Book Review – No Two Alike

I finished Judith Rich Harris’ latest book, No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, about a week ago, but it’s taken all this time to come to grips with how I feel about it.  That’s a good thing.  It means the book has had a significant impact on how I view human nature. But it’s also a bad thing because I’m still toiling with what to do about it.  First a little background.

It has been taken for granted pretty much forever that human personality is shaped primarily by the home environment – specifically by the actions or inactions of parents with regard to raising their children. Judith Rich Harris launched an all-out attack on that idea several years ago with her book, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. In it, she argues quite convincingly that the research simply does not lead to the generally accepted conclusion.  But, despite the subtitle of the book, she left it at that; she didn’t offer a substitute theory.  She has now remedied that problem, which is extremely impressive given her lack of formal credentials.

Judith Rich Harris is not a PhD psychologist.  Prior to The Nurture Assumption, she was a psychology textbook writer.  Over the years of assimilating all of the research on human personality, she began to suspect that the accepted wisdom in the psych community with respect to what shapes personality was wrong.  Home bound due to chronic illness, she began the tedious process of researching and putting together what would become The Nurture Assumption.  Along the way, she got friendly with Steven Pinker, which helped quite a bit, and she got crossways with a pile of other academics who had an interest in discrediting her, which probably helped even more.  So, to say she’s an outsider is an understatement.  To those who dislike her, she’s a hack wanna-be.  To me, she’s a hero.  The details of her out-thinking the ivory tower thinkers is nothing short of delicious.  Now to her latest offering.

No Two Alike is written as a mystery.  It starts by laying out the details of the case, by asking a big question.  How can identical twins reared in the same home turn out with completely different personalities?  They have the same genes, and they grow up in the same environment.  Same nature, same nurture, but still they’re different.  What could explain this?  She picks up where she left off in The Nurture Assumption – it can’t be the home environment, so what is it?

Her next task is to eliminate what she calls the red herrings in the case – the explanations that many believe are correct but aren’t.  I won’t go into all of them because, frankly, I had to work to get through them.  It’s not that they weren’t interesting; it’s just that I was dying to get to her theory. Had I written the book, I would have started with that.  But I understand why she did what she did.

Writing books that get read by academics is tough.  You’re dealing with a skeptical lot, to say the least.  That means you have to preemptively, if possible, eliminate all of their objections before you can make any headway.  Otherwise, they’ll abandon you right away.  They’ll say, “Oh, this philistine has missed the papers by such and such and the findings of so and so.  She’s clearly a hack.”  Like I said, I understand why she organized the content as she did – like it or not.  She left her critics with no choice but to at least consider her thesis, which is as follows.

Evolutionary psychology tells us that the mind is made up of modules that were designed by natural selection to enable humans to survive in their ancestral environment – you know, in caves and such. (Check out Steven Pinker’s, How The Mind Works, for a good foundation in this line of thinking.)  Far from a blank slate, the mind begins life with a set of genetically determined programs (or modules) that interact with the external environment to form what eventually becomes the mature human mind.  This mind will have full use of the senses – for interpreting and negotiating the physical world.  It will have language skills for communicating with other humans.  Harris contends that we also have three modules, in particular, that shape our personalities – the relationship system, the socialization system, and the status system, as she calls them.  The last, the status system, according to Harris, is the culprit in her mystery.  I’ll get to that in time.  I should first outline the three systems a bit.

The relationship system was natural selection’s way of making ours into a social species, which is widely believed to be the predominant reason why Homo sapiens survived while all other hominids became extinct.  Its goal, to use the term loosely, is to establish and maintain favorable relationships.  It works by providing us with the tools and motivation to acquire knowledge about other people and to share that knowledge with others.  In terms of tools, we have something akin to a mental Rolodex, where we store everything we know about everyone we either know or know of. We also have face-recognition module, a mind-reading mechanism (for inferring what others are thinking), and a relationship sociometer (for determining if we’re getting along well or not).  In terms of motivation, we have our old friends, our emotions – particularly, love, hatred, dependency, trust, aggressiveness, lust, and jealousy.  The manifestations of this system are infant attachment behaviors, making friends, dominance contests, courtship, trading favors, and gossiping.  The relationship system is online from minute one of our lives, and it stays online till we die or go nuts.  Also, its actions are largely available to our consciousness (that is, we know that we’re gathering and communicating information about people).

