Two Books by Judith Rich Harris

September 16, 2017

Today, I recommend two excellent books on psychology, both by Judith Rich Harris, an American freelance researcher. The Nurture Assumption (1998; subtitle: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do) had been lying around in my bookshelves for several years until I stumbled upon a commendatory mention in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (also interesting but not as important and revolutionary). My interest having been reawakened, I finally started reading it. I devoured the book. Immediately after finishing with it I ordered her second (popular) book: No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality (2006). It, too, was a very good read, highly interesting and illuminating. (If you’re German, you may prefer the German translations, whose titles are Ist Erziehung sinnlos? and Jeder ist anders.)

The topic of Harris’s books is the question of what factors govern the development of personality, i.e., of the more or less stable and measurable characteristics of ourselves that determine how we usually tend to feel, think and act. For virtually all of us, the first answer that comes to mind will be that a central factor is the way children are raised in their families, or more general, the experiences they make with their parents (or foster parents, as the case may be) and siblings (if such there are). This is “nurture”, but of course there is also “nature”, as most of us are nowadays ready to admit (though not all – read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate): our genetic endowment also influences how we turn out. This latter thesis is quite well corroborated scientifically. The received view in psychology is that the former thesis (the “nurture assumption”) is true as well, so that our genes and our family environment together determine what kind of adult we become. Psychologists believe that they have verified countless ways in which the home environment shapes personality.

The books I am writing about have two central purposes. One is, to discredit the nurture assumption and the studies that allegedly support it: the family environment is actually irrelevant in the long run. The other is, to explain where the many nongenetic differences between individuals come from. What is it that makes even identical twins raised in the same family grow into adults who are markedly different from each other? (This is the leitmotif of No Two Alike.)

The studies usually read as supporting the nurture assumption have serious flaws. For example, they ignore possible genetic determinants of behavior (e.g., is the child aggressive because the parents behave aggressively – or because it has inherited their propensity to aggressiveness?) or they interpret B‘s being statistically correlated to A as B‘s being caused by A, where it is just as possible that A is caused by B or that both are caused by a third factor (e.g., is the child difficult because the parents are strict – or are the parents strict because the child is difficult?). What these studies do is that, in interpreting their data, they already presuppose the nurture assumption; thus it is small wonder they obtain it as a result. In some places the intricacies of Harris’s explanations of statistical interrelations are a bit hard to follow for laymen such as me. I guess that’s due to the books being aimed at not just lay but also academic readers. But never mind if you do not perfectly understand those parts; the majority of the content is about things much more interesting and much better comprehensible than those fine points of statistics.

After trashing the nurture assumption, Harris attempts to supplant it with a viable alternative explanation of how children are socialized and personality is developed. Where does this happen, if not in the family environment? In the peer group, she suggests: in the group(s) of children the child plays with and goes to school with. She calls this group socialization theory in her first book. The idea is roughly that children adopt the behaviors, ideas and values of the childrens’ group(s) they belong to, while also trying to set themselves apart from groups they see themselves as decidedly not belonging to (e.g., girls vs. boys, jocks vs. nerds). Harris often juxtaposes this process with that of language acquisition (which might be considered as just a part of socialization): if the language (or dialect or accent) spoken at home is different from the one spoken in the peer group then what becomes the child’s native tongue is the language, not of the home, but of the peer group. She also motivates her account of socialization by recourse to evolutionary considerations: it wouldn’t make evolutionary sense for the child to adapt to an environment and a culture other than the ones she will have to function in as an adult.

