June 20, 2006

Lacking Imagination

I suppose I should take Derbyshire's cue and treat his thoughts on the matter of parenthood with the same degree of seriousness (or lack thereof) as he does:

Jonah: Enough! definitely. I retire from the field with the following satisfactions: (1) I took a good whack at some dubious science. (2) I hammered another nail into the coffin lid of that old Viennese quack. (3) I have struck up an e-friendship with Judith Rich Harris, who turns out to be as witty, eloquent, and learned as her books.

All the thought that other writers and readers might have put into the discourse that he began? Pishposh; whatever. But one can't just let the scoundrel slip through the shadows without a final thought.

Jonah (here) and an emailer to him (here) offer excellent points in the vein that I'm inclined to continue, but what continues to irk me about Derbyshire's argument is the stunning lack of imagination with which he interprets science. Consider:

The growth of the child's brain into the adult's brain is regulated by genes. Genes that led that development along a path from childhood adversity to adult dysfunction, would be about as advantageous as genes that gave you only one leg. Natural selection would take care of them in short order.

One could make more of my point by delving in to the variations of evolutionary theory that find a value in random mutations and the like, but suffice, for now, to suggest that parental input (as well as, yes, socialization) could easily be seen as a mechanism whereby humanity has progressed in its evolution. Such a professed lover of science and its methods as Derbyshire should be able to step back from the value-laden term "dysfunction."

It is easy to see parents' ability to instill traits distinct from genetic programming — i.e., "dysfunctions" — as a very advantageous genetic structure, indeed. With this modicum of imagination (or just plain old clear, objective thinking), the following suggestion from Derbyshire becomes nonsense:

The notion that a missing father causes, in and of itself, psychic harm to the adult organism, similarly goes against the laws of biology, and suspicion again naturally follows.

What could he possibly mean by "harm," in this context? If Dad is a lonely, violent, paranoid man, there may be, after all, some environmental reason for the son to share those qualities. If Dad abandons the family, there may very well be something in the species' environment that would make advantages of his children's adverse reactions.

Evolution could not negate the ability to pass on that which modern society might consider dysfunctions, because nature is unqualified to decide which traits might prove beneficial or harmful. The evolutionary value is in the ability of adults — especially parents — to affect the personalities and character of the next generation — for good or ill. Such is the cold logic of science, and as observers of John Derbyshire should note, it is clearly not adequate — even to the extent that such as Derbyshire prove unable to follow its imperatives.

It is merely a shell game of those who believe that biology (that is, science) is everything to concoct "if/then" statements with the implication that, by not proving the theories of others in terms agreeable to skeptics, nature has proven the theories of the matierialist faithful. Of course, when it comes to materialists, their lower birthrates, and their effects on those children whom they do beget, it may be that natural selection will, given time, "take care of them."

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:49 PM | Comments (3)
Marriage & Family

A Glitch of My Own?

For some reason, the individual page for my "A Life Begins" post contains only the first few lines of html code, so the post doesn't exist. I don't have the same problem in Internet Explorer, however.

Is anybody else having problems, or am I caught in some sort of caching limbo? (Yes, I've cleared the cache on my computer.)

June 19, 2006

Where We Start, and Where We End Up

Perhaps the problem is that people of a scientific bent are too often inclined to run off at the mouth over some perceived instance of a personal methodological peeve and, therefore, respond to points that others are not making. In Derbyshire's case, he offers that peeve as "fallacious reasoning about human development, mostly of the correlation-equals-causation variety." He writes:

Two alternative explanations come to mind at once. (1) We have an aggressive adult from an aggressive parent (he beat the kid, didn't he?) Maybe aggression runs in this family. It doesn't even have to be genetic. It could be dietary, or religious. (2) The kid was obnoxious and difficult from the start. (Some are. Believe me.) The parent, who was perfectly average in aggressiveness, was driven to distraction (read: abnormally aggressive reactions) by the kid's intransigent naughtiness. So we're not looking at a parent-to-child effect at all; we're actually looking at a child-to-parent effect! Yet I am pretty sure I have never read a headline saying "Difficult Kids Provoke Parents to Abuse, Study Shows." Why not? Because our popular culture, and even big swathes of our academic culture, are Freud-soaked: Mom and Dad make you what you are.

There's a clinical perspective, here — fatally tied to notions of oppressor and victim — that strikes me as related to the temperament that leads such as Derbyshire to laud the liberty of pregnant women who choose to abort their children. Nobody who disagrees with Derbyshire on the subject of fatherhood has, as far as I can see, gainsaid the notion that good parents can have bad kids, or vice versa. Our point (if I may speak for the crowd) is that — once again — parents matter. Derbyshire writes as if "aggressive adult" is a category free of internal value differentiations.

