The Assumption of “The Nurture Assumption”

“The Nurture Assumption” by Judith Rich Harris offers an alternative view on the topic of parenting which is dominated by the idea that parents are the most influential figures in the lives of children. I find many of her arguments to be relevant, but this book overall is marred by her own personal biases.

I will begin with the most obvious problem. Throughout her book, she consistently confuses cause and responsibility. She uses these two concepts as if they are interchangeable. Just because you caused something, it does not necessarily mean that you should be responsible for it. For instance, you can cause to kill someone in a car accident, but it does not mean that you must take responsibility for his death. It would depend on the circumstance of the case. At the same time, even if you didn’t cause something, it does not mean that you are absolved of the responsibility. For instance, your employee could cause your company to incur a huge loss, but that does not mean that you are absolved of your responsibility to pay your creditors.

Here is a more pertinent example for this context: Suppose we have two adults who became insecure as a result of frequent moving in their childhood. This is one of the causes of low self-esteem Harris asserts as scientifically and statistically proven. In the family of one of them, the reason for moving was purely economical. That is, frequent moving was unavoidable for the family in order for them to survive financially. But in the other family, the parents liked moving around because they were rich, bored, and had nothing better to do. They even knew that their kids were very unhappy about the moves, but they put their own superficial wish before the feelings of their kids. In both cases, we know what the cause was, but it is a separate issue from whether the parents should be blamed for the consequence.

In the book, she ridicules Philip Larkin, the poet, for writing a poem in which he blames his parents for his problems. She wrote a mock poem in which she asserts that his problems are not his parents’ fault. It may or may not be true; she is not in a position to make such a claim just because she thinks she knows the cause. The cause and the responsibility are two separate issues.

Her attitude in this book makes me wonder what motivated her to write it. The book is filled with didactic claims of specific people being “wrong”. One cannot help feeling that she takes a joy in proving others wrong. And, embarrassingly enough, I started realizing that I too am guilty of this. For the first time, I got a sense of how others may be feeling about my own writings and theories. After all, I share a lot in common with her. Like she did in her childhood, I too moved a lot. (Probably far more than she did. I had 6 elementary schools, 2 junior high schools, and 2 high schools.) Even though she is interested in theoretical matters, she has always been outside of the academia in her professional life. I too am on the same boat. I understand her sense of insecurity and envy that comes with being an outsider looking in, which manifests itself in her boasting of the advantage she has as an outsider, as well as in her way of ridiculing authoritative academic figures. Hatred of authority is driven by the fear of being excluded, because most forms of authority is gained by peer approval. By ridiculing the authority, one could ridicule the entire peer group or the institution that supports him. It is the group to which you wished you could belong, but your low self-esteem assumes that you couldn’t. As a defense mechanism, you then decide that you hate them. It is a common childhood pain.

In reading her book, one gets a sense that what drives her to write and theorize is not ultimately her passion for truth, but the prospect of proving herself right, that is, proving herself superior to others. Her seeming openness to admitting her past mistakes is a front that distorts the reality both for herself and for her readers. As a matter of fact, by reading her book, I realized that I do the same myself. If you take pleasure in proving others wrong, you have to occasionally admit your own mistakes as well, otherwise your arguments would not seem credible. You would appear as a megalomaniac who think you are always right. So, you become quite eager to admit your own mistakes for the sake of credibility. The idea is to be in control of where you were wrong, since recognizing your own mistakes on your own is a lot less embarrassing than being pointed out by someone else unexpectedly. For theorists who are driven by their passion for truth, there is less incentive to engage in a discussion with someone whose primary motive is proving himself superior to others in order to overcome his own insecurity. Because it takes a lot of unnecessary energy in proving him wrong. She said, “The establishment’s failure to shoot me down has been nothing short of astonishing.” ( Perhaps they just found the idea of arguing with her tiresome and pointless.

It seems that, for her, theory becomes a tool by which to prove her own esteem to the world and to herself. If she cannot gain esteem from her peers naturally, she would coerce it out of them by the brute force of logic. In this sense, logic becomes her only weapon, a lifesaver that she must hold onto.

Parenting is a sensitive, personal subject where everyone feels insecure to some degree. For any subject, the more insecure people feel, the greater the desire and the demand for theories that could let people feel they are in control. Since most of us identify ourselves with our own thought, anything outside of it, even our own bodies, can feel foreign. Many people feel as though they are trapped in their own bodies. When your own identity is defined by thought, you feel insecure about anything that thought cannot be in control of. Theorizing then becomes a never-ending pursuit of exorcising your own insecurity.