Then, in No Two Alike, Harris presents her account of how we develop our personalities. You have to persevere through the first five chapters, where she knocks out the competition – endure the statistics! The really interesting stuff starts in Chapter 6. Here, she relies heavily on evolutionary psychology, in particular the theory of the modular mind, which says that the mind/brain is not a uniform all-purpose organ but rather made up out of lots of specialized sub-organs, or modules, each with its own specific purpose and method of operation and also with its own weaknesses (read, e.g., Pinker’s How the Mind Works). She postulates three such modules. The relationship system is interested in individual people: what should I expect him to do? how should I deal with her? The socialization system is interested in types of people: what types (what social categories) are there? what is the prototypical member of a given category like? what is the appropriate behavior for him or her? which categories do I belong to? Its purpose is to make you conform to the norms of the group(s) you belong to. Lastly, there is the status system. This system makes you compete for higher status within the group. It is interested in your rank in the group’s pecking order and how to raise it: do the others dominate you or look up to you? do they pay attention to what you say? do they look at you often? what are you good at, compared with the other members of your group? what style of interaction (aggressive, deferential, funny …) works for you, in the group? what activity is it worth for you to specialize in? what goals are attainable for you? In the end, this system makes you carve out (depending on your strengths and your weaknesses) your own personal niche in your group and in society – including your character or personality.

Both books are very well written and fun to read (although, reading No Two Alike, I sometimes felt that there could have been better transitions between paragraphs, to make it easier to see how the next one connects logically to the previous one). Along the way you learn lots of interesting stuff besides the central points. But most importantly, these books revolutionize our understanding of personality and psychological development, and that is why I strongly suggest reading them.

In a way, it is ironic that I recommend Harris’s books so warmly, because some years ago I recommended, equally heartily, Frank J. Sulloway’s Born to Rebel – and that is a book Harris tears apart. It is about the hypothesis that personality is strongly influenced by birth order: that firstborns tend to be dominant and conservative, while laterborns tend to be cooperative and open to revolutionary ideas. But Harris argues that Sulloway’s meta-study is deeply flawed in many ways (statistics again …). What really can be inferred from the studies is that, while birth order does have effects of the kind mentioned within the family context, it does not have them outside, and so it doesn’t help determine your character but just the way you treat your siblings.

I was dissatisfied with Harris’s characterization of autism in the books (she mentions it two or three times), but that may be just because the scientific understanding of autism has changed a lot in the last few years. For her, autism entails “mind-blindness”: being incapable of understanding what goes on in other people’s minds, maybe even of recognizing that other people have minds in the first place. But nowadays autism is considered rather as a spectrum of disorders, where mind-blindness is an extreme manifestation. Autists do have difficulties reading people’s emotions off their faces, and interpreting what they think and want, but these difficulties need not be severe. Nevertheless Harris’s point that autists are (more or less) ill equipped for social interaction and thus ill suited for socialization, remains valid: they are less interested in what others want and think, what others approve and disapprove of; and insofar as they are interested they are less capable of finding out. This weakness of the socialization system also impairs the functioning of the status system. I do not understand these matters well, but I think that they illuminate a fact about myself I noticed years ago (I’m rather sure I’m an autist myself, to wit, an Asperger): I was for a long time uncertain (that is, more uncertain than most other people, I believe) about what sort of person I am – e.g., nice or selfish, weird or ordinary – and what I am good at, and how good. If one obtains this sort of knowledge by interpreting others’ reactions to oneself, and if you are bad at doing that, then you will know less than other people, or know it later. I suppose my self-knowledge and my self-appreciation still reside more on an intellectual level than being deeply ingrained as gut feelings.

Another point of detail: In No Two Alike, Harris coins the term “anti-meme”, and as I am quite interested in memes (not in the modern sense of internet crazes but in Dawkins’ original sense; read The Selfish Gene) I was eager to learn what that was supposed to mean and what she was going to do with it. This was a double disappointment, however. The first disappointment was that Harris gave an incorrect or at least misleading characterization of memes:

Cultural transmission by memes is analogous to genetic transmission by genes: bits of culture are passed from one generation to the next, with successful variations promulgating themselves and unsuccessful ones dying out. (No Two Alike, p. 157)

For one thing, it would be better to say, “cultural transmission of memes”: the memes are what is transmitted. Second, memes are not only passed from one (biological) generation to the next but can rather be passed every which way. Third, Harris makes natural selection among memes sound tautological, because for a meme to promulgate itself just means that it is successful. It would be more correct to say that variations well-suited (“well-designed”, “fit”) to promulgate themselves tend to do so.

