Genetic Determinism vs. Parental Irrelevantism
By Bryan Caplan
I think that parents affect their kids in lots of ways. Parents have big effects on religious affiliation and political party, small effects on many other traits, and a clear effect on the quality of the parent-child relationship. And those are just long-run effects within vaguely normal, First World families. In the short-run, and outside the vaguely normal First World range, parents matter far more. Still, if someone were to caricature my position as “parental irrelevantism,” I would take no offense. It’s an inaccurate summary of my position, but not wildly inaccurate. I really do think that parents’ influence on kids’ long-run outcomes is greatly over-rated. Calling me a “parental irrelevantist” is arguably a useful simplification of my actual, subtler position.
Unfortunately, when people caricature me, they usually try to pin a totally inaccurate label on me: “genetic determinist.” I am not a genetic determinist. Not even close. The simplest twin study conclusively disproves genetic determinism. Identical twins are genetically identical, but they’re not identical for any complex trait. Identical twins don’t have the same lifespan, the same IQ, the same happiness, the same friends, or the same income – even when they’re raised together. Since genetic determinism predicts that identical twins will be identical for all traits, genetic determinism is demonstrably false.
Not only am I not a genetic determinist; I’m not a determinist of any kind. The empirical evidence in favor of my own free will is overwhelming: Introspection reveals free will to me during my every waking moment. There are many reasons why identical twins aren’t phenotypically identical. But free will has to be the most overlooked. As I write in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids:
I doubt that scientists will ever account for my sons’ differences, because I think their primary source is free will. Despite genes, despite family, despite everything, human beings always have choices–and when we can make different choices, we often do. Some choices are moment-to-moment: To keep working or give up, lie or tell the truth, abandon or defend your views on immigration policy. Other choices are cumulative: You can’t change your weight, education, or income by snapping your fingers, but in the long run they depend on diet, study, and effort–all of which you’re free to choose.
I really don’t mind caricatures. I’m a fan of simplification, and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. But if you’re going to caricature me, please give your caricature a kernel of truth.
Happy Father’s Day!