countries, but he’d spent time in Bloomington when he was young and decided this would be a good place to raise his own kid.

I told him I liked our little town, too. I said that it seemed much better than where K & I were living in California. Silicon Valley is a bit expensive, for one thing, and I repeated K’s phrase: “Just because people eat yogurt and do yoga doesn’t mean they’re nice.”

I posited that people are friendlier in Bloomington than in northern California.

The boy’s father shrugged. He said, “There’s an old Chinese proverb about that. Two travelers walking different directions down the road, each passes by an old man sitting on a fence. The first traveler stops to talk, asks, ‘What are people like in the town ahead?’

“The guy on the fence says, ‘What’d you think about the people in the town you just left?’ And the traveler says, ‘Man, they were all assholes!’ So the old guy says, ‘The people in the town ahead, they’re pretty much the same.’ And the traveler keeps walking, looking bleak.

“Soon the next traveler, the one going the other way, reaches the old man and stops. He asks the same thing, says, ‘What are people like in the town ahead?’ And the old man says back to him, ‘What’d you think of the people in the town you just left.’ And the traveler says, ‘Those people were great!’ So the old guy says, ‘Well, the people in the town ahead, they’re pretty much the same.’”

It’s a charming little parable. Our attitude as we approach each new situation colors how we’ll perceive it, and that, in turn, changes how people will respond to us. The majority of people are pretty similar everywhere, so we may as well calm down and accept them for the flawed creatures they are.

At the same time, though … people certainly aren’t identical everywhere. If you read much about politics, it doesn’t take long to notice some stark differences between northern California and southern Indiana … I have to admit, northern Californians are nicer politically. It was only interacting face-to-face that they seemed unpleasant.

In the United States as a whole, the differences between people living in different regions have been steadily increasing. You can see this in many different ways, by looking at demographics, or voting records, or income distributions, or religious beliefs, etc.

k10534One consequence of this heterogeneous distribution of people across the United States came up while I was reading George Akerlof and Robert Shiller’s Phishing for Phools. If you enjoy pop economics, or if you’re simply frustrated with all the ways the world seems stacked against good decision-making, this is a charming book. The tone is light-hearted and self-depreciating. Not even economists are the unflappable rational decision-makers that their theories assume us all to be, and Akerlof & Shiller include several anecdotes about times they’ve been duped. It’s an easy book, too. Their analysis is lucid and accessible.

I could’ve used fewer explanatory metaphors, though. I’d like to think that most people can understand that an institution known for high-quality financial products can use that good reputation — once — to sell a whole bunch of crummy ones. But Akerlof & Shiller repeatedly mention that this is equivalent to a farmer known for high-quality avocados duping his customers into buying rotten ones. By the nth time a reference to a financial product was “clarified” by stating that agencies like Standard & Poor’s were rating rotten “avocados” (i.e. rotten derivatives) as triple-A, I found myself urging them to get on with it.

Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon. Maybe you’re less likely than I am to ‘zerk out at superfluous analogies. I assume part of my problem is that I’m a slow reader — because each word carries an appreciable cost, I like knowing that they all need to be there.

The basic premise behind Phishing for Phools is quite nice, though. The central idea is related to the “no arbitrage” condition in economics. “No arbitrage” means there’s no opportunity to make money by risk-free buying and selling. It means that in fantasy economics land, you won’t have situations like a grocery store selling avocados for a dollar each and people at an adjacent farmer’s market buying identical avocados for two dollars each. In that scenario, you could earn a profit by purchasing grocery store avocados and immediately re-selling them at the farmer’s market.

avo

In the world of stocks and bonds, “no arbitrage” means you won’t simultaneously find people selling a stock for five dollars a share and others buying it at ten. Their valuations should converge, eliminating the opportunity for a middleman to profit.

In economics, the fantasy is that everyone’s valuations converge instantly. In the real world, of course, that isn’t true. The “no arbitrage” condition still holds for most investors, but only because somebody else with a supercomputer adjacent to the stock exchange is placing automated orders moments before other traders, effectively taxing everyone else billions of dollars a year.

Flash Boys pbk mech.inddThis is a pretty big deal, actually. If you’re at all interested in the stock market, you should read Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys (or, if you’re too busy, the much-condensed version he prepared for the New York Times Magazine) about high-frequency trading. It’s an incensing and still-urgent story — the S.E.C. still hasn’t allowed IEX, the trading platform that uses a whole bunch of superfluous fiber optic cable to slow down everyone’s orders and thereby prevent high-speed traders from taxing other investors, to register as a national securities exchange.

A major problem is that members of the S.E.C. bounce back and forth from employment at the companies merrily taxing all the chumps (i.e., you and me). They have a strong disincentive to make things fair. In a fair world, they and their friends would be less able to siphon off other people’s money.

Anyway, the underlying principle of the “no arbitrage” condition is that, if there were an opportunity for easy profit, someone already would have taken it. In Phishing for Phools, Akerlof & Shiller argue that the world is full of traps — like unwholesome food engineered to be delicious — for a similar reason.

