The Corner

Nurturism’s Last Stand?

A number of readers, taking me to be the NRO psychometrician, have suggested I comment on this new book by Richard Nisbett arguing the nurturist case for human personality yet again. I can’t, not having read the thing yet (got it on order); and in any case, we have a real psychometrician on our contributor list — Charles Murray, who I am sure will have something to say.

I did read Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column on the book. If Kristof’s account is accurate, then the book has very serious flaws. The Milwaukee Project of the late 1960s, for example, which supplied massive early intervention (from 3 months on) to children from severely disadvantaged households, delivered zero gains in school performance, and to this day the claimed gains in IQ scores remain, so far as I know, a mystery. Just ask yourself: If what Kristof says Nisbett says about the Milwaukee Project were true, wouldn’t there now, 40 years later, be a Milwaukee Project in every town? Wouldn’t these techniques have spread like wildfire, if they had accomplished half the wonders that Kristof says Nisbett attributes to them?

As a good general rule, books and articles on human nature that take a strong nurturist (“environmental”) point of view need to be approached with caution. There is terrific social and political pressure on reseachers, publishers, and commentators to put forward the most nurturist possible interpretation of every finding. It’s like writing a book praising the king in an absolutist monarchy. The king might, of course, be a very fine fellow indeed, and the author a perfectly honest man laying out true facts, but . . . caution is appropriate.

As an even more general rule, remember that the human sciences differ from the physical sciences in an important way. We have been acquainted with galaxies, quarks, genes, superconductors, neurons, and tectonic plates for only a few decades. We have been observing each other — our fellow human beings — with very keen interest for several dozen millennia, since homo sap. first showed up and formed social groups. We should therefore expect far fewer surprises in the human sciences than in the physical sciences. The reasonable expectation is, that the human sciences mostly just validate and quantify what we always kinda knew. Striking, dazzlingly counter-inutitive results show up a lot in the physical sciences. In the human sciences they ought to be rare. When such results are announced, they should be approached with even more than the scientifically-normal amount of skepticism.

Anyone who has raised kids, or observed his own extended family over several generations, must, I think, incline to a strongly determinist view of human nature, if not perhaps one quite as extreme as that offered by William Hazlitt 180 years ago:  “No one ever changes his character from the time he is two years old; nay, I might say, from the time he is two hours old … the character, the internal, original bias, remains always the same, true to itself to the very last …”  This goes against the grain of our public dogmas; but that just shows that we have got ourselves stuck with some false and foolish public dogmas.

The deeper we explore into the brain, the more we shall understand about our own human nature. Such understandings as we have so far won seem to me to point in a strongly determinist direction. (Here is a recent report.) There is a huge political, social, and psychological investment in the nurturist case, though, and nurturism won’t go down without a fight. Is Nisbett’s book just a rearguard action in that fight? I’ll offer an opinion when I’ve read it.

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