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June 18, 2006

What Would His Father Have Said?

I'm increasingly astonished at John Derbyshire's approach to social issues. Seeking evidence for our suspicions ought to be an expectation, of course — as should be a willingness to change our minds when the evidence requires. But becoming slaves to data — particularly social science data — at the expense of inherited wisdom ought to remain the practice of leftists and relativists. Consider Derbyshire's gift to fathers on their national holiday:

Nowadays, however, there is a lot of counter-research, in which the influence of the home family environment, at any rate after age three, dwindles away almost (according to some researchers, anyway) to inconsequentiality. The big determinants of adult personality are (1) genes, and (2) group socialization. The home environment of the child comes in a distant third.

How in the name of all that is holy — in Derbyshire's world or in mine — can one presume to argue against the proposition that there's "just no substitute for dad" by arguing that personality is determined by genes and socialization? From whom does Derbyshire suppose children acquire their genes? Who does he think begins children's socialization?

On the socialization count, Jonah Goldberg offers an astute response:

Parents communicate values and priorities. Historically, the best indicator of political affiliation, for example, is the political affiliation of parents. Obviously, the same holds true for religion. These are not minor slices of the human experience. If we inherit our parents' understandings of both transcendence and social organization, it seems hard for me to believe that genetics and peer groups explain most of the story of human development. ...

... common sense says that the expectations set by parents explains a great deal of it too. Kids whose parents expect straight As are still far more likely to have kids who get straight As. The peer groups these kids fall into are a symptom of those expectations not the other way around.

This same sort of broad, in-the-details thinking goes more deeply — into genetics. Derbyshire argues:

You can't discount genetics, either. Being a criminal, and being a single parent, might both be the consequences of impulsive behavior. That's an aspect of personality, which is in part heritable. ...

Since testosterone is associated with risk-taking and anti-social behavior, then one would expect high-testosterone males to be less inclined to get, or stay, married. This doesn't tell us anything about the benefits of fatherhood for children; it only tells us that high-testosterone males are not as a good bet to make good fathers, on average, as are low-testosterone males.

If these statements are valid, and if we assume that mothers — at least mothers who are likely to be directly or indirectly affected by sociological discussions — would prefer to raise non-anti-social non-criminals, then potential mothers will take the precaution — gobsmackingly transgressive though it may be — of being more deliberate about the men with whom they mate. Suggesting that they choose men who will stick around to perform the father role isn't significantly different from suggesting that they choose men who aren't impulsive risk-takers oozing testosterone. Perhaps they'll even conclude that men who are genetically "a good bet to make good fathers" will be less likely to engage in such activities as donating sperm for the creation of anonymous children.

John Derbyshire appears to be falling into the trap — beloved of previously ensnared academics and social engineers — of breaking social forces and relationships into their component parts, analyzing each on its decontextualized merits, and declaring the original whole to be a matter of "inconsequentiality." As much as members of the family values crowd might disagree with the resulting conclusions anyway, it entirely misses the point of their philosophical movement to argue that fathers hardly matter a bit, provided we discount their effect on genetics, household income, social grouping, and any other discrete aspect of fatherhood that we might wish to tease out for analytical purposes.

The point of saying such things as "fathers matter to their children" is not to stroke the egos of men who've managed to procreate, but rather to encourage them to work toward an ideal of fatherhood, to encourage women to insist on men who will do so, and to rekindle a culture that believes that such a thing as an ideal of fatherhood actually exists. If Derbyshire weren't so enamored of the outsider status that "empirical evidence" has helped him to claim (when it suits him), perhaps he'd realize that he doesn't actually disagree:

Probably the best thing we dads can do to give our kids a happy and useful adulthood is to make enough money that we can choose where to live, and then choose a district where our kids will be group-socialized to civilized bourgeois norms.

