Things that make some lives easier can make other lives more precarious

Glenn Reynolds raises the unsettling question of whether there's a bad driving gene. I have long suspected there's some explanation along such lines, but it now appears that there's some scientific evidence for it:

People with a particular gene variant performed more than 20 percent worse on a driving test than people without it - and a follow-up test a few days later yielded similar results. About 30 percent of Americans have the variant.

"These people make more errors from the get-go, and they forget more of what they learned after time away," said Dr. Steven Cramer, neurology associate professor and senior author of the study published recently in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Randall Parker has an additional observation which ought to be of concern for those who want the government to stay out of people's lives:
We are not all as well adapted genetically to industrialized civilization. This one gene, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is just one of many genes where we differ from each other in our ability to handle the many products and environmental niches we've created with industrialization. Some people can't handle beer or cocaine or addictive drugs. Some other people can't handle the sleep deprivation made easier by Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb. Still others can't handle easy access to online gambling or online porn.
Fortunately, I can say never mind whether some people can handle easy access to guns better than others -- because the Second Amendment treats all citizens as adults in the theoretical and moral sense.

But there is no right to drive. So, if we assume the bad driving gene goes along with a genetic inability to "handle the many products and environmental niches we've created with industrialization," it strikes me as commonsensical that the people with the bad driving gene ought to have the simple human decency not to compound their predicament by using cell phones while driving.

However, I think it is an undeniable fact that there are some people who can. As I discussed in an earlier post (prompted by my frustration over the usual idiots who are unable to talk on a cell phone while driving) even at the height of the 1970s CB radio craze, no one ever proposed banning the use of CB radios by drivers, and I think this was because their users tended to be more mechanically inclined people. Remember, the CB radios began with truck drivers, who hold special commercial drivers licenses, and for them, talking while driving just goes with the turf. It spread from them to those drivers who so badly wanted to communicate that they would actually go out and buy a CB radio, a special antenna, and (at least in the early stages) actually get an FCC license. In those days, cell phones ("car phones") were big, bulky, permanently-wired affairs, not the sort of thing anyone could carry around, and expensive to use. Eventually they made CB radios revert to something only truckers who wanted to talk to other truckers would want.

The point is, everyone has a cell phone now, even kids who are too young to drive. Here in the heavy student areas of Ann Arbor, I've noticed that some young people are incapable of even walking safely while using their phones. I have had them walk right in front of me, eyes riveted to tiny screens while I slam on the brakes to avoid hitting them.

Things have gotten to the point where in almost every situation where I'm amazed and baffled by the degree of utter incompetence behind the wheel, it turns out that the driver is lost in some sort of mental process while using a cell phone. At this point, calling them "cell phones" has become less than accurate. They are multitasking gadgets that do everything including taking pictures, checking and sending email, text messages, and of course, playing whatever vast collection of music has been stored in them by the user, who has often compounded his or her visual awareness problem by blocking all incoming sounds with headphones!!

Like I say, it's bad enough when they walk in front of you, but when they're behind the wheel, it's scary. And some of them are young women with the additional distraction of children, driving vehicles so huge that they are unaware of how much space surrounds them.

Should there be laws?

Based on what? Abilities? Or common sense?

That's the problem. I try not to do things beyond my mechanical competence, and it strikes me that catching up with my email while blasting music into my ears while walking into city traffic (much less while driving) is not wise. Yet passing a law to stop people from doing such things reduces us all to the idiot level. I don't want to live in a vast national kindergarten.

But in a free society, how is the law to distinguish between those who have this "ability to handle the many products and environmental niches we've created with industrialization" gene and those who don't? I worry that technological advances might be accelerating a social divergence which isn't really being acknowledged as it should. (Even though the idea of Future Shock is decades old.) If some people are genetically more capable of being adults, what are the implications?

Should we just let Darwin sort it out? Or would that be antisocial? I'd hate to think that not wanting to live in a national kindergarten is antisocial.

But on the bright side, the regulations that come on the heels of technology might a bit like the taxes that come on the heels of wealth. There would be no regulations on technology without the technology to regulate....

Nah, scratch that! There's already a movement to regulate certain kinds of technology before it happens.

At this rate, I will never be allowed to have sex with a robot.

posted by Eric on 11.03.09 at 11:10 AM


And that's another example of why the answer to a problem with technology is more technology.

We need cars that drive for us so we can do all the stuff we want to do.

Veeshir   ·  November 3, 2009 12:26 PM


There is a LOT of work going on in that area. The military is leading the charge. Eventually we will all have them.


Sex with simulacrums is in its embryonic stages with internet porn and sexual prosthesis. It will only get better.

M. Simon   ·  November 3, 2009 1:31 PM

Simply put, remove all penalties for running over someone with a cellphone in their hand.

Anon   ·  November 3, 2009 1:43 PM

I did just think of something Eric:
Get a Roomba.

It might not be "sex" per the Clintonian definition, but it's surely "sexual relations".

Veeshir   ·  November 3, 2009 2:10 PM

I just left a Microsoft conference in Vegas, and even among the technonerds like me there were plenty of people who couldn't use their phones and walk (some who couldn't take showers either). People almost ran me over plenty of times.

I wonder if there are similar genes for sense of direction. I know people who can never tell what compass point they are facing. I can understand in the wilderness or inside it's harder, but in town with landmarks how do they not know?

Wow, why do people even care if people want to have sex with machines? How does that even come up as an issue? Or do they worry through sex robots will learn how to utterly fool us - and then fembot assassins will simultaneously execute every world and corporate leader, paving the way for robots to take over?

plutosdad   ·  November 3, 2009 3:27 PM

I can go into the woods and come out where I went in no matter where I've been in the meantime. I've done it many, many times in the Catskills since I was like 7 or younger.

It took me a year or longer to figure out the floor in the building where I worked and I only know Manhattan and DC because they're basically grids.

Forget about Queens or Boston.
I lived in East Boston and many times I got home by going where I saw planes landing. If I couldn't see planes landing I just kept driving straight....errr... forward and eventually found something I knew or saw planes landing. One time I ended up in Braintree.

Veeshir   ·  November 3, 2009 5:48 PM

plutosdad, have you watched Futurama?

They have an episode on that subject.
There is a movie they show in "health" in school about how all advances ever have been made by people trying to impress the opposite sex.
If you have a robot for a "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" you no longer need the opposite sex and eventually people will just die off.

I've long thought that in a some number of decades in the future people will notice that we haven't heard anything from Japan in a long time and they'll go there and find no people, just a bunch of creepy robots trying to get laid.

Veeshir   ·  November 3, 2009 6:14 PM

Veeshir, while I'd love to rumba with a Roomba, poor Coco already has it in for regular vacuum cleaners.

And have you seen what she does to shredders?

Eric Scheie   ·  November 3, 2009 11:14 PM

Why posit a gene when plain old stupidity--that would be at least 30% of us--accounts for the phenomenon?

Brett   ·  November 4, 2009 8:02 AM

Darwin, buddy, Darwin.

Anything else is just a delaying tactic.

Bill Johnson   ·  November 4, 2009 4:35 PM

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