Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Archive for January 2009

Jan/09

31

No Two Alike

Mr. Hume:  Although The Nurture Assumption made the more noise, I actually liked No Two Alike the better of JRH’s two books. It begins with a pair of identical twins joined together at the head since birth. You can’t get more alike than that: same genome, and how different could their environment have been? Yet by age 29 they were quite different people, so much so that they decided to risk separation surgery so each could pursue her own goals. Alas, they died in the OR.

That’s just the starting point for an exploration of how we get to be what we are, informed by a very wide knowledge of the child-development and personality literature. A lot of what we are is genes, of course; but what’s the rest? That’s her topic, and she makes a very fascinating story out of it.

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Jan/09

31

Judith Rich Harris & nurture & nature

Since Bradlaugh & Heather have mentioned Judith Rich Harris, I would recommend both of her books, The Nurture Assumption & No Two Alike to any reader who wishes be introduced to behavior genetics.   You can also check out my interview of Harris from a few years back. For the more politically inclined, a summary of a discussion in The Corner about Ms. Harris’ ideas.

The core of Judith Rich Harris’ reason for offering her thesis is simple; for decades behavioral geneticists have found that on a wide range of traits human population level variation is predicted by the following components:

50% genetic variation
10% shared environment variation
40% other environment variation

(more…)

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Jan/09

31

The value of families

I think the leading candidate here is the work on child development showing that parenting styles don’t matter much, perhaps not at all above a certain very low level (locking the kids in the basement and feeding them cat food). The canonical statement was given by Judith Rich Harris in The Nurture Assumption:  “Group socialization theory makes this prediction: that children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their lives outside the home unchanged — left them in their schools and their neighborhoods — but switched all the parents around.” That’s got to be painful for a family-values conservative to read, yet it seems to be the current consensus.

I don’t think that the “family values” that family-values conservatives tout or at least ought to tout, Bradlaugh, have to do with styles of parenting, but rather, with having parents (two, ideally your own) in the first place.  When the marriage norm has all but disappeared from a community, as it has in the inner city (where illegitimacy rates for blacks can get as high as 90%, compared to the also dire 71% national black illegitimacy rate), boys fail to learn the most basic tenet of responsibility: you are responsible for your children.  This is crisis-of-civilization territory, in my view.  In a culture where a male can get a female pregnant then move on to the next female without consequence, boys have no incentive to pick up the bourgeois habits of self-discipline and deferred gratification that would allow them to woo a wife  and provide for their children.   One likely result: The black homicide rate is ten times that of “whites.”  The “white” rate, in FBI crime data, surreptitiously includes Hispanics.  Take out the Hispanic homicide rate, which is about three to four times higher than that of whites, and the black-white homicide disparity would be even greater. 

One might be able to scramble all the single mothers in Milwaukee, or all the married parents in Irvine, Ca., without producing a huge effect on their individual children; I don’t know enough about Judith Rich Harris’s work to say.  But if all those kids in Irvine suddenly found themselves growing up in a culture of illegitimacy, my guess is that you would see far fewer lawyers, engineers, and scientists coming out of Irvine’s University High.

Jan/09

31

Spies Like Us?

Walter, you mention the fact that the spy Robert Hanssen was also a member of Opus Dei, and then go on to comment that “the oft-mooted prophylactic effect of religious enthusiasm against world-league personal misbehavior doesn’t seem to work very well.”

To draw that conclusion from Hanssen’s betrayal of his country (from what appear to have been a mix of financial and psychological motives) is an amusing debating tactic but, I reckon, a bit of a stretch. At best one can say that it demonstrates that the prophylactic effect of religious enthusiasm did not work in his case, but so what? There are very few (if any) religious folk who would claim that a belief in their creed would always be enough to prevent its adherents from committing a crime, world-league or otherwise. If anything, most religions (the more successful of which are built upon on a shrewd appreciation of human nature) recognize that even the most devout must forever be on guard against the temptations (such as KGB pay-offs) that this world has to offer, a recognition that implicitly and explicitly accepts that there are believers who will indeed stray from, to put it rather biblically, the path of righteousness. 

There may be other ways to achieve the same objective, but it would be a mistake, I reckon, to deny that religious faith can operate as a brake on personal misbehavior and, indeed, often does. Not only that, it can be a highly effective device to bring out the best in people (and the worst too, but that’s another topic). If I had to guess, that’s one of the reasons that the most widely-followed religions have evolved in the way they have, but that too is a topic for another time…

Following my having said (previous post) that any political position will find some human-science results obnoxious, a reader asked me, off-line, to identify a finding — not a practice, like embryo-destructive stem cell research, but a finding — that is obnoxious to conservatives.

I think the leading candidate here is the work on child development showing that parenting styles don’t matter much, perhaps not at all above a certain very low level (locking the kids in the basement and feeding them cat food). The canonical statement was given by Judith Rich Harris in The Nurture Assumption:  “Group socialization theory makes this prediction: that children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their lives outside the home unchanged — left them in their schools and their neighborhoods — but switched all the parents around.” That’s got to be painful for a family-values conservative to read, yet it seems to be the current consensus.

For the Left, pretty much anything to do with heritability of human characteristics, other than undeniable visible ones, is obnoxious because such things violate the “psychic unity of mankind” (in its modern reading, which seems to me not precisely congruent with Bastian’s). Most obnoxious of all to the Left is the idea that homo sap., like any other widely-distributed species, exhibits regional variations between its big, old, settled, mostly-inbred populations.

