Parenting: Anecdotes and Data

by on February 23, 2011 at 10:01 am in Books, Economics, Education | Permalink

Tyler's post, What Can Parents Influence (below), uses anecdotes from his own family to try to rebut some findings from behavioural genetics. I don't think the rebuttal is successful. Moreover, Tyler's anecdotes are selective. A fuller description suggests a more balanced accounting of nurture and nature.

Yes, Yana speaks Russian which she learned from her mother. Yana also speaks French, German, Spanish and I believe several other languages. Tyler tells me that Yana has a gift for languages. Tyler also does not mention that his wonderful wife, Natasha, doesn't simply speak Russian she is an accomplished translator. Perhaps the gift runs in families?

But enough of anecdotes. On religion, I don't think Tyler has fully confronted the evidence from genetic studies. Of course, a child born to Orthodox parents is more likely to practice and be Orthodox. EVERYONE agrees with this. So how can Bryan say parents "have little long-run effect on intrinsic religiosity or observance"? Parents with blue eyes often have children with blue eyes but parents don't have much influence on whether their children have blue eyes.

More fundamentally, what Bryan is asking is how much does parenting influence religiosity? To answer this question we have to distinguish parenting from parents. How do we do this? Adoption and separated twin studies. What adoption and separated twin studies show is that once you have controlled for parents, parenting has very little influence on adult religiosity. These studies could be wrong but, contra Tyler, stamping your feet is not good enough on this issue because what we naturally observe (primarily parents raising their biological children) is not what we need to know to answer the fundamental question.

I could say more but instead let me say this, buy Bryan Caplan's book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. It's a remarkable book. I place it alongside Guns, Germs, Steel and The Selfish Gene as one of those books that, whether one agrees with the conclusions or not, everyone owes it to themselves to read in order to be informed, educated, and part of the conversation.

Tyler Cowen February 23, 2011 at 6:08 am

Parents who are born Orthodox Jews, but who don't inculcate the religion in their children, don't have much affect on the subsequent observance of those children, right? (Stamp, stamp!) That's a case of parenting mattering, not just parents, to use your distinction.

Roberta February 23, 2011 at 6:24 am

Very nice post!

8 February 23, 2011 at 6:45 am

Twin A and Twin B both inherit religiousity. Twin A is raised in a madrassa in Pakistan, Twin B in a Tibetan monastery.

Parents don't need to worry about whether their child is religious, that's genetic. But they are going to play a big role in the religion their child chooses, at the very least by their peer selection. They can move, they can change schools, they can send their child to weekend classes, etc. "We don't know if he'll be religious or not, but gdamn it he's going to be a Reformed Baptist!"

improbable February 23, 2011 at 7:11 am

It seems reasonable to claim that *relative* religiosity could be inherited, I mean your position relative to your surroundings. This seems to be what the twin studies are showing.

But to claim that *absolute* religiosity is inherited is much stronger, and is to my mind contradicted by the fact that whole countries can swing quite fast. Countries which once built churches sometimes end up turning them into pubs. I think this is the point Tyler was trying to make.

A weaker separate point is that it's pretty obvious that your genes aren't deciding whether you are Catholic or Anglican, or whether you speak Hindi or English. Again, look at whole communities which have transitioned 100%.

Nemi February 23, 2011 at 7:34 am

The RBC theory of human action?

Cyrus February 23, 2011 at 7:56 am

Even if a child grows up to not believe, religious parents have a strong role in shaping what it is that their child does not believe. Atheists raised by Christian parents tend to be Christian atheists.

Marc A Cohen February 23, 2011 at 8:07 am

My own personal adoption study: I was adopted by not-very-religious Jews as an infant. They DID send me to Hebrew School three days per week, I think without contemplating the consequences. I still remember the arguments I had with my parents and extended family as a kid because I wanted to celebrate holidays and live daily life the way they taught in Hebrew School.

Today I am by a wide margin more religiously knowledgeable and observant than the rest of my family. At major holidays they always ask me to "run the show" because they want to have SOME religious observance (although still consistantly a LOT less than I would have…), but never really learned the rituals and blessings. I am like a Jewish evangelist trying to bring along my own family!

The obvious point is that I inherited a religiously observant disposition from my biological parents, but it took root in a Jewish environment.

