Oct 27

“Unique” by David J. Linden: Not Nature Vs. Nurture

Neurobiologist David J. Linden‘s recently published book called Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality is itself unique in that, per my online research, this topic has seldom been addressed. What’s more likely to be found are articles on how to be unique—as though we aren’t already!

As Science Daily stated in 2018, “Like with fingerprints, no two people have the same brain anatomy, a study by researchers of the University of Zurich has shown. This uniqueness is the result of a combination of genetic factors and individual life experiences.”

Unique‘s publisher points out the fallacy of nature versus nurture:

Exploring everything from the roots of sexuality, gender, and intelligence to whether we like bitter beer, Linden shows how our individuality results not from a competition of nature versus nurture, but rather from a mélange of genes continually responding to our experiences in the world, beginning in the womb.

More from Kirkus Reviews:

The author picks apart those aspects that are biologically regulated and those that are the product of social experience—attachment, social warmth, neglect, and bullying—and describes how they affect brain development. There are a variety of sex manifestations that don’t always sort easily into male and female, and gender is even more variable….Ultimately, the author concludes, ‘interacting forces of heredity, experience, plasticity, and development resonate to make us unique.’

Selected Quotes from Linden’s interview with Abigail Fagan, Psychology Today:

The phrase that everyone knows, “nature vs. nurture,” is so awful and so wrong. The “vs.” implies that what you inherit from your parents must be opposed to your experience in the world, which isn’t true.

The word “nurture” makes people think too much about family, how your parents took care of you or failed to take care of you. The experience that informs you as an individual is so much broader than that. It’s things like the food your mother ate when she was carrying you in utero. Or the time of year you were born. Or the ambient temperature in the first year of your life.

[Regarding the role of “pure, random luck”]: Even at birth, identical twins who have the same DNA don’t come out identical. They don’t look identical, they don’t have identical temperaments, and if you put them in medical scanners their organs aren’t identical. Why is that? It’s because the DNA doesn’t specify the way we develop in excruciating detail with every connection between every cell specified. It gives a vague set of instructions that randomness then acts upon. Randomness is the cherry on top of the hereditary-interacts-with-experience equation.

Your birth order is an important determinant of how you behave and interact within your own family, both as a child and an adult. But it’s not as if first children who tend to be the leaders in their family are the leaders on the playground at school or the leaders of corporations. It doesn’t transfer over that way.

The heritability of addiction varies across different populations, and it’s about 40 percent among middle-class people. However, BMI is more heritable than addiction. Yet if most people look at someone who is overweight, they don’t say, “You got dealt a rough genetic hand.” They say, “You eat too much and you don’t exercise enough. It’s your own damn fault.” Understanding the statistics of heritability can alter your compassion for people.

Dec 05

Birth Order, From Oldest to Middle to Youngest to Only

What follows are selected observations from experts on the possible effects of birth order on the oldest, middle, youngest, and only child.

The Oldest Child

Undivided attention, a high level of assigned responsibility, strong encouragement to achieve—these all contribute to the oldest child’s development. Sound pretty good? Or like a lot of pressure?

Can be both, of course.

Dalton Conley, author of The Pecking Order: A Bold New Look at How Family and Society Determine Who We Become, has told The Huffington Post, “The literature seems to have achieved a fair bit of consensus on the notion that first borns tend to be more rule-seeking, conscientious, and neurotic but score lower on dimensions of openness to new experience.”

The Middle Child

Receiver of less attention and aware of it, the middle often learns how to negotiate and compromise in order to “fit in” with everyone.

To raise awareness of their annual holiday, August 12th, Bruce Hopman started the International Middle Child Union. He’s the only member, however. And the holiday goes virtually unnoticed. “Our whole lives, middle children crave attention, but we’re always ignored, so it’s typical that someone would give us a holiday just so they could ignore it” (UPI).

Hopman’s blog, Smack Dab, introduces a set of greeting cards. Example: “Sorry we can’t be with you on Middle Child’s Day.” Open card to: “We’re having dinner with your brother and sister.”

Some of the adages Hopman calls examples of MidKid Wisdom:

  • Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others are Middle Children.
  • The grass is always browner on the Middle Child’s side of the fence.
  • If at first you don’t succeed, blame the Middle Child.
  • Some see the glass half empty. Others see the glass half full. The Middle Child knows his siblings both had full glasses, and he got what was left over.

