Hi everyone, this is my first time posting a blog. In this blog I’m going to discuss facts which are unpleasant or unpopular. Primarily it will be facts about ourselves—humans and human nature—facts that while true, are nonetheless shunned, ignored, or denied in today’s society.
Facts about humanity lend themselves to this denial, because while it’s relatively easy to come to terms with some abstract notion about the world, it’s a lot harder when we’re talking about ourselves, because here there may be truths that we don’t want to accept. Nonetheless that doesn’t change these truths, and denying them often has deleterious consequences for people and society.
Tonight’s episode of ABC News’ “Primetime Nightline: Beyond Belief” series demonstrates the subject that I’m going to discuss in this posting. Titled “Twintuition,” this episode dealt with identical twins and rehashed the old myth that identical twins are linked by some sort of ”telepathy”. The show featured several pairs of twins and gave anecdotes of the often eerie similarities between them, such as wearing the same clothes or finishing each others sentences.
One set, doubles tennis stars Mike and Bob Bryan, even seem to anticipate each others moves on the court, leading some opponents to think that they were reading each others’ minds, purportedly giving them an unfair advantage.
Of course, twins aren’t actually reading each others’ minds—at least, not through any sort of “telepathy.” But this phenomenon demonstrates the power of an often overlooked force: heredity. Identical twins share virtually 100% of their genes (save for a few minute mutations). Nancy Segal, a behavioral geneticist at the California State University, Fullerton, was featured on the show. She explained that research with twins has discovered that heredity impacts all aspects of human behavior, including the very way we think. Twins separated at birth and reunited often give tales of similar life histories, and in one case featured on “Primetime,” of even having just begun reading the same book. Given the same circumstances, such as the tests given on the show to the twins from the J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas, identical twins often give the same answers. The real reason that twins seem to act as if they shared some sort of paranormal link is because identical twins think so much alike.
The pervasiveness of heredity down to all these aspects about ourselves—from the specific to the gross—is central to what I’m about to discuss.
Today I’m going to start with a topic I wrote to one my favorite social commentators—comedian and political satirist Bill Maher. On the May 20th, 2011 episode of his hit HBO talk show, Real Time with Bill Maher, he featured the “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua, author of the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, as his interview guest.
Now, I love watching Bill Maher and I’m usually in agreement with most of his views, but after watching that show I felt that I had to write to him, so I snail-mailed him a letter, and here it is:
This is my first time writing to you. I absolutely love your show and I look forward to watching it every week; in fact Real Time is one of the few shows I watch on TV. I love your comedy and I’m proud to say I’ve been see your stand-up act in person. I’m a loyal fan of yours and I have been for many years now. And in many ways, I must credit you for my political views and for inspiring me to express my thoughts and speak the truth, whether or not it’s popular. I love your no-nonsense way of cutting through much of the bunk that permeates society, especially that which comes from a certain side of the political spectrum. While I don’t always agree with every point you make, I can understand your point of view. However, I am compelled to write to you about your conversation with the “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua, because you both have unfortunately propagated some very disturbing falsehoods.
Chua’s book, and the particularly harsh formula for raising successful children that she espouses, are based on a faulty premise: that parenting can greatly affect the outcome of children. This is false. Steven Pinker, your fellow Project Reason Advisory Board member, has discussed this in detail in his 2002 book The Blank Slate. A chapter of Pinker’s book is devoted to discussing what Judith Rich Harris researched for her 1998 book The Nurture Assumption: twin and adoption studies (collectively known as behavioral genetic studies) have consistently shown that differences in parenting do not correspond to differences in how children turn out, once you control for heredity. Identical twins, as well other biological siblings, are no more similar when raised together than if raised apart (being about 50% and 25% similar overall, respectively). Adopted siblings, who grew up the same home and were exposed to the same parenting practices; with same amount of books; the same examples; the same degree of encouragement and discipline; the same amount of order or disorganization; the same level of quarrel or tranquility; the same permissiveness to watch TV; have sleepovers and go on dates—turn out to be no more similar than strangers plucked off the street at random. This is not just in IQ and large scale personality traits, such as how outgoing or talkative one is, but in real tangible “important” outcomes such as likelihood of getting divorced, finishing school (and the level of education obtained) getting into trouble with the law (Loehlin, Horn & Ernst, 2007; Harris, 2009), and even the income one makes as an adult (Bowles & Gintis, 2002; Caplan, 2009a; Caplan, 2009b). This also includes one’s body mass index (BMI); in defense (grudgingly) of Mike Huckabee and this infamous photo of him with his obese family, parenting has no impact on adult BMI, once heredity is controlled for (Grillo & Pogue-Geile, 1991; Harris, 2009; Keskitalo et al., 2008). It is their shared genes—not examples set by the parents—that explain the relationship between parents and their biological children (including the size of Huckabee and children). Here is a summary of all this in an essay by Harris about the absence of birth order effects. The ineffectualness of parenting was also the focus of a recent book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids by George Mason University professor of economics Bryan Caplan, which he broached in two blog posts in The Wall Street Journal (see here and here). Of course, any differences measured are all relative to the differences in the sample to begin with. Severely abusive or neglectful parenting—cases of which are routinely excluded from behavioral genetic studies—would have a deleterious impact, but thankfully, most American parents do not do these horrible things to their children.
Contrary to what Chua claimed on your show, one cannot make one’s children into “respectful, decent human beings who contribute to society” if it is not in their makeup, their peer environment, and the luck of the draw to become this way. As Pinker put it in The Blank Slate, “Not to put too fine a point on it, but much of the advice from the parenting experts” (which now, apparently, includes Amy Chua) “is flapdoodle” (p. 384).
