Behavior Genetics & NRO

By Razib Khan | June 20, 2006 6:11 pm

Over at The Corner at National Review Online John Derbyshire has been getting into a debate with his colleagues over Judith Rich Harris’ work, and her two books The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike. I find it amusing when scientific controversy comes crashing into the punditocracy, though I think it is also a good thing. To frame the issue properly, there is consistent evidence that the majority of non-genetic variation in personality is due to non-shared (i.e., non-home) environment. Judith Rich Harris proposes that peer groups account for this non-shared environment, though this is more a hypothesis than a definitive conclusion derived from the research. With that in mind, here is the debate in rough chronological order….
Update: Final, final, final response from John (he promises).

Derb expresses skepticism about fathers in response to a Rich Lowry column, The Father Effect.
Jonah defends bourgeois values.
Derb responds with the importance of uncomfortable truths.
Jonah defends politics against pitiless science.
Derb responds at length.
Derb posts an email and clarifies.
Jonah doesn’t believe in the science Derb is pushing forward.
Derb attempts a wrap up.
Rich Lowry jumps in to defend his column.
Now Derb calls a ceasefire.
John Podhortez throws in the odd ad hominem.
Derb clarifies Judith Rich Harris’ credentials.
Jonah pulls the environment of evolutionary adaptedness card (he doesn’t call it that, but that’s what he means).
The denouement declared by Derb.
I am posting the back & forth because I think it is a good thing when a journal of opinion wades into the sometimes murky waters of contemporary “fact.” And, in regards to these questions, note that evolution is assumed to be a fact! Derb did show some courage challenging the assumption by social conservatives that a traditional nuclear family (read: fathers) are a necessary pre-condition for socal normalcy. Now, I consider Judith a friend, so I’m biased and I won’t offer you my opinion about the whole debate, you can connect the dots. If you are curious, read my 10 questions with Harris. There has been some discussion of the topic over at my other weblog as well.
Remember, “Seek knowledge even unto China.” The conclusions may not always be palatable, but whatever values we hold, we must wrestle with reality.

  • John Farrell

    Great post, Razib. I’m friendly with Derb, and can’t help feeling that sooner or later, NRO is going to make the mistake of letting him go. He’s already pissed off Ramesh Ponnuru with a blunt review of Ponnuru’s book…so he may already feel like he’s on thin ice.
    It would be NRO’s loss.

  • Big Bill

    Paraphrasing Heinlein: If, in a dispute with your wife there comes a time when you realize you are absolutely correct, immediately stop arguing and apologize to her. I’m not suggesting the NR guys are womanish or right-brained, but …
    Regrettably, Derb took up the gauntlet when he could have dropped it. Plant the seed then get out, so to speak. At massively neocon/neolib institutions like NR, the philosophical battle is essential a guerrilla action. sharp short skirmishes, not sustained volleys like Derb’s.
    The growing knowledge that he is right will only cause their resentment to fester. His stance on Iraq already galls them mightily. No one wants to be around someone whose mere presence shouts “I told you so.”
    When Jonah drops his “hail-fellow-well-met” bonhommie and replaces it with blunt ad hominem, it is time to apologize and back off — at least if Derb wants to keep feeding his family. Jonah rarely gets irritated enough to drop his jokey posture even with his enemies.
    Taking a more global view, with Iraq going badly, neocon/neolibs are feeling cornered and a bit peckish these days. No need to back them up to the wall on the nature-v-nurture front–even with the best intentions and with the most even hand, as Derb does here.
    Sad to say, but (as Heinlein recognized) thoughtful, balanced responses like Derb’s are likely to irritate them even more, particularly when they re-read their material and sense how jpodish it sounds compared with Derb’s responses.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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