The Corner

Fathers And Genes

Derb – Let me take your first point first. Yes, to a certain extent I am asking you to have your politics shape your opinions and frankly, I am at a loss to see how you should think otherwise, let alone why you should be so boastful about it.

We know from America’s own experience with eugenics — and I am not trying to make it a scare word, but that is what we are talking about to a certain extent — that if science is allowed to indulge itself other important things will get trampled. This country sterilized thousands of people on the assumption that behaviors are heritable in much the way you describe. My politics says that even if this was “good science” it was wrong and unacceptable. Similarly, if today’s good science says that we could make better citizens if we raised them in more collectivized social arrangements regardless of the wishes of parents, I would say “I don’t care.” Then I would ensure that I was sufficiently armed to prevent the State from doing as it saw fit with my child. The dream of socializing children away from their parents can be found in Plato, but it is at the heart of modern totalitarianism and Progressivism. Robespierre demanded children be taught in revolutionary boarding schools. Wilson said his mission as educator was to make children as unlike their parents as possible.

When I say you are opening the door to Progressive notions and arguments, I’m saying that you are denigrating the importance of family in a blatantly Progressive style. Indeed, if you read my piece in the latest magazine you’ll see why I’m starting to think you’re a progressive. Regardless, I’m not saying you should be blind to facts, but one should be cautious about blindness to consequences of the facts. I don’t know what the modern-day Jukes studies say, and if they are being conducted with the intent or consequence to further erode my parental rights I don’t care. It is my right to be the author (or co-author) of my daughter’s being, just as it was my father’s right to be mine. Even if the picture were more bleak than you paint it, I would still want families as a bulwark against undue meddling from the state, the “helping professions,” and the priesthood of science. There are lots of “scientific facts” which tell us that society is organized irrationally, inefficiently, sloppily, “unscientifically.” As a Hayekian, I don’t believe this is so nearly so often as the guys in lab coats say, but even when it is, my politics are perfectly comfortable saying “I don’t care.” If science said — and it does according to lots of people — than banning guns entirely would be “better,” I would say “I don’t care.” If they responded, “but it just makes life harder,” I would respond, “so it’s harder then.” That’s how my politics influence how I understand the facts.

As for your other rebuttals, I have a mixture of responses. But let me start where we might find common ground. You say that the “actual religion” someone adheres to is dependent on the influence of parents, but the “intensity” with which they pratice that religion is highly heritable. Again, you have the studies at your disposal, but I can live with this. The interesting difference between us, I suppose, is that you don’t seem to think there’s a lot of importance to these different religions. It’s merely a minor difference in software and what you think is interesting and significant is the hardware. Indeed, you conceded that religion and politics are heritable as if it’s a small concession. Well, it’s a HUGE concession in my book. I have no problem believing the hardware is heritable. But I think your materialism leads you to downplay the significance of the software. Your discussion of both religion and politics strike me as little different than a discussion of sports teams. Religion? Politics? That might as well be playing cowboys and indians.

This hardware-software distinction nevertheless may be the exit we can both take through the smoke. I think the software is very important. It is not, as you suggest, “epiphenomenal” it is phenomenal. Indeed, the vast majority of the stuff that occupies your time and attention is the software, not the hardware. Math, politics, foreign policy arguments, homosexuality, even your ideas about the weight we should give to science: all of these things have to do with the stuff that matters and fathers are an important part of it.

Here’s an illustration. You wrote how Freud had this enormous influence over the field of child psychology, and yet at the same time you argue that fathers have little direct influence over their own children. Come again? Did all these PhDs go to highschool with other Freudians?

Surely, as you suggest, ideas matter and fathers are often where we get a lot of our ideas.

Here’s another: You mentioned how your daughter speaks unaccented American English while her parents speak accented English. But doesn’t your daughter play the violin? Surely, she didn’t get that idea from her peers. Now, if you don’t think music is trivial — which I don’t think you do — surely the gift you gave your daughter of making her take up an instrument is important.

The genetic determinists are very good at measuring what they can measure. Where I disagree with them is their cavalier dismissal of what they can’t measure as “unimportant.” Steven Pinker calls music nothing more than “auditory cheesecake.” This strikes me as nonsense on stilts since millions of people have devoted their lives to the love of music.

Now, again, I know you don’t want to return to the subject of that review you wrote, but I do find the disconnect fascinating. There you criticized person X for being too rational and reductionist, for not following our intuition about what feels right and wrong. You went on to say “America would be a happier and freer nation if the accursed intellectuals would just leave us alone with our lives, our blunders, our tragedies, and our deaths.” Well, okay. But where do you think intellectuals get these ideas? From scientists, quite often (When I say you’re opening the door to Progressive arguments, I’m saying precisely what you said about the “accursed intellectuals.”)

In the case of abortion you ridicule appeals to science and reason. But when it comes to fathers you not only reduce their role to a credit card and the mantra “location, location, location” but you invoke the cold, uncaring authority of science to do it. And you tut-tut at me when I suggest that your political opinions should stand firm in the face of new science.

The irony runs deeper in that what you are saying about the role of fathers runs counter to virtually everyone’s life experience and common sense far more so than abortion. “Everybody” once knew abortion was wrong. But nobody has ever doubted the importance of parents until now. We feel the importance of fathers more than that of peers. We grieve more for fathers than we do for peers, generally speaking. If familial love is genetic programming, why is this so?

Oh and one last point which I don’t think applies to Derb so much as to numerous readers. There’s a certain braggadocio which comes with saying “it’s all in our genes.” “See what a tough guy I am? I’m willing to trim the emotional fat off the carcass of life and reduce it all down to genes.” I’ve gotten a lot of email from such people getting Derb’s back (though certainly not from all of Derb’s supporters). But they don’t seem to understand that Derb isn’t saying nurture doesn’t matter in the nature-nurture debate. He’s saying that parents don’t count much toward nurture, but the band of miscreants you hang out with do.

Regardless, I’m sure Derb’s got the science on his side, but I’m just very, very far from convinced that this counts for very much.

Update: I fixed one small typo above. It should have read “Now, if you don’t think music is trivia…” I just added the “don’t.”

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