It’s an interesting question whether the Right or the Left is more science-hostile, net-net. I insist that ideologues on both sides are science-hostile; but which kind of politics is more of an obstacle to the advance of our understanding, is arguable. Since science is mostly carried out in places where Right Creationists, Geocentrists, etc.  have no influence, but blank-slate Left “culturists” and po-mo words-have-no-meaning deconstructionists have tremendous influence, I’d guess the Left has the potential to do more damage, at least in the human sciences. I’d defer to Mr. Hume on this, though, as he’s better acquainted with the situation on the ground, in actual labs and institutes.

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As I pointed out in a column a few weeks back, there are two sides to the Left’s claim to be the more science-friendly faction. It’s not just conservative politics that is hostile to science, it’s any politics, though the particular scientific topic objected to may be different for Left and Right. A political position, especially one that incorporates a religious view of human affairs, usually contains some implicit view of human nature. Scientific inquiry into human nature, which has been picking up steam in recent decades, is therefore liable to turn up results displeasing to lots of politicians and their more ideological supporters (I include religion as a species of ideology), and will be looked at askance for just that reason.

I’m not sure Dennis Overbye is quite right when he says:

Dr. Fang got in trouble initially because he favored the Big Bang, but that was against Marxist orthodoxy that the universe was infinitely unfolding.

As I recall, Fang Lizhi’s error was more trivial than that. In speaking up for a finite universe, he contradicted an offhand remark of Friedrich Engels in one of his books. Engels mentioned gazing up at the night sky and reflecting that it was so awesome, it must surely be infinite.

That was enough to get you in trouble in Mao’s China. Fang later got into much more trouble. I have no personal acquaintance with him, but he looks to me like a pretty good egg. Likewise Xu Liangying, whom I am ashamed to say I did not know about.

These are real heroes of our time. I recall once during my own time in China, being in private conversation with a worldly man of good character who had suffered some injustice at the hands of the authorities. Naïvely I asked him why he didn’t make some kind of protest. He looked at me with a withering scorn I shall never forget, and said: “Foreigners! You don’t know what it’s like for us. You can’t imagine what punishment is like in China.” That was in the 1980s, well post-Mao.

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Jan/09

30

Science and public policy

New York Times Deputy Science Editor Dennis Overbye celebrated the alleged “restoration of science” under the Obama Administration this week, sounding a Chris Matthews-ian note of ecstasy about Obama’s ascension.   I agree with most of Overbye’s essay, which makes a beautiful case for the social accomplishment of science.  The scientific enterprise teaches such humane, democratic values as “honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view,”  Overbye writes.  (Our religious friends  will of course claim that these values are uniquely Christian ones, and that science is parasitic on Christianity.)

But Overbye’s column also hints at the facile conflation of science with favored liberal politics. 

Overbye appears to link the repression of scientific inquiry and democratic expression in China, where a physicist was disciplined for teaching the Big Bang theory in contravention to Marxist teleology, with the scientific and quasi-scientific culture-war battles of the Bush Administration:  “But once you can’t talk about one subject, the origin of the universe, for example, sooner or later other subjects are going to be off-limits, like global warming, birth control and abortion, or evolution, the subject of yet another dustup in Texas last week.” (more…)

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Jan/09

30

Devout spies, cont’d

In your post about the Nicholsons, Heather, I hope you didn’t forget the case of Robert Hanssen, sometimes deemed the very worst Soviet mole ever, who was deep into ultraconservative Catholicism. (Wikipedia: “The Opus Dei priest who heard Robert’s confession told him to give the money to charity as an act of penance. Hanssen told his wife that he gave the money to Mother Teresa, but it is unknown if he actually did so.”) I’ll be the first to admit that none of these cases amount to much as an affirmative argument — there’s no reason to think that of the next 100 enthusiasts for Opus Dei you meet, even one is at risk of becoming a Hanssen-style Kremlin spy — just that the oft-mooted prophylactic effect of religious enthusiasm against world-league personal misbehavior doesn’t seem to work very well.

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Jan/09

30

Faith and treason

Harold James Nicholson, a CIA officer imprisoned for spying for Russia, invoked the will of God when communicating with his son from his jail cell.   “God leads us on our greatest adventures,” he wrote in a birthday card to his son last year, according to the Wall Street Journal.  The father and son’s “adventures” included further espionage for Russia.  Nicholson also cited the Bible: “Do not gloat over me my enemies! For though I fall, I will rise again.”

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Jan/09

29

Miscellany, January 29

  • Ross Douthat doesn’t like Bertrand Russell’s “orbiting teacup” analogy and its modern Flying Spaghetti Monster descendant; Andrew Sullivan and readers then proceed to go ’round and ’round with the question [first, second, third, fourth posts]
  • In the Roman Catholic Church’s latest public relations setback, Pope Benedict XVI has revoked the excommunication of four schismatic Lefebvrist bishops including Holocaust denier Richard Williamson. Some reactions: Rod Dreher (“You won’t believe what a malicious fruitcake Williamson is”), Yoni Goldstein/National Post, Dallas News religion blog, Amy Alkon, Allahpundit, Orac, new Damon Linker blog at TNR.
  • Totally unrelated to above item, even if it sounds as if there might be some connection: “Our Lady of Mercy entered a $4.5 million settlement with prosecutors….” [NY Post] It was a hospital billing scam.
  • According to an approving Polly Toynbee in The Guardian, Britain’s Labour government “will create a new over-arching law creating a duty on the whole public sector to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor”. It’s enough to make Paul Dennett of A Progressive Viewpoint (“A journal of Classical Liberal and Neo-Conservative commentary”) wonder whether the U.K. is heading down the road of the society in Atlas Shrugged.

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