Steven Pinker Responds At Length
On Sunday, the New York Times published my review of a new book by Paul Tough, “How Children Succeed.” The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker tweeted the review, criticizing it for not mentioning genes. I responded with this blog post, after which Professor Pinker sent me the email below. With his permission I’ve reproduced it in its entirety. Readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts; please leave comments in the box at the bottom of the page.—Annie
Dear Annie (if I may),
A colleague called my attention to your blog posting replying to my tweet that had commented on your New York Times review of the book by Paul Tough. You note, as I had suspected, that you had “never even thought about genetic influences” when writing the review. This kind of inattention to a major shaper (perhaps the major shaper) of character in a book about the shaping of character was, of course, exactly why I wrote The Blank Slate.
You ask a reasonable question, “I’m left to wonder how a discussion of genes would have factored into my review.” Here are some of the ways:
1. “Psychologists and neuroscientists have learned a lot in the past few decades about where these skills come from and how they are developed,” Tough writes, and what they’ve discovered can be summed up in a sentence: Character is created by encountering and overcoming failure.
This statement is false. What psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered over the past few decades about the shaping of self-control and other character traits either cannot be summed up in one sentence, or if it is, that sentence would have to include mention of three robust discoveries: a substantial amount of variation in character is caused by variation in genes; the remaining variation is substantial; and the remaining variation is not, for the most part, attributable to differences in parenting or other familial factors. This is explained in detail in the chapter on “Children” in The Blank Slate.
2. “Many poor children don’t develop the resilience Kewauna has in such abundance, and the reason, Tough says, can be traced back to their troubled home lives: “The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments and harder to follow directions.”
This may be true, but it may very well be false. The reason that Kewauna had such foresight and self-control may have nothing to do with her not having grown up in a stressful environment. For all we know she may have inherited a suite of genes that gave her high levels of self-control.
3. “Children can be buffered from surrounding stresses by attentive, responsive parenting, but the adults in these children’s lives are often too burdened by their own problems to offer such care.”
This claim is based on the finding that children with responsive parents tend to be more resilient. The conclusion is that responsive parenting causes resilience in children. But that is an unsound inference, which depends on the dogma of the Blank Slate. It’s also possible that responsible parents pass on genes for responsibility to their offspring. Only a genetically sensitive research design – one that looks at twins or adoptees, seeing, for example, whether adopted children’s resilience is better correlated with their birth parents or their adoptive parents, could establish the causal claims that Tough advances and that you endorse.
4. “Rich kids, Tough adds, may also lack a nurturing connection to their mothers and fathers — not so much in their early years as when they enter adolescence and the push for achievement intensifies. He explores the research of Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Luthar “found that parenting mattered at both socioeconomic extremes. For both rich and poor teenagers, certain family characteristics predicted children’s maladjustment, including low levels of maternal attachment, high levels of parental criticism and minimal after-school adult supervision. Among the affluent children, Luthar found, the main cause of distress was ‘excessive achievement pressures and isolation from parents — both physical and emotional.’ ”
This, too, could be entirely false, since it is not based on genetically sensitive research designs.
5. “Tough, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, portrays a country of very privileged children and very poor ones, both deprived of the emotional and intellectual experiences that make for sturdy character. …
Fewer and fewer young people are getting the character-building combination of support and autonomy that Tough was fortunate enough to receive.”
Again, the conclusions that parents shape character may be entirely unwarranted. In the absence of genetically sensitive research designs, observed differences in character may be caused by genes, random chance in development, or environmental differences that are not parental or familial, such as peers, teachers, and culture.
These are some of the ways in which acknowledgment of the existence of genes could have changed the review. Note that the possibility of genetic influences does not mean that that all the influences are genetic, nor that self-control and foresight cannot be improved by training (see my review of the recent book on willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. But it does mean that parents cannot be automatically credited or blamed for their children’s character, as your review seems to do.
Note as well that it is irrelevant that “We have no way of knowing (not yet, anyway) what combination of genes individual children possess that will allow them to take advantage, or not, of the interventions described in Tough’s book.” We may not know that the exact combination of genes, but we do know that genes, in aggregate, matter.
I hope that you do not interpret this note as adversarial or critical; it is my response to the challenge in your blog posting. The failure to think about genes that you confessed to in that posting is symptomatic of a much larger blind spot in intellectual life which, as I mentioned, was the impetus to my writing The Blank Slate. I also recommend the two brilliant books by Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike; the former was a major inspiration for the “Children” chapter in The Blank Slate.