Monday, 30 June 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 8

So much for the hypothesis. What of this 'established knowledge' I'm supposed to be interpreting events in the light of?
My starting point is encapsulated in the question I keep asking - Where does this come from? All these anxieties and frustrations must come from somewhere. The fact that I was such a loner and had so much trouble with people must have a reason. This is not at all obvious though to some who would simply say 'he's just like that' or 'he's just made that way'. A lot of the time it doesn't matter and saying 'he's just made that way' can express an attitude of tolerance or broad-mindedness. 'It takes all sorts' is a phrase that often follows. Often though it implies some sort of judgement, albeit often a fairly benign one. 'It takes all sorts' we say as we smirk at other peoples' peculiarities, because of course, we are perfectly normal and what we do makes perfect sense.

Most people I suspect take this view pretty much for granted. We have some sort of essence that is just a given and can't be changed. People don't change. A leopard can't change its spots. If you asked the person what exactly it is that gives a person this basic character they might well say something about taking after their parents and some might mention genetics but I think a lot of people would say something about a soul or spirit. It won't surprise you to learn that I don't have a lot of time for this for the same reason I don't have a lot of time for the idea of god or the afterlife. If the idea of some sort of supernatural, possibly immortal soul is central to your thinking then the rest of this essay won't make a lot of sense to you but I don't want to get side-tracked. The fact is I'm just going to have to act like it's irrelevant. Maybe I'll come back to it later. Others, probably the majority, have a more woolly notion of what a soul is (or a god for that matter). They just believe there's... something. As such it explains nothing. We know nothing about it except that it answers all the questions. There is also Free Will of course but this also suffers from the problem of no one really knowing what it is, except that it seems to exist and it answers a lot of questions. I'm going to leave that on one side too.

A lot of people these days though would want to talk about genetics and psychology so I'm going to start there. Most people in the West at least know that genes exist, even if they don't know much about them, and we've all come across more or less scientific parenting advice, in self-help books, magazine articles, radio interviews and so on. Psychology is considered more of a 'soft science' which means it's a lot harder to do, not that it's just a matter of opinion. Like many of the life sciences (medicine, ecology, anthropology) it is a matter of probabilities and trends rather than the simple is/isn't answers you tend to get in chemistry and physics experiments. (Schrődinger's Cat notwithstanding). Traditionally this pair of explanations for why people turn out the way they do is summarised as the Nature/Nurture debate. Both positions can be taken to extremes (German Fascism and Soviet Communism most obviously) but lately the consensus seems to be that it's about 50:50. There have been studies done on twins to estimate their average difference in any number of characteristics - between identical twins raised separately (where all they have in common is genetics) and unrelated adopted children raised together (where all they have in common is their parenting) and the numbers come out at about 50:50, on average, and I suspect a lot of us liberal humanist, secular westerners who've thought about it at all will probably nod and say that sounds about right. All that old eugenic and behaviourist dogma goes out the window. It's a bit of both. Case closed.
Actually that's not quite what the evidence says. The surprising thing is that of that 50% nurture only 10% (on average) is parental. The rest is peer group and other social influences.

This slightly scuppers my hypothesis, and, I have to admit, put my back up a bit. As a scientist I should of course be indifferent to the results. I should simply want to know the answer but of course we all have an axe to grind. I'd been making up this story about my childhood that was mainly about my parents and now it turns out they were only minor players. It turns out it was indeed the kids at school and the telly and society at large that made up the other 40% of what I'm like.
And I've heard child psychologists, therapists and agony aunts express a similar outrage at this finding, because surely the childhood home and the family environment must play a huge role in how we turn out? On the one hand their whole careers are predicated on it but besides that, it just seems to make sense. 'Give me a boy until he is seven and I will give you back the man', or some such. Those early years are crucial, surely. Those psychologists and therapists also apparently have evidence on their sides to back up what they say, though I am in no position to critique any of it. I wish I was. So has it just become a dogma or is there a real question here?

I think I have an idea what the answer is. Remember - the original 50:40:10 hypothesis is an average, and the studies I understand are about 'normal' children and 'average' families. I'm not completely sure what either of those words mean in this context but I can imagine. I'm reminded of the term social workers use these days - the 'good-enough' parent. Instead of the old pejorative judgemental 'good' and 'bad' parenting (since most people are neither one nor t'other) they just look to see if parents are good enough - they function, they cope, generally, most of the time. Sometimes they are good, sometimes, not so much. Sometimes they get mad and do a lot of shouting, and sometimes they give the kids a big cuddle, but they hold it together. And the kids cope too, they keep it together, like their parents. They make friends, they get stuff done without too much drama, they make relationships, they find a job - they cope. With families like that the 50:40:10 makes sense. And remember, that's 60% parent altogether - the kids take after their parents (give or take a bit of rebellion here and there) because of their genes and from experience. They learn to get things done by example. They do stuff with their family, who they have a lot in common with and they use that as a stable reliable basis for dealing with all the other stuff they come across people doing in the wider world, modifying here and there as they go. Of course there are contradictions between home and outside but it is out of those contradictions that the new individual arises, making its own decisions (consciously or not) about how life should be.

But of course none of this says anything about abnormal childhoods and not good-enough parents, and that's where we're going next.
Cue credits...

to be continued...

No comments: