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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

NATURE VS. NURTURE: HOW THE GENETIC HERITAGE OF INDIVIDUALS INTERACTS WITH FAMILY AND OTHER SOCIALIZING INFLUENCES TO SHAPE AN INDIVIDUAL'S PERSONALITY TRAITS

INTRODUCTORY OBSERVATIONS

Today's Buggy Comments Were Intended . . .

. . . as a carefully thought-out reply, however quickly written up, to a posted commentary at Understanding Society . . .  a web-site run by Professor Daniel Little, a philosopher at the University of Michigan and also its current chancellor. It's a stimulating web-site, or perhaps more accurately put, a provocative site.   On it, Professor Little --- a talented philosopher specializing in the epistemological nature of the social sciences --- displays his abundant talents in long posts with lots of historical and contemporary examples.

Why the Term Provocative Here?

Well, in a nutshell, Professor Little emerges as a radical liberal reformer of an idealist sort --- and for that matter, at times, a Marxist--- whose ideological concerns seem to motivate his understanding of societal processes, not least as they shape the personality structures of individuals strictly and solely. They do this, strictly and solely, through a variety of socializing influences: first the family, then peer-groups, schools at all levels, the media, later on careers, and other institutional societal influences . . . including, needless to add, our political and economic institutions at all levels.  (Click here for the Little commentary.)

Enter the problems with such a rigorously outside-in understanding of how an individuals' mental world, both cognitive and emotional, develops from infancy onward.  What's missing?  By now, you've probably guessed it: inside-out influences, specific to each individual --- yes, even siblings who share on an average 50% of their parents' idiosyncratic genes --- that derive from genetic inheritance and help shape the personality development, cognitive and emotional, of each human being in interaction with socializing influences. 

Wait though. 

For a few moments, put these genetic influences on hold.  Instead, focus your mind on what likely motivates Professor Little's total neglect of such inside-out causal matters. 

The Answer: f

In plain English, Professor Little's theoretical perspective faithfully mirrors both radical-idealist and Marxist views of our individual- and wider group-lives; specifically, it explains all the big problems in human societies like capitalist America as being due wholly to a tight web of harmful and repressive institutions that sustain widely shared cultural beliefs and values built into the nature of capitalism of the American sort. These repressive institutions, starting with families, schools, churches, the media, and the like, are underpinned by a mix of economic and political power ---- usually hidden from view.  (This radical-idealist bias held by Prof. Little, please observe, isn't just speculative.  It shows up explicitly in dozens of his posted commentaries over the years.  For that matter, prof bug even replied to some of them earlier, not, mind you, at Professor Little's site, but rather at Economist's View when its blogger, Professor Mark Thoma, would link to Professor Little's commentaries.)

The outcome of this single-minded perspective, shared by the radical left and some others?

Simply said, the mental world of socially created Americans en masse (to stay with our society) is shot through with false-consciousness

And So, What To Do?

The answer again: Carry out radical political reform that alters the institutionalized socializing actors --- and voilà, with enough reform, not only will the various inequalities of power, income, and status in American life alter for the better, but average people will be more tolerant and compassionate while crime, especially committed by some of the poor, will diminish markedly . . . and all because inequalities have markedly declined.  Less inequality across societies will, supposedly, entail greater longevity as well.

Note carefully now.

In this sort of Marxist or radical-idealist world-view, the pre-condition of such sweeping reform is to lay bare the false beliefs in peoples' individual consciousness about American life that have been culture-engendered and initially caused and then reinforced by a hefty host of institutionalized socializing agencies. These false beliefs, it goes without saying, don't serve the real interests of the American people, and especially poor Americans.  Hence the need for radical institutional and cultural changes . . . with, the key point here, no limit on the reformers' radically benevolent changes due to other, non-societal influences that shape the average American (or other peoples') mental life, all of which are ignored by Professor Little. 

Click on the continue button below, please.

BACK NOW TO THE NON-SOCIAL INFLUENCES ON OUR MENTAL WORLDS 

What Are Those Other Inside-Out Influences Specific to Each Individual?f

Tersely put, our inherited human nature.  It varies genetically, in certain ways,  across individuals. 

In more concrete terms, there are always inside-out causal influences working on the development of individual mental worlds that derive from individually inherited genes, always, though, in interaction with the outside-in socializing forces:  within the family initially, then soon enough in the developmental cycle of individual personality with peer groups, schools, churches, the impact of the media (very important these days) and so on.  By roughly the age of 13 or 14, an individual's personality structure and specific traits --- talents of various sorts, general intelligence, openness to change, risk-taking, resilience in dealing with setbacks, introversion vs. extroversion, sensitivity to others, proneness to neuroticism, and so on again --- are heavily anchored in that person's being and are hard to alter much.  Or so, as you'll soon see,  prof bug argued in reply to the recent post by Professor Little.   

What did Professor Little have to say about such genetic influences?  Nothing. 

He totally ignored these limits on the socializing influences that, he said, alone shape individual personalities.  In the upshot, he ignored the limits of transforming human beings by radical social and political changes alone, which --- on their own ---should suffice to transform 300 million Americans (among others in the world) into allegedly happier, more sensitive, and more egalitarian citizens.  And given what his numerous posts have said about the Social Democratic welfare-states of Western Europe, they --- in line with their more egalitarian societies (at any rate in income and wealth) --- should be noticeably more advanced toward that transformation of human nature. 

The Reality?

As prof bug showed citing numerous sources of data, that isn't the case. 

If anything, the more egalitarian the West European countries have become after the 1970s, the more violent crime has increased steadily there ---so much so that it's far worse than in USA today in almost all countries in Europe, and is in fact at an historical low according to the Department of Justice studies of two cross-checking types: one of officially reported crime and the other taken from opinion surveys of crime-victims . . . all this, mind you, as the USA has become far less egalitarian in income and wealth since 1970.  Similarly, as the American people have become far less racist and much more tolerant of minorities and gays --- to the point that we have a black president, something unthinkable in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s when prof bug grew up into adulthood --- the more egalitarian West European have become more racist and intolerant (again, documented at length by prof bug).  Small wonder that far-right political parties in the EU have made breakthroughs everywhere, stimulating worries (no doubt exaggerated) about the revival of European fascism as a major force in European politics.  

Sidebar Comments

 . . . For  the buggy data regarding the much higher violent crime rates in West Europe than in the U.S.A --- as well as the much greater progressivity by far of the US tax system compared to European countries' systems; and the growing increase in mistrust across the EU, as well as racism; and the misconceptions that higher longevity in the small countries of Northern Europe by about 3 years compared to the USA reflects much less inequality of income and wealth --- click here, then run individual searches for "violent crime", "TRUST", "progressivity" (taxes), and "longevity."  Or, though there are 47 "finds" in that lengthy comments-thread, just run a search for "buggy

. . . And for recent commentary on the emergence of extreme right-wing movements and political parties in Europe --- carried out by one of Britain's most prominent historian, himself a specialist in fascism in interwar Europe and during WWII ---click here. 

Return once more to Professor Little's provocative commentary. 

Such hard evidence don't seem to interest him, any more than the buggy data at the web site of Professor Mark Thoma did in the past.  Actually, the two seem to be intellectual chums, Professor Thoma very frequently linking to the posts of Professor Little.  What alone seems to matter to them are the gate-keeping protection of their ideologically inspired beliefs.  Factual evidence that collides with their world-outlook is brushed off as tainted or misleading, and so neither of them want anything to to do with prof bug evidence-driven commentaries that collide with those ideological preferences . . . the buggy guy, let it be stressed once more, a moderate Democrat,who supports almost all the policy positions of President Obama.

What Follows?

It's the buggy reply to Professor Little's recent effort to rely strictly on outside-in social influences in explaining every individuals' mental outlook and personality traits.

