Monday, August 3, 2009

They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life

One of the great debates of our time is how much genetics influences our behaviour. A strong critic of many claims for a genetic basis for our behaviour is psychoanalyst commentator Oliver James, whose book They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life argues strongly for the importance of early childhood experiences in moulding our aspirations, character, reactions and sexuality.

It is a view I have broad sympathy for, based particularly on my own experiences. Much of They F*** You Up I found enlightening and persuasive. James is generally able to cite an impressive array of studies to back his conclusions.

I do have a couple of serious caveats, however. Read More...
The first is in his discussion of sexual orientation. One of my tests of a book on nature, nurture and family life is to see how they deal with homosexuality. Oliver James’s They F**ck You Up: How to Survive Family Life is the polar opposite of Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do in that James’ argues for the dominance of parental influence in how we turn out — including moulding sexual identity (pp 99ff) — while Harris argues for the dominance of peer influence in how we turn out — including moulding sexual identity (p.277).

On homosexuality, both arguments are pretty silly. Homosexuality is too persistent in proportion of the population, too persistently gender varied (more common in males than females) to be created by either parents or peer group. While cultural outlook is clearly important for patterns of sexual activity, quite different cultures can produce very similar rates of same-sex orientation — and similar traits among same-sex oriented males. Both James and Harris seem to operating on some deep notion that sexual variation is unnatural.

James’ problem is that he moves from it’s not genetic (the evidence for genetic cause of homosexuality is thin) to it’s nurture (how your parents treat you) without grappling with the excluded middle of non-genetic congenital effects. This despite James citing a study that found evidence for maternal womb effects in concordance between twins (p.330). Yet there is considerable evidence for such effects in homosexuality.

At the end of the book (Appendix 3) he has estimates of the environality of human psychology from twin studies, including estimating the environality of female homosexuality as being 75-100 percent and very little genetic effect in male homosexuality (p.335).

That each older brother (but not sister) dramatically raises the probability of a son being gay, but there is no such effect for daughters, and that left-handedness and female homosexuality are wildly disproportionately correlated are both hard to square with an “upbringing” explanation.

More “masculine” mothers with more “feminine” fathers turn out gay sons and daughters is surely not surprising.

James points out that male homosexuals are twice as likely as male heterosexuals to come from a family where they were unusually close to a mother who liked to be the centre of attention sees rough-and-tumble as dangerous, is excessively anxious about his health and safety, is a dominant powerful women uncomfortable with masculinity, makes more of the family decisions and have a disharmonious marriage. But what percentage, we may ask, of sons in such families turn out to be homosexual? Gay men are also more likely to engage in “feminine” play as children and to be distant from their father (pp 99-100). A pattern I fit, for example, only in bits. But, as a friend pointed out to me, at least some of that mother-closeness and father-distance might be a matter of unexpected mother-son congruity and unexpected lack of father-son congruity. James does not establish that parental behaviour is causal: they could be natural reactions to differences in the child — a classic case of correlation not establishing which way causation operates — or the personality traits that make for dominant mothers could have effects in the womb.

James does admit his theory would predict increasing rates of homosexuality based on more divorce, more female assertiveness and more tolerance of homosexuality (p.100). But there is no evidence that sons of single mother families are more strongly inclined to be homosexual.

What is clear from this is how much of a tabula rasa James holds children to be, making patterns of caregiving, particularly early caregiving, dominant influences in moulding children.

But that the issue of homosexuality shows James overstates his case does not mean that he has no case. Indeed, he mounts a powerful argument for the importance of early family patterns in moulding outlook.

The other major caveat is with James’ wandering into diagnosing entire societies and pontificating about public policy. He informs us—based on a single conference organised by a think tank (pp 314-5)—that eugenics/genetic thinking is basic to “right wing” politics (by which he seems to mean economic liberalisation). Which simply isn’t true. That human nature is not plastic to social intervention is a fundamental premise that separates radical Enlightenment thinking from sceptical Enlightenment thinking, but no specific genetic doctrines are required. He does have fun pointing out that claiming crime is genetic and claiming it is a rational choice are propositions with some tension between them. (Though not quite as much as he implies, as genes could set the thresholds for criminal behaviour at different levels for different individuals.)

James cites statistics that various forms of mental disorder are more common in America than Shanghai or Africa (p.13). One would expect certain sorts of mental disorder to increase simply as societies move up the Maslow hierarchy. People focused on where their next meal is coming from don’t quite have the existential issues of the prosperous. Also, as another friend working in pu public health policy pointed out to me, statistics on such matters are much more reliable in developed countries while in countries were early death is more likely, the mentally disordered are much more likely to die (or be performing religious functions).

James sees the US as a deeply disordered society as a result of individualism and concomitant bad parenting (pp 242ff). Since no other society has been as keen on psychoanalytical theory for so long, that is surely a bit of a worry for a psychoanalyst.

Given that, as he also informs us, the crime rate has dropped dramatically in the US, that implies — on his reading — that US society is getting less disordered/individualist/bad parenting while the rising crime rate in the UK suggests the reverse. Besides, Mexico, Russia and South Africa all have much higher homicide rates than the US: rampant individualism and bad parenting are not exactly plausible explanations for this. James blames the increase in crime in the UK in recent years on government policy in the early 1980s (i.e. Thatcherism), even though he admits that crime has been rising in the UK for rather longer than that. (In fact, a seven century decline in homicide rates in the UK started reversing around 1950—i.e. when the British welfare state was being further extended.) His thinking on these points seems to be a bit confused.

Particularly as he apparently regards successful folk in society as being disproportionately likely to be psychologically disordered. James seems to want a more communitarian society without much sense of the complexities involved in social order. But, then, that is not his field. As a member of a sexual minority, I tend to be particularly leary when folk start suggesting a stronger sense of collective ethics to build stronger families. (Especially based on theories that hold that said minority is a result of poor parenting.)

But those two major caveats aside, I found much to appreciate in They F*** You Up. His basic thesis is that our genes are not very important in moulding us (Chapter 1); that how we are scripted in family dramas (Chapter 2), how our consciences are scripted (from age 3 to 6) (Chapter 3), how our relationship patterns are scripted in our first three years (Chapter 4), how our sense of self is scripted in our first six months (Chapter 5), are much more important in understanding our later behaviour patterns. Including extreme behaviour patterns such as schizophrenia (pp 73ff).

Since genes are a recipe, not a mould, and since we experience a huge amount of physical and cognitive development early in life, James’s thesis has a certain inherent plausibility. It is not that he denies genes have role, but that it is often creating a propensity which other factors then release, or not. And he certainly cites a lot of studies (and, somewhat more dubiously, lives of the famous) to back his contentions.

What he wants to provide is the tools for insight, not blame and self-pity. He certainly provides much food for thought.

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