The other disappointment was that neither are anti-memes clearly explained or defined (what does an anti-meme do, in contrast to a meme?) nor is the term really useful, in my opinion. The phenomenon to be explained is well captured by Harris’s concept of “group contrast effects”: when two separate, disjoint groups of people are salient, their members tend to emphasize and amplify the existing cultural differences, with the result that contrasting group (sub)cultures develop. And I think this already contains all the term “anti-meme” is intended to convey: If you believe that meme X is typical of the other group then, wishing to emphasize how different your group is from theirs, you declare the meme anti-X to be typical of your group. Thus the meme anti-X spreads in your group, because the other members want to be good members, fully exemplifying the group culture. By having been declared part of the group culture, anti-X becomes an attractive meme in your group (it becomes “memetically fitter” than X and any intermediate variant in that environment), and thus anti-X becomes part of the group culture as embodied in the members’ behavior. So, all you really need is the concept of meme. – However, I see now that I have probably misunderstood Harris’s idea. I thought she wanted to introduce a new category of things, distinct from memes, but it seems what she really wanted was to introduce a kind of function on memes (like the mathematical function that maps each number to its square, e.g., 3 to 9): for some (or all?) memes X there is an opposite meme, which you might call “anti-X“, and in group contrast effects a group adopts the anti-memes to those of the competing group.

So, this disappointment has been mostly resolved (she could have expressed this more clearly and I could have read her more charitably), and anyway these are all just minor misgivings. Overall, these are great and important books and you should go and read them (or put them on your reading stack) ASAP.

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‘The Golem and the Jinni’ and ‘The Peripheral’

May 1, 2017

Long time no write … But now, with nothing urgent needing to be done, I am finally able to write a bit about books again.

I thought about what my readers would be interested in most. Presumably not so much in average books which impressed me neither positively nor negatively. Perhaps more in being warned away from books that got hyped but aren’t really that good. But most, I suppose, in learning about very good books. So, here are two which came to my mind back when I thought about what you might like to read (ages ago).

The one is The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. It is a beautiful fantasy novel about a (male) Arabian Jinni and a (female) Eastern European Golem ending up, and meeting, in New York. You could compare it to Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale – sort of magical realism perhaps – but I didn’t like the latter so much. Not sure why, now: maybe it was a bit too literary, too pretentious for my low-brow taste. So, that’s one reason I liked The Golem and the Jinni: it is beautifully written, but it also tells a good story, a good adventure.

The other book I want to recommend is The Peripheral by William Gibson. This is not fantasy but science fiction – proper science fiction, not like his previous three novels (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History). Those were quite good as well, but had merely a slightly science-fictiony feeling: some unusual technology which however was already actual (or so I think). (Sometimes these days the actual world feels science-fictiony: when I see people riding around on self-balancing unicycles I think how weird it is that such devices, which not so long ago would have been considered pure science fiction, are already commonly available. Then again, we do live in yesterday’s future.) If you fondly remember Gibson’s classic Neuromancer, as I do, this novel does not feature cyberspace but instead has cross-temporal telepresence, among other things. So this is again a treat for the fan of true science fiction.

‘The Sense of Style’ by Steven Pinker

February 16, 2015

This is a style manual by one of my favorite popular-science authors (the other is Richard Dawkins [just mentioning the name will presumably boost my readership, hooray!]). Pinker is an excellent stylist himself, if I am any judge, and the book is (as usual) both very enjoyable and written very lucidly. Of course, much depends on whether you want to (or have to) write yourself: if neither, parts of the book will be boring to you. Still, even then you may enjoy large parts of the book, just for learning about how language is processed and understood, and what that implies for how to write (you may understand a bit better just why certain authors annoy you so much). And there are cartoons in the book. And it is fun to read about how many oft-repeated precepts for good writing are really bullshit: idiosyncratic preferences of someone or some age which were later uncritically canonized.