Personally, with my perspective as a father, the child prone to aggression is a given. He is my son, and I must raise him. (Note: My actual son is, apart from being bare months old, not giving any indication of untoward aggression.) The question from my point of view is what I should do to raise that child; the question from society's point of view is what it should encourage me to do as a father (and then what to do should I fail in my responsibilities).

So I've got this hypothetical aggressive son; is it within my power — through deliberate socialization, discipline, economic leverage, and any other resource available to fathers — to make it more likely that he'll be a formidable, but responsible, wrestler than a formidable and abusive gangster? I'm comfortable — on scientific, social, experiential, religious, and any other grounds — saying, "of course."

This, however, is where the aforementioned scientific bent becomes dangerous. Somehow, Derbyshire — who makes his living as a politically conservative opinion writer — feels compelled (perhaps based on questionable source material) to argue against fellow conservatives who insist that parents are important in the lives of their children. Just as aversion to the asciencism of intelligent design proponents draws evolutionists to ground that defends an ultimately soulless construct of reality, narrow intellectual points beget heated arguments over assertions with which their apparently confused vessels do not even agree.

Thus, Derbyshire responds to Jonah Goldberg's paraphrase of "if [marriage] has no serious effect on kids," by declaring:

Where did I say that? I actually said, or pretty directly implied, the OPPOSITE thing when I said that the best thing you can do for your kids is to be successful enough in life to give 'em a nice bourgeois neighborhood to grow up in.

And yet, he feels it necessary to clarify that he includes, among the "parenting styles" that mean very little, "the complete absence of a parent." Noted: marriage does have a serious effect on kids, except perhaps when one parent is completely absent, in which case their home environment is a matter of "parenting style" — a modern illusion that flies in the face of "science... confirming folk wisdom."

Even here, though, he's revealed his exit strategy by arguing — much more specifically than his rhetoric would lead a fair reader to believe — against the strawman that "parenting style makes all the difference" (emphasis added). "I never said that it doesn't make some difference," he might say, "perhaps a great deal." But even that exit is covered by the smoke spewed when he put forward his initial assertion that, in modern studies, "the home family environment... dwindles away almost... to inconsequentiality."

I spent too many years spinning these maddening circles attempting to understand Andrew Sullivan's arguments about homosexuality to get caught in the trap again. I'd therefore be content to assign Derbyshire to the same "why does anybody care what he says" level of awareness that Sullivan now inhabits for me, except for the factor that makes, as I've said, his attitude dangerous. Married to the belief that "kids are tough, resilient little buggers" who will develop for better or worse largely outside of their parents' control is an aesthetic that applauds abortion as an expression of "natural liberty" and that wobbles out on this limb:

The desire of parents to have healthy children with a decent shot at good life attainments, is very strong. I don't see anything wrong with it; and even if I did it would make no difference, as the biotechnology is already upon us, and will be embraced enthusiastically by most parents. I share your horror of state-organized eugenics, but then, I nurse a horror of state-organized pretty much ANYTHING. I have no problem at all with "consumer eugenics," but state-organized eugenics, like, oh, state-organized "homeland security," would be a disaster. A total state proscription of abortion would be too. Liberty! That's why I call myself a conservative.

Behold the future of liberty! In which the temperament of children is not a thing to be addressed by loving parents who see them as special and important regardless of their difficulty, but rather a thing to be studied and perhaps, if sufficiently captured by that famously "ethically neutral" practice called science, to justify euthanasia.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:02 PM | Comments (3)
Marriage & Family

June 18, 2006

A Life Begins

A few weeks ago, after the season finale of Lost (during which viewers were allowed the not-insignificant discovery that the world still exists beyond the island on which the characters are stranded), I had one of those imagined visions that mark the soul's speaking through the intellect.

While I walked the dog, I pictured a man emerging from a wooded area nearby, and although he was normal in appearance, I somehow knew him to be otherworldly. He told me that my time in this life was up — that I should let loose the leash and follow him to the next life. I objected that I was not ready to go, and pausing as if to listen to the wind, he replied that I could live out a full lifetime, but with the understanding that I would never find fame of any sort and would never do more, financially, than just get by. The time being offered me was for the experience of watching my children grow up and helping my wife to raise them.

It then occurred to me to imagine a different set of conditions. In this reformulation, the spirit replied that I could live out a full lifetime, but that I must leave my family immediately. I would find success. I would find renown. But one way or another, my time with my family must be over.

