Judith Rich Harris, R.I.P.
The vast experience of human existence teaches us that the environment of a child doesn’t really matter very much when it comes to healthy outcomes. Genetics, in fact, do. This indisputable fact overturned the world of developmental psychology (both the Freud and B.F. Skinner schools), the problem becoming especially acute when Judith Rich Harris published her challenge to the college textbook industry with “Where Is the Child’s Environment? A Group Socialization Theory of Development” (Psychological Review 102, 1995).
The kerfuffle which followed has produced a healthy body of literature, in which the facts bore out the challenge: parents aren’t that important when it comes to healthy outcomes of their children. Genetics, in fact, are. Behavioral genetics grew as a discipline and now holds the field in developmental psychology. It seems rather apparent, then, that genetics determines the relationship my dad had with me. Genetics was the determining factor in my grandfather’s response to his experiences in Cullman, in World War I, at SMU, in Memphis, in Tupelo, back in Cullman, and down on the farm above the bluffs, where he clutched a jug of Wildcat Whiskey and fathered as many children as he could, seeding the world with himself.
Except that’s not quite how Judith Rich Harris argues.
(It’s true: I’ve set up a bit of a straw man. Let’s knock it down together.)
Genetics is important in the development of a child, very important. Parents are important, though less so than genetics. But what Harris discovered, or uncovered, is that same-sex peer groups are the most important factor in the health of the development of the child. Hence “Group Socialization.” Healthy peer groups (defined) during childhood produce healthy adults (defined). Qualifiers, caveats, and cautions abound in the vast body of literature (not that I claim any expertise in it), but that’s about it.
In this part (Part 8) of the exploration of Family Systems Theory through the relationship my dad had with me, my remarks will be wandering around the concept of determination.
My dad was perpetually trying to escape, but he found himself within the same kind of emotional network throughout his life. Indeed, it seemed whenever he might actually escape into a realm of contentment, he moved back into a predicament not unlike the old homeplace in Alabama. Was he genetically determined to do so? More to the point: am I?
For a thought exercise, I try to take the morphine addiction away from my grandfather, leaving in place all his experiences leading up to that trauma, which includes the actual physical wound, an emotional trauma itself, as well as the morbid nightmare of having been ambushed and being buried under a pile of his comrades’ bodies. Wouldn’t his life essentially play out the same? Same loss of faith (which itself questions Harris and Behavioral Genetics), same divorce, same post-traumatic stress, same accident in Memphis, same accident in Tupelo, same self-medication, the old brown jug.
I’ve had occasion to review certain traumatic events in my life, both from my childhood and from more recently, and I come to a conclusion, that, even if I knew then what I know now, I would respond and react similarly. I notice, however, that I keep mentioning circumstances. Genetics have nothing to do with circumstances, so I wonder (by leap of logic) what the limits of Behavioral Genetics are.
Bowdlerized, for example, Behavioral Genetics says, “Shucks, about 60% of personality is bound to genetics. Ten percent is bound to parental guidance in the home environment, which leaves about 30% for same-sex peer groups.” Now, the bogeyman of Behavioral Genetics is Freud the Fraud, and then again, by extension, the pseudo-discipline which creates helicopter parents and destroys fun playgrounds, so all the energy of the literature is dissipated in that direction. Read another way, however, genetics shapes only 60% of behavior and personality. The idea that parents can influence behavior and personality as much as 10% is astounding, considering the nature of the rest of the world, whose numbers must be nearly 100% genetics. Further, that nature left 30% up to peer groups: thirty percent! Well, enough said, don’t you think?
The apple does not fall far from the tree until it is picked up and thrown.
It is interesting, is it not, that my grandfather came back home, after it all, and my dad never did.
It is true: in many ways my dad was determined to bring the old homeplace wherever he was. On one rainy day we were driving along through Appalachia, looking for graveyards, and my dad, wistful, pointed to a pasture. “See all those weeds? My father would have had a fit, a fit, son, if any neighbor of his had let his pasture come to that.” I looked to where he was pointing. I saw a perfectly ordinary pasture, resting under a rocky mountain, where cattle were grazing in a light rain, a perfectly idyllic scene. Dad continued, “When we were kids, on rainy days like this Daddy would make us go out into the pasture to pull up all the thistles and milkweed, so that the pasture would be nothing but grass.”
Imagine his obsession with weeds in the garden or in the lawn. My, the anxiety!
My mom, who was raised in post-war Germany, was nothing short of a domestic perfectionist herself. Early in their marriage (and also my childhood), she used to harangue my dad about hanging his pants over various pieces of furniture throughout the house. Finally, he looked up at her from where he was sitting, put the newspaper down, and said, “How about I just put a nail in the wall and hang my pants there?”
Yes, a strange bundle of perfectionistic contradictions, my dad. The same was true, however, of Christmas (described in Part 6, “Eruptions of Joy“), so one must work to sift determination to discern what might be good from what might be bad, and also what might just be so.
When I’d get mad at Deb about something or other, I had a habit of saying, to get my way, “It’s the principle of the thing. The principle is bound to the universal.” Complete poppycock, and I knew it, but I was trying to win, and it was a pretty good move for a while, until Deb said, after the thing argued about crumbled into utter ruin after I’d gotten my way, “Well, it was the principle of the thing, after all…”
The principle of the thing was in no way bound to the universal (it might have been, but that wasn’t the point); it was bound to my father’s loins, carried from his father’s, and probably from his father’s, until the point immemorial when the behavior first expressed itself genetically, perhaps when my ancestor Charles fought against the British in the American War for Independence, not for the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, but because George III was not his king; he was a usurper to the throne, a Protestant (spits), so Charles Duke fought under the French flag, winning property for his ancestors which stretches all down the eastern slopes of southern Appalachia.
It was the principle of the thing, along with the circumstances of the American War for Independence.
My ancestors pressed on southward and westward, using the mountains as a shield, until the American Civil War ended their hegemony, my immediate ancestors being forced out of Georgia and into Alabama and points west by Sherman’s conflagrations. Yet it was in their genetics to move, adopting the pioneer spirit to found something commercial or academic, and so they did keep moving and founding. My grandfather, under possession of the demon drink, returned home, against his nature. My dad, under possession of the nightmares of my grandfather, left home, but never really left. And here I am, in Tonawanda, raising four boys, saying to them, out of envy, “Stay here. Stay in Buffalo. Let’s take care of each other, shall we? Let’s put down roots.”
My wife once encouraged me to put my office in the main part of the house so that I could study and correspond in the midst of the family, being a fatherly presence throughout the day. There was a moment of crisis. “Your filing system is just stacks on your desk,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “If it’s not out, I forget about it. So I stack things in separate piles, working through each pile.”
About three weeks later, she moved me back into my hovel downstairs in the basement.
Did I mention in Part 7? Our 23rd Anniversary is in May 2019.