Health: It's a free market on the nature of nurture

Britain on the couch
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
UNDER FRIEDMANITE free market economics, individuals are responsible for themselves. The state should not feel responsible for citizens' health or education, likewise employers and the welfare of employees. Now comes the final solution: parents need not feel responsible for how their offspring turn out because it is all the fault of a combination of genes and peer groups.

Richard Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene supplied the perfect rationale for the political applications of Friedman's theories that were Thatcherism and Reaganism: our sole motivation in life is to reproduce ourselves at an individual level, so "greed is good" and the state must not interfere with natural selection of the best countries, companies or individuals in a globalised economy.

The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Harris, claims that parents have almost no effect at all on how offspring turn out, and that the idea that they do is merely a "cultural myth".

Harris begins with a disingenuous attempt to ingratiate herself to the reader. Her preface states that, prior to writing the scientific paper on which her book is based, "I had no PhD - I'd been kicked out of Harvard's department of psychology with only a Master's degree."

This is a very misleading account. Harris is the author of numerous respectable developmental psychology textbooks and scientific papers. She can hardly claim to be a heroic maverick crying unheeded from beyond the walls of the establishment but, sure enough, this marketing has been swallowed whole in the media accounts of her.

Harris also advances another false premise - that the psychological establishment subscribe to the nurture assumption that parents are critical. The truth is exactly the opposite. Most academic psychologists are extremely resistant to the idea, as are most psychiatrists (doctors trained to treat mental illnesses with physical methods).

The windmill built, Harris proceeds to joust at it and it becomes apparent why all the packaging was necessary: her book contains very little that is new. It duplicates most of the arguments of an article by psychologist Sandra Scarr, published in 1992.

Harris is actually a populist mouthpiece for the academic establishment. "Her" argument is as follows: genes cause 40 to 50 per cent of our individual psychology and, therefore, 60 to 50 per cent must be environmental. Siblings from the same family are no more similar to each other than siblings from different ones. This proves that parents have little or no effect in creating sibling similarities, and that all the parental influence, if any, is on making siblings different.

Harris then takes Scarr's arguments to the limit by re-analysing data on the effect of children on their peers, and concluding that it is siblings, friends and school that are the key environmental factors - not the parents - in making siblings so different.

Only the extremism of Harris's stance is really new, because Judy Dunn - along with her husband, the behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin - has been suggesting for years that peers play a larger role than they are accorded. The only difference is that controversialist Harris is saying that peers account for almost all the difference between siblings, and parents virtually none.

The truth is that The Nurture Assumption is no more than a reheated old meal which is the favourite dish of a group of key geneticists (the book's acknowledgements read like a roll of honour from mainstream behavioural genetics) of whom the author of the foreword, Steven Pinker, is a prime example. He makes the embarrassing assertion that the book "will be seen as a turning point in the history of psychology". This is a bit like welcoming the remake of a Hitchcock film, which closely apes the original, as a turning point in the history of film. But the key problem with Harris's work is that it largely ignores, or lamely dismisses on methodological grounds, the huge body of research which proves, beyond much doubt, that parenting is highly influential in determining their children's adult personalities, the risk of mental illness and their mental abilities.

Being totally imbalanced, Harris's book can be safely ignored as yet another application of Friedmanite economics to the social realm.

However, there is an important matter arising here. While the evidence that parents are highly influential in determining adult personality is strong, there is still surprisingly little known about precisely what adult outcomes are influenced by which parental behaviours at what ages. For example, hard evidence that how babies are cared for in the first year has a greater impact on their adult psychology than, for example, how they are cared for aged four to five, is still very thin on the ground.

The only way to obtain it would be a study of a large sample, following them from birth to old age. How long will we have to wait before such a study is done? The answer is: "A long time", because the purse strings of research funding continue to be held by people who are extremely hostile to the idea that parental care is critical - most top academic psychologists, psychiatrists and behavioural geneticists.

These people are very unlikely to allocate the millions of pounds that would be needed for such a study, when the results would threaten their life's work, and which would indirectly pose a real challenge to the theories of advanced consumer capitalism: if what parents do is critical, it calls into question the low priority given to it, compared with the pursuit of profit.

Oliver James's book `Britain on the Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared With 1950 Despite Being Richer' is now available in paperback (Arrow, pounds 7.99)