It takes a special sort of anti-social-conservative myopia to insist that hard-working fathers who consider the well-being of their children when locating and defining their home environments must understand that they hardly play a role at all in those children's development. Frankly, I'm not sure what Derbyshire's argument could possible boil down to except, "buzz off you bloody religious fanatics." At least leftists have the comprehensible (if invidious) motivation of wanting to redefine cultural norms. What's his excuse?

Although it didn't fit within the flow of the above, I should note that, had Derbyshire read both of the specific authors to whom he was responding, he might have known that it would be inadequate to rest so much of his argument on confounding variables. Writes W. Bradford Wilcox in his Weekly Standard piece:

Note that these studies control for factors like race, education, and poverty that might otherwise distort the relationship between family structure and child well-being.

On the other hand, I've no information concerning whether Wilcox took into account the fact that Derbyshire's children did not inherit his accent.

Derbyshire has responded to Jonah mainly by introducing the concept of "parenting style," which (unless I've been misreading terribly) was not the concept at issue in the initial pieces. Indeed, Lowry and Wilcox seem mainly to be emphasizing the mere presence of fathers. Perhaps Derbyshire sees presence as a matter of style; it's curious, then, that he doesn't believe that choice of "outside-home environment to socialize into" registers in the same category.

Posted by Justin Katz at June 18, 2006 9:35 PM
Marriage & Family

I propose we call Next Sunday “Peer Day.” We can share it with all the knuckleheads with whom we once drank beer and smashed mailboxes. And we can share it with all the girlfriends we dumped because they were not like our mother and with those who dumped us because we were not enough like their fathers.

Or, we can just keep Father’s Day.

Random thoughts: Do we learn the importance of duty, hard work, and respect for authority from genetics? Or, from our peers? Or, maybe from our old man who made darn sure we heard it every day after we turned 16?

Isn’t child abuse passed through the generations? Wouldn’t that be a learned behavior? Or if it's genetic, are we that much a slave to our genes?

So (he asked sarcastically), should we deem children reared with stay at home moms and dads deficient in some way?

I would suspect that somewhere in years 8-20, we emotionally leave our parents and more influence is derived from our peers, but don’t most of us “go back” –when we have our own children; we utilize our childhood as a blueprint for raising our children, or maybe, we consider our childhood, and for one reason or another, throw it away?

What did Twain say? "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

If we search long and hard for an argument contrary to what our senses have told us for thousands of years, we can find one. In a way, it's like finding an "expert" for a criminal trial. You have yours and I have mine.

It's not an exact comparison, but science can tell us that the sky is not blue, and why, but does that make it less blue to our eyes?

You can "breakdown" the family, the data, and the genetic material, and find many different answers, but it will never change the fact that your dad (and/or mom) is the single greatest influence in your life (both genetically and socially).

Derb: just ask your son and daughter.

(And I can hear it now; those who support Derb's position would believe that if his son and daughter say, "Daddy, you're the most important influence in my life," it would be because their genes or their peers made them say it--not because he actually may be the most important influence in their life.)

Remember: An apple never falls far from the …rest of the apples that were plucked off nearby trees and were then processed together.

Posted by: malwords at June 19, 2006 11:57 AM

My job as an attorney takes me to a lot of jails and I interview a lot of inmates. As a kind of social experiment, I ask the prisoners about their fathers. The almost universal response is anger: “I don’t know where he and I don’t care” usually punctuated with an expletive or two. Not once have I heard a response like “I had a great dad. He did everything he could to take care of me and raise me right. Loved my mom and us kids like crazy.”

Not once.

Lawyer in Alabama

P.S. You nailed Derb. I like him, his writing style, radioDerb and DerbTV crack me up. I'm glad he's at NR and NRO to stir the pot. I even think it's fair to call him a conservative--overall. (And, I'm glad our "tent" is big enough to allow guys like him under it.) But, he obviously has a huge chip-on-the-shoulder when it comes to social issues.

P.P.S. Any parent who looks to "sociological studies" for parenting tips, is in a lot of trouble. My, my. How did our grandparents and their forbears even raise decent kids without them?