For instance, selling Oreos is a good way to make money. Oreos are delicious! They’re so easy to eat! If Nabisco hadn’t invented them, someone else would’ve. Because bad ideas vanish and the good ones persist, the world eventually fills up with insidiously enticing products like Oreos and french fries and smartphones. Which leaves us, the irrational emotional consumers of the world, beset by impulses we know we should resist … but often can’t.

Akerlof & Shiller’s combine behavioral economics (the study of consumers as irrational decision-makers) and a “survival of the fittest”-like idea about the steady enrichment of effective strategies for manipulating consumers. This is a lovely framework for understanding why, clever as we are, humans have created a world that suits our real interests so poorly. Nobody’s happy to be at a party where everybody is just staring at their phones.

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You should totally see Removed, a photography project by Eric Pickersgill, where phones are edited out.

Not all of Akerlof & Shiller’s reasoning stands up to close scrutiny, though. I want to highlight one example because, embarrassingly, as soon as I read it I realized that I had made the exact same misguided claim in a recent essay. Whoops!

From Phishing for Phools:

It is now estimated that one out of every nine school-aged children and adolescents in the United States has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Ritalin, the drug that is most commonly prescribed, is powerful — its long-term side effects unknown. But we also know that many diagnoses are almost surely wrong, one way or the other, since the diagnosis rate for Kentucky (15 percent) is more than three times that for Nevada (4 percent); and among populous states, the diagnosis rate for Texas (9 percent) is half again as big as that for California (6 percent).

At first glance, their logic seems reasonable. Diagnosis rates are different between two regions, so either some doctors are missing cases or else other doctors are labeling too many kids as having ADHD. Or both.

This is quite similar to an argument I made about autism recently. I wrote that the difference in autism prevalence between states suggests we still aren’t diagnosing all cases.

oopsMy reasoning was flawed.

The United States is heterogenous, with people self-selecting where to live. More and more of us end up living near people who are similar to us, whether because that’s where jobs are or because it feels comfortable to be surrounded by like-minded individuals. So it’s actually quite reasonable for ADHD and autism to be heterogenously distributed as well.

Hans Asperger was right in that many of the traits associated with autism are beneficial. Attention to detail, mathematical acuity, innovative language usage … those are all good things. But there seem to be genetic correlates to autism (even some of the “environmental” factors, like high exposure to prenatal testosterone, are partially under genetic control), and although we don’t know what these genetic factors are, it seems that higher doses can increase autism severity.

A bit like sickle cell anemia that way. A low genetic dose protects you from malaria with mild drawbacks. A high dose leaves you chronically fatigued.

A low dose of the (unknown, but presumed to exist) autism genetic factors might help a child with logical thinking and puzzle solving. A high dose might make the barrage of sensory information from the outside world so overwhelming that it becomes difficult to speak.

If many people with low doses of those genetic factors decided to move to the same place and interbreed (you could say “start families” instead, but isn’t the word “interbreed” funnier?), more children born there should have autism than elsewhere.

You wouldn’t necessarily see this if the genetic factors had little effect on personality. Cystic fibrosis is genetic too, but because the carrier genes are mostly silent, and in any case don’t affect brains, there’s no reason why many people with cystic fibrosis genes would move to the same place. Or be exceptionally likely to fall in love with each other.

Genetic factors for autism probably do affect the brain, though. This is why children whose grandfathers were engineers are much more likely to be autistic.

In the United States, it’s reasonable to expect that genetic factors contributing to autism would be concentrated in regions with the best employment opportunities for engineers and other technically-minded individuals. In my erroneous previous post, I wrote that it was suspicious for New Jersey to have a much higher autism prevalence than Alabama … but there are many more jobs available for technically-minded people in New Jersey.

Not only might people with these genetic factors want to move to similar places, but they may be more likely to form relationships with each other than with non-carriers. There’s a lovely description of this phenomenon (“assortative mating”) in Simon Baron-Cohen’s Scientific American article, “Autism and the Technical Mind.”

As more people decide to marry someone they consider a friend, with whom they share interests (e.g. lawyers marrying lawyers, doctors marrying doctors, which has been lamented for its effect on income inequality but probably also leads to happier couples than pairings between a wealthy careerist and arm candy), it becomes more likely for both parents to carry a gene that influences the brain in a peculiar way.

Both K and I are the sort of people who became giddily happy when told that the math department at her high school would start photocopying the mathlete exams for us so that we could solve them on our own time. This sort of shared interest is part of why we’re good enough friends to have gotten married. And, if there were a gene that conferred a love of mathematics, our daughter would’ve had a high chance of getting two copies of it.

I don’t think Akerlof & Shiller’s example is as egregiously illogical as mine was, by the way. I think ADHD is probably also correlated with personality, and people with ADHD are probably better at some types of work than others, but (given our current imperfect understanding of both conditions) these effects are probably weaker than with autism. I wouldn’t be shocked if people with ADHD were concentrated in certain areas of the U.S., but I’d expect a heat map of autism genetic factors to show more dramatic geographic hot spots. I can’t think of a reason why a particular place would hoover up people with ADHD (do they have a cool name for themselves yet, like “the multifocused” or something?) the way Silicon Valley does with geeks.