Saturday, May 06, 2006

No Two Alike [Book]

[my thoughts on a recent book by Judith Rich Harris]

This author’s first book, The Nurture Assumption, has dangerously influenced all my opinions about child-rearing. She convinced me that there is no magic formula for raising successful kids: those studies that claim otherwise are, upon closer scrutiny, all within the margin of statistical noise. Your kids are influenced mostly by their genes, and secondly by the sets of relationships they form with their peers—parents matter less than you might think. It was the consequence of this observation that caught the attention of Steven Pinker and others who have long puzzled over problems like why the children of immigrants don’t have accents. You learn to talk from your parents, right, so why don’t kids’ accents mirror their parents? Because kids learn language in order to communicate with other kids.

Her logic is so persuasive, yet it contradicts almost all the mainstream parenting advice literature out there, so I keep asking what’s the counter-argument? Over the years I have found precious little direct criticism of her arguments, so thankfully she has published a new book that is worth reading just for the nice summary of what has happened since the first one.

Most of whatever consistency there is between the way kids behave at home and how they behave elsewhere can be explained genetically.

  • Robin Dunbar: two-thirds of conversation time is spent on matters of social import (p.18)
  • Talking about childhood experiences has little therapeutic value. It’s far better to talk about current experiences. (p.138)
  • Kids aren’t designed to be dependent on two-parent families. In the wild, there is only one chance in three that both parents are with you at age 10 anyway. ( P.154)
  • P161 Joshua 6:12 where the Israelites destroyed somebody based on their accents.
  • Your personality is formed by the interaction of three modules in your brain: Manage relationships, socialization, competing on status.
  • Managing relationships
    • People have a lexicon of people, facts about individuals.
  • Socialization
    • Allik & McCrea claim there are systematic differences in personality between cultures. (e.g. Europeans are more extravert than Asians or Africans)
    • The most attractive people tend to have looks that are average.
    • Episodic (alzheimers) vs. procedural (Parkinsons) memories are stored differently.

One interesting consequence of her theory, I think, concerns cloning. What would happen if you suddenly cloned yourself? Your double would eventually acquire a distinct personality, even if you held the environment completely constant.

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