John Derbyshire On “The Left And Human Nature”


[John Derbyshire is ill this week, which gives us an opportunity to post this talk, delivered to the H.L. Mencken Club Conference, November 1, 2014. The audio of the original is here—slight adaptations have been made for print purposes.]

I was told that I was to be on a panel discussion, but I never quite know what that means. Should I prepare something, or wing it, or just wait for other people to say something? So I just prepared a few remarks in a discussion kind of way just to approach the conference topic: the Left and Human Nature.

The introduction is from last week’s news. I am an avid reader of news sites because I do a little podcast every weekend called Radio Derb, which of course should be Radio “Daw-b” but it’s kind of established now. So every morning I get up and I read through a whole bunch of news websites to see what’s been happening, and not just current affairs-type news, but also news from the human sciences, from mathematics (in which I have an interest), and so on.

This is from one of the human sciences websites; actually, it’s from the website MedicalNewstoday.com last week [October 31, 2014]. The headline is: Child’s Later Life Intelligence Not Influenced by Parenting. Text:

Many parents believe that interaction with their children, whether it is reading them a story at bedtime or having family meals each evening, will have some influence on their intelligence later in life. But a new study suggests this is not the case, and their later-life intelligence may be more dependent on genetics.

The research team, led by Kevin Beaver, a criminology professor at Florida State University, published their findings in the journal Intelligence

That is the opening of the story. Now, this is not new. Any of you who follow the human sciences will remember, almost 25 years ago now, Judith Rich Harris caused something of a stir with her book, “The Nurture Assumption.” Mrs. Harris, who has been a semi-invalid for much of her adult life, had a job collating and organizing research articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals about child development. After being elbow-deep in this material for several years, she started to notice that there was something missing. She would read her 200th article on how aggressive parents produce aggressive children (if you slap your kids around, they grow up and slap their kids around, and you made them do it), and she started thinking, “Maybe there is some innate disposition to aggression which is inheritable.” Your kids are not aggressive because you made them aggressive by example, but you passed on that disposition to them by rules of ordinary biology.

She then wrote The Nurture Assumption about child raising, which came to the conclusion that all of the literature that she had been reviewing all those years left out something important. The finished human adult is about 50% formed by genetics, 45% by nonshared environment, which seems to be mostly peer groups, and 0-5% by parenting. Her most controversial statement is at the end of the book: if you took an ordinary American suburban street and took out all the kids from the families and randomly reassigned them to other families, their adult outcome would be pretty much unchanged. It caused a lot of fuss.

But Judith Rich Harris noted that what she was saying conformed pretty well to folk psychology. It you put the word “folk’” in front of something, it degrades it intellectually—but, in fact, we as human beings have been observing each other for hundreds of years and the conclusions we have come to shouldn’t be altogether discounted.

When I was a kid growing up in a middle class suburb in England, if people came out wrong, what everybody said was “bad in the bone,” or “ran with the bad crowd.” Very occasionally, a little more in the 1960s and 1970s, did you start to hear: “I blame the parents.” Those three paradigms—bad in the bone = genetics; ran with the bad crowd = nonshared environment; I blame the parents =parenting—pretty much agree with Judith Rich Harris’s observations, and with this latest news item.

Now, what about the Left and human nature? Faced with a news story like this, about the very, very slight effect of parenting on the finished adult, a person of the Left will frown and shake his head. A person of the Right is much more likely to murmur, “Well yes, of course,” and nod his head.

I think we all understand that broad and generalized notions about human nature travel with political orientation. This is especially true regarding the malleability of human nature, how easy it is to change human nature, and how far it is possible to change human nature. The Left, which I am using to mean approximately people who want a more egalitarian society, believe that the causes of human inequality are external to the individual human being. If you fix the external causes, then you get a more equal society. The Right, who are more tolerant of inequality, believe that components of human nature are innate. Customary and traditional social arrangements that are not obviously harmful shouldn’t be disturbed for projects of human improvement that are likely to prove futile.

Both sides have a case. The Left does have a case. Human nature has somewhat improved. Rigid hereditary social hierarchies of the kind that a conservative over 200 years ago would have fought to the death for, proved to be not as necessary as they thought. Most human beings in most places no longer enslave, eat, or publicly torture each other. So human nature does improve. Many of you have probably read Stephen Pinker’s recent book about the long term decline of violence. We’re kinder and gentler than our remote ancestors.

But the Right also has a case. And much of the strength of that case comes from the last few decades of research in the human sciences.

Individual personality seems to resemble what physicists call “shape memory alloys.” These are metal alloys that you can construct that remember their shape—you can take a bar of this stuff and bend it into a knot, and when you heat it up, it unbends itself and remembers its original shape. Human nature seems to be much like that. You can push people in certain directions during childhood and adolescence, but the finished adult human being seems to follow the Judith Rich Harris model: 50% heredity and the rest environmental.

I am sure that some of you know that last month [October 2014] was the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray‘s book, The Bell Curve. There have been a number of commemorative articles on human science websites. The grand metaphysician of the Human Biodiversity movement, Steve Sailer, published what I thought, was a very witty comment about it. He said that there had been a complete change in our understanding of, for example, educational attainment. Statistically, 20 years ago there was definitely a hierarchy of educational attainment. At the top you had Orientals, below them you had Caucasians, below them you had Chicanos, and below them you had Blacks on average statistical attainment. Now things are completely different. Now there is a new hierarchy. At the top you have Asians, second you have Whites, third you have Hispanics, and fourth you have African Americans.

