Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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“Orchid Children”

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One of the most fascinating articles I have read in a long time:

Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care. So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail—but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.

And while we’re on genetics, check out Kay Hymowitz’s City Journal article, “Femina Sapiens in the Nursery,” too.

Evolutionary psychologists are sometimes accused of not giving proper due to the flexibility of the human brain. In her recent book Mothers and Others, for instance, Hrdy argues that just as animal males don’t tend to their infants, so human fathers can’t be expected to hang around for the long run. But at their best, scientists are apt to describe the brain as chemically and neurologically predisposed to certain behaviors—nurturing babies in the case of women, for instance—while capable of adapting these behaviors to enormously varied environments. Sometimes those environments even change the brain’s chemistry, a process that the writer Matt Ridley calls “nature via nurture.” When Hrdy presumes the fecklessness of men, she underestimates the environmental pressure of social norms. The human record suggests that social norms, especially the universal one of marriage, can reinforce fathers’ ties to their children, which in turn might even become part of the male neural architecture. Recently, neuroscientists have even discovered evidence that married men’s testosterone levels fall at the birth of their baby.

I concede no opinions about ev-pscyh yet, but Dr. Science approves:

That is quite possibly the best account of the topic I have ever read! She pretty much gets everything right. The science doesn’t prescribe social policy, but rather informs it. How do we come to grips with all of the evolutionary inertia/path dependency that has built up over millions of years, reconcile it with our visions of what “the good life” ought to be, and set ourselves on a course to a better society?

That is the debate we ought to be having, but step one is accepting where we are at the moment with regard to our understanding of the world (science). And yes yes yes, our decisions about the kind of society we choose to create and live in will, over eons, create new selection pressures and reshape our evolutionary trajectory. And as Kay so eloquently points out, technology has already done a lot to change the selection pressures. Maybe a million years from now, our descendants will bemoan how much nature predisposes us to an asymmetrical paternal investment into offspring and they will create new technologies and social policies to swing nature back in the other direction once again.


Written by Elizabeth

December 11, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Posted in Health & Science

Tagged with ,

One Response

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  1. this dr science is fucking brilliant. i love that dude.

    Johnny John John

    December 20, 2009 at 11:55 pm

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