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June 20, 2006

Lacking Imagination

I suppose I should take Derbyshire's cue and treat his thoughts on the matter of parenthood with the same degree of seriousness (or lack thereof) as he does:

Jonah: Enough! definitely. I retire from the field with the following satisfactions: (1) I took a good whack at some dubious science. (2) I hammered another nail into the coffin lid of that old Viennese quack. (3) I have struck up an e-friendship with Judith Rich Harris, who turns out to be as witty, eloquent, and learned as her books.

All the thought that other writers and readers might have put into the discourse that he began? Pishposh; whatever. But one can't just let the scoundrel slip through the shadows without a final thought.

Jonah (here) and an emailer to him (here) offer excellent points in the vein that I'm inclined to continue, but what continues to irk me about Derbyshire's argument is the stunning lack of imagination with which he interprets science. Consider:

The growth of the child's brain into the adult's brain is regulated by genes. Genes that led that development along a path from childhood adversity to adult dysfunction, would be about as advantageous as genes that gave you only one leg. Natural selection would take care of them in short order.

One could make more of my point by delving in to the variations of evolutionary theory that find a value in random mutations and the like, but suffice, for now, to suggest that parental input (as well as, yes, socialization) could easily be seen as a mechanism whereby humanity has progressed in its evolution. Such a professed lover of science and its methods as Derbyshire should be able to step back from the value-laden term "dysfunction."

It is easy to see parents' ability to instill traits distinct from genetic programming — i.e., "dysfunctions" — as a very advantageous genetic structure, indeed. With this modicum of imagination (or just plain old clear, objective thinking), the following suggestion from Derbyshire becomes nonsense:

The notion that a missing father causes, in and of itself, psychic harm to the adult organism, similarly goes against the laws of biology, and suspicion again naturally follows.

What could he possibly mean by "harm," in this context? If Dad is a lonely, violent, paranoid man, there may be, after all, some environmental reason for the son to share those qualities. If Dad abandons the family, there may very well be something in the species' environment that would make advantages of his children's adverse reactions.

Evolution could not negate the ability to pass on that which modern society might consider dysfunctions, because nature is unqualified to decide which traits might prove beneficial or harmful. The evolutionary value is in the ability of adults — especially parents — to affect the personalities and character of the next generation — for good or ill. Such is the cold logic of science, and as observers of John Derbyshire should note, it is clearly not adequate — even to the extent that such as Derbyshire prove unable to follow its imperatives.

It is merely a shell game of those who believe that biology (that is, science) is everything to concoct "if/then" statements with the implication that, by not proving the theories of others in terms agreeable to skeptics, nature has proven the theories of the matierialist faithful. Of course, when it comes to materialists, their lower birthrates, and their effects on those children whom they do beget, it may be that natural selection will, given time, "take care of them."

Posted by Justin Katz at June 20, 2006 6:49 PM
Marriage & Family

Derb is a lot of fun on social issues, but he doesn't know his limits. He can't think clearly about science. Just a few weeks ago he made some very unpopular remarks on the The Corner to the effect that philosophy, theology, etc. were all complete wastes of time, and only the hard sciences had ever achieved anything worthwhile. Then, as now, Jonah patiently steered him back towards reality.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at June 28, 2006 2:07 PM

This fully qualifies as "WWP." Wow, Whatta Post! I am always amazed that pundits (myself included) tend to make flat statements and expect others to accept it fully. Tain't so, and the statement you made

"Evolution could not negate the ability to pass on that which modern society might consider dysfunctions, because nature is unqualified to decide which traits might prove beneficial or harmful."
is the perfect response. Thanks for the insight!

Posted by: GM Roper at June 29, 2006 9:44 AM