Author: Brian Boutwell

Not Everything Is An Interaction

Albert Einstein was a brilliant man. Whether his famous equation of E=mc2 means much to you or not, I think we can all concur on the intellectual prowess—and stunning hair—of Einstein. But where did his brilliance come from? Environment? Perhaps his parents fed him lots of fish (it’s supposed to be brain food, after all). Genetics? Surely Albert hit some sort of genetic lottery—oh that we should all be so lucky. Or does the answer reside in some combination of the two? How very enlightened: both genes and environment interact and intertwine to yield everything from the genius of Einstein to the comedic talent of Lewis Black. Surely, you cannot tease their impact apart; DNA and experience are hopelessly interlocked. Except, they’re not. Believing that they are is wrong; it’s a misleading mental shortcut that has largely sown confusion in the public about human development, and thus it needs to be retired. Despite strong genetic influences on IQ (and there are strong genetic influences on IQ), we can’t calculate the proportion of credit for Einstein’s intellect that …

On Parenting and Parents

It’s been a little over a year since my first article on parenting appeared in the pages of Quillette. Soon after publication, the essay began receiving quite a bit of attention; both positive and negative. This is to be expected for a topic that is as personally relevant to people as this one. People either have children of their own, or know what it is like to be someone’s child. We all have skin in this part of the game. My argument in that essay was somewhat incendiary, as I was suggesting that little evidence exists for pervasive and long-lasting parenting influences on child development. I still maintain that position; not out of a personal bias, but simply because that is what the evidence demands of me. That said, this essay is about why parenting is arguably the single most important activity in which you will engage. This is true, not because you will mould your child’s intellect or personality like a potter. Rather, this is true because your child might write a similar essay about …

Sociology’s Stagnation

Emile Durkheim is the father of modern sociology; he is a titan. Over a century ago the great man issued an edict that would forever alter — or you could say, forever derail — the course of the discipline that he established. His proclamation, paraphrased loosely, was that any social occurrence was a product of other social occurrences that came before it. Society and culture were “prime movers”, an ultimate cause of things in the world that, for its own part, had no cause. Social facts orbited in their own solar system, untethered from the psychology and biology of individual humans. It’s almost as if this idea originated from a burning bush, high on some ancient mountain, as it would to this day steer the direction of much social science thought. Durkheim’s insight would be a hall pass for social scientists to spend decades ignoring certain uncomfortable realities. Let me try and give you an idea of just how fetid the waters really are. In 1990 (over two decades ago) the sociologist Pierre van den …

Dealing with the Reality That Not Everyone Can Succeed

As a society, we’ve failed to confront a reality that has emerged time and again from psychological research. Two traits — general intelligence and self-control — are perhaps our best individual level predictors of living a successful life. More on what “successful” means momentarily. However, failure to appreciate the reach of intelligence and self-control, though troublesome in the past, will become increasingly problematic as our modern American economy becomes ever more technological and our economy ever more global. In fact, had we appreciated the importance of these traits more fully in the decades leading up to now, we might have foreseen more clearly the rise of a Donald J. Trump style presidential candidate. What does it mean to live a successful life? Quite frankly, it can mean a lot of things. I’m not referring in this case to having any particular occupation, level of education, income, or living in any particular region of the country. By “living a successful life” I mean that when possible, avoiding the many negative occurrences that can creep up. Avoiding …

On the Reality of Race & the Abhorrence of Racism Part II: Human Biodiversity & Its Implications

If you observe the residents of Japan and compare them to residents of the rural southern United States, you’ll note some differences. Some differences will be stark, others less so, yet they will not be isolated to religious and cultural practices. The differences that emerge will bleed into psychological and temperamental traits that also vary in noticeable ways across populations. The reason for the existence of these differences, though, admits of no simple answer. Prevailing wisdom holds that the cultural and psychological differences that exist across human population groups were shaped largely by a confluence of history, sociological forces, and pure chance. This is likely true to some degree, but the prevailing wisdom — from my point of view — is incomplete. In Part I, we argued that human races exist, meaning that humans can be meaningfully classified into coherent groups based on genetic ancestry. If we’re going to take seriously the existence of meaningful racial variation we also have to at least consider that the genetic differences that exist across racial and ethnic groups …

