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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Genetics, Disability, and Deafness

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What is exasperating to the nonscientific mind about genetic explanations is that the people who advance them speak as though genes are some sort of irreducible reality, as though they are a power behind human affairs that cannot be abrogated or countervailed against. It is a version of the early-twentieth-century belief that since the genome is sealed off from environmental effects, people cannot fundamentally be changed. This is sometimes the claim of evolutionary psychologists: they write as though biology is fate. The trouble with evolutionary psychology seems to me to be that it is not really psychology. Take, for example, two recent works that study the effects of parenting on children’s personalities: Judith Harris’s The Nurture Assumption and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. The authors claim that shared family environment—that is, parents—have little or no influence on a child’s personality. (Strictly speaking, they claim that parenting does not account for the variation in differences in personality, which is what statistical science measures.) They point out that biological siblings who have been reared together are not more alike, or less different, than biological siblings who have been reared in separate families. They conclude that half of personality is the product of what they call the unique environment—that is, the child’s personal history—and half is the product of genes. The effect of parenting is statistically insignificant. Harris’s argument is that children’s peers are the principal source of the nongenetic input. Parents used to obsess about reading bedtime stories regularly to their children. These new sciences of human nature have established that a belief in the civilizing effects of bedtime stories on a child’s personality is a modern superstition.

What is personality to people like Harris and Pinker, though? The answer is OCEAN: the personality attributes in the Five Factor Model. In this model, personality has exactly five dimensions: people are, in varying degrees, either open to experience or incurious; conscientious or undirected; extroverted or introverted; agreeable or antagonistic; neurotic or stable. OCEAN is the acronym for these spectra. There is no need for finer tuning, because OCEAN accounts for everything. As Pinker puts it, “Most of the 18,000 adjectives of personality traits in an unabridged dictionary can be tied to one of the five dimensions.”5

What the genetic claims about parenting boil down to, therefore, is that parents cannot turn a fretful child into a serene adult. But parents can make their children into opera buffs, water-skiers, painters, food connoisseurs, bilingual speakers, trumpet players, and churchgoers. Parents introduce their children to the whole supra-biological realm. The claim that chronic anxiety is biological is proven by the fact that an SSRI can relieve it. But that’s just the biology. The psychology is everything that the organism does to cope with its biology. Anxious people develop all kinds of strategies for overcoming, disguising, avoiding, repressing, and even exploiting their tendency to nervousness. I know, because I am someone who, for most of his life, has disguised an inveterate anxiety with an affect of coolness. No one ever reads me as an anxious person, and seeing myself in that mirror helps me to manage my anxiety. Am I therefore an anxious person or a calm person? Strategies like these are acquired—people aren’t born with them—and they are constructed from the elements the environment provides. The mind can work only with what it knows, and one of the things it knows are parents, who often become major players in the psychic drama of anxiety maintenance. The mere fact of having the gene for anxiety determines nothing, which is why some anxious people become water-skiers, some become opera buffs, and some are most comfortable speaking in front of large groups. Some anxious people, it’s true, sit and stare out the window, brooding on the fact that their parents did not read them enough bedtime stories. These people are unlikely to be relieved by learning that genetic science has determined that bedtime stories are overrated.

The most unfortunate aspect of contemporary evolutionary psychology, in its popularized form, is the obsession with the mean point of the normal distribution. Evolutionary psychologists seem to forget that the mean is a mathematical construct, corresponding to no actual human being. It represents, in many cases, not the acme of attainment, but, on the contrary, the lowest common denominator. But it is often treated as though it were some sort of species norm, the bull’s-eye at which civilization aims. The classic case of this kind of apotheosis of the average is the study that discovers the ideal female face by blending all the features people identify as most beautiful. The result is a homogenized, anodyne image with very little aesthetic or erotic appeal. This is because people don’t go for faces that deviate from the ideal because they can’t have the ideal. The deviation is precisely what makes those faces attractive.

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