(Regarding good and bad writing, it makes me wonder why David Foster Wallace, who’s presumably such a great writer, doesn’t seem to put any effort into streamlining his thinking in Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Seems like his readers’ interests aren’t close to his heart at all. Or he didn’t have the time?)

So, if you are looking for a style manual, I recommend this one emphatically (although I must admit I haven’t read any other, unless Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style counts, which is exemplary of its subject matter too). If you are just looking for good popular science, then better read Pinker’s The Language Instinct or one of his many later books (or of course Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene or The Blind Watchmaker or …). Considered as popular science, The Sense of Style is satisfying too, but not at the top of the list, because that is not its main purpose.

‘The Fortress of Solitude’ by Jonathan Lethem

February 16, 2015

The Fortress of Solitude is certainly a very good book, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn. To be sure, there are superheroes in FoS, or at least superpowers (at least, one superpower …), but there wasn’t much adventure. Rather, there were typical topics of highbrow literature: family relations, friendship, race — doubtless many more, which I forgot (it’s been quite a while since I read the book) or didn’t get in the first place. In MB, on the other hand, there’s some kind of crime story, some adventure, and the story reaches some kind of satisfying resolution. (I don’t remember what exactly the story was, never mind the resolution [one never remembers the resolutions of crime stories], because this reading lies even farther back.)

If you enjoy good highbrow literature, albeit tainted by popular culture (superhero comics, graffiti, soul music …), then FoS may well be a book for you. (‘Oooh, yes, I’d really enjoy a week of splendid ennui!’ — Nah, it’s not that bad …) If, like me, you prefer literature with a higher entertainment value, though it be of literary worth [is that correct English?? Or should I write, ‘be it though …’??], then better read MB.

The Kayankaya Novels by Jakob Arjouni

March 3, 2014

A few days ago I finished reading in a row all five Kayankaya novels, crime novels written by German author Jakob Arjouni:

  • Happy Birthday, Türke! (Happy Birthday, Turk!), 1985
  • Mehr Bier (More Beer — although it seems that there’s also a translation under the title And Still Drink More!), 1987
  • Ein Mann, ein Mord (One Man, One Murder — alternative title: One Death to Die), 1991
  • Kismet (Kismet), 2001
  • Bruder Kemal (Brother Kemal), 2012

These are hard-boiled detective stories (not really thrillers, although they are thrilling [thripping] in places) centering on the Turkish-born and German-raised private eye Kemal Kayankaya and set in the large German city Frankfurt (Main) and its surroundings. Although they feature prostitution, extortion and drugs, an important underlying thread pervading these books is the xenophobia or at least unease many Germans manifest towards immigrants. Except for his Turkish features, the protagonist is as German as the next (German) guy — he can’t speak a word of Turkish, rather can adopt Hessian dialect if needed (I wonder how that was translated … but dialects are of course a common problem in translation) — yet still people act weird or downright hostile toward him because they have difficulty categorizing him other than as a Turk and because they are unable to see Turks as ordinary people like them. By the way, the author himself is not Turkish-born or -raised or anything, contrary to what it says somewhere on Amazon.

These books are quite nice, funny and entertaining. The later books are better than the early ones (especially the first, which Arjouni wrote at the age of 21, seems slightly immature, the PI’s cynicism being a bit cheap). I like these books, but I must say I like the crime novels of Austrian writer Wolf Haas even better. They are more literary without being highbrow (yuck), they are funny and written in a distinctive direct-speech style (even more stylistically original is his non-crime novel Das Wetter vor fünfzehn Jahren [The Weather Fifteen Years Ago]; take a look). Start with Auferstehung der Toten (Resurrection, 1996), and then there are six more with his PI Simon Brenner, two or three of which I haven’t even yet read myself. Must do so some time.

‘The Mirage’ by Matt Ruff

January 20, 2014

This novel I definitely recommend (except if you’re George W. Bush or Dick Cheney, which I doubt). I mean, who could resist a back-cover text that starts like this?:

11/9/2001: Christian fundamentalists hijack four jetliners. They fly two into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, and a third into the Arab Defense Ministry in Riyadh. The fourth plane, believed to be bound for Mecca, is brought down by its passengers. The United Arab States declares a War on Terror. Arabian and Persian troops invade the Eastern Seaboard and establish a Green Zone in Washington, D.C. … [And it goes on and gets even more interesting; look it up somewhere where they sell books.]

