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A Hard Science

Researchers err when they attribute more power to genes than to culture.

Review of On Being Human: Why Mind Matters. By Jerome Kagan. Yale University Press. 301 pp. $35.

Physics and chemistry should be regarded as “easy sciences,” Theodore Lowi, my Cornell colleague, often said. After all, researchers in these disciplines can isolate variables and repeat laboratory experiments under the same conditions to verify results. By contrast, according to Lowi, economics, politics, and psychology are “hard sciences,” seeking to unlock the mysteries of human behavior.

In On Being Human, Jerome Kagan, an emeritus professor at Harvard University and a pioneer in the field of developmental psychology, seems to agree. The culmination of a career that spanned six decades, his learned and lucid, frank and fascinating book insists on setting profound questions about how we learn, establish relationships, and act morally in the context of “the rough” and ever-changing world of events.

Geneticists and neuroscientists err, Kagan maintains, when “they attribute more power to genes and brains than to the interpretations children and adults impose on the conscious psychological states their brains generate.” Distinguishing “minds” from “brains,” he cites the power of placebos to demonstrate that the former often influence the latter. And evidence from diverse domains, Kagan writes, “invites the conclusion” that very few rules or principles transcend their particular settings. He designed On Being Human to “strengthen the universal robust intuition that each of us is free to decide whether to be kind or cruel, conscientious or careless, loyal or deceitful, or purchase a car that pollutes less…”

As he weighs in on a host of hot-button issues in psychology, Kagan is willfully provocative. He indicates that fewer than half of the illness categories in the fifth manual of mental illnesses published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013 “are supported by robust scientific facts.” If chronic gambling is, indeed, a mental illness, Kagan wonders why men and women who work in investment firms, many of whom find this activity as addictive as those who play poker online or in Las Vegas, are excluded.

Researchers and clinicians, Kagan points out, now lump together many brain “malfunctions” into a catchall category called the autism spectrum. If the same approach was used for people who often feel tired, the media would declare “an epidemic of fatigue.”

Excluding sexual abuse and extreme neglect, Kagan asserts that no parental actions “have the same effect on all children independent of the meaning imposed on them.” In seventeenth century New England, for example, physical punishment for disobedience and the absence of praise or play was not interpreted as reflecting indifference, hostility or rejection.

Kagan demonstrates as well that “local circumstances, not genes, diet or television,” has generated the increased number of cases of ADHD. In the nineteenth century, the traits now associated with ADHD – restlessness and distractibility – posed minimal problems because children were assigned chores that did not require them to sit still in school for six to eight hours a day. The number of youngsters diagnosed with ADHD has grown, Kagan adds, because school districts get extra funds for tutors for students with the disorder and can exclude their test scores from the metrics used to assess each institution.

Inclined to inflate the importance of “formative experiences” (and the premise of an unbroken thread from infant to adult), and downplay the impact of cultural premises and social context, researchers and clinicians, according to Kagan, have given too much credence to the attachment theory of John Bowlby. Secure attachment made with mothers during infancy, Bowlby argued, created an enduring emotional state. Citing studies pointing to discontinuities between infancy, adolescence and adulthood, Kagan claims that temperament, social class, employment, income, health and friendships are more influential.

Not surprisingly, given the range of topics in On Being Human, Kagan at times misfires. He states that the public “is willing to accept many declarations by scientists, even if some contradict strongly held convictions,” only to acknowledge a “growing indifference” to the opinions of medical experts, physicists and proponents of human-induced climate change. He endorses the establishment of schools that teach skills in plumbing, carpentry, masonry, automobile mechanics and electrical services, ignoring the existence of such institutions, and calling on members of disadvantaged groups to become “less sensitive” to the social status of these vocations.

Setting aside, it seems, his skepticism about single silver bullet causes and outcomes, Kagan claims that “many interventions designed to change the child-rearing practices of mothers with less than a high school education fail because most of these parents had little faith either in their ability to change their children or in the intervention ritual.” “This fact,” he adds, explains the minimal gains in the academic achievement of African-American children in Newark, New Jersey, despite the infusion of large sums of money into the public schools.

Kagan doesn’t solve – or pretend that he can solve – the puzzle of human existence. But at age 87, he is not at all ready to endorse the dispiriting and self-defeating conviction that modern life is meaningless. Instead, he chooses to invent meaning and pursue its implied goals.

Nature, Kagan concludes, “is obsessed with particularities.” All of us, whether we aspire to be “high-flying hawks taking in the big picture or frogs mucking around in the messy details of a pond” must learn how to choose the most appropriate mode for analysis. Studying the gene sheds light on proteins. The microanatomy of the brain helps us understand Alzheimer’s. And probing the mind can explain variations in the tactics and strategies people select in response to opportunities and challenges.

More from Glenn C. Altschuler Ph.D.
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