Skip to main content

No Two Alike – Judith Rich Harris *****

This is an absolute stunner of a popular science book – without doubt one of the best of 2006. The author does a brilliant job of demolishing the academic psychology establishment, by questioning a fundamental assumption that was made without properly checking it – that nurture would influence personality. She does all this in a very personal, human fashion, with as much reference to the way traditional crime fiction works as to scientific research. This side of the book is handled superbly well.
The key point that Judith Rich Harris makes is that while it can be shown that a percentage of our behaviour and personality comes from heredity, once you eliminate that genetic portion (just under half), it is very difficult to explain the rest. Specifically, she lays into those who just assume that this as a result of the way that our parents/carers mould our personality, pointing out that this bears no resemblance to reality – the reality for instance of identical twins, or even conjoined twins, brought up in the same environment having very different personalities.
Early on Harris likens her job to a fictional detective. A particularly apt comparison she makes is with the 1950s novel The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. In this, the hero, detective Alan Grant, is laid up in hospital throughout the book, and as a challenge takes on the task of exploring a historical mystery – the character of Richard III, and who killed the princes in the Tower. He shows how the “facts” that “everyone knows” are in truth based largely on propaganda and don’t necessarily bear in resemblance to reality. Harris too is working indirectly, but equally powerfully. Similarly, Harris suggests, the “facts” we know about how parenting shapes personality are more wishful thinking on the part of those with a vested interest in selling parenting books than necessarily anything with a scientific basis.
After casting aside five “red herrings” – potential explanations for the development of individual personality that she shows to be spurious, Harris is ready to present her own thesis. Influenced strongly by Steven Pinker’s description of the different functional modules of the brain, Harris suggests that there are three modules that, sometimes in contradictory fashion, shape our personality. A relationship module that deals with our information base on other people, a socialization module that helps us to fit in with groups by providing the ability to average across a wide range of inputs, and a status module that enables us to establish our position in the pecking order and to work on bettering ourselves. This isn’t in any sense proved – Harris would be the first to emphasize this – but her argument generally reads very well.
Perhaps the only point that isn’t totally clear is that while she says one of the reasons for difference between identical twins is different inputs to the socialization module, it’s not clear how this explains why, for instance, conjoined twins can be so different, as presumably their socialization experiences can’t be hugely different. Harris says they have different social experiences as people see that they are individuals, so distinguish – but that seems to be a bit of an assumption itself, that they aren’t in the style of Lord of the Flies seen as a single “Samneric” rather than Sam and Eric as separate entities, and also that such a distinction being made is enough to produce radically different socialization. Don’t most of us assume identical twins are very similar?
The only minor snag with the writing, is that Harris can be repetitive. This is particularly noticeable in the first chapter where she presents the message over and over again, so get through that chapter as soon as possible. You will find this tendency to repeat recurs, but at a significantly lower level. It’s also true that some won’t like her very personal style. This is very much the story of Ms Harris’s efforts, not a matter of pure scientific reporting. For this reviewer, though, that makes it much more approachable and fascinating – it’s a real page turner, and highly recommended.
Paperback:  
Review by Martin O'Brien

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…