I couldn’t resist, and this once I wasn’t disappointed, quite the contrary (at least with movies, I am no stranger to disappointment, e.g., The Hobbit 2, The Counselor [‘The Desolation of Scott’?]). The 11/9 attacks are not the topic but rather the background for this alternate reality novel, where an ‘Arab Homeland Security’ agent investigates stories told by captured failed suicide-bombers (Christian ones) that the reality they know is just a ‘mirage’ that has somehow replaced the real reality. So, the book also has elements of a crime novel, and of a political thriller. It is very well written, very entertaining, gripping and thrilling (I’d like to introduce ‘thripping’ as an English equivalent to the German ‘spannend’, but it seems like that word already has another definition: http://de.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Thripping — but really that should be ‘thritting’!). It’s funny also, in places, if I remember correctly (I’ve been moving on already: Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam and now Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge — don’t you agree it’s high time for him to get the Nobel Prize for Literature? I, for one, do agree).

It also seems to me that Matt Ruff cherishes good typography (remember the funny format of Bad Monkeys?) — or maybe that’s the publisher, HarperCollins/Harper Perennial?? (Makes me start reminiscing about the Alfred A. Knopf Borzoi Books I have, but I meander around too much already, so let’s stop getting started.)

I think I enjoyed Ruff’s early books, Fool on the Hill and Sewer, Gas & Electric, but not as much by far as the later ones (including this one): Set This House in Order and the already-mentioned Bad Monkeys. I recommend the latter two, too, to you. (Maybe I should read the former two in the original English; maybe I’d like them more then.)

‘The Once and Future King’ by T. H. White

October 24, 2013

Quite good and interesting. Longish also, but not demanding for people who have read the Song of Ice and Fire books. I had expected something along the lines of The Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser — what one expects from a fantasy classic, merely involving the Arthurian legend: heroism, evil, danger, magic, adventure, love … I guess The Once and Future King has most of that, but it isn’t as naive and serious about it as I expected. For example, the way in which the knights here hunt dragons or joust with each other may well have been an inspiration for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (So, this book is funny very often — but also serious.) Furthermore, while there is magic in the book, the narrator doesn’t hide that he lives in the 20th century and knows 20th-century science, e.g., evolution. Beyond telling another version of the legend of King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table, the book seems to be about the problems of a leader, about how to civilize people who aren’t quite ready and willing to be civilized.

The parts about Arthur’s youth reminded me of the Simplicissimus, a German novel taking place during the 30 Years’ War and written in 1668, which is in spite of its considerable age quite entertaining.

Another book by T. H. White I have read is Mistress Masham’s Repose, a book for young readers: nice.

‘Interview with the Vampire’ by Anne Rice

September 12, 2013

Not really my cup of tea — or my goblet of blood. I prefer my vampires evil and tough, not aesthetes tormented by moral scruples, as the protagonist of this book is. I’m not saying this is a bad book (although it didn’t strike me as a terribly good one, either), just that it’s not my taste. I suppose this is more for girls than for boys: feelings, relationships, beauty — bah, gimme gore! Well, that is not a perfectly accurate characterization of my tastes, but I do prefer some adventure, a certain amount of thrills and action. Actually, there is a little action in this novel, near the end … But no, this is not my preferred type of entertainment. No more Anne Rice for me, I guess.

Maybe I should watch the movie. It can’t be all bad, since it was directed by Neil Jordan, who gave us The Crying Game.

One favorable observation: There was an interesting thought about immortality in the book. Usually people write that immortality wouldn’t really be desirable because life would become more and more boring after a while, because you would have already seen it all, having lived for so long. That sounds somewhat plausible, but never convinced me. Now, in this novel there was a different, contrary thought, namely that immortality is undesirable because it becomes unendurable after a while. What would be unendurable would not be not dying in itself (nor the boredom) but having to live through constant change, having to get to grips with a world that’s ever farther from the world you grew up in, and having to change with it and to adapt to it, again and again. Seems to me the psychology behind this idea is a little more realistic than that in the case of the boredom idea. Mind you, I’m not convinced; while I find adapting to my changing circumstances rather trying, I still prefer it to dying.