Every theorist believes that he or she has the final word by which everyone else is forever silenced. Just as Harris makes fun of the popular parenting theories of the past—some of which are truly ridiculous in hindsight—some day, whether 100 or 1,000 years from now, her own theories will appear ridiculous in hindsight. Such is the nature of any theories, especially theories related to human psychology. But every theorist fancies himself as an exception. This is the crux of poststructuralist critique. Interestingly enough, Harris occasionally scratches the surface of it. From her book, I would assume that she is not familiar with the subject, but I would take it as a sign that the basic idea of poststructuralism is in the air whether people like it or not.

She argues: “[S. I.] Hayakawa was a believer in the theory—called the ‘Whorfian hypothesis’—that the way we cut up the world into categories is entirely arbitrary, ... The way we cut up the world into categories is, in general, not arbitrary at all. This is as true for categories that have fuzzy borders as for those that are clearly delineated. Night and day are as different as, well, night and day, even though it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. ... the night-day distinction is something we would be aware of even if we didn’t have words for it.” [p.130]

We notice the night-day distinction only because it is salient to us. If it weren’t, we would not notice it, and would not bother creating words for the distinction. Suppose we make a distinction between a group of trees that are touching each other, and those that are standing far apart from one another. We can give names to these different sets of trees. Once we make a conscious choice to distinguish them, anyone can see the difference. It is as easy as noticing the difference between night and day, but we have no such words (at least as far as I’m aware of). Why? Because such words lack salience. Such distinction is not useful to us, but it could be quite useful to monkeys who travel by jumping from one tree to the next. How we make distinctions and create words are indeed arbitrary in that they simply depend on how salient they are to the culture in which they are used. It is possible that in 1,000 years from now, where we spend our lives always indoor, the distinction between night and day becomes irrelevant, and the words “night” and “day” disappear from our vocabulary. We can see a glimpse of that in some science fiction movies where we as viewers don’t even question whether the scene is supposed to be day or night.

She further argues, “What makes a category is not a word but a concept. ... Babies as young as three months can categorize and hence must be able to form concepts. Jean Piaget, the famous Swiss developmentalist, thought they couldn’t, but he was wrong. ... Babies are easily bored, so if we show them lots of pictures of cows, pretty soon they stop paying attention to them. If we then throw in a picture of a horse and the baby suddenly looks interested again, we know that she can tell the difference between cow and a horse.” [p.130-131]

Suppose we do an experiment like this: We put a dozen adults in a room and give them complex tasks that require a lot of interactions with one another. During the first hour, we fill the room with an unpleasant scent, a scent that wouldn’t be so out of the ordinary but still unpleasant, like the smell of the inside of a car. During the second hour, we change the scent gradually to something calming and pleasant. Suppose in this experiment, the adults noticeably started behaving differently. Suppose they started interacting with one another more nicely, even though no one consciously noticed the change in the smell of the room.

Now, as a conclusion of this experiment, do we say that adults can “categorize” scents? It would depend on our definition of what “categorizing” is. I personally would not use the term if the action is wholly unconscious.

Harris says, “What makes a category is not a word but a concept.” This is her vain attempt at preventing Derridean “play” of words. In order for her to humiliate her opponents, she needs to make her arguments irrefutable, which in turn requires her to securely fix any looseness that her arguments may have. She feels that “category” is too loose a word, so she attempts to fix its meaning by introducing another word “concept”, but she hasn’t achieved anything new. The word “concept” can be as loose as the word it supplanted. Naturally, she does not bother explaining what she means by “concept” because she can’t. Such an attempt would only introduce yet another word whose meaning is as loose as the words before it.

This is what Derrida meant when he asserted that linguistic meaning is fundamentally indeterminate. This is an inconvenient reality that theorists like Judith Rich Harris and Steven Pinker hate; because it prevents them from theoretically coercing others to admit that they are wrong. Those who are driven by their own insecurity to theorize, that is, those who are attracted to theories for their power to coerce others, hate thinkers like Derrida, and dismiss and ridicule French poststructuralist theories as “fashionable nonsense”. But the essence of poststructuralist theories have always existed for thousands of years in the East. It is not a novelty or a fashionable trend created by the French intellectuals. The arbitrary and indeterminate nature of language is what Zen is trying to call attention to by saying, “All is one.”

Even though arguing about the indeterminate nature of language sounds too abstract to be relevant, Harris herself forces us to go there by her own analysis of the assumptions that other theorists make. Every theory is built on an assumption. It is therefore possible to deconstruct any theory by questioning the validity of its assumption, but that does not mean that the use value of the theory disappears with it. Newtonian mechanical physics was undone by quantum mechanics, but it is still useful to us. Harris in effect deconstructs, in the Derridean sense of the term, the prevalent parenting theories by reversing the cause and the effect of their assumption, (or by reversing the assumed superiority of parents to children) but her problem is that she assumes the reversal to be correct, which in turn makes her theories just as “wrong” as those of her opponents.