Next we have the socialization system.  This system is designed to get us to become members of one or many groups.   In terms of tools, this system works with a categorization module, which helps us sort people into categories based upon whatever attributes we discover using our relationship system.  Basketball players versus football players, for example.  Then we have a calculator of central tendencies.  This tool allows us to define our categories with what we can think of as stereotypes.  Basketball players are tall, for example.  Lastly, we have a social-acceptance sociometer, which is helps us to know if we’re fitting in or not.  In terms of emotions, we have hostility toward groups of which we are not a part, group pride or patriotism, and unhappiness at being rejected.  This system manifests itself in our tendencies to adopt the behaviors, language, accent, dress, and attitudes of our group mates, and in our tendencies to defend our group(s).  The socialization system comes online around age three, and it has done most of its work by the end of adolescence (although it stays with us to some degree probably forever).  Interestingly, this system operates largely below the level of consciousness, which means that we really aren’t aware of the influence that our interactions with and within groups have on our minds.

The last system, the big kahuna, is the status system.  This system is all about our being better than our rivals.  For tools, it also uses the mind reading mechanism that is used by the relationship system, but it also draws on an eye-gaze detector (to determine who is getting the most attention) and a sociometer that gives detailed, multi-dimensional information about status.  For motivation, this system gives us emotions such as ambition, envy, triumph, and conceit, as well as embarrassment, anger, or unhappiness at losing status.  We see the status system in action in our tendencies to match or measure ourselves against our peers, to compete in contests we might win, and to avoid contests we might lose.  According to Harris, this system is evident in three-year-olds, but other components of it develop slowly.  Changes in strategy, says she, are common during adolescence and are still possible in adulthood.  And though the eye-gaze system operates below the radar, the rest of the status system is pretty much available to our conscious minds.

So there you have it, the three systems.  Now before anyone concludes that I am expert at distilling hundreds of pages of material into three paragraphs, I should admit that I pulled all of this from a table Harris graciously provided toward the end of the book.  That said, this information alone was worth the price of admission.  I have long discussed the artifacts of the caveman mind, so it was a joy to have them placed into a more useful context.  But the point of the book is to say that the status system is responsible, more than anything else, for why two people who have the same genes and grow up in the same environment end up with completely different personalities.  It takes a while to unpack that thesis, so I’ll only hit the high points.  Read the book for the gory details.

It begins with such a thing as developmental noise.  This refers to the little changes that happen as the fertilized egg develops into a full human being.  Though two may have the same DNA, there are still little differences in how that DNA expresses itself in each individual.  That’s why parents and friends can almost always tell identical twins apart – and not just by sight.  Harris’ argument is that those little differences cause people to treat each individual a little differently.  Maybe not so much in the home, but definitely out in the world, where the socialization and status systems are on overdrive.

The key to all this is the notion that natural selection would not have bothered to build these complex systems for mediating our thoughts and actions in the home.  The home of our parents is not where we’ll form our mature bonds of friendship and love (the kind that leads to offspring), unless we’re weird.   That’s where Harris is coming from in The Nurture Assumption. Our home life while we’re growing up is simply a stepping stone to the real world where humans do what matters evolutionarily speaking.  So the modules that form our personalities do their thing away from home, when we’re with our peers.  That’s where it gets dicey.

You see, the socialization system drives us to be like the other members of whatever group we’re in or want to be in.  The status system does the reverse – it drives us to set ourselves apart.  The systems are essentially competing.  Now take hypothetical identical twins Jimmy and Johnny.  They’re already alike, which means fitting in is less an issue than standing out, so they end up adopting different strategies in their social environment.  Maybe little Jimmy comes off to kids in the playgroup as the rowdy, outgoing one.  So Johnny’s status system tells him to do something different.  He becomes the quiet, shy one.  Voila, over the years, you have two completely different personalities.  Mystery solved.  (I can oversimplify anything.)