More specifically, the reply was given the heave-ho cold shoulder when buggy prof tried to post it in the comments section at Understanding Society."We're sorry but we cannot accept this" Professor Little's posting box flashed in reply. No, it wasn't the length. It was the content that was unacceptable to the "moderator:" read:you-know-who, a philosopher-chancellor who was otherwise probably busy caning some sophomores for blowing spitballs at his lectern during a series of ex-cathedra pronunciamentos about personality development.

Oh well, that's life . . . prof bug now booted off two libertarian web sites and a lib-radical web site run by Professor Thoma, while dinged from the outset at the Little site today. Crazy! Crazy! huh?   I mean. . . at this rate, before he dies, the blackballed buggy guy might end up persona ingrata at every ideology-driven web site on the Internet that deals with human behavior.

Please Note Quickly As Another Clarification

Prof. bug had an open comments section for the first four years of this site. He had to close it against his will after the two different atomic-blasts filled with of thousands of posts arrived at the buggy site simultaneously and knocked out both times a server of the end Internet-Provider company that connects this and other web-sites to the Internet. Two servers knocked out at two different IP-companies in two different years!  So my web manager said he would simply close down the comments.  Otherwise, he might not be able to find another IP-provider. 

Oh, almost forgot. By then, too, it seemed that several dozen gambling palaces world-wide had confused prof bug with someone else, and were posting lengthy come-on ads for free in the buggy comment section. And when, finally, some porn web sites followed suit, prof bug had a double reason to take his web-manager's advice and close the section. It would otherwise take at least a half hour to remove them daily one-by-one. 

Too bad, no?  Oh, by the way, prof bug isn't a gambler.  As for porn, prof bug hardly looks at it . . . unless 221 times a day visits to various web sites featuring it count as a lot.

NATURE VS. NURTURE: A Reply to Professor Daniel Little

1) For all its stimulating analysis, your commentary, Professor Little, has a hefty drawback.

Tersely put, it treats the mental world of each individual --- his or her entire personality development, both cognitive and emotional sides --- as entirely shaped from birth onward by the surrounding social environment . . . presumably by a mixture of imitation and learning in interaction with others. These strictly social causes of personality development starting, obviously, with the toddler's family: parents and siblings. And then continuing, soon enough, with the growing impact more recently in history of peer groups, whether in school or neighborhoods. Not to forget the growing influence at the same time of movies, music, a teen-age culture, of the Internet and cell phone interactions. Plus, of course, the older historical impact on development through early childhood and adolescence of teachers, churches, jobs, and other formal socializing institutions.

All these socializing influences --- from families to wider societal institutions, themselves embedded in a wider national culture and more specific sub-group norms, values, and beliefs ---are, to repeat, the sole causal influences of personality development . . . at any rate, in your model as it stands.

2) The outcome of this developmental model of a person's mental world? 

It's a return to strictly Lockean psychology. Meaning that the mind of any individual is conceived by you as a total blank at birth, a tabula rasa, shaped entirely by external influences. What is missing here is any reference in your theory to the different biological make-up in the specific inherited genes of an individual, his or her genotype.

Take siblings. Subject to the same family, peer-group, and larger societal socializing causes (particularly if they're close in age), siblings other than identical twins differ noticeably by the age of 13 or 14 in their cognitive and emotional beings . . . their personality structures deeply anchored in their mental life and hard to change in their fundamentals. Think of the differences among brothers and sisters that have emerged by then in temperament, risk-taking, resilience in dealing with setbacks and failures, introversion or extroversion, sensitivity to others, talents of various sorts, intellectual interests, and so on. And yet siblings share, on an average, only 50% of the family genes that mark them as born to the same mother and father.

How much greater will be the differences in the mental world, then, among unrelated individual subject to the same non-family socializing influences?

