Sunday, August 02, 2020


I long ago rethought legacy as my knowledge of heritability has grown.  "Heritable" has tighter and looser definitions, but means that there is some genetic influence on a trait.  It is now believed that all behavioral traits have some heritability. Some have a great deal, more than we would ordinarily credit.

I spent my early adulthood trying to escape from what I believed was my legacy, both environmental and genetic, while intensely and intentionally passing a new legacy on to my children.  That is an overstatement, as there were things that my wife and I happily kept and tried to pass forward one more generation, but that was the general tenor. We were founding a new family, and with our Jesus people friends a new culture.

When I look at myself and my parents, I see some things that are similar, but more that are different.  Particularly in the matter of beliefs, I don't share much of their politics, less of their specific religious ideas, and a mixed plate of cultural values. I then compare them to their own parents, and see differences, insofar as I have real data about my grandparents. Taking the exercise as a whole, I see little of myself in my grandparents. There was a general family culture on my maternal grandmother's side, of reading, poetry, knowledge, music, witty conversation, and competitive intellectual games. However, while that describes many of them, it does not describe all.  I see it in my brother, but very little in any cousins. I did not live with my father much, but knew him as an adult, and some of that comes from him as well. especially in theater and witty conversation.  Yet not from his side in any way that I can find.  He was the only one.

So there is that one large thing, descending from some ancestors to some relatives, but hardly universal.  More to the point, it looks solidly genetic at this point.  I could tell even as a child that some relatives in the older generations weren't like that, and some in my generation weren't ever going to be like that. I've thought about it a fair bit over the years and believe I have fair grasp of what is cultural legacy. I think most of the visible cultural markers disappear after two generations, maybe three. A heritable ability in an area, such as computation or music, seems to drive the similarities much more than culture.

The counterargument is that there are a thousand small things I don't even notice about legacy that are nonetheless powerful in aggregate.  This is similar to the current understanding of genetic traits, that there are not a few single dominant genes for height, or placidity, or intelligence, or disease risk, but polygenic scores, thousands of smaller effects.  I entirely grant that there is much to that idea, that there is a cultural legacy that becomes visible only when one is away from it, traveling in a foreign country and noticing "they do things differently here."  This occurs even in different regions, especially in a large and diverse country. Yet that arrow points in both directions.  If one moves to a different place and absorbs some of the new culture over the old, doesn't that dilute the idea that there is a legacy other than genetic that comes from the family?  In a highly moveable culture like the US, wouldn't those items disappear even more quickly, supplanted by the mores of the new place?

I think of this when trying to consider what phrases like "the legacy of slavery" or "white culture" even mean. Promptness and attention to time was a notably Puritan idea that spread rather incompletely to the rest of America.  Hell, it didn't even spread to all of New England all that thoroughly, even after four centuries. So the argument could be made that it is a more commonly white value, but I don't think you could push that very far.  There are enough African-Americans and others who are time-conscious and even obsessive that I think you could only get tendencies, percentages of the behavioral trait.  Other people adopted the puritan fixation because it worked and led to prosperity, even if it annoyed those who didn't care so much. 

Yet I think legacy is far less solid than we credit, or even hope.  Look at your own parents and grandparents.  Look at your own children and grandchildren.  Separate out what could easily be genetic, and it becomes difficult to nail down more than a few things over either direction.  Taking both directions together, it is going to be hard to find even a few.


james said...

Albion's Seed emphasizes the "founder effect."

HMS Defiant said...

Oh I think I know the nature vs nurture play. Heritable traits are just that. I really can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to how that plays out with her mother. "Raised by wolves", indeed.

Grim said...

Heritable means potential is inherited; potential must be actualized to become an observable expression.