So, bottom line there, not much has changed. Where the Left favors a belief in high levels of malleability, reality does not seem to agree.

My approach to all this comes from my own background. I was trained as a scientist and mathematician. My approach is empirical and rational. My inner empiricist always asks: what does the data say? My inner rationalist always asks: what should we reasonably expect from the known laws of biology. We are creatures of biology. We are a branch on the tree of life. We may be other things (I don’t want to offend anyone’s religious sensibilities), but we are at least that.

Taking those two approaches, the empirical and the rational, the empirical data says that individuals are innately different in ways that can only be changed in some degree, and not only individual human beings but populations. Inbred populations are different.

This shouldn’t be any news. As well as being the twentieth anniversary of The Bell Curve, we also, as of 2009, had the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Of The Order of Species. If you actually read that book, you will know that he drew some of his conclusions from the experiences of animal breeders. We are, again, one branch on the tree of life, and what they found out should, in some degree, also apply to us.

A few years ago, I was reviewing some literature on the inheritance of commonality. Most of the features of personality are now known to be heritable. We know this from twin studies, sibling studies, and so on. I wrote a popular article summarizing some of that. Among the emails I got was one from a lady who identified herself as a dog breeder and her email said (short summary): “Duh! If personality was not heritable, I’d be out of business.”

So this is what the data tells us: individuals are innately different, breeding populations are innately different. It may even be that social classes inside of long established societies have innate differences. I refer you to the work of economic historian Greg Clark: A Farewell to Alms, and The Son Also Rises. That’s the empirical evidence.

On the rationalist side, what can we deduce from general principles? Evolutionary psychology, as we are now supposed to call it—it started out as sociobiology, which I think is a much niftier term—strongly suggests that, for example, harsher climates select for socializability. People are more easily socialized when they have to cooperate in groups for the sake of survival. And it suggests other things, such as that there will be higher fertility in environments that have a heavy disease load, like equatorial climates where there are lots of nasty diseases.

These are just straightforward deductions from general biology principles, which are themselves very well supported by evidence. Anthropologists have noticed, the dads and cads divergence, for example. In a harsh environment, parental investment, especially paternal investment, needs to be more intensive. Whereas in kinder environments, where food is easier to come by, the men can impregnate women and sort of wander off more or less at will.

But those are my own inclinations. And the problem with human sciences is that it’s a hall of mirrors—because the person contemplating the human sciences, is himself a human being. My own inclination towards empiricism and rationalism are colored by my own personality. So it’s a hall of mirrors.

The proper study of mankind is man. But we bring our own inclinations and our own prejudices to that study. I have faith that the spirit of science can overcome this. The spirit of science is a social activity where we exchange views and review each other’s work, and try to duplicate each other’s findings. I have faith that that can overcome the hall-of-mirrors aspect of the human sciences, But I have no illusions that it will be easy to do so.

I was recently talking to Jonathan Haidt, the New York University researcher who has written a very good book called The Righteous Mind about our innate dispositions to hold one political position or another. It is a very good book by a very honest researcher, who started out as a fairly conventional liberal, but who, when I talked to him, doesn’t sound like a liberal at all.

Haidt actually got in the news in 2011 at the Annual Conference for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, which is an academic society. From the podium, he polled the audience asking them how many of them consider themselves politically liberal. He estimated that approximately 80% of the hands went up. He asked for centrists and libertarians, and he said he got about three dozen hands. Then when he asked for conservatives in that hall, which had about 1,000 people in it, he got three.

Haidt pointed out that this was a statistically impossible lack of diversity. And he actually succeeded (and this is a real achievement) in embarrassing this academic society. They actually changed their mission statement after his criticisms. They had a clause in their mission statement boasting of their diversity—they were advertising reduced rates for travel, hotel, and so on, for people from disadvantaged minorities. They listed them (and you know who they were). After Haidt’s address, they changed their mission statement a little bit and instead of saying “i.e. underprivileged minorities like blacks, Hispanics, transgender…,” they changed the “i.e.” to “e.g.”

  • Old Mission statement: “Students who come from underrepresented groups (i.e., ethnic or racial minorities, first-generation college students, individuals with a physical disability, and/or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered students)”
  • New Mission statement: “Students who come from underrepresented groups (e.g., ethnic or racial minority students; first-generation college students; lesbian, gay, or bisexual students; transgendered students; and/or students with a physical disability.)”

So there are honest researchers in the sciences, and they can bend the human sciences to some degree to a more reality-based, a more honest empirical and rational posture.

But it is uphill work because it remains a hall of mirrors, and the kind of people who go into the social sciences rather tend to be of a certain inclination. So it may be that even my faith in an honest scientific approach to human sciences is misplaced and nearly a reflection of my own prejudices.

I don’t know, but I hope not. I think we are finding out more and more, as the news item I started with from last week’s news illustrates. And the truth that we find out almost always (and there are some exceptions, Google ”Situationism”) suggest that the conservative view of human nature is closer to the truth than the leftist view—and that certainly the extreme leftist view is complete fantasy.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by VDARE.com com is  FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.

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