All of the studies—and there are lots—that have claimed to show a link between any facts about parents, whether it be their education level, their parental philosophy, their level of discipline/permissiveness or their communication, and their biological children all make the same fatal flaw: they fail to control for heredity (Harris, 2006, 2009; Pinker, 2002). It is not at all surprising that bright, hard-working and successful parents would have bright, hard-working and successful children. It is the same reason that tall, freckled parents tend to have tall, freckled children: their genetic endowment. It is interesting that in the discussion of the success of Chua’s children, no one seems to take note of the fact that their parents are both Yale law professors (Caplan, 2011b). Chua’s obsessive push for her children to succeed at things like classical piano and violin (which, not surprisingly, failed to a degree with her second child) played no role in their subsequent success—including getting into Harvard. This had more to do with the traits that Chua and her husband passed down to their children—which includes their intelligence, their self-discipline, and their commitment to task—as well as the neighborhood where they grew up and the studious peers found there in.
I want to be sure to stress that heredity is far from everything (indeed, identical twins, who share all of their genes—save for a few tiny mutations—are only about 50% similar overall). But the evidence clearly shows that what is not in the genes is not in the hands of the parents. Instead, Harris posed in The Nurture Assumption that children’s peers were the main people who influenced their development, something she expanded upon and explained in her 2006 book No Two Alike.
Parents may not be able to affect how their children turn out but they can certainly affect their happiness today, and in turn, their fond memories (or lack thereof). As Harris put it in The Nurture Assumption (which Pinker also quoted in The Blank Slate), “We may not hold their tomorrows in our hands but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable” (p. 291). Sure, Chua’s children credit their mother for their success (perhaps because of their erroneous belief in the role their mother’s treatment of them had in that success), but wouldn’t their memories be better if they didn’t have such horrendous experiences? To quote Caplan, discussing the brutal methods Chua used to force her daughter to learn piano, “To my mind, the mere memory of this experience is lasting damage of a heinous kind (Caplan, 2011a).”
As such, I’m particularly disturbed by your claim that “discipline is love.” Not only is this false, but sadly, this will be interpreted by some parents as an invitation to abuse their children. Parents can indeed affect their children’s behavior in the short term—in the family setting—by how they treat them, and this is the major effect of parental discipline. This does not spill over into their behavior outside the home in the real world, where other factors, such as their experiences with their peers and good old luck come into play (Harris, 2006). Parents already stress themselves out enough trying to make sure their children succeed, so much to the point that Caplan believes that this discourages many couples from even having children or having fewer children that they otherwise would. And in some of the worst cases, parents subject their children to tortuous drills and impossible regimes in a foolhardy attempt to mold them into their vision of success, as Chua did, and for many, only to be disappointed when their children do not turn out like they hoped. Why “not let your children give up when they want to give up,” when children—and adults—often do have good reasons to give up, or not even try some things (Caplan, 2011c)? Parents cannot foster creativity in their children (if it wasn’t already present to begin with), so there is no point in trying to “strike balance,” as Chua suggested, at least surely not in the manner that she advocates. Why fuel that paranoia by lending credence to Chua’s rubbish?
And, contrary to your statement, American minorities (Blacks and Hispanics, at least) actually do not have lower self-esteem on average than Whites and Asians. In fact, the exact opposite is true (Bennet et al., 2007; Twenge & Crocker, 2000), despite the fact that the academic and life performance of these groups goes in the other direction. That said, it is not exactly true that “the world doesn’t care about self-esteem,” as one can make a living out of more or less basically having a high opinion of oneself, as salesmen, motivational speakers (like one former President…), and our favorite, religious gurus do (hey, I never said that this was a good thing). As well, the world confers a lot upon those with a high self-opinion and not much else to back it up. Just ask Donald Trump…
As to the difference between the overall success of the Chinese versus the Americans, it’s not so easy to boil it down to differences in parenting, or for that matter, differences in education. Jews have also been highly successful—more so than the Chinese and other East Asians—and typically do not push their children anywhere nearly as hard as East Asians typically do (Caplan, 2011a).
Harris, Pinker, and Caplan have made efforts to make this knowledge widely known, but parents still believe that they hold their children’s destinies in their hands, so much so that abusive parents like Chua are embraced. Your show however reaches more people than any of these three likely ever will. Wouldn’t it be great to use your platform to counter this misinformation about the myth of the effects of parenting, especially in light of the popularization of this myth thanks to Amy Chua? I personally have wanted to see Pinker on your show for a long time, and I think this would be an excellent topic for you to discuss with him on Real Time. I also believe Caplan would be an excellent guest to discuss this topic.
Thanks for taking the time to read my letter. I look forward to watching your show every Friday, and continue to be informed and entertained.Of course, the printed letter that I sent to him was bereft of hyperlinks so you reap the benefits of the internet. So far I haven’t received a response nor have my points been mentioned or hinted to on the show. But that’s OK, I understand that Maher is a busy man—that, and I’m content that the subject nor Chua has come up since, so far. I still would love to see Pinker or Caplan on Real Time, though.
Recently Caplan and Chua had a debate on the British Paper The Guardian, which can be seen on their website here.
This is fascinating because I’ve wanted to see these two go head to head (I would have liked to have seen Pinker debate Chua even more). Not too surprisingly, it seems Caplan’s words were totally lost on Chua. I do admit the ineffectualness of parenting is rather counter-intuitive, and I’ve seen many really intelligent and reasonable fail to accept the enormous body of evidence that demonstrates that parenting hold up to the power we quite expect it to.
This is will be the first of many things I'll discuss here, but I’d love to hear your comments, so feel free to tell me what you think.
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker is published by Viking. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua is published by Bloomsbury. The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Revised edition, and No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, by Judith Rich Harris are published by Free Press. Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun than You Think by Bryan Caplan is published by Basic Books.