3) Steven Pinker, a prominent evolutionary psychology, sets out numerous examples of these differences among siblings in a chapter of his 2004 book,

    "Concrete behavioral traits that patently depend on content provided by the home or culture are, of course, not heritable at all: which language you speak, which religion you worship in, which political party you belong to. But behavioral traits that reflect the underlying talents and temperaments are heritable: how proficient with language you are, how religious, how liberal or conservative. General intelligence is heritable, and so are the five major ways in which personality can vary (summarize by the acronym OCEAN): openness to experience, conscientious, extroversion-introversion, antagonism-agreeableness, and neuroticism. And traits that are surprisingly specific turn out to be heritable, too, such as dependence on nicotine or alcohol, number of hours television is watched, and likelihood of divorcing."

Oppositely, Pinker adds at once ---to illustrate how much identical twins separated at birth have in common in adulthood:

    "Finally, there are the Mallifert brothers in Chas Addam's patent office and their real-world counterparts: the identical twins separated at birth who both grew up to be captains of their volunteer fire departments, who both twirled their necklaces when answering questions, or who both told the researcher picking them up at the airport (separately) that a wheel bearing in his car needed to be replaced." (Source: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature", (2004) p. 375.

4) A careful reminder is in order:

Inherited genes interact with social and cultural influences in shaping the personality structure of individuals, their specific traits --- their temperaments, talents, interests, empathy, and so on. And note:  The interaction between nature and nurture is crucial to all personality development. There is no strictly genetic influence without such interaction, and very few personality traits except for the kinds Pinker mentions (along with a few more) that are strictly a matter of social influences.

  

Enter another example, this one buggy's, by way of illustration.

Suppose Leopold Mozart, a professional musician and successful music teacher, had taken his wife and his baby, tiny Wolfgang Amadeus, for a ride in a carriage into the forest areas near Salzberg one day. Suppose further that Wolfgang was placed in the back-seat of the carriage while the parents were in the front, engaged in a lively conversation. They didn't notice until they got back to the carriage-house that the baby had fallen out of the backseat as the horses galloped over a big bump somewhere in the forest. Before the parents returned to the likely spot, little Mozart was found by an illiterate married peasant couple who thought the baby had been abandoned; so they took it home; nd raised Wolfgang as their own child with loving care.

These kind peasants had no training whatever in music, nor any natural talents in it. Would Wolfgang have started writing concertos and symphonies by age 5 then? Hardly. He might have shown an unusual talent by then of humming tunes and singing in the local church choir; but that's all.

 

By the reverse token, suppose Leopold Mozart and his wife --- yearning for a child to replace Wolfgang --- adopted a day-old baby left at the front-door of their local church. Suppose again that Leopold spent as much time in instructing and encouraging the baby --- born to illiterate peasants near Salzberg, neither of them with musical talents - as much as we know he did with Wolfgang in real life. You tell me: would the adopted twin have started writing concertos and symphonies at age 5 and become as famous as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in musical history?

5) The wider universal outcome?

Simple to say now.  Everyone of of us shares to a large extent a  common human nature with  the billions of other people in the world.  In numerous ways, too, American or Chinese or Mexican and so on are heavily influenced in their personality development by their countries' specific national culture and by their concrete sub-group cultures: different religions, different ethnic histories, various regional and local communities, their careers, their membership in client-patron networks or gangs, and the like.  And yet in certain key ways, everyone of us is unique, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally . . . with clear limits on external socializing influences even among siblings (except for identical twins) in our personality traits.

6) Who then is likely to deny such interaction between nature and nurture?

And, in particular, deny the distinctive role of a person's genetic heritage in shaping his individual mental world in interacting with the family and the wider social environment?

  • Many ambitious liberal reformers, who (these days, say) regard President Obama as either insufficiently liberal in his policies or, worse,  a sell-out to the alleged capitalist oligarchy in charge of our country.
  • And virtually all political radicals motivated by socialist ideals.
  • As well as, it seems, all Marxists.
  • And virtually all thoroughgoing idealists who don't see themselves as falling into any of the first three categories.

Michael Gordon, Aka the buggy professor