Sunday, May 20, 2012

Cameron's parenting agenda, genetics, and neuroscience

Tom Chivers’ Telegraph article looking at parental influence on child behaviour/future development is a great demonstration of the current and future battle lines of left/right political thought. 

Chivers argues against David Cameron’s introduction of access to more free training/educational materials for new parents. Whilst I don’t think Cameron’s plan will have any great impact, the act itself is a minute step in the right direction, or at least a nod towards it. As a Labourite, I have no reason to admire anything Cameron does, but even a stopped clock tells the time correctly twice a day.

The basis of Chivers argument is thus; humans are innately good at rearing children, the same as any other animal, because they have evolved their approach over hundreds of millions of years. He goes on to explain that children are also extremely good at getting from their parents what they want/manipulating them (i.e. they’re not just receptacles) and that this behaviour is determined by genetics, basing his evidence on a book by Steven Pinker called the Blank Slate (arguing against the ‘tabula rasa’ theory of mankind).

Chivers’ article is typical of right-wing belief; humans are the opposite of a blank slate. They are born one way or another, and what happens during their lifetime/early years doesn’t really have a great impact on their behaviour as an adult. This is why he berates Cameron’s interventionist action of putting money into training/educational resources for parents.

Except of course he is wrong. What happens during a child’s early years has a very significant impact on later behaviour. There are mountains of evidence of this, and there is a similarly large amount demonstrating that training/education for parents is effective – as Ben Goldacre helpfully pointed out to Chivers, by linking to the relevant Cochrane collection entry;

In my view, Chivers’ article offers a brief glimpse of the future battle over the nature and nurture dialogue which underlies political philosophy.

Chivers’ line is highly reliant on Pinker’s, both are therefore wholly grounded in genetics.

Genetics are being lauded by those on the right who find an allied science which is willing to explore the realms which might demonstrate what they have always believed; that people are born good or bad, that governments may come and go and intervene as they wish but parents will be parents, children will be children, and people are born to succeed and fail - no amount of money thrown at their circumstances will change their genetically-determined destiny.

Alongside the geneticists arguing that they are finding more and more evidence of a genetic backdrop to every personality trait, there are the neuroscientists laying out their ideas of environmental impacts on the brain. Since John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory expounded the idea of emotional bonds impacting on the development of the child, neuroscience has emerged as a potent force giving a hard-science evidential basis to his theory. Bowlby essentially showed that emotional bonds broken or formed during the earliest years of life, had a huge effect on later emotional development. Emotional intelligence, in case you didn’t know it, has a massive impact on success, wealth, happiness and suchlike. Attachment theory is therefore an argument for intervention; intervention by those in the family, the community, or the state.... to do something when parenting isn't working well, when emotional bonds are not being formed. Parenting classes are a piece of this puzzle. Maternity and paternity leave are another.  

As we approach a time when more is known about the mind, and the impact (or lack thereof) of the environment on it, than ever before, politicians owe it to society to ensure that this knowledge is reflected in policy. The proponents of opposing philosophies are likely to seek to water down the merits of sciences from whence knowledge emerges that threatens their worldviews. This is intransigence in the face of evolution of thought, found in the worst possible sphere – that of life and death decision-making.

Whilst genetics will have a role to play in our understanding of man, neuroscience has already given us compelling reason to believe that the effect of upbringing on the developing child is profound. This is a lesson policy-makers of both political persuasions have so far failed to heed. The sooner they put children at the centre of all policymaking the better, but in the meantime expect an interminable dispute about genetic predetermination of outcome. Indeed, with the moneyed interests heavily on the right, it is likely that genetic investigations into heritable traits will be buttressed by big money in the same way that anti-global warming theories are supported by oil and energy interests, whilst neuroscience research into environmental impacts may be hindered by an opposite pattern of underinvestment.

Watch this space.


Cathy, a student of philosophy has also written an interesting blog in response to Chivers’ article.

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