Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Chick-Fil-A and the Politics of Intolerance

Can political representatives use their offices to retaliate against business executives who hold and express opinions that the politicians find unacceptable? As an advocate of tolerance, diversity of thought, and freedom of speech, I would have to say no. If individual consumers don’t want to shop somewhere because they don’t like the views of a company leader, I’d say those consumers can spend their money however they choose. As far as I’m concerned, they can avoid a business because they object to the color of the CEO’s suspenders or the fit of his toupee. It’s their money and they can spend it or not spend it as they see best. But I disagree with the practice of organizing economic boycotts to try to force people to change their opinions, since that is simply engaging in the politics of mass bullying. The intolerance moves from bullying to outright tyranny, though, whenever a government authority uses the power of office to push a boycott.
Dan Cathy
Dan Cathy, the CEO of fast food company Chick-Fil-A, has voiced his belief in what he calls “the biblical definition of a family unit.” According to this definition, a family consists of a monogamous union of a man and woman, plus children. Cathy, as one would expect, does not support same-sex marriage. Many Americans share his perspective on family. But, apparently, many of those with different ideas don’t just think he’s wrong. They think that he has no right to an opinion that differs from theirs and they want to use economic and political coercion to make him change that opinion.
The company is not trying to force anyone to see things the way Dan Cathy does. In fact, the company has stated that it will “treat every person with dignity, honor, and respect – regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender. We will continue this tradition in the over 1,600 restaurants run by independent Owner/Operators. Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”
Unfortunately, many in the government and political arena don’t seem willing to treat the company in the same manner. Edwin Lee, the Mayor of San Francisco, is reported to have said in a tweet, “Closest #ChickFIlA to San Francisco is 40 miles away & I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer.”  Even worse, Boston’s mayor wrote the company a letter saying he’d block it from his city, only to acknowledge later that this would be illegal. A Chicago alderman said that he would keep the company from getting permits to build in the city. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is trying to get Chick-Fil-A kicked out of New York, and has written the President of NYU asking him to expel the restaurant from its campus.  Quinn has started a petition demanding that Cathy change his views and apologize.

I wonder if Christine Quinn and her allies really believe that political power and threats can force a change of conscience.
Christine Quinn

Monday, July 30, 2012

Prison Doctors

The New Orleans Times Picayune, following its usual practice of passing off editorials as front-page news, reports that most of the physicians working full-time at the state’s prisons have been disciplined by the state medical board. Of the fifteen full-time doctors, two have been in federal prison, five are still on probation, and, altogether, nine have received board sanctions.  Their legal problems appear to have been mainly substance abuse and sexual misbehavior.  The article identifies one former prison doctor as having had a history of malpractice, but apparently none of the current medical care providers have records of malpractice or incompetence. Nevertheless, the author of the article assumes that their past offences make them dangerous. “At stake,”  pronounces reporter/editorialist Cindy Chang, is the health of 19,000 prisoners who are among the most vulnerable of patients because they cannot go to another doctor.”  Chang provides no evidence that medical care in Louisiana prisons is any worse than the prisoners would be receiving if they were on the outside or even that it is any worse than the care available to Americans in general.  Still, this lack of relevant evidence does not prevent her from intoning, “Louisiana prisons appear to be dumping grounds for doctors who are unable to find employment elsewhere because of their checkered pasts, raising troubling moral questions, as well as the specter of an accident waiting to happen.”
Now, here are some facts to consider before we start becoming morally troubled: The United States currently has a serious shortage of physicians.  Few who have other choices would opt to work full-time in a prison. The salaries the Louisiana prison system can offer its doctors (mostly in the low six-figures) are more than most workers make, but less than most other doctors earn. Finding decent medical care for prisoners, then, is a real problem.  If these individuals with “checkered pasts” were not there, the alternative would probably be fewer prison doctors.
It’s possible that a prisoner may receive less than the best possible treatment from a resentful doctor with no alternative. It is also possible that a doctor will be so grateful at getting a second chance that he will be especially devoted to the prisoner-patients. I can’t say which of these possibilities I would put my money on because the only information Chang gives us about the doctors is their rap sheets. But I think that putting apparently competent doctors who have no opportunities for practice outside the institutions together with patients that very few doctors want to serve is not a problem at all, but a good solution.
Beyond the fact that Chang’s article is basically an opinion piece, and belongs in the editorial section of the paper, it seems to me to exemplify a wider tendency in thinking about “social problems.” This is the tendency to assume an ideal state of affairs (everyone should have access the best possible medical care) and then to issue moral pronouncements against efforts to find workable responses to complicated realities.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Penn State and Collective Guilt

