I spent parts of the the last couple of days reading the archives of the very thought-provoking blog Slate Star Codex. Two posts on it, Untitled and Why No Science Of Nerds? have reawakened my interest in the question of what exactly we mean when we describe someone as a “nerd” or a “geek”.
I’ve been applying the techniques of anthropological fieldwork to hackers and various allied subcultures such as SF fandom for more than a quarter century now. I think I can fairly claim to know a geek or nerd when I meet one. I’ve written before about Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers: on language boundaries. Yet what Slate Star Codex reminds me of is that all we have to explain about why this population and its cluster of linked subculture exists is a cloud of not-very-well-confirmed folk theory.
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Which is maybe a problem, because geeks and nerds matter. Modern civilization couldn’t function without them – its tech infrastructure would collapse. Might be nice if we could optimize these people – help them be happier and more productive.
Slate Star Codex buys into popular descriptions of nerds:
“Nerds” seem to share a bunch of seemingly uncorrelated characteristics. They’re generally smart. They’re interested in things like math and science, especially the hard sciences like physics. They’re shy and awkward. They’re some combination of bad at getting social status and not interested in getting social status. They’re especially bad at getting other people to show romantic interest in them. They’re physically unimposing and bad at sports. They don’t get in physical fights and are very unlikely to solve problems with violence. They’re straightedge and less likely to drink or smoke to excess.
I pointed out in an email reply that the following characteristics could be added: “attracted to logic puzzles and strategy games”, “hypercorrect grammar”, “apt to squirrel away huge amounts of both general and specialized knowledge” Unstated but obvious is that the type swarms around computers.
So far so good. I think everyone, nerd and non-nerd alike, can recognize the type we’re pointing at here. And there’s a widely-held folk theory to explain it, which is that the nerd population is a herd of borderline Asperger’s Syndrome or autism cases. I’m going to label this the “standard nerd profile”.
Slate Star Codex plays with this theory, also with the notion that nerds might be distinguished by low testosterone level, or implicitly a combination of low testosterone and high IQ. In this model, sufficiently bright beta males invest heavily in geeky traits because they can’t cut it at “normal” monkey status competitions against hormonal alphas.
It was at this point that I found myself pulling up and thinking “Hey, wait a minute. What about me?”
Any definition of “nerd” or “geek” that doesn’t include me is, to say the least, socially dubious – if we were to propose one nobody in the the non-geek population who’d met me for five minutes would buy it. But there are important ways in which I fail to fit the standard nerd profile.
To start with the obvious: I’m a voluble extrovert with enough bulk muscle to be pretty noticeable. If you suggested “low-testosterone” in my wife’s presence her mocking laughter would chase you into the next county. I always did pretty well at attracting interest from women, and though I’m not very interested in social status I find it ridiculously easy to acquire when and to the extent I need it. Nor do I psychometrically resemble an Aspie at all.
The obvious next question is “Why is this interesting?” “ESR” as an isolated data point is a bit awkward for the folk theory of nerdity, but if you sample enough human variation you’ll find almost any kind of outlier or exception to such classification rules. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate them. You could construct a narrative in which I’m a sort of pseudo-nerd conditioned into those social habits by the accident of growing up with cerebral palsy.
But there are more like me for which CP can’t be an explanation, and I know where to find them. I have been assured by multiple sources with ties to the culture of U.S. military special operations troops that they collect entire sets of muscular nerds with trait profiles a lot like mine. I have no regular contact with those, but I know where to find civilian analogs: they’re a noticeable minority at the better grade of martial-arts school.
Any generative theory of nerdity, therefore, has to explain both the traits of conventional “weedy” nerds a la Slate Star Codex and the smaller cohort of muscular nerd alphas. And there’s a third cohort needing explanation: nerdgirls!
I quizzed my wife Cathy and A&D regular HedgeMage about this, asking them to speak anthropologically about both their own experiences and how they model the ways nerdgirls in general differ from the standard nerd profile. A few interesting patterns emerged.
Both report that the sexual-isolation thing reverses for women. This makes sense; women willing to sleep with nerdy men are relatively scarce (though much less so than when I was growing up), so they get a buffet whether they’re conventionally attractive or not.
Like male nerds, female nerds are bored by or uncomprehending of normal status games. But while athletics intensifies male status competition, it’s an escape from normal female status games; thus, nerd girls are rather more likely to seek out athletics than nerd guys. (Though martial arts seems to be the same kind of exception it is among male nerds – that is, even nerd girls who don’t self-define as athletic are quite likely to gravitate to it.)
Once you accept the reality of muscular nerds and nerdgirls the standard nerd profile seems pretty seriously challenged. It looks overspecified; if it actually describes what a philosopher would describe as a “natural kind” then we’ve identified at least two other “natural kinds” that tend to socially identify with and be identified as nerds. There might be other such natural kinds.
I think the pattern emerging here is of two drivers: high intelligence and reduced interest in monkey politics and status games. The thing is that “reduced interest” can have many causes. You might be a borderline Aspie/autist who is partway out of the game through inability to read the signals (that’s your standard nerd profile). Or you might be a natural sigma/alpha type who knows what the other monkeys are thinking but has little need to interact with them on other than his own terms (the muscular nerd).
I admit that I’m less clear where the nerdgirls fit in this model. We have a few among the blog regulars; perhaps they’ll chime in.