Katrin Schumann, co-author of another birth order book, The Secret Power of Middle Children, provides info on some of the positives, though: “Although middles are neglected, both by parents and researchers, they actually benefit from this in the long run. They become more independent, think outside the box, feel less pressure to conform, and are more empathetic. This gives them great skills as employees and also makes them excellent team players and partners” (Psychology Today).

The Youngest Child

Lian Dolan, The Huffington Post, lists—with humor—some youngest-child characteristics based on very personal observations of this particular birth order. Here’s a sampling:

  • Entitled to nothing. Really. Not even a seat at the dinner table is guaranteed.
  • Buys used cars, second -hand clothes and “vintage” furniture. What is this thing you call “first-hand?”
  • Will never make fiancée sit through the traditional post-engagement evening of Going Through the Family Photo Album to Look at Pictures of Childhood because there are no pictures of childhood.
  • Constantly surprises older siblings with references to “playing on the high school tennis team” or “going to college,” as older siblings have no recollection of any of these events.
  • Occasionally stuns family with competency…But still treated like 14-year old.
  • Barely got a word in edgewise until age.
  • Now a very good listener.
  • Leaves the room when older siblings reminisce about “the Christmas we all got new skis.”
  • Learns from others’ mistakes.
  • Stays under radar.
  • Gets away with murder.

The Only Child

Growing up as an only child, sometimes I have a hard time remembering everything is not about me. So I don’t. Emily Volman

In a previous post, I mentioned Lauren Sandler‘s book One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One. She found research to show that, myths to the contrary, only kids are often well adjusted kids. From her site:

Lonely. Selfish. Maladjusted. These are the words that Toni Falbo, the leading researcher in the tiny field of only child studies, uses to explain our image of, and anxiety about, only children. I’ll unpack the myth at length, but here’s a teaser. On loneliness: as kids, we’re usually fine. As adolescents, we’re often disempowered and isolated. As adults, we face the logistical and existential nightmare of our parents’ aging and death alone. But the good news is we develop the strongest primary relationships with ourselves. On selfishness: as long as we go to school, we’re plenty socialized to play well with others. On maladjustment: we’re fine. In fact, we’re pretty fantastic.

Dec 04

Does Birth Order Matter? Just One Factor in Child Development

Does birth order matter? Does it really make that significant of a difference in the life of a child—and possibly forever after? Some think yes, some think not so much. If the latter, what accounts then for some strongly held beliefs about what it’s actually like to be a firstborn or a middle or a youngest or an only?

What’s probably true is that birth order does matter to some degree. But so do a host of other things affecting a person’s development. These include, but aren’t limited to, such factors as:

  • Sex of a child
  • Birth intervals, or the age gap between siblings
  • Number of kids in the family
  • Age of the mother at the time of giving birth
  • Disability of a child in the family
  • Death of a child in the family
  • Number of parents in the home
  • Socioeconomic status

When birth order matters, it’s not because of some kind of magic associated with your position, it’s basically about families changing when child dependents are added. Lynne Silva-Breen sums a few things up on GoodTherapy.org:

In general, first born and only children are commonly more self-determined and disciplined, having been born into an adult system and most closely associated to adults, even as infants. The second born child is less connected to the adults in the family, and if followed by a third child, may feel a bit lost in their parents’ strong relationship to the first born and emotional focus on the baby of the family. The farther away from the parent system, the more independent and even rebellious that child may become. Additionally, the more older siblings a child has, the more accustomed they often become to letting other people lead, and can more easily go ‘with the flow’ than those born first.

George Dvorsky reports (io9.com) on a number of birth-order studies that have shown specific links between birth order and personality. Keeping in mind that what follows are generalizations, here are some of the research conclusions:

  • First-borns may experience more success and achievement by common standards.
  • Middles are highly sociable.
  • Regarding career choice, younger kids like the arts and outdoors; only kids and some oldests like intellectual pursuits.
  • Firstborns “are actually less dominant or assertive than laterborns. The researchers suspect that strict and overprotective parenting of firstborns may be the reason, which causes them to grow up submissive.”
  • Firstborns do slightly better on IQ tests. Could be related to increased parental attention.
  • Firstborns may have better verbal ability because they were more exposed to adult language, whereas youngers are exposed to “the less mature, childish speech of their older siblings.”
  • Relationships forged outside the family may last longer when there is shared birth order rank.

Tomorrow’s post will feature more info about each specific birth order category…