Stereotypes are easy.
Funny? Or nefarious?
That’s why we like them. Easy is, um, easier.
And yet, we are endlessly reminded, stereotypes are unfair. Inaccurate. Harmful. Because everybody’s different; unique; special; insert-your-own- stereotype-defying adjective-here.
That’s true enough, so far as it goes. For every drunken Irishman of my acquaintance, there’s a Mick who won’t touch the stuff. For every arrogant German, a Teuton of more temperate attitude. I’ve known many a Greek who lives out loud on Ouzo and bouzouki music, and I’ve know many another to be bookish and retiring.
Yet stereotypes persist. Despite all assurances to the contrary, the weight of observational evidence would seem to indicate the existence of general personality trends among persons of similar ethnic background. A lot of Frenchman really are rude, for example, and the Danish tend to diffidence.
A dispassionate observer might conclude that good reasons underlie bad reputations. For myself, I always assumed that, over a reach of centuries, individual societies evolve in direct response to prevailing circumstances, naturally emphasizing those social and behavioral patterns best suited to survival in specific climatic, social, economic and political conditions. The Swedish, for instance, are taciturn because it’s dark all the time, and the Irish like to drink because the English used to pick on them so much.
I didn’t invent the idea – that’s pretty much Cultural Adaptation 101 – but I’m a bit abashed in hindsight that I was for so long willing to blithely toe a straight “nurture” line on cultural development when common sense suggests a strong “nature” component. In my defense, I wasn’t alone in that deficiency. For more than 50 years it’s been an article of faith among sociologists, educators, and those ardent levelers for whom “social justice” seems an attainable goal, that we all emerge from the womb a “blank slate” upon which individual experience inscribes our personality. In view of what we know now – and, more to the point, knew then – about genetics, such an unyielding stance seems naïve at best, and at worst intellectually dishonest.
Hard-line Nurturers seem happy to ignore the contradictions underlying their own assumptions. They insist, for example, that a child’s success in school is informed solely by the quality of instruction and encouragement they receive, yet have no problem demanding increased funding to chemically treat and medicinally mitigate presumed biological barriers to learning like attention deficit disorder and dislexia. Nurturers see no disconnect between their belief that boys who are nurtured in feminine environments don’t grow up to be violent and their dearly-held conviction that all men are naturally violent. They can as easily argue a purely environmental foundation for infidelity as a purely genetic basis for homosexuality. Fact is, I don’t think you can have it both ways.
Dyed-in-the-wool Naturers, on the other hand, are as quick to attribute virtually all behaviors to the manner and quality of our physical construction, in blind defiance of the obvious and singularly human ability to adapt our mental and personal conduct at will. Not one of us, between sunup to lights-out, doesn’t modify our thinking or actions at least once, and in direct odds with our natural inclination.
I don’t pretend to know all the answers. I’m not a scientist, although I once sat next to one on a plane ride from Tucson to Denver. Astrology is a science, right? Turns out copper is my lucky metal. Anyway, I may not know where Nature ends and Nuture begins, but I suspect it’s somewhere in the middle. About a year ago, I was somewhat surprised to be supported in that contention by National Geographic, a stubbornly Nurture-centric and unabashedly relativistic publication on all matters cultural.
Separated at birth
‘Twas in January of the year 2012, and the article was “A Thing or Two About Twins.” As it happens, diverse teams of researchers from universities and agencies across the country have for 20 years been waging a campaign officially titled Twins Reared Apart, but usually just referred to as the Minnesota Study. In brief, their method is to locate identical twins who were separated in youngest childhood and reunited as adults, then minutely (and figuratively, of course) dissect their lives and characters. The study’s purpose is to learn how the separately-nurtured pairs are alike, and discern whether Nature or Nurture might best explain their similarities. To date, 137 pairs of reunited twins have come under the microscope, and the findings are astonishing.
“For people raised in the same culture with the same opportunities,” the article reads, “differences in IQ reflected largely differences in inheritance rather than in training or education.”
For revealing that little piece of hard, cold, statistical data, one researcher, a college professor, was targeted by far-left campus groups for immediate dismissal. And the figures grow more compelling, and more interesting, with the reading. For instance, if one identical twin has a criminal record, there’s a 50-percent greater likelihood their identical counterpart has also run afoul of the law “suggesting that genetic factors somehow set the stage for criminal behavior.”
Further, the Minnesota Study indicates a strong genetic influence on the strength of a person’s religious commitment, though not on choice of faith, and strong statistical evidence for genetically ordained aggressiveness, aesthetic sensibilities and romantic tendencies. Curiously enough, the article’s author, and the researchers themselves, seemed a bit crestfallen by those discoveries, but soldiered on anyway, in the name of science, and because there’s plenty of evidence for other factors that can, and do, mitigate genetic imperatives.
For one thing, a new field of study called “epigenetics” makes clear that genes are only as good as the strength to which they are “expressed” in the organism. Imagine that Mozart and Yoko Ono are identical twins, each with an identical gene potentially conferring great musical ability. Now imagine that gene is an amplifier, and Yoko’s dial is stuck on 2, while Mozart’s is cranked up to 11. Same gene, different expression, vastly divergent results. You get the picture.