Posted by: Bart Harmon at June 19, 2006 12:18 PM

Why does National Review continue to employ Derbyshire? Is he nothing more than a foil for the conservative columnists of that journal?

Posted by: A Greer at June 19, 2006 1:06 PM

I think Jonah hit the nail on the head when he suggested that these kinds of bizarre statements from Derb are largely a function of his (increasingly obviously philosophical) materialism.

Derb has stated that he thinks the right way to understand the truth about human affairs is the empirical, scientific approach. He has also said that the empirical, scientific approach must restrict itself to materialist interpretations. Put these together, and a materialist, reductionist view of man is simply a foregone conclusion. Metaphysics is simply written off as illusory from the get-go, without argument. This explains a lot of things about Derb, I think, such as his scientism and disdainful ignorance of philosophy, his genetic reductionism, and his general amorality.

Here's how I think it works: Empiricism is nothing without philosophy. This is because data is not self-interpreting. For instance, a picture of the earth from space is not the same thing as the proposition that the earth is a sphere. The fact that the earth is a sphere is arrived at by a mind interpreting the picture to mean that the earth is a sphere. So it goes with all empirical observation. In order for some physical object to be evidence for the truth of some proposition, it requires a rational subject to observe and interpret it. What you interpret data to mean will be decided using the philosophical presuppositions you bring to the table (a Pyhrrian skeptic, for instance, might conclude that the photo of the earth is an illusion).

In Derb's case, the presuppositions that he brings to empirical interpretation are always entirely materialistic, as are his conclusions. Additionally, conclusions gained this way are the *only* propositions that Derb will accept as valid (recall that he writes off philosophically discovered truths from the get-go). Intentionality (beliefs, intentions, etc) must then be written off as an illusion or epiphenomenon, since it can't be discovered this way (hence Derb's insinuation that the "software" that you teach your children is an irrelevant epiphenomenon).

Derb will then follow these presuppositions come hell or highwater, even into bald denial of plain, observable reality (as in the claim that fathers don't matter), or even into outright logical absurdity (see his claims that the self doesn't exist).

Posted by: Deuce at June 19, 2006 2:45 PM

Random thoughts: Do we learn the importance of duty, hard work, and respect for authority from genetics? Or, from our peers? Or, maybe from our old man who made darn sure we heard it every day after we turned 16?

Or were we raised in a community where our peers were all hard-working? What about the brother who also lived in the same household, but doesn't exhibit duty, hard work and respect for authority?

Posted by: Mark S. at June 19, 2006 4:02 PM

Re: random thoughts. I believe all of us are dealing with generalities here. Great children can come from awful families; delinquents can come from Ozzie & Harriet type families. I don't believe there are any certainties; good parents(in various guises, but that would be a different subject) just "better" the odds.

With respect to hard work: while I would not exclude the possibility that 16 year old peers would encourage and set positive examples, I would say the father (or mother) who comes home with a briefcase or dirt under their fingernails, and a paycheck in their wallet every week is (in general) a stronger and more positive influence than a teenager's peers.

Likewise, I do not discount genetics or other influences (male or female, first child or fifth, the parents economic standing as the child enters the teenage years, etc) in a child's life (for good or ill) when looking at the end result. But at the margins, parents instill, reinforce, and often reward good habits more than peers.

Just as an example, I notice children rarely tell other children to say "Please" and "Thank you." Parents do so regularly. Children do not share willingly; parents need to teach that (Can you tell my son is two and a half?). Generally (again, that word), the quantity and scope of these lessons and habits increase over time. If there is love and respect in the house, the more advanced lessons of duty and hard work are more likely to take hold; that will not exclude peer influence but will compete with it. In my limited experience, parental influence usually wins--maybe not in the high school or college years, but eventually.

Just curious: Why does the term "Peer Pressure" refer almost exclusively to bad behavior--smoking, drinking, drugs, truancy? Rarely do you hear "Peer Pressure" associated with homework, Bible studies, and abstinence.

Posted by: mike at June 20, 2006 1:08 PM