We are not often — perhaps ever — offered decisions so starkly, but my ease in choosing between the three options suggests to me that there is a treasure of perspective in phrasing life's choices thus. In the first vision, I would have had no difficulty making the decision to continue the stroll with my dog and follow the threads of my life in full understanding that its boundaries were tightly drawn around my role as a father and husband. In the second vision, I would have had equally brief hesitation before deciding to move along to the next life rather than to abandon my family for fame in this one. That, it seems to me, ought to inform my approach to the days' obstacles and opportunities.

Over the past few months, I've raced to transform this ad hoc seasonal enclosed porch ...

... into this nursery ...

... before the birth of my third child. Despite my spending some of the coldest weekends of the winter framing the exterior walls, he won the race. But the room is finished now, and life has the feeling of a beginning. All of the pieces are in place — the children born, the house bought, the suitable day job found — for the life that we've wanted to build, and all that's left is the building.

The children will need guidance as they grow. The house needs plenty of work — from renovations to additions. The carpentry day job requires learning and investment. Through it all, I've much that I want to learn about this world in which we find ourselves living. Volumes remain unwritten. My fingers still itch for the piano.

I've a newfound confidence, though, that there is due time. Perhaps it would not be reckless to hope that the desperation of youth has passed now that I've decided what ought to be most important to me. And it required only to imagine that I have a choice.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:55 PM | Comments (2)
Diary & Confession

What Would His Father Have Said?

I'm increasingly astonished at John Derbyshire's approach to social issues. Seeking evidence for our suspicions ought to be an expectation, of course — as should be a willingness to change our minds when the evidence requires. But becoming slaves to data — particularly social science data — at the expense of inherited wisdom ought to remain the practice of leftists and relativists. Consider Derbyshire's gift to fathers on their national holiday:

Nowadays, however, there is a lot of counter-research, in which the influence of the home family environment, at any rate after age three, dwindles away almost (according to some researchers, anyway) to inconsequentiality. The big determinants of adult personality are (1) genes, and (2) group socialization. The home environment of the child comes in a distant third.

How in the name of all that is holy — in Derbyshire's world or in mine — can one presume to argue against the proposition that there's "just no substitute for dad" by arguing that personality is determined by genes and socialization? From whom does Derbyshire suppose children acquire their genes? Who does he think begins children's socialization?

On the socialization count, Jonah Goldberg offers an astute response:

Parents communicate values and priorities. Historically, the best indicator of political affiliation, for example, is the political affiliation of parents. Obviously, the same holds true for religion. These are not minor slices of the human experience. If we inherit our parents' understandings of both transcendence and social organization, it seems hard for me to believe that genetics and peer groups explain most of the story of human development. ...

... common sense says that the expectations set by parents explains a great deal of it too. Kids whose parents expect straight As are still far more likely to have kids who get straight As. The peer groups these kids fall into are a symptom of those expectations not the other way around.

This same sort of broad, in-the-details thinking goes more deeply — into genetics. Derbyshire argues:

You can't discount genetics, either. Being a criminal, and being a single parent, might both be the consequences of impulsive behavior. That's an aspect of personality, which is in part heritable. ...

Since testosterone is associated with risk-taking and anti-social behavior, then one would expect high-testosterone males to be less inclined to get, or stay, married. This doesn't tell us anything about the benefits of fatherhood for children; it only tells us that high-testosterone males are not as a good bet to make good fathers, on average, as are low-testosterone males.

If these statements are valid, and if we assume that mothers — at least mothers who are likely to be directly or indirectly affected by sociological discussions — would prefer to raise non-anti-social non-criminals, then potential mothers will take the precaution — gobsmackingly transgressive though it may be — of being more deliberate about the men with whom they mate. Suggesting that they choose men who will stick around to perform the father role isn't significantly different from suggesting that they choose men who aren't impulsive risk-takers oozing testosterone. Perhaps they'll even conclude that men who are genetically "a good bet to make good fathers" will be less likely to engage in such activities as donating sperm for the creation of anonymous children.

John Derbyshire appears to be falling into the trap — beloved of previously ensnared academics and social engineers — of breaking social forces and relationships into their component parts, analyzing each on its decontextualized merits, and declaring the original whole to be a matter of "inconsequentiality." As much as members of the family values crowd might disagree with the resulting conclusions anyway, it entirely misses the point of their philosophical movement to argue that fathers hardly matter a bit, provided we discount their effect on genetics, household income, social grouping, and any other discrete aspect of fatherhood that we might wish to tease out for analytical purposes.