I’m not a college football fan. I have mixed views on the role of the sport in higher education. I think that the emphasis on universities as sports entertainment centers draws attention away from their educational goals. I’d prefer to see teams sponsored by profit-making corporations, as is the case with universal football (soccer) in many other countries. I also recognize, though, that football does maintain alumni and wider public attachment to institutions. Also, the fact that many other people place importance on the major college sports gives these competitions legitimacy.
From my relatively neutral perspective, I see the NCAA sanctions on Penn State as completely unjustified and unjust. Jerry Sandusky should have been in prison a long time ago. Former university president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and vice president Gary Schultz should also face legal repercussions, possibly including jail time. But in the institutional penalties reasonable moral outrage has produced unreasonable reactions.
Vacating the team’s wins under late coach Joe Paterno strikes me as bizarre. If Penn State had won those games unfairly, by bribing players on opposing teams or by juicing its own players with performance drugs, then we could say that Penn did not really win those games. But it did win, and the wrongdoings of the university leadership were irrelevant to the performance of the players on the field. Neither Sandusky’s child molestation nor cover-ups by any university official contributed in any demonstrable way to those victories.
Beyond the absurdity of attempting to re-write history, the sanctions are based on the idea of collective guilt. By punishing the institution, rather than guilty individuals, the NCAA penalizes team members, students, alumni, and fans, none of whom participated in Sandusky’s acts or conspired to protect him from the law. The argument that somehow the “culture” of Penn State was at fault, and that the penalties respond to that culture has no merit. One may as well argue that all of the fans in the United States participate in the lionizing of successful coaches, or that the NCAA itself is a source and supporter of our sports culture, and that fans in general and the NCAA have been complicit in creating an environment that puts protecting the reputation of sports programs ahead of the well-being of children. But cultures do not commit sins of omission or commission. People do. Justice requires that we punish only the guilty for their actions.
Finally, there is the problem of Joe Paterno. The dead are safe from prosecution. Should we somehow prosecute Paterno’s memory? Possibly. But we might remember that even the very best of us can do some very bad things and that when someone has devoted a life to a project, that devotion can create a willful blindness to moral responsibilities that threaten the project.

Friday, July 27, 2012


Lake Atitlan
I’ve just returned from Guatemala, a beautiful country of forested volcanic mountains, sinuous rivers, and lakes. All of the Guatemalan people I met were friendly and courteous. I did not get off the tourist track, spending most of my time on the slopes of Lake Atitlan and then briefly visiting Guatemala Antigua. However, these two struck me as symbolically important locations. Lake Atitlan lies in Mayan territory, while Antigua is the old Spanish colonial capital of Central America.  These represent, then, the two formative populations of Guatemala, the ancient Mayan base and the Spanish elite.

A Mayan Weaver of San Pablo, on the Banks of Atitlan

The Arch in Guatemala Antigua
In the Atitlan region, I was impressed by the extent to which the Mayans have maintained their cultural identity. The designs in the elegant handmade clothes still worn by nearly all of the girls and women identify them with each of their villages. One occasionally also sees men in traditional localized dress, although the men have moved more toward the modern universal style. I’ve noticed elsewhere in the world that women retain culturally specific clothing much more than men do. I this is probably due to the human tendency to see women as more fundamental than men to social continuity, since women, as mothers, connect every group’s past to its future. The Mayans have also kept their languages. While most can speak Spanish fluently, in traveling around the lake on public boats I kept hearing people talk to each other in tongues that were unintelligible to me and sounded nothing like any Romance language.