She does a very thorough job of identifying misapplications of cause and effect in interpreting statistical data. In many cases, she appropriately points out how the interpreters of the data are reversing the cause and the effect. But, this has an unintended effect of showing the inadequacy of the very concept of cause and effect. We cannot question the validity of the concept of cause and effect in discussing theories, because all theories must assume it. But for this particular subject of parenting, one begins to wonder if this assumption is worth the price.

As Harris skillfully demonstrates, any effect in parenting can also be interpreted as a cause (and vice versa), and a theory can be formed based on that assumption. This reminds me of how the stock market operates. The stock market resists any attempt to generalize and theorize. Even if someone seemingly succeeds in identifying the cause and effect of price movements, that very act of theorizing would impact the market and makes the very theory invalid. The same happens in psychology; our psychological problems are now compounded by our awareness of Freudian theories. Even if some stock analyst can explain the cause of the success of one company, the same does not necessarily hold true for another. What appeared as a cause, often seems equally valid as an effect.

Suppose in one company, providing free daycare center within the company for its employees increased the productivity. So, another company copies the idea but the opposite happens. After the fact, we look at both cases and realize that the reason why the first company increased productivity was because they did not actually intend to increase productivity; its corporate culture sincerely cared about its employees regardless of the bottom line. In other words, the increase of the productivity was an unintended fringe benefit of their humanistic philosophy. This is a perfectly plausible scenario in business. Not every success in business is intended, and because of it, the analysis based on cause and effect fails to predict or generalize the success for other instances.

This also reminds me of the story Tim Rollins, the fine artist, told us when I was in college. Rollins works with disadvantaged kids to make his art. They are called “KOS.” for “Kids of Survival”. In one project, they painted on pieces of bricks. This was an unexpected success at the gallery, and the pieces were sold out quickly. Emboldened by the success, they decided to make a whole bunch more, but this time none of them were sold. Rollins said they learned a valuable lesson from this experience. All measurable aspects of their effort remained the same, yet the result was the opposite. Such is the nature of human psychology. One subtle intangible thing can influence the result dramatically.

The concept of cause and effect is incapable of capturing human psychology which is multidimensional and is constantly in flux. In order for cause and effect to have any meaning, time must be frozen and the context must be limited. In many other phenomena in this world, this process can yield many useful theories, which in turn can be applied repeatedly to other instances. However, in the case of human psychology and the stock market, it yields theories that are relevant only within that specific time and context. For this reason, the more complexity and exceptions you allow to your theory of parenting, the more reasonable it sounds, but at the same time, the less useful it becomes. In this sense, contributing more theories to the pool of theories may be useful to someone, but to claim so didactically that others are wrong and that you are right, is to fundamentally misunderstand how theories work for human psychology.

Harris argues that other theorists are “wrong” by showing that there is no statistical or scientific data to back up the causal relationships they assert. In many cases, she shows that the statistical proofs they provide were misinterpreted or misappropriated. But, this does not necessarily make their theories “wrong”. As in analysis of stocks, some of the theories may still be useful in specific instances even if they fail to generalize for the rest. Just as stock analysts and economists, for the most part, have given up on the idea of formulating a theory that can generalize and consistently predict the movement of economy and stock prices, it may be appropriate for parenting theorists to do the same. For some theorists, this may be the reason why they do not bother scientifically backing up their theories.

Ironically what often cripples parents is their thinking. It is because they think that they make mistakes. It is their faith to thought, cause-and-effect, and logic that urges them to follow theories which in hindsight they realize were utterly ridiculous. What we need to question is not the validity of any parenting theory, but why we feel we need to understand it theoretically.

Many stock traders put theories and technical analysis aside, and trade with their gut instinct. Luke Skywalker put away his targeting computer and used “the Force” to destroy the Death Star. Our instincts are smarter than we give them credit for. It is the sense of insecurity and fear that makes us turn to theories, so as to feel we are in control, but that quest never ends. There is much we don’t understand about our own digestive system, but we digest our food efficiently every day without thinking about it. The whole process of birth is nothing short of a miracle. How mothers’ breasts synchronize with the dietary needs of their babies feels supernatural. The intelligence that we have naturally is enormous. Our thought often interferes with our innate intelligence. When we think carefully about how we walk, we start to walk funny. After reading several books on parenting theories, I think I am ready to put them aside like Luke Skywalker did.