Richard A. February 23, 2011 at 8:41 am

The range of parenting styles is smaller for the adoption and separated twin studies than it is for society as a whole. This has the effect of exaggerating the importance of genes.

Marcos February 23, 2011 at 9:19 am

That is the second reply, and still it doesn't see to reply Tyler's arguments. He is arguing that the studies are flawed, citing a specific flaw. It would sufice to say "no, you are wrong, we controlled for that", or the alternative, that is "yep, you are right, we didn't control for that".

Anedontal evidence, generalisations and eveything else is just not needed.

Sam M February 23, 2011 at 11:25 am

This is interesting from the product description of the book: "The big lesson: Mold your kids less and enjoy your life more. Your kids will still turn out fine."

Well, we don't know that, do we? Maybe the genetics are lined up to make the kid into some kind of creep. If parenting doesn't matter much, and the world has a whole lot of creeps in it… somebody's going to be disappointed.

This matters, because I don't think all parents are hoping to transform their kid from a middle manager into Bill Gates. Instead, they are trying to make sure their kids aren't disasters, and there is almost not end of injury they will suffer to prove "we did everything we could."

Look at the way women avoid booze and cigarettes when they are pregnant. A few glasses of wine and a few cigs PROBABLY won't have any impact at all. In fact, the chances are vansishingly small. But the energy we expend in these regards is not aimed at really changing the end result, as musch as it is a kind of emotional and social insurance policy.

Because if someone DOES catch you having a beer and a Marlboro when you are pregnant, and you are unlucky enough to have a complication… look out.

Robert Speirs February 23, 2011 at 12:40 pm

"Mothering" is real. "Fathering" is real. "Parenting" is nonsense.

Steve Sailer February 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm

"Instead, they are trying to make sure their kids aren't disasters, and there is almost not end of injury they will suffer to prove "we did everything we could.""

Right, and the drop in upper middle class family size from 3-4 kids to 1-2 kids means parents have all their genetic eggs in fewer baskets, so they helicopter parent more to guard against "gambler's ruin."

Steve Sailer February 23, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Nah, Baby Boomer Americans were plenty hybrid already for health purposes, except maybe for a few hillbillies and some first generation Italians who lived in neighborhoods composed of people from their old village. Italians got a lot taller, but Americans overall haven't been growing taller very fast in recent decades.

Steve Sailer February 23, 2011 at 3:19 pm

For height, here's the government's 2003-2005 study, which shows only minor difference between young adults and baby boomers:
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr010.pdf

The Italian shortness the first generation born in the U.S. comes from a Daniel Seligman Keeping Up column in Fortune many years ago. He pointed out that the first generation of Italians born in America tended to be much shorter than the second generation, whereas that wasn't true for the Irish. (I've observed that too among my in-laws at my wedding.) He argued that it may have been related to Italian mountain villagers tendencies to marry within the village, and to reproduce villages in neighborhoods in America. (Geneticist LL Cavalli-Sforza has documented this.)

WWII shook everything up and then Italians started becoming about average in height.

Finch February 24, 2011 at 4:32 am

Thank you for the link, but I should have been more specific. I want a cite for the present degree of "hybrid" being good enough, so that we wouldn't expect further benefit from, say, increased urbanization. People still look pretty inbred to me. The recent medical controversy about disclosure of surprising discoveries of ancestral inbreeding comes to mind. (I.e., when parents go to have genetic testing done on their disabled kid they sometimes find they're second cousins, or their grandparents were half-siblings, etc.)

And as I said, a slowing down of the Flynn effect is consistent with diminishing returns to hybridization.

Steve Sailer February 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Typically, married couples in Iceland are blood relations to each other by a whole bunch of different genealogical pathways. Yet, they have one of the longest life expectancies in the world.

Inbreeding problems fall off quite fast past 1st cousin.

If everybody just marries somebody else from their mountain village in Italy, you'll get some problems. But, marrying somebody from the next valley over usually gets rid of most of them. Cavalli-Sforza had some numbers on how much the geographic distance between newlyweds increased when bus service came to Italian mountain villages.

Finch February 28, 2011 at 9:38 am

> Inbreeding problems fall off quite fast past 1st cousin.

Okay, fine, so you sort of think it because of anecdote?

I'm not saying it's false, I'm saying this isn't a lot of evidence to hang your hat on…

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