‘Beat the Reaper’ by Josh Bazell

July 24, 2013

Very entertaining: very funny and gripping. A former mafia hitman has retrained as a doctor, but hasn’t lost his martial arts competence, which is a good thing as the mafia is on his tracks for killing an important mob attorney’s son and turning state’s witness. When they catch up with him, his work in a hospital gets even more stressful. (Do I sound like a blurb already? Not quite, I hope.)

So I can definitely recommend this, if you don’t suffer from shark phobia. The same goes for the sequel, Wild Thing (2012), which takes place mostly outdoors, or at least mostly not inside hospitals. You get a vivid impression of how hospitals work (at least U.S.-American hospitals, though German ones may be not much better) where economic considerations are paramount, and nurses as well as doctors low in the hierarchy are exploited as far as possible. Perhaps one can get similar insights from watching House? I haven’t yet done so, however.

Hospitals (and the dire conditions in them) forge a connection to another crime novel I have recently read, Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre, which deals with a Scottish hospital. That one was also good, but not quite as good as Bazell’s novels. I thought the dialogues felt a bit contrived.

You also learn quite a few other things in the process of reading Beat the Reaper. Bazell strives to enlighten his readers while entertaining them, and he succeeds, I think. This intention to enlighten and to foster rational thinking becomes especially clear with the sequel, which has about 40 pages of notes and background information. It amazes me how much Bazell must read. I mean, I read a lot, but I read mostly fiction. He must devour both fiction (otherwise he couldn’t write that well) and fact. Oh well, we must learn to accept our limits …

The protagonist’s name, Pietro Brnwa, is weird. The character is supposed to be of Polish origin, and “Brnwa” a Polish name, but I have difficulty swallowing that. On the other hand, I am anything but an expert on Polish family names, so what do I know. And it is suggested to pronounce it as “Brown”. I am not an expert on Polish pronunciation, either, but that seems implausible to me again. If you know better, don’t hesitate to enlighten me. (The name of the main character of Quite Ugly One Morning is Jack Parlabane. Now he’s not supposed to be Polish, but rather Scottish, but similarly that doesn’t sound like a typical Scottish name to me. Maybe it’s an untypical one.)

‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ by Steven Pinker

June 13, 2013

Very good. Very long, but also very well written and readable (as usual with Pinker), entertaining, and again and again informing us about interesting and often surprising facts, ideas and theories. It took me about a year to read the whole book, a few pages every other evening, but I never considered abandoning the project.

Contrary to the widespread impression that we live in violent times, Pinker argues that on the whole, violence in all forms — whether in war or as parents ill-treating their children — has decreased tremendously over the course of human history. He bolsters this claim by adducing statistics (remarkably unboring) and illustrates it with vivid examples. He debunks the romantic notion that life was better in ‘the good old days’ when we lived closer to nature, with less technology and a simpler culture — and less inhibited by reason. And he describes the most promising hypotheses about what multifarious causes lie behind this trend. For example, one of the reasons people became less cruel to each other was, according to Pinker, the introduction and proliferation of novels, which made you see the world, and experience life, from the vantage point of another person, possibly quite foreign to you. Seems at least very plausible to me. You also get some insight into why the United States still has (I, for my part, would prefer treating ‘the United States’ as the plural it is — ‘the U.S. have‘ — but I acquiesce to my dictionary) no gun control worth mentioning. Also, this book is a defense of rationality, self-control and civilization. Those in need of such a defense will probably not be interested in reading the book, but it might make us others more content with civilization’s discontents.

If you’re interested in human nature, this book is a good choice (although Pinker’s The Blank Slate might be better still); if you’d like to understand some grand trends in history, ditto (another good tip would be Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel).