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tnapb4 As a parent it is important to me that my daughter grow up in the context of a two-parent monogamous household. Not only do I find this arrangement congenial for a variety of personal reasons, it is also what society is most optimally set up for. But there is a strong class element today in the United States as to the realization of this ideal. While 94 percent of college educated women giving birth are married, 57 percent of women with a high school education or less are unmarried when they have their first child. These striking correlations emphasize to many social conservatives the importance of marriage in shaping individual outcomes.* The lesson being that if you get get married and complete your education you will not be poor. What immediately comes to mind though is that those who do not get married and finish their education are not an arbitrary subset of the population. For example, they are less likely to have a range of personality traits which allow for trading off utility in the short term for gains in the long term. Giving someone a marriage license and keeping them locked in school may not change these underlying habits of mine and behavior. But this attitude toward the causes and dynamics at work in social ills is not limited to ideological conservatives. It is a widespread view informed by common sense observations. Though many individuals from broken homes do very well, on the whole it is clear from anecdotes and social science that this life history adds stress and diminishes life prospects.

Or does it? Over ten years ago Judith Rich Harris published The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Though the basic argument of the book, which draws from peer-reviewed behavior genetic literature, was outlined extensively in The Blank Slate, it has gotten very little broad cultural traction (though it occasionally pops into the public discussion thanks to economists such as Bryan Caplan and Steven Levitt, who see similar patterns as the behavior geneticists). The primary lesson is that main distinctive contribution parents seem to make to the outcomes of their children in a behavioral and social sense is their genetic contribution. This does not mean that behavioral traits are primarily genetic in terms of explaining the variation in outcomes. Rather, it means that the environmental contribution is not something that parents have much direct control over. In The Nurture Assumption the author proposes that the primary environmental causal factor are peer groups. Though this has not been extensively validated to my knowledge, it seems a plausible enough candidate. For example, children tend to speak with the accents and lexicon of their friends, not that of their parents. If upper-class parents from a particular region share linguistic characteristics with their offspring, it has little to do with the direct parental modeling, as opposed to being embedded in a common social milieu.

As the year progresses you will read a great deal in the press about sociological dynamics and how they effect individuals, often for the worse. In response conservatives will point to the importance of individual responsibility and collective norms in enforcing ideal behavior and life outcomes. Liberals will allude to various structural factors which set up people to make wrong choices, and various governmental solutions which might mitigate and even counter-act these forces. What both viewpoints will neglect is that much of the variation in outcomes in individuals, and across social sets, is likely due to heritable differences in personality. In plainer language individual differences matter, much of which is due to genetic differences. To illustrate what I am talking about, consider the robust correlation between children who are abused who abuse then their own offspring when they become parents. A commonsense explanation here is that inappropriate behavior was modeled, and the parents are now recapitulating what they learned. But one immediate issue that comes to mind is that parents who beat their children with no compunction may have a particular personality profile tending toward low empathy and lack of self-control. This personality profile is likely heritable, and passed to their offspring, who naturally exhibit the same characteristics.

The complexity of life outcomes is such that we must be cautious about how we appropriate the weight of a given causal factor on a social, let alone individual, level. When it comes to complex traits with a genetic component how that variation manifests on a social level is strongly conditioned by cultural context. In a society where physical punishment of children is highly normative abuse may not be due to any personality profile at all, because most people are conformist enough that they follow the broader script. Perhaps it is in societies where the norm is changing and not standardized where personal dispositions come most strongly into play as a factor. Similarly, when it comes to a social ideal like marriage obviously cultural headwinds were such that two generations ago no matter your personality profile the expectation of being wedded was so strong that most individuals fell into line. My point is that as you read story after story this year about the impact of various purely social forces in the media, do not neglect the power of genetic variation in many phenomena. It will give you a better and more complete understanding of what’s really going on, which is the point of it all in the end….

Addendum: Long-standing readers may wonder why I’m posting this, since it’s not particularly original. Because every now and then the unoriginal needs to be restated, because it’s actually original to many.

* It is critical to note that lower SES individuals actually value the idea of marriage as much, or more, than higher SES individuals. Rather, they fail to realize their ideal. Often the idealization of marriage manifests with individuals marrying after the birth of their first child, in some haste.

• Category: Science • Tags: Behavior Genetics 
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  1. Some (relatively minor) quibbles:

    1) In The Nurture Assumption the author proposes that the primary environmental causal factor are peer groups…. For example, children tend to speak with the accents and lexicon of their friends, not that of their parents.