The point of saying such things as "fathers matter to their children" is not to stroke the egos of men who've managed to procreate, but rather to encourage them to work toward an ideal of fatherhood, to encourage women to insist on men who will do so, and to rekindle a culture that believes that such a thing as an ideal of fatherhood actually exists. If Derbyshire weren't so enamored of the outsider status that "empirical evidence" has helped him to claim (when it suits him), perhaps he'd realize that he doesn't actually disagree:

Probably the best thing we dads can do to give our kids a happy and useful adulthood is to make enough money that we can choose where to live, and then choose a district where our kids will be group-socialized to civilized bourgeois norms.

It takes a special sort of anti-social-conservative myopia to insist that hard-working fathers who consider the well-being of their children when locating and defining their home environments must understand that they hardly play a role at all in those children's development. Frankly, I'm not sure what Derbyshire's argument could possible boil down to except, "buzz off you bloody religious fanatics." At least leftists have the comprehensible (if invidious) motivation of wanting to redefine cultural norms. What's his excuse?

Although it didn't fit within the flow of the above, I should note that, had Derbyshire read both of the specific authors to whom he was responding, he might have known that it would be inadequate to rest so much of his argument on confounding variables. Writes W. Bradford Wilcox in his Weekly Standard piece:

Note that these studies control for factors like race, education, and poverty that might otherwise distort the relationship between family structure and child well-being.

On the other hand, I've no information concerning whether Wilcox took into account the fact that Derbyshire's children did not inherit his accent.

Derbyshire has responded to Jonah mainly by introducing the concept of "parenting style," which (unless I've been misreading terribly) was not the concept at issue in the initial pieces. Indeed, Lowry and Wilcox seem mainly to be emphasizing the mere presence of fathers. Perhaps Derbyshire sees presence as a matter of style; it's curious, then, that he doesn't believe that choice of "outside-home environment to socialize into" registers in the same category.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:35 PM | Comments (6)
Marriage & Family

June 17, 2006

What Corrosion of Culture?

Discussion of whether Superman and Batman — superheroes adored by generations of boys — are homosexual. In The Providence Journal. And there's evidence:

When I mention all the commercial time that Warner Bros. has bought for the movie on the Logo cable channel, all three say this is pretty strong evidence that Warner's may think that Superman is gay. Logo bills itself as the channel for "Gay America."

The Harley hat says the only comic-book hero she's sure is gay is Batman. Her friend to her right says she heard George Clooney during an interview say that he had played him as gay in Batman and Robin.

This must be what happens when the darker sides of a culture switch from masturbation to mastication.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:24 PM | Comments (1)

June 14, 2006

Me: The One the Only?

I'm surprised that nobody with NRO Corner posting access has challenged this assertion from John Derbyshire:

No American thought, in 2003, that 3+ years of major campaigning in Iraq, with 130,000+ troops continutously engaged, and a running total of 2,500 deaths after that 3+ years, was in our future. No American thought that. I am not speaking of the War on Terror—Rick Brookhiser was already telling me at about that time that he expected the WoT to go on for the rest of his lifetime. I'm talking about engagement in Iraq.

Perhaps "no American" specifically made such a prediction, but I'm sure a great many joined me, at the time, in thinking that routing a dictatorship, investigating and following the threads of a weapons program, squashing coddled local terrorists, and forming the country into a functional democracy would take more time to accomplish than, say, a bachelor's degree in political science. Had somebody asked me, back when the first bombs were dropped, whether 2006 would have brought "3+ years of major campaigning in Iraq, with 130,000+ troops continutously engaged, and a running total of 2,500 deaths after that 3+ years," I'd have replied that, in 2006, we'd be better able to tell whether such a litany had been necessary to accomplish our goals.

Perhaps in a world of weekly columns and churned-out books, 3+ years seems sufficient for circumstances to cycle several times over, but things appear to move at a much more gradual pace in the working world that I inhabit. For my carpentry job, I've been in the very same mansion's basement for 9+ months, now, and we're still not done with the renovations. I wouldn't venture to suggest how many times that duration it ought to take to renovate a country — ensuring that terrorists and dictators, rather than squeaks and rot, do not return rapidly — but anybody who is truly surprised that we're still plugging away at it a few years on isn't somebody I trust to offer opinions with any substantial perspective.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:43 PM | Comments (6)
Middle East

June 13, 2006

Federal Funds and Democrats' Dollars

Over on Anchor Rising, I've posted a piece that I wrote a while back but that somehow slipped through the cracks between publication and posting. It's about the red and blue sections of the country and the federal tax dollars that they give and receive.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:59 AM