The Central Park in Antigua
I am no authority on Guatemalan history, but I see the Guatemalan civil war that raged during the 1980s as at least in part a clash between the goals of the two population groups. The mainly Spanish rulers of the country wanted to modernize the country and they saw the unassimilated Mayans as impediments to this goal. The Mayans, on the other hand, wanted to be allowed to continue their own way of life. One of the great ironies of the war, in my relatively uninformed impression, was the way this conflict between modernity and tradition became part of the worldwide Cold War. Marxist-inspired leftists, as government opponents, allied themselves with the Mayan side, so that there was a Communist versus anti-Communist dimension to the struggle, inspiring some support for the Guatemalan government from the U.S. foreign policy establishment. The reason I say that this was ironic was that Mayan traditionalist resistance to forced progressive modernization became affiliated with Marxism, the ultimate ideology of anti-traditionalist coercive progressivism.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Eternal Control of the Department of Justice

This past month was a busy one. In addition to teaching intensive summer school courses, I served as an expert witness for a school district in Texas currently trying to get out from under a desegregation order that has been in place for forty years. The U.S. Department of Justice opposes the district’s effort to be released, so the case went to a federal court and the judge is still deliberating.  I’m reluctant to go into specifics about this before it has ended, but I have few very general observations.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this case is that keeping the district under court supervision has accomplished nothing, and yet the DOJ is fighting to maintain the status quo. At the time the order began, the district had a majority white and a minority black student population. Today, Hispanics constitute the largest number of students, there are a small but substantial number of Asians, and white representation in the district has declined. But the court order addresses only black and white students.
Desegregation was intended to end discriminatory practices and to eliminate the consequences of past de jure discrimination. In this district, though, all of the evidence suggests that the local school board and the school administrators self-consciously avoid anything that can be seen as discriminatory, and aggressively recruit scarce minority teachers and staff members. The changing demographics of the district alone suggest that pre-1970 practices are now ancient history. Even more to the point, no black citizens within the district actively support maintaining the current state of affairs, and all of the black administrators and teachers who testified want to free their district from federal direction and move on.
The DOJ seems to devote little attention to practices and processes, or with changing demographics. Its concern is with statistical outcomes for one group. If black students are one-third of those in the district, then, from the DOJ’s perspective, they should be one-third of those receiving positive outcomes and one-third receiving negative outcomes. In the specific area of my involvement in this case, that of discipline, the fact that black students were more likely to receive disciplinary responses than others was taken, on its face, as a suggestion of discrimination, even though this is the situation in virtually every district across the nation.  
The odd thing is that the supposedly discriminatory outcomes are occurring in this district that has been under supervision for four decades. If federal oversight hasn’t achieved categorical equality in this period of time, then it won’t.  I could not see any reason that the DOJ should not simply agree to let this district go. The only conceivable answer is that a self-perpetuating bureaucracy needs to maintain its power.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Real Dystopia

Oh, is this utopia? Well,
I beg your pardon. I thought it was Hell.
-          Max Beerbohm
I am still trying to decide whether to attend this year’s annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver this coming August. For a long time, I have been growing increasingly discouraged with the state of academic sociology and with the association as an expression of the discipline. The systematic study of human society, as many texts define sociology, could offer the exciting intellectual possibility of bringing together ideas from history, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, biology, and statistics; ranging broadly over vast areas of human thought and knowledge in order to consider the sources, nature, and consequences of our interactions and institutions. Instead, contemporary sociology, with only occasional exceptions, is little more than social activism, morally self-righteous, ideologically conformist, and completely driven by unexamined political assumptions and confirmation bias.
This year’s ASA theme, proclaimed by this year's president, Erik Olin Wright, is “Real Utopias,” derived from his “Real Utopias Project” and his book Real Utopias.  For a review of the book, I highly recommend Russell Jacoby’s. “To call this book dull as dish water,” Jacoby remarks, “maligns dish water.” Apparently, a “real utopia,” for Wright, is any social arrangement that has his approval, and he approves of all large and small efforts to move toward socialism. 
I’m not necessarily opposed to social thinkers engaging in socialist theorizing, any more than I am opposed to their engaging in libertarian theorizing, corporatist theorizing, or, for that matter, monarchist theorizing.   John Stuart Mill once observed, “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that,”  so I think it is fine that Wright has tried to lay out his case, even if I agree with Jacoby that the resulting work is insipid and badly written. My problem is not with the fact that Wright has a socio-political agenda, but that his agenda of “emancipatory sociology” has been set up as the official dogma of an organization representing an entire academic discipline.  Even worse, few of the ASA’s members seem to have any problem with the reduction of a field of study to an activist creed.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Agrarian Roots of American Political Equality

Today, as we celebrate Independence Day, I have been thinking about the concept of independence in American political thought. For early Americans, independence from Britain was more than simply severing national connections; it was part of a larger perspective on political equality as a matter of autonomy of individuals, as well as of nations. The perspective later gave rise to such characteristic American developments as Emersonian self-reliance, but it was originally shaped by the situation of people who were equally free from subordination to each other because they controlled their own property, and most importantly their property in land.