    An anecdote, not data, but telling if it were replicable: one of my father-in-law’s best friend immigrated to this country in his teens, and always spoke English with a heavy accent. His son was born in this country, grew up with native speakers, not in an ethnic ghetto, but as a child he and his father did everything together, including hanging out with his father’s close friends, all of whom were born and raised in the U.S. The son has always had his father’s accent not those of the other kids that he knew.

    What this suggests to me is that the role or importance of peer groups is not necessarily a given, but is due to an American or western style of child rearing, which assume or allows or imposes very separate spheres for parents and children. Parents can affect their children’s environment in ways other than the type of peer group they have, we just do not do that in this country/culture.

    2) While 94 percent of college educated women giving birth are married, 57 percent of women with a high school education or less are unmarried when they have their first child.

    I wish I had me my copy of the Current Population Survey handy. This tells me something, but off the top of my head, I have no idea of the shares of these two groups in the population, so no idea how important overall the different behaviors are. Those numbers would provide a bit of context.

  2. “In The Nurture Assumption the author proposes that the primary environmental causal factor are peer groups.”

    I always wonder what this means for those of us who grew up in more isolated circumstances, such as those from authoritarian homeschooling families. I grew up in such a family and I don’t remember having a proper peer group until I was a teenager. I had maybe one friend as a kid who was also homeschooled, so I guess we may have had an outsize influence on each other. Also siblings– in larger homeschooled families it’s not uncommon for siblings to essentially raise each other.

  3. Aside from the individuals mentioned above, I am perhaps one of the foremost voices stressing the limited to non-existent effect of parenting.

    Readers interested in more on this topic should see these post of mine:

    All Human Behavioral Traits are Heritable | JayMan’s Blog

    Taming the “Tiger Mom” and Tackling the Parenting Myth « JayMan’s Blog

    Apples, Oranges, and Lesbians: The Nurture Assumption Just Will Not Die | JayMan’s Blog

    “Long standing readers may wonder why I’m posting this, since it’s not particular original. Because every now and then the unoriginal needs to be restated, because it’s not that original to many.”

    Greg Cochran once said as much… 😉

    What a refreshing post!

  4. I’ve been banging the drum for popularizing Arthur Jensen’s term “the sociologist’s fallacy” as a shorthand abstraction to correct this common error.

  5. I think about this often when I read the news and especially when I talk with people directly about this and its implications because I can tell they still have no true understanding of what it means. How much ‘play’ do we have, in the extended phenotype of our society, when it comes to convincing people that we aren’t Blank Slates? The amount of people who understand the implications of behavior genetics is significantly influenced by genetics! And a good portion of those that are able to understand it don’t want to (*cough* liberals!) I literally had to break free from Blank Slate brainwashing completely on my own (thanks to GNXP Classic on Google search) to understand it myself and I’m just ONE guy and it probably only happened because I was built the way I am and have internet access. I think education and awareness could improve our numbers *to a certain extent* but it will reach diminishing returns before our club is satisfied. Apparently, we need an even more clear demo of it than the Minn. twin study or the Silver Foxes because many people watch those and go “Wow, that’s cool!” and I can only think “But DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT THIS MEANS!!??”
    I think if genetic engineering for humans becomes a reality then people will have to accept behavior genetics and will understand it implicitly but unfortunately, they don’t focus on the implications for public policy that it has. Maybe genetic engineering will “cure” genetic determinism: the genes of smart people who develop genetic engineering will ultimately determine society’s fate. Maybe we shouldn’t worry as it’s destiny anyway. Will our genes rescue us from ourselves?
    I wonder if this makes Steve Hsu feel like a cog in a machine, slaving away doing the universe’s work:) Yeah, Steve, if you could just hurry up and knock that out for us, that’d be great…whutevs, I’ll be playing frisbee golf if u need me…(my genes are playing the role of Freeloader)

  6. There are additional economic, educational, and societal confounds. But it becomes a hot political question and a statement of faith when the crusaders against non-traditional marriage insist that a wide body of research supposedly proves a causal link between marriage and the outcomes of child development (as opposed to be a limited correlation between the two). E.g. in this recent court appeal:

  7. My father grew up in a very intellectual household where the family culture was very different from that of the raffish Brooklyn neighborhood around him. He went on to higher education and became a successful professional as did his brother. Most of his childhood friends were his equals in native intelligence but got much less education. Most of them worked hard at small enterprises and struggled economically. One got rich in business but was very stressed and died in middle age. Here I think family made a big difference.

  8. I probably should read “The Nurture Assumption”, but this is just off the top of my head. I wonder whether it isn’t specific to contemporary American life. First, as mentioned above, between the public schools, the entertainment media, and and youth culture, American parents are often a relatively minor input on their kids lives past the age of 6 or so, especially if the parents are workaholics or have active lives outside the family or have a laissez fare parenting philosophy.

    Second, a lot of the deliberate input into parenting comes from rather clueless parents who are following the latest pop books on the subject — playing Mozart to the fetus, piling the house with books that neither parent reads, showering the kid with insincere and meaningless praise, etc.

    My son grew up with many of my attitudes, most of them not shared by the general culture. I can claim a degree of success that way, but in fact my attitudes have been more an impediment to him than otherwise. By contrast, my ditzy niece who knows youth culture but little else might end up being able to make a living off it.

  9. 1. Aside from all of the other reasons mentioned above… behavior genetics tells us about the current state of affairs, but it does not provide unassailable conclusions about changeability. I suspect this is part of the reason that the relatively well informed and well intentioned layman will ignore results from behavior genetics. Once ignored, it is easily forgotten.

    2. Height can be a good entry point to discussions on behavior genetics, at least with educated audiences. It helps that height is concrete, easy to observe, and undoubtably highly heritable. Height is not affected by parenting because the process of development that leads to adult height is not open to that kind of influence (except perhaps HGH treatment?). Pointing out that the development of some traits proceeds in that fashion, you can then point out that it’s an open question as to which other traits are similarly resistant to parental influence.

  10. And I was also going to say: one of the main ways parents influence their kids is indirectly, by choosing the neighborhood they live in, the schools they go to, and their friends (if only by vetoing inappropriate friends). This has been the traditional practice, e.g., in China and France, but less so in the US.

  11. I’ll comment on the example that I have done the most research regarding, which is the link between socio-economic class and marriage stability. My conclusion is this: marriage formation and stability is largely a function of the extent to which wives are economically dependent upon husbands. Operationally, with broad cross-cultural agreement – marriages in which women have lower earnings than men tend to be more stable, while marriages in which men have lower earnings than women (and hence in which women are less economically dependent upon their husbands) are not stable.

    The way that this translates into a class divide is that women in all social classes mostly have children and mostly reduce their labor force participation for a period of time if they can afford to do so. In professional-managerial jobs, the economic cost of doing so is very great. A University of Michigan law school graduate who spends a few years as a big law firm lawyer and then takes several years off to have children and returns to work only on the “mommy track” (which most do) sacrifices millions of dollars in lifetime earnings that result in her similar socio-economic class husband to make more money than her for the rest of their marriage, making her economically dependent. And, men in that social strata have seen increasing prosperity over the past few decades.

    In contrast, a high school graduate woman who has a child with a high school graduate man is likely to only be able to take a few months off from work from a job where number of years of experience has little or no impact on her income upon returning to the work force and is likely to work in a field (e.g. as a CNA) that isn’t as stagnant and cyclic as the father who likely works in some form of manual labor or mechanical or construction work. His segment of the economy has been stagnant since the 1970s as other parts of the economy have improved and irregular but fairly frequent periods of unemployment are the norm for him. The likelihood that his marriage will become unstable as he can’t contribute as much to the household as his wife for a sustained period is great.

    The traits that impair the health of the working class marriage (IQ and aptitude for office/healthcare work relative to hands on work) are very likely hereditary to a significant degree, but not in the senses suggested in the original post.

    Economics is a much more powerful force than personality traits related to being married in marriage survival. For example, in places like Sweden, where the economy is structured in a way such that middle class women are not economically dependent upon the fathers of their children, non-marital child bearing is common and marital stability is weak even among middle class people. But, people with Swedish ancestors in the U.S. follow U.S. and not Swedish marriage stability patterns.

    Similarly, fifty years ago, the ancestors of those high school graduates were in a very different context. The labor market for men with modest education had never been stronger, and the labor market for women, due to post-WWII restoration of traditional gender divisions in the work place, was awful. These men had secure employment that provide far more income than their wives could hope to earn, pre-contraception and deferred timing pregnancies accentuated this by having more wives as homemakers with young children, and marriages were stable.

