Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Nuture Assumption

Not since I read James Penton’s Apocalypse Delayed, a detailed, and “heretical” history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (the beginning of the end for me as a JW), have I been so simultaneously shell-shocked and enlightened by a book.

The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris, has just been revised, updated and re-released to celebrate its 10 year anniversary. A decade ago it shook the world of psychology and sociology with Harris’ challenge to the sacredly-held Western idea that parents shape their children’s personality, the assumption that the parent’s nurture supersedes any nature or any other outside-of-the-home factors.


A whole industry and culture has been spawned by this assumption, from Baby Einstein to modern psychotherapy to Oprah and her long line of advice-giving guests. Anything wrong in your life? Your parents and their parenting skills, or lack thereof, are likely to blame. Harris’ theory says it just ain’t so. While parents have some affect on their child’s personality, it’s more likely as a result of the sperm and egg they started you off with, and less about how much “quality time” they spent with you as a child.

As for nurture, the environment that is more likely to have affected how you function as an adult is your peer group. Group Socialization Theory is what Harris defends in her book, and what the last hundred years of research from psychology, sociology, anthropology, primatology and evolutionary biology, according to Harris, supports. The theory is that our personalities have many inborn characteristics to begin with, as shaped by our genetics and millions of years of evolution. Beyond that, much of who we become is sculpted, not by our parents, but by our interactions outside of the home, with our peer group.

I cannot possibly do Harris’s 400-page discussion justice here. For a great synopsis of the book see Malcolm Gladwell's original review of the book from 1998.

What I can express, as I do so often here on my blog (it is my blog after all) is how this information has affected me. You may recall this entry where I lamented my own stupidity in coming to find out that God was just a figment of my imagination and my utter depression in learning that all my years as a Jehovah’s Witness proclaiming that I had “The Truth” about life and the future were complete bollocks. Well, here I am once more, standing in the shadow of my ignorance, humbled by the realization that my world view and the framework by which I live my life, once again, yes, once again, needs some major adjusting.

Now, this is huge for me. Not just because I’ve spent so much time in the mental health machine, dissecting my past for a better understanding of how I’ve come to be, but also because I’ve worked on the other side of the fence, in child development and in the self-help field advising parents and others on various issues. And most of my advice was based on the nurture assumption, that parents shape their child, much like an artist molds clay. I’ve given out some pretty shoddy advice over the years, much of it to myself, but some of it to paying customers. And geez, don’t I feel like an ass.

At least I am not alone in this one. While a Jehovah's Witness, I had only 6 million other people around who were as deluded as I was. This time around, I have a whole field of Psychologists, Sociologists, University Professors, Researchers, Doctors, Self-help Gurus, not to mention anyone who watches Oprah, to count as my deluded colleagues. I thought ignorance was just the possession of the uneducated fundamentalist; apparently it’s also the foundation of daily life for most of the Western world.

So, why do we buy into stuff that research just doesn’t support? Why are we so quick to confuse correlation and causation? It’s the same question I explored here, over two years ago . And the answer I came up with then, may still hold true. Because we want to. On some level, these outdated, unsupported notions work for us. Or we’re not aware enough to see that they aren’t working for us. Or we’re going along with the group. It’s hard to be different. Even when you’re an adult, going against the flow, holding a different belief from the one commonly held isn’t so easy. Even if it’s wrong, even if you may know it’s wrong, sometimes, it’s all you got. Meh, who knows? The mind is a vast place and the universe even moreso. Understanding human motivations is beyond the scope of my 80-year existence on this trip around. Wow, did I just say that? Now what do I do with my life?

So, what does this mean for me? It means that I should spend less time talking and more time reading good quality books. It means that much of the stuff I’ve blamed my mother for over the years wasn’t her fault. In fact, as I see it now (yes, here I am talking again when I should probably just shut up) there’s probably only two things my folks can be “blamed” for.

First of all, they had me. They gave me some questionable genetics, a tendency to whine about things is probably part of that (yes, I did just whine about my parent’s giving me the genetics to be whiny), as well as a sensitive nervous system. For all my complaints about my mother, and much to my chagrin at times, my fundamental personality is just like hers. Secondly, they landed me in a peer group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that, I would surmise, was much higher up the crazy scale than most kid’s peer groups. Thankfully, they had the sense not to home-school me (as an increasing number of JW parents are starting to do) and the balancing effect of being in a Public School along with other, more “normal”, kids was probably my saving grace. Although I never fully felt part of my school peer group (it’s hard to feel part of a group you can't get too close to because one day soon, your God’s gonna smite their heathen asses), I observed a lot and learned some pretty decent lessons in socialization as a result.

This all makes me once again question who I am and why I’m here and what I’m supposed to do next. I don’t ever again want to propose to know something with any certainty. I don’t want to be an “expert”, a talking head spouting any particular belief system. Even this book I take with a grain of salt. While it makes the most logical sense of anything I’ve read on the subject to date, there’s an increasing reticence on my part to believe anything anymore. The greatest gift this book has given me is the freedom to let go of that which I thought to be true, and enter a state of cautious awareness. I may not know much, but at least I’m getting pretty clear on what I don’t know. And that, I believe, is progress.

tall penguin

1 comment:

Vanessa said...

Re: correlation vs. causation. I feel this one.. my profession gets kicked in the ass for this all the time.

Did you know 100% of serial killers eat toast for breakfast? I guess eating toast causes serial killing. ;)