 The first national understanding of equality emerged from the pursuit of economic and social independence by individuals during the colonial period. This understanding was less a matter of Americans having the same standards of living or even being able to look forward to the same opportunities than it was a matter of being able to hold and farm land and thereby to live apart from a hierarchy of dependence. Land, more than anything else, provided the real basis of the early American economy and much of the nation’s history of expansion across the continent can be understood as the quest for more land by individuals seeking to support themselves and, in their quest, acquiring the view that each of them, whether scratching bare sustenance from a small plot or harvesting export crops from a vast plantation, could be self-supporting and self-contained. Even the appearance of a middling sort in the eastern cities owed much to the constant possibility of moving out of the cities.

By the time of national independence, the central political issue for most Americans was not the redistribution of wealth. It was whether the acknowledged and accepted inequalities of condition would subordinate some to others. The American commitment to an ideal of equality grew in a society not only of inequalities in condition, but of great regional variations in stratification.  Many of these variations can be linked to the class background of the settlers in different locations. The earliest wave of immigrants to the lands that became the United States consisted of Puritans who came from the east of England in the years 1629 to 1640 and settled in Massachusetts. Most of these early arrivals were from the middle ranks of English society and the majority worked in skilled craft and trade occupations. Still, while people from the lowest class positions in English society made up only a very small proportion of the settlers in Massachusetts, a little under one-fourth arrived as servants, so that some stratification definitely existed. The elite of the Puritan-based society of New England that came out of the Massachusetts settlement, though, consisted of the interconnected and intermarried leading families of ministers and magistrates.  Heavily drawn from the eastern counties of England, the men of these families had attended the same schools before migration, with nearly half attending three colleges of Cambridge, according to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989).
 Despite the clear existence of a New England elite, stratification was relatively modest in this section of the colonies. The mainly middle-ranking population of Massachusetts multiplied rapidly in the years following 1640 and settled much of the northeastern region of the future United States.  High levels of literacy characterized the great mass of this population, as well as the small upper elite. Wealthy ruling families had arisen in Massachusetts by 1760, but their power was insecure and they could be challenged by larger publics. Similarly, proprietary gentry had come into existence in the Mid-Atlantic region in the face of diversity of ethnicity and religion,

 The governing elite of Virginia came closest to the aristocratic ruling class of England, although the two were distinguished by, among other characteristics, the commercial origins of the former. By the time of the Revolution, Virginia was largely ruled by wealthy planters whose position and power came from what their crops and speculations. More importantly, the Virginia planters exercised their powers primarily over their slaves, rather than over white freemen, regardless of how poor those white freemen might be.

In relative terms, then, early America actually was a fairly equal society. Comparing America’s colonial elites with the English ruling class, Gary J. Kornbluth and John M. Murrin observed in their 1993 chapter on “The Making and Unmaking of an American Ruling Class” (in Alfred F. Young’s edited volume Beyond the American Revolution),  that “North America was much more rural and had no set of men as wealthy as the families that governed England. England had no class of laborers as exploited as the slaves of America. The most affluent 1 percent in England probably controlled over 40 percent of the wealth, and the richest 5 percent owned over 70 percent of the kingdom’s land and personal property. In the colonies the yeomanry – roughly 60 percent of white householders – controlled 70 percent of the land. The wealthiest 5 percent in colonial society claimed only 30 percent. The most distinctive feature of the colonies was the relative economic autonomy of the middling orders. Thus, colonial society had a lower basement and a lower ceiling than England, and it also had far more people crowded into the middle” ( p. 29).

