Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Education and Environment

I have decided I have been projecting in trying to understand the resistance many people have to the high-heritability, low environmental influence on adult abilities. I will set forth our story, but I want to read what others think.

I don't think Tracy and I had more than an informal consensus when we married of how much of children's intelligence, determination, reading skill, charm ( hundred other abilities) is due to genetics .  I think we would have acknowledged that there was some. Yet it was an era when all psychology, psychology, anthropology, and educational theory insisted that environment was nearly everything, and we absorbed the lessons of our times.  Our behavior right from the outset illustrates our belief that environmental factors are enormous and critical.  We started teaching Sunday School and taking in foster children within a few months of marriage; she was reliably The Book Aunt right out of the gate. We read to Jonathan the first day he was born, and did not miss many days even when he was well into school. Family devotions, expressions of affection, arts, history, science were creatively attacked year upon year.  It spilled out to our friends' children and we eventually adopted a few.  We stopped at every historical marker and chatted about it afterward; we went to medieval events in costume, with instruction on the way there and the way back.  As the twig is bent...

We were pretty much nuts, but mostly joyfully so and it mostly (not always) worked, for our family and those we were in contact with. We embraced and tried to put into play all the child-raising knowledge we could get our hands on: critical periods and the other Montessori tropes; learning styles; careful expositions of how one taught repentance and forgiveness; multisensory instruction; something pretty close to a homeschooling curriculum on top of sending them to private Christian schools; preserving independent learning and autodidacticism. Even as I began learning in the 1980's how much is hardwired, there was significant inertia for...well, we've still got Kyle, who is 20, and we still discuss exactly how we are going to present certain ideas, undermine others, and create an environment for him to learn his next life lessons.

From this all of you can make some good guesses why I would resist that idea that this was mostly extraneous effort.  I am also deeply moved by the unfairness of a world where a great deal of child's outcome is ranged even before she is born.  I believe that mild alterations in environment can create large differences, in that you might grow up in Michigan instead of New Mexico, or marry a woman who develops a terrible illness, or hear a particular preacher on a particular day.  And differences might of course lead to diverse outcomes. Yet I am also aware that you might be a shy chemical engineer with a worrisome attraction to children but no expression of that no matter where you ended up living, and end you life with one of ten very similar biographies. (There does seem to be a nonenvironmental, likely random element that may explain as much as 50% of the variance on some traits. That's a little different.)

Twice over at Maggie's in the past day or so there has been discussion of women in math and science, and the usefulness of pre-K.  Greg Cochran has just yesterday gone over some of the standard data about group differences, with specific references to famous academics who seem unable to absorb even the simplest parts of it. There is this persistence, a stubbornness, in clinging to the idea that so many pathologies are fixable if we just make the proper changes in the environment.  I have mostly assumed that I understand this reluctance to accept genetic explanations, because I read my own feelings into it.  Yet my feelings may not be at all representative.

We accept that height is largely heritable, but weight...not so much. We see that a musical knack and sometimes genius seems to be "just there," and not teachable, yet we still focus on the 10,000 hours of hard work as the key. For schools especially, liberals and conservatives have visions of how things should be organised, and we get very upset about the cultural discussions.

Yet, why? There is this idea that we just don't want to believe, no matter the evicence.

Those who have some insight into how abilities and education are viewed in other countries, especially non-Anglospheric, non NW European countries are encouraged to weigh in on that as well.


james said...

Some Anglo-spheric proverbs: "blood will tell", "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree", "can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear."

How recent is the hegemony of environmental influence?

herfsi said...

i struggle with how rude of a creator who would create human population groups with just enough mean difference (overlapping normal distributions in ability) to matter -- but not so much that it's totally obvious (b/c one can be from any group & be really smart, or from any group & be dumb).

that is how biology works, but it's not very "nice"! people want it to be nice.

we used to say "wild ducks come from wild duck eggs" :)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, me too. It doesn't seem so bothersome with height, musical ability, or even beauty.

Grim said...

I taught college in China. They believe in hard work as the major driver of accomplishment. Sometimes this conflicts with their Communist ethic, but more often it conflicts with the emerging capitalist one. The rich want to believe that they can buy their children success, so there are emerging private colleges because admission to the public ones is by competitive examination only. If you are rich and your kids don't inherit your brains or work ethic for some reason, maybe daddy can buy you an education and that will even it out somehow.

james said...

Africa and education is a bit complicated.

There are lots of parents trying to get at least one of their kids (let’s not get picky about details) a Western education, as a ticket to success. I’ve not heard talk about which parent’s kids will do better in school, and I’m not privy to the family debates about which kid gets picked, but I suspect questions like “can we spare him” still play something of a role, as well as the expected “which seems likeliest.”

There are poor second generation educated folks trying to get a few of their kids a Western education. I know less about them, and prefer not to muddy things by guessing.

There are parents where somebody made it; either by getting a good job or inheriting a pile. They assume their kids will get a good education, probably through university, and then get good jobs or family of their own. It would be interesting to try to figure out how many went to which tier of university, and also (though it is probably not discoverable) how many got through by family pull.

I gather that the tribal education is extremely practical, and has among others the objective that nobody fails. I suppose the really expert become teachers in their turn, but they are secret societies and don't advertise those details.

By and large, unless you want to become a warlord, getting a pile of money requires a western education and some connections--at least where I was. Nigeria may be different.

Cambias said...

The supremacy of "environment" is a logical precondition for Marxism. You can't make the New Socialist Man if people's personalities and abilities are in their genes.

Therefore, for roughly the past century, scientists at universities dominated by various flavors of Marxism have been beavering away looking for proof that environment determines personality and abilities. From time to time some nerdish sort who doesn't pay attention to academic fashion publishes a paper finding a genetic link, at which point the rest point and shriek and blow out clouds of smoke until it goes away.

bs king said...

The obvious answer is that we continue to believe it because there is likely something adaptive about the belief or the actions it precipitates, or it's tied to another set of actions that's adaptive.

Strict nihilists likely don't reproduce well.

Assistant Village Idiot said...


Retriever said...

My basic take on it is that of the Parable of the Sower. Our children are not our own, but God's. We can't predict or control how our biological children will turn out because genes are a bit of a lottery. Modern parents' hubris (my own included) leads them to seek a perfect mate, and to be control freaks in child rearing. Parents often have the illusion that they can shape and mold their child into someone who will be the person they were never able to be (I tried this) or someone they could just brag about. However, kids are their own from that first howl in the delivery room. In my view we can do them a lot of damage by being cruel or cold. We can develop innate gifts by providing a stimulating and disciplined environment and raising them to love God, and by the attempt to model good values (since we are all miserable sinners this fails, but the attempt is not lost on them). In the end, our role is like that of gardeners taking care of a mystery given us for a while by God. To love, cherish, and sometimes roar at and firmly show the right way to in a Godless and wicked society.

On a more mundane note, this series has lots to think about. Just want to share this link as the series has lots of food for thought...

Excuse cellphone typos...