    Also notably, white and black out of wedlock birth rates were virtually identical through about the 1950s, and only diverged in the later part of the 20th century. This strongly disfavors arguments from a legacy of slavery that resulted in genetic selection (also supported by a recent study showing almost no alleles showing signs of changes in frequency based upon selective fitness benefits in African Americans since slave importation) or other behavior genetics causes of the surge of out of wedlock births and demise of African-American marriage stability which preceded the same trend in working class whites. During the period in which out of wedlock births rose for African Americans, African Americans, on average, became modestly more European genetically due to increased admixture rates.

    Bottom line: any time there is a major shift in behavioral patterns in just a few generations, economic context is likely a better explanation than genetics for the change.

    A better case for a behavioral genetic source would be, for example, regional differences in crimes of violence by middle class men (much higher in Appalachia and the South than elsewhere), where regional trends have persisted despite the disappearance of the likely economic pressures (associated with a herding economy) that made the aggression a fitness enhancing personality trait.

  12. Bottom line: any time there is a major shift in behavioral patterns in just a few generations, economic context is likely a better explanation than genetics for the change.

    your whole comment is off topic. i implicitly addressed this issue about controlling for background variables. genetic explains *within* cultures more of the variation. obviously can’t pool across time/regions.

    shorter: your model of what i’m saying is wrong. read some behavior genetics or read me more closely.

  13. John Emerson is right. But I think what Chinese parents are doing is, as far as possible, eliminating negative environmental influences, in order to give their kids the best possible chance. Then it is up to how well the kids are armed genetically. Parents steeped in Confucian belief might not realise that is what they are doing, but it is what they are doing. The stereotypical Chinese ‘helicopter mother’ is really there as a gate-keeper.

    Recently, Chinese parents in Hong Kong were ridiculed in the local press for turning up to university orientation days with their kids, instead of dropping the kids in the deep end and letting them find their own way. They are supposed to be ‘adults’, after all. But my wife and I did that with our daughter at her Australian university and, surprise surprise, a very substantial minority of white Australian kids had at least one parent with them also (my quick visual count indicated about 40%, mostly but not all girls). Helicopter parenting is not culturally constrained.

  14. Your last couple of posts include the top of heritability of behavioral and social traits, and you use empathy as an example in both. I’m just curious what you think of the so-called empathy, or kindness, gene? I still see threads on 23andme on the topic in which individuals with the GG version extoll their kindness and capacity for empathy but as an AA carrier, in a family of AA carriers, can it be true that I have no genetic capacity for kindness and empathy? Could this be mitigated by environment or are we just birds-of-a-feather, unable to discern how unkind and unempathetic we all are? Looking at Opensnp, since Alfred and dbsnp are useless for this snp, out of 468 users:

    48% GG
    41% AG
    10% AA

    Ya, there’s a rounding error in there somewhere. In my 8 interrelated profiles, 5/8 are AA, or 62.5%. 1 is GG, 12.5% and 2 are AG 25%. I really want to say the correlations to this variant are bogus but how can 62.5% of my tested family members be AA, low empathy version, and yet across 468 users, only 10% are AA? Just coincidence, or maybe similar personality types flocking together? Well, the good news is me and my husband are both AA, so both our kids are too. At least no one feels misunderstood :b

  15. i doubt there’s a large effect gene segregating within the population.

  16. I have a lot of competing interests, but I really regret not having read “The Nurture Assumption”. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to say things. Sorry, but this IS the internet.

    There is a rare special case of families which organize themselves around childraising. These tend to be very well-off families, because most families have to be organized around economic survival and end up limiting childraising to providing food and discipline, and not always that. In some cases kids are on their own by the time they are about 10, and often at 14 or 16.

    The families I’m thinking of (besides the generic Chinese and French families mentioned above), are Joe Kennedy’s family, the family of William and Henry James, Mozart’s family (his dad), Bach’s family (he and his kids), and Vladimir Nabokov’s family. Reading the biographies and autobiographies of these men, it is as if the family itself was a school or a kind of apprenticeship program. Kids were expected to behave and perform, and they were also given everything they needed to do that.

    My point here, I guess, is that the valid part of the book is as sociological or historical fact about the US (especially) and non-elite families in general, rather than a psychological truth about the influence of parents.

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