For another, a genetically increased probability of criminal behavior isn’t the same thing as knocking off a liquor store or producing the criminally bad “Double Fantasy” album. The very fact that a percentage is applied speaks to the many way in which environmental factors can influence genetic predilections. Unless your delinquent gene is turned up to 11 all the time, a strong law-abiding environment could well suffice to keep you on the righteous path, and running with a pack of no-count hoodlums could land you in jail however clean your DNA.
The thing is, as fascinating and scientifically valid as the Minnesota Study may be, those are all truths that reasonable people of average intelligence should be able to deduce without resort to twins, scientists, or math of any kind.
Virtually everyone will agree that our physical characteristics – from height to freckles to genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis – are direct manifestations of the blueprint contained in our specific DNA. Why would anyone assume our psychological characteristics are somehow exempt from that relationship? If DNA can make Peter a faster runner than Paul, can’t it as easily make Paul a better thinker than Peter? The brain is, after all, a physical organ that functions and is sustained by the same processes as a lung or a liver, and the operating efficiency of individual lungs and livers is no more uniform than their owners’ ability to bluff at poker. In terms of mental acuity, the same genetic variations that make one person a track star and another asthmatic must necessarily result in varied mental landscapes, each in no small part the product of genetic inheritance.
To remove the argument from the speculative and into the empirical, consider that when the union of two Caucasians result in a Caucasian offspring, nobody ascribes that outcome to environmental factors. When two tall people give birth to four tall children, most accept the childrens’ tallness as an inherited condition. And when the children of two smart people excel at their studies, most are comfortable asserting that intelligence “runs in the family.”
The most common argument against a genetic component to human mentality is at once historical and largely emotional. To wit ~ allowing the possibility that intelligence and behavior are hereditary would be to somehow legitimize the various politically-driven eugenics programs attempted by, among others, Adoph Hitler. Put another way, because a scientific principle has been – or could be – put to evil purpose, it can only be wrong and must be expunged from the catalogue of human learning. It’s a bit like saying that because atom bombs are terrible weapons, the atom can’t really be split. Sorry to break it to you, but that genie’s out of the bottle. And if the field of nuclear physics has resulted in great suffering, it has also yielded great benefits, and a greater understanding of it is no less essential to human advancement than the study of medicine.
Likewise, the fact that a more comprehensive knowledge of genetics could potentially be put to malicious use doesn’t diminish its potential for good, its importance to the body of human knowledge, or its essential truth. To maintain that our psychological proclivities are somehow insulated from our genetic legacy is to deny both science and the testimony of one’s own eyes, and to bury one’s head in sand no less deeply than the Christian fundamentalist who insists the Earth is 6,000 years old because the Bible says so.
If, at this point, you haven’t found more rewarding diversion watching funny animal YouTubes, you’re probably wondering
“What’s his point?”
I’m glad you asked because, believe it or not, I have one.
Although awake only intermittently during Introduction to Physical Anthropology, I came-to often enough to know this much: The longer a population remains relatively static, the more concentrated certain genetic traits become within that population. On a vast stage, that’s why Africans have dark skin, Chinese have shoveled teeth, and Caucasian males can’t jump. On a more intimate scale, it’s why Inuits tend to be short, the Swedish tend to be blond, and the English tend to have bad teeth. The operative word here is “tend.”
Anybody who’s ever spent time among the Swedes and didn’t take their own life as a result knows that not all of them are blond. Far less than half, in fact. As it happens, blond hair is a relatively rare human trait, but long genetic isolation has concentrated the genetic formula for blond hair within the Swedish population, increasing the relative incidence of blond hair within the Swedish population. All Swedes may not be blond, but enough of them are to make it a justifiably distinguishing characteristic of Swedishness.
Now, if we assume that mentally determinant genes distill in the same way that physically affective ones do – and I think we just decided they do – then specific populations must necessarily display a greater incidence of certain characteristic behaviors, aptitudes and attitudes.
This is where I step in it.
Maybe, just maybe, a statistically large percentage of Chinese students excel at mathematics because their brains are built for it. And perhaps the Germans are known for making really good cars because a mental machinery conducive to engineering has been concentrating in their gene pool for a hundred generations. And what if the Italians are traditionally adept at organized crime because whatever gene is reponsible for thumbing one’s nose at the cops and courts is more frequently represented in Italian DNA?
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
What it makes me think is that maybe stereotypes are not really unfair generalizations so much as the intuitive application of sound scientific principle. And that by such meticulous and logical method we may reasonably conclude that – as a function of statistically relevant frequency, of course – the Irish really are shiftless louts. And Bulgarians really are thuggish hoods. And the French really are insufferably snooty. And Arabs really do hold grudges. And Poles are mule-headed, and Russians are paranoid, and Greeks are as reliable as a pack of feral cats, and the Chinese really are inscrutable.
Even better, since America has never had a static population we may freely and accurately stereotype each other based solely on our respective last names.
Think of the time it will save.
Best of all, now that we have established a solid and unassailable foundation for them, ethnic jokes can once again be plied without reservation.
Did you hear the one about the Indian couple that didn’t know the difference between Vaseline and window putty?
Go ahead – it’s not insensitive.