The emphasis on the rural character of colonial America and on land is important. The United States at its inception was an overwhelmingly rural society: 95% of Americans lived in rural areas in 1790, with an average population density of only 4.5 people per square mile, compared to 17.8 people per square mile in 1890 and 70.3 people per square mile in 1990 (1990 Census of Population and Housing, "1990 Population and Housing Unit Counts: United States", (CPH-2, Table2, 4.).  In looking at these numbers, we should recall the the U.S. at the end of the eighteenth century was limited to the relatively densely populated east and did not include the vast reaches that would be added with the Louisiana Purchase or the later Gadsden Purchase. In this spread-out, farming society, the early American version of what would later be called “equal opportunity” was based precisely on the ready availability of land. And it was the quest for land, more than anything else that created economic mobility, as well as geographic mobility.

In his book Dangerous Nation (2006), historian and former State Department official Robert Kagan has observed that for the American colonists of the eighteenth century
The desire for land was not primarily a desire for profit. Some land speculators made fortunes off the lands they bought and sold. But for the vast majority of settlers, the benefits of expansion were of a more spiritual and political nature. Landownership equaled liberty, both in Lockean theory and in practice. Settlement on the ever-expanding frontier offered unprecedented freedom and independence, and a sense of honor, to hundreds of thousands of families who would otherwise have lived a more dependent or oppressed existence in Europe or crowded in the cities on the Atlantic Coast. The endless supply of land meant that no one, except the slave, was condemned to spend a lifetime in the employ of someone else. Men earned wages only until they had enough money to buy land and move away. This was the original “American dream,” one that Abraham Lincoln was still extolling a century later: the opportunity of every white male to abandon a wage earner’s life for the independent life of the landowner (p. 15).
            By examining tax lists from the late 1700s, Jackson T. Main, in his 1974 book Political Parties Before the Constitution, determined that substantial upward mobility characterized early America.  Even in older farm districts, many landless individuals acquired property between the 1760’s and the 1780’s.  In new frontier areas, rates of land acquisition were high.  In the cities, skilled workers could obtain credit and open shops, and relatively high wages enabled even poor workers to move up by learning trades. Most importantly, geographic and horizontal mobility raised chances for vertical mobility. The ever-present opportunity to move on to settle available land held out the possibility of moving out and being on one’s own, out of the power of a patron or employer. It also helped keep the labor market in the east coast cities fluid and contributed to the independence of the relatively small numbers of urban workers by boosting demand for labor and it making it relatively easy for workers to move from one employer to another. This early version of the land of opportunity was based on the opportunity to acquire land.  Understanding this fact is crucial for understanding the westward push first to the center and then to the far west of the continent.

One might plausibly argue, in fact, that this driving hunger for land not only settled what would become the United States with European descendants, but even created the United States as an independent nation.  By the middle of the eighteenth century, settlers from the English American colonies were finding their plots of land by pushing relentlessly into the Ohio Valley, claimed by the French as well as the British. Control of the land so eagerly sought became the key to fortune. Stock companies, such as the Ohio Company, sought to bring together shareholders and obtain title to vast reaches of land. However, settlement brought the Americans, and by extension England, into conflict with the French, so the English government attempted to limit the settlement that was the source of independence, mobility and fortune. The Seven Years War, known in America as the French and Indian War, began when Ohio Company stockholder and Governor of Virginia Robert Dinwiddie sent the youthful Colonel George Washington to place a fort on the Ohio River in order to secure colonial property interests. The clashes between Washington’s forces and the French escalated into a war between France and England. Although it resulted in victory for the English, the need to pay for this long and expensive struggle led England to attempt to extend new forms of taxation to the American colonies, provoking a colonial protest that expanded into a war for independence.

To describe the American Revolution as a struggle for independence is to emphasize “independence,” and not just separation from the original European homeland. Samuel Johnson, one of the most eloquent oponents of the Americans, described himself to James Boswell as “a friend to subordination,”  For Johnson, an ordered society required a hierarchy of dependents and patrons, and to opt out of such a hierarchy was to court anarchy. Indeed, one of the fundamental sources of disagreement and misunderstanding between the British and their troublesome American subjects concerned relationships of subordination. British communications repeatedly emphasized the theme of the subordinate position of the colonies toward the mother country and it was this, more than the mere payment of taxes, that sparked violent responses from recalcitrant colonists. The same quest for land that had led the Americans to start the French and Indian War later also produced a spirit of independence from ranked authority that made it difficult to command them to pay for the war.