The Bermuda Triangle Part II: Dangerous Research & The Risks Worth Taking

Another clever word Sets off an unsuspecting herd And as you step back into line A mob jumps to their feet – “You’re Gonna Go Far Kid,” The Offspring   The late J.P. Rushton represents one of the most brilliant, yet oddly obscure, psychologists in the last several decades. Few would deny that Phil Rushton possessed a stunning intellect; his work on human altruism, in fact, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988. Yet, when he is spoken of in circles both within and outside of academia now, brilliance is not the first adjective that gets tossed around. Rushton’s interest in differences among human population groups would lead him to begin asking “dangerous” questions about how those differences arose.  His book, Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (published in 1995) represented the culmination of much of his work on the topic to that point in his career. For Rushton, the book was his opus, but for many, it represented the detonation of an academic land mine. Make no mistake — Rushton was controversial before …

Evolutionary Conflict and the Family

Let me be as blunt as possible, most of the beliefs you have about parents, and the socializing effects they have on children, are more wrong than you can possibly fathom. If you read my first installment on this topic, then the kickoff to this discussion sounds familiar. In fact, we’ve journeyed through the wilderness of parenting effects in three separate essays, now. Is there really a need for a fourth? I think there is, and the reason why is so that I can show you the absurdity lurking behind the idea that parental influences on children are large, prominent, and long lasting. The absurdity of it, in fact, is utterly staggering, stupefying, and as we will see, blazingly obvious once we pause and remember that humans, too, are a product of evolution. When I read first read Matt Ridley’s book The Red Queen, I remember being shocked at the ideas he was proposing. In the book, Ridley promised to take the reader down a rabbit hole regarding how human nature evolved (and the role …

The Bermuda Triangle of Science

This is an essay about how to avoid carpet-bombing your career as a scientist. The academy, in general, is a wonderful place to work, but not everyone plays nice. Veer too far from carefully charted courses and someone may slip quietly up behind you and slide a cold piece of steel in between the ribs of your budding research career. They’ll do this believing that they are serving public interest by snuffing out dangerous research agendas, but that won’t make any difference to you. It’ll be your reputation that will suffer grievous injury. What in the world might elicit such harsh rebuke from a community of otherwise broadminded, free speech spouting scholars? What is so verboten that it constitutes academia’s Bermuda Triangle, a place where careers disappear more often than ships in the actual Bermuda Triangle? In one word, it’s race. Now, had I written this a decade or more ago, general intelligence would have topped the list of forbidden academic fruit. This is not to say that intelligence research has magically become mainstream. It …

How To Have An Opinion Worth Hearing

I listen to you time and time again, while you tell me just what’s right… Kansas City, by Marcus Mumford   Political seasons have a way of swinging wide the floodgates for opinions across a great many topics. Experts on guns, abortion, market economies, foreign policy, crime, climate change, and taxation emerge from the woodwork. These and other subjects fill political stump speeches, campaign narratives, and op-ed columns. The proclivity for loudly voicing one’s thoughts is endemic in the public too. Social media sites have made opinion expression a cottage industry that runs 24/7, 365 days per year. Since anything worth doing is worth doing well, I’d like to offer a bit of what I hope will be useful advice if you’re looking to jump into the fray of opinion sharing. Surprisingly, I think many folks underestimate what they would need to do in order to gestate a truly informed opinion. It’s a tall task, to be sure, but I’ve devised a simple instrument that might help. Below is checklist that can be consulted prior …

How to Find a Parenting Effect

Like religion and politics, parenting can be an emotionally charged topic.  I argued previously that parenting did not represent a monolithic predictor of child development.1,2,3,4 More precisely, I stated that even if it was, most research on the subject would never allow you to know it because of a problem replete in the social sciences: genetic confounding.  The larger intent of my previous essay, in fact, was to address the perils of correlational research and encourage you to think carefully the next time you saw a headline proclaiming that X causes Y (e.g., bacon causes cancer). Parenting effects provided a suitable avenue for making that point given the proliferation of deeply confounded “parenting studies” which trade on unintelligible correlations between parenting styles and child outcomes. I want to take a slightly different approach this time around.  If parenting effects really existed, and you wanted to find them, where would you need to look? You know already where not to look; a correlation between a parenting style and child behavior, for instance, simply does not provide …