Saturday, July 6, 2019

Book Review, BORN THAT WAY: Genes, Behavior, Personality

Born That Way: Genes, Behavior, Personality

Five decades or so ago, psychology students were being taught that humans were born without instincts, unlike other animals, and that their minds were blank slates, to be written on by their parents and their general environments. This view was as uniformly held as have been other intellectual fads, take your pick.

William Wright, a journalist, has written an analytical history of the period, up to the late 1990s, during which the gospel according to the environmentalists was challenged by biologists and psychologists who found strong evidence for the influence of genes on a person's abilities and attitudes. Animal breeders had known the strength of genetic endowments for centuries, but for this to be accepted as true for humans awaited the research on identical twins reared apart at the University of Minnesota, going well beyond similar studies done decades earlier in Europe.

Professionals with personal and political stakes worked feverishly to suppress the genetic interpretation of variation among individual humans and among groups, especially when it came to intelligence and race and ethnicity.  The personal and political ramifications are major;  the opportunity for encouraging dangerous interventions is scary.

Wright makes the case that important aspects of ability and tastes are roughly equally influenced by our genes and the non-genetic factors called "environment," by nature and nurture.  We should be aware that some of our impulses are not the results of our rational analysis, making personal responsibility hard to gauge. We can celebrate our strengths and can be alert to our shortcomings and should extend a more generous evaluation of others by recognizing the difficulty of overcoming some of our pre-wired, hard-wired inclinations.

Not all our human deficiencies are likely to be susceptible to improvement of the environment in which we are reared and reach maturity.  Wright cites the wisdom of the adage that says that parents with only one child think their child's development was determined by the environment they created, but parents with more than one child attribute the variation among them to the powerful randomness of genetic inheritance.

I'd give the book five stars if it had results of research more recent than the late 1990s. Still well worth reading, it has somewhat changed my view of myself and others.

Beware the competitive genes that evolution has endowed you with!


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