Every once in a while I have an experience that causes me to meditate on the question of how much variation in human behavior is genetically driven. I’ve written before about my gradually increasing awareness that I am genetically designed to enjoy combat. I had another experience something like this last night in a completely different domain – learning to solder.
Some weeks ago A&D regular Craig Trader reacted to my string of posts about the Great Beast of Malvern by dropping a TV-B-Gone kit into my and and saying “Here. Your next challenge.”
This is a thing I love about my peer group: that their idea of a good gift is one that challenges me to learn a skill outside my comfort zone. Because to turn that bag of parts into a working device, I’d need to – gulp – mess with hardware
My gut reaction to this prospect was a kind of terror that is probably difficult for anyone under 35 or so to understand. You see, I learned my programming in the era of minicomputers when electronics was ludicrously expensive by modern standards. I still have a twitch that if I touch electronic hardware I will fuck up and it will be hideously costly and I will end my days in some sort of horrible debt peonage trying to pay off the liability.
This twitch has significantly interfered with my ability to kit-bash my personal computers. I do it when I have to, but find it a tense, unhappy, jangle-nerved experience when I have to put my hands on and avoid that whenever possible. That is, opposed to doing whole-systems hardware design when I can use somebody else’s hands for the actual assembly; I’m completely fine with that.
Craig did a good thing for me, because What he gave me was a Mylar bag of parts that are obviously cheap. That is, if I ruin them it’s no big deal beyond my fussy engineer’s dislike of having wasted anything that could have been put to a productive use.
So I bethought me of another friend, Phil Salkie, who has hardware skillz and asked him if he’d teach me how to solder and he said he’d be delighted to. Which is how I ended up spending yesterday evening at a bench with a borrowed soldering station being patiently and carefully instructed in how to solder together a TV-B-Gone.
Which I did. And it worked, and actually came out really well – Phil pronounced it a good clean build, and when I posted a picture on G+ others noted the same.
Now here’s the wacky part: despite my fear of hardware I wasn’t really surprised at this. Because doing it felt right. Satisfying. Smooth. Like I was designed for the job. What I needed to learn was just details of technique; the cognitive set for it was already in place and at some points in the procedure I entered a light flow state. On my first build!
A thing that helped: my father was a handy amateur electronics tech who built his own stereo equipment in the 1950s when that was a thing, and at one time repaired TVs semi-professionally. I was an observant child and retain some early memories of watching him work. One bit of lore that stayed with me is lightly twisting together the metal fibers in a wire before tinning them. (Phil explained why you don’t want to do this if the tinned wire is going into a compression connector – mashing twisted fibers will sometimes cut them – but such connectors barely existed in my dad’s day other than as punchdowns for telephone wire.)
So I actually had some cultural resources here. But even outside electronics I have a history of being surprisingly good at precision handwork considering that I have freakin’ spastic palsy. When I don’t have a specific fear of bad consequences that paralyzes me I find it calming and pleasant to do things like tying flies or assembling small models. I have long suspected that had I been born in preindustrial times I would probably have found my way into some sort of fine craftsmanship like making watches or jewelry or musical instruments.
While this affinity isn’t terribly uncommon in developmentally normal people, it would be a very odd trait to find in combination in someone like me with damaged motor control and partial hemiparalysis if it were entirely learned. Thus, I am driven to suspect that a significant genetic component must be in play.
Having formed that suspicion, there is something about my known ancestry that jumps out at me. That is, my mother’s direct ancestors were Swiss-Germans from the region of Zurich – and I take after them; I’ve been there lecturing at ETH and was told I could pass for a local in a heartbeat.
This tiny region of Europe has been producing a disproportionately large share of the craftsmen who do precision work with small parts for centuries. To the point where in the U.S. the most important single school of precision machining traces its origins to there and is sometimes still called “Swiss system”. Um…coincidence?
I don’t think so. I suspect that for some reason lost in the mists of prehistory that population was selected for traits that later turned out to be pre-adaptive for crafts like watchmaking – fine motor control, patience, perfectionism, pleasure in building things – and that I inherited pretty much the whole boatload. Giving me a strong enough bent in that direction that even spastic palsy and fear of screwing up couldn’t prevent me from being good at it.
Actually I think I might even have a guess about what in the EAA did this. Some of the earliest settlements in the region were lake-dwellers who, naturally, would have fished intensively. Hundreds of generations of selection for net-makers, net-menders, and net-minders, perhaps?
We know of other trait clusters like this. East Africans and distance running is the one that leaps to mind. What others might we be missing?