Sunday, July 10, 2011

Background culture

Obviously, you can only perform a certain activity correctly, or appreciate something you hear or read about, if you possess a minimum of awareness of the subject in question. I call this background culture, and I think it's a tremendously important phenomenon in our modern world. In many cases, if an adult didn't happen to pick up this background culture when she was a kid, then she'll probably never get around to acquiring it. This is particularly true, as we all know, in the case of foreign languages. Consider twin boys born to an Australian couple settled out in the bush. If one child were to be whisked away to Japanese foster parents in Tokyo, then the kid would surely grow up like a typical Japanese teenager, speaking faultless Japanese… and incapable of communicating fluently with his sibling who remained down in the Australian bush. Now, when I talk that way, readers might imagine that I'm defending the theory of the blank slate, which Steven Pinker spent an entire book in demolishing.

I might seem to be saying that a bush baby in Australia (like me, if you insist on making things personal) is born more-or-less "empty-headed", and that you only have to drop him off in a place such as Tokyo, and let nurture get to work, if you want your kid to evolve, say, into a sophisticated citizen of the Land of the Rising Sun… who might later decide to return to his birthplace Down Under and amaze all the locals, with the help of his twin brother, by setting up a genuine sushi restaurant.

Well, this impression is partly right, and partly wrong. All the Japanese stuff is perfectly correct. What's totally wrong is the suggestion that the Aussie bush twins were born more-or-less "empty-headed". On the contrary, the twins were born with an all-important stock of genes, of all kinds, inherited from their Australian parents. And, if the Japanese-speaking sibling who grew up in Tokyo turned out to be smart enough to imagine the idea of returning to Australia and setting up a sushi restaurant with his English-speaking brother, then we can surely conclude that they two fellows were equipped, right from the start, with an excellent set of genes tuned to imagination and business creativity.

In my personal case, the fact that I never heard people speaking French until I was 21 years old means that I missed out on the nurture deal as far as my accent is concerned. That's to say, I'll always speak French with a foreign accent. On the other hand, I can communicate correctly with French people on all kinds of subjects, which suggests that I arrived on the scene here in France with a set of genes enabling me to learn how to translate efficiently from one language into another… which was the same set of genes that allowed me to work professionally in computer programming.

These days, I'm constantly amused to realize that much of my background culture, enabling me to appreciate various intellectual challenges, was of an accidental acquired kind, rather than primarily genetic. Out in Australia during the five-year period between my leaving school (1957) and my departure for Europe (1961), I had the chance of picking up cultural baggage in science that is still "fueling" me today. Let me give you an example of what I'm trying to say, in an unexpected domain: games. If there's a human activity in which I have no skills whatsoever, and even less in the way of enthusiasm, it's surely the field of games. I'm quite incapable of conjuring up any kind of competitive spirit, or will to win. I'm simply lousy at playing games. Besides, I hardly ever do so. I've never played cards, or bridge, or video games. Scrabble and crossword puzzles, like chess, bore me greatly. I seem to be lacking the genes that push other individuals to play with a will to win. And this apathy extends to all kinds of games, from competitive sports through to business. I'm not exactly a loser; I'm simply a lethargic non-player, with no deep desire to win anything whatsoever.

Now, this is funny, because my son François seems to be quite the opposite. He has recuperated genes that make him a skilled competitor in quite a few domains, including billiards. I don't know where he obtained these genes, but it's surely through his mother, whose family background includes at least a couple of solid known cases of entrepreneurial success… which are lacking in my family environment (with the possible exception of my paternal grandfather's small automobile business). There are no outstanding merchants among my recent ancestors. Meanwhile, the only successful sportsman—my uncle John Walker, the track cyclist—had so little will to win that a Grafton journalist once said that he had to be "psyched up" (by encouragement from his brothers) to have any chance of winning… and I knew my late uncle well enough to understand that this was surely the case.

Now, why am I painting this utterly dismal image of myself in the games arena? Well, there's method in my madness, which I shall now attempt to explain. In a nutshell, it's a matter of a fortuitous encounter with a fundamental element of scientific culture, when I was a young man working with IBM in Sydney.

I've already evoked John von Neumann in my blog article of Christmas Day 2006 entitled The meaning of life [display]. He's the fellow who invented the idea of programs stored in the memory of a computer. He also put forward a theory of replicators (which he referred to as self-reproducing automata), and we now know that the spiral helix mechanism of the DNA molecule is indeed such a replicator, at the origin of all life on the planet Earth.

Well, von Neumann had yet another claim to fame. With Oskar Morgenstern [1902-1977], he was the coauthor of a pioneering book, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior… a copy of which happened to be hanging around in the offices of IBM Australia, in North Sydney, when the company hired me as a computer programmer in 1957. At the time, I was amazed to learn that what I looked upon as a relatively superficial activity, playing games, could become the object of mathematical theories. In any case, while I continued to have little enthusiasm for games themselves, I was enthralled by the theories that had been invented to explain them.

Now, things might have stayed like that for me, permanently, were it not for the ingenious insights of an English evolutionary biologist and geneticist, John Mayard Smith, who decided to apply games theory to the biggest game of all—the greatest show on earth, as Richard Dawkins put it—namely, evolution. Unfortunately, it would be beyond the possibilities of my blog to tackle the precise ways in which, say, a college student on a date might be exploiting a strategy (unconsciously, in most cases) akin to a poker player. Dawkins introduces this gigantic theme, in a typically brilliant fashion, near the beginning of The Selfish Gene.

To be quite honest, I must point out that it can become mentally tiresome to follow the mathematical mechanisms of a games-theory interpretation of activities in the domains of courting, love and marriage, and rearing children. As I said at the beginning, it helps a lot if you happen to possess a minimum of background culture in the theory of games.

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