I want to emphasize that equality as independence derived from land and from the resulting relatively high degree of control over labor power in towns was different from economic equality. In fact, land ownership was one of the major sources of economic inequality. This was not just because some Americans owned vast tracts while others held small plots. In a mainly agricultural society with continuing immigration driving up the demand for land, landowners could count on steadily rising values.  Speculation in land therefore became one of the earliest routes to wealth before and after the Revolution.  The brilliant, slippery French diplomat Talleyrand, during a period of disfavor in the turbulent years after the Revolution in his own country, took advantage of his refuge in the United States to pile up a tidy sum speculating in American land.

The idea of equality as the independence of landed freemen was central to the agrarian perspective of Thomas Jefferson. Recognizing the importance of land speculation in creating inequality, Jefferson observed that “the greatest Estates we have in this Colony were made … by taking up & purchasing at very low rates the rich back Lands which were thought nothing of in those days, but are now the most valuable lands we possess.” Jefferson saw little contradiction between great estates and equality because he understood equality as the absence of hierarchical dependence. Jefferson’s model of society was one of independent farmers, each working his own land. He believed that Saxon England prior to the Norman Conquest had been based on alodial law, in which land belonged to the person who worked it, and argued that American society should be a return to this old Saxon system

 Jefferson’s social vision makes it clear just how he managed to square social egalitarianism with a belief in the existence of superior individuals. All men were indeed not only created equal, but would live in equal circumstances insofar as none were dependent on others for support or patronage because each controlled his own agrarian base. Some might indeed hold larger tracts, as Jefferson did, But this would not give larger land holders power over smaller holders.

With a basic social and economic equality assured by agrarian independence, the only real ranked inequality would be within a narrow range of political authority. Even Jefferson’s counties would need administrators and judges. One way in which these leaders could be chosen would be through a popular vote. The likely candidates could also be trained and pre-selected over their lifetimes, though, through some program like Jefferson’s 1797 educational scheme for basic education for all (white men) and a competitive pyramid of schooling for political leaders. Such a program would give the independent yeomen the basic learning not only to control their own livelihoods more effectively, but also to recognize and support the special abilities of leaders. Given Jefferson’s concept of a strictly limited government, his “natural aristocracy” would, in theory, pose few problems for the egalitarianism of a social structure existing largely outside the sphere of political power.

Jeffersonian agrarians such as John Taylor of Caroline, emphasized landed property as the means by which each household (of whites, at least) could maintain self-sufficiency. In his massive treatise on the agrarian ideal (1814), Taylor attacked commercial activities as means of drawing off the abundance created by farmers and mechanics and concentrating this in the abundance in the hands of a powerful elite of investors. To modern eyes the Viriginia planters look like a feudal aristocracy and the Hamiltonian merchants and bankers look like  the rising challenge to aristocratic ways. But from the agrarian point of view, it was Alexander Hamilton and his allies who wanted to impose a rank-ordered society along British lines by institutionalizing the commercial means of confiscating the products of the labor of independent landed property owners.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Twin Studies

I note that Cal State Fullerton Psychology Professor Nancy L. Segal has a new book out on twins separated at birth or in early childhood, entitled Born Together, Reared Apart. I have not yet been able to get this book through my university library or local public library, but I’ve put in requests for this latest contribution by an important researcher on the genetic influences on human character and behavior.

 The historical origins of twin studies lie in the work of Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin,  an early pioneer in the study of genetics, and a founder of the controversial theory of eugenics. Galton conducted some of the earliest systematic studies of human twins in the 1870's. He recognized the difficulty of identifying the extent to which human traits are biologically inherited and the extent to which traits are produced by diet, upbringing, education, and other environmental influences. Borrowing a phrase from William Shakespeare, Galton called this the "nature versus nurture" problem, a phrase that has become standard in the social sciences. Galton reasoned that he could attempt to find an answer to this problem by comparing similarities among people who obviously shared a great deal of biological inheritance with each other with similarities among people sharing less biological inheritance. Twins offered the clearest example of people who shared common biological backgrounds.