But as I said, I am still toiling with what to make of all this.  I have no issues whatsoever with any of the aforementioned information.  It all makes very good sense to me, and like a good scholar, Harris backs it up with footnotes aplenty.  However, I think information for information’s sake is a waste.  I want to be able to put it to good use, and, in this case, as a parent, I have a vested interest in doing so.

I can accept that I play less of a role than I might like in shaping my son’s personality.  (I should note that Harris never makes the statement that parents don’t matter, though her critics will undoubtedly say she does.)  Furthermore, I can accept that what happens in peer-to-peer social situations is very powerful in establishing the various hues of long-term temperament and confidence.  But where do I leave off, and where do the outside-the-home social influences pick up?  To me, that is the question.

Harris explains that children learn their initial strategies for dealing with people at home, but they either keep them or abandon them based upon how well they work outside the home.  If the parents are immigrants, the children will quickly learn that fitting in entails learning to speak like American kids, and not like their parents.  Similarly, if kids are the stand-outs in their homes because they sing best, they may abandon singing all together when they find that their “talent” gets them nothing in terms of status within their peer groups.  Fair enough.

From that, one could conclude that the parents do play a very important role, which is understanding (and, to some extent, controlling) the outside-the-home social environment of their children.  This is perhaps an aspect of the situation that is particularly unappealing to immigrants who desperately want their children to maintain the culture of the home land.  If they insist on having Sanjay wear a turban to school, they should expect that his personality may be negatively impacted (that is, he’ll be less happy) by how much he’ll stand out in the group.  He won’t fit in, and isn’t likely that his headgear will earn him any status in the vicious contest for playground superiority.  So he may end up feeling inferior or feeling left out, which may persist into an introverted and not-so-confident personality.  But then again…

How much should we cater to the goals of our ancient genes?  Have I not said forever that many of our genetic drives do more harm than good?  Maybe the desperate need to fit in is one of those.  It certainly accounts for all manner of foolishness among young people in this country – pop music, mainstream fashion, and the interminably irritating use of the word ‘like’ come to mind right away. And status?  Well, we all know what a bitch that one is. It drives people to value the shallowest of activities and accomplishments and to unnecessarily beat the crap out of themselves when they don’t measure up.  So should we forget all about Harris’ interesting theory and go about our business as usual?

No, that won’t do either.  In the end, I think it comes down to happiness.  Fitting in makes us happy.  Being acknowledged as having high status makes us happy.  So, as is the case in so much of this enlightening the caveman endeavor, the key, I think, is to co-opt the ancient design for a modern aim.  Yes, I think parents should come to grips with how their actions toward their children will prepare them to interact with their childhood playmates.  That doesn’t mean they teach them to be lemmings, but it does mean that they carefully evaluate who their kids spend time with, paying special attention to their values and dispositions.  (Maybe this makes a case for private schools.)

On the flipside, in terms of status, I think it still makes sense to teach children to try to outpace their peers.  Competition and accountability do wonders for our species.  But, again, the parent’s role is to help guide the child’s choices in what he or she attempts to excel at.  The kids can (and should) pursue status, which brings happiness, but in endeavors that will serve them as adults.  Striving to be the kid who can shotgun the most beers before class is not one of those endeavors, though it somehow worked for me.  Aaanyway, there’s a lot to chew on here.

As you can see, I have only a vague feel for how Harris’ book should be applied to life as a parent today.  I’m sure as time goes on that my sense of it all will crystallize.  I’ll keep you posted.  For now, let’s just say that things aren’t as we always thought they were, and we should be thankful that a non-academic had the courage and wherewithal to bring it to our attention.  That’s a good start.


2 thoughts on “Book Review – No Two Alike

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