Galton contacted all of the twins he knew and he asked them to supply him with names of other twins. He obtained 94 sets of twins. Of these, 35 were sets of twins who were very similar, people that we would today call identical twins. These 35 pairs reported that people often had difficulty telling them apart and 9 pairs were so close to one another in appearance that the 18 individuals reported having mistaken their own images in mirrors with their twins.

Using questionnaires and interviews, Galton compared the 35 identical pairs with the other twins. He found that the identical twins were much more similar to one another in habits, interests, and personalities, as well as in appearance. They were even much more alike in physical health and in susceptibility to illness. The one area in which all individuals seemed to differ markedly was in handwriting.

Since Galton's time, researchers have learned how biological inheritance occurs and this has made possible an understanding of why twins are similar. It has also enabled researchers to make more sophisticated use of twins in studies that address various aspects of the "nature versus nurture" problem. Parents pass their physical traits to their children by means of genes in chromosomes. Each chromosome carries two genes for every hereditary trait. One gene comes from the father and one comes from the mother.

Any set of full brothers and sisters will have a good deal of heredity in common, since all of their genes come from the same parents. However, brothers and sisters usually also differ substantially. The cell that develops into a living creature, the zygote, is created when the ovum, or egg, is fertilized by the sperm. Each zygote will combine genes from the father and from the mother in a unique combination, so different zygotes will develop into quite different people. Even when two fertilized eggs are present at the same time, as in the case of dizygotic or fraternal twins, the two will be different combinations of genes from the mother and the father.

Identical twins are an exception to the rule of unique combinations of genes. Identical twins develop from a single zygote, a cell created by one union of egg and sperm. Therefore, monozygotic twins, twins from one zygote, will normally have the same genetic make-up. Differences between genetic twins, researchers argue, must therefore be produced by environmental factors following birth.

The ideal way to conduct twin studies is to take the approach of Segal in this new book and compare monozygotic twins who have been reared apart from one another in vastly different types of families. This is rarely possible because the numbers of twins separated at birth and adopted are quite limited. For this reason, researchers in most twin studies use fraternal twins as a comparison group, since the major difference between monozygotic and dizygotic twins is that the former are genetically identical. Statistical similarities among monozygotic twins that are not found among dizygotic twins are therefore believed to be due to genetic inheritance.

One of the main sources for twin studies is the Minnesota Twin Registry. A second major source of twin studies is the Virginia Twin Registry. This is a register of twins constructed from a systematic review of public birth records in the Commonwealth of Virginia. A few other states also maintain records of twins. Some other organizations, such as the American Association of Retired People (AARP) keep records of twins who volunteer to participate and make these records available to researchers.

Although twin studies are one of the best available means for studying genetic influences on human beings, questions about this approach do exist. Twin studies assume that monozygotic twins are biologically identical, but some critics have claimed that there are reasons to question this assumption. Even though these twins tend to show greater uniformity than other people, developmental differences may emerge even in the womb after the splitting of the zygote.

Twins who show a great physical similarity may also be subject to environmental similarities, so that traits believed to be due to genetics may in fact be a result of upbringing. Some parents, for example, even dress twins in matching clothing. Even when twins grow up in separate homes without being in contact with one another, their appearances and mannerisms may evoke the same kinds of responses from others. Physical attractiveness, height, and other characteristics often affect how individuals are treated by others, so that the biologically based resemblances of twins can lead to common experiences. Critics of twin studies point out that twins constitute a special group of people and that it may be difficult to generalize findings from twin studies to the population at large.

Despite the concerns about twin studies, these have provided evidence that a substantial amount of human character and behavior may be genetically determined. In 1976, psychologists John C. Loehlin and Robert C. Nichols published their analyses of the backgrounds and performances of 850 sets of twins who took the 1962 National Merit Scholarship test. Results showed that identical twins showed greater similarities than fraternal twins in abilities, personalities, opinions, and ambitions. A careful examination of backgrounds indicated that these similarities could not be explained by the close treatment received by identical twins during upbringing.

Later twin studies continued to provide evidence that genes shape many areas of human life. Monozygotic twins tend to resemble each other in probabilities of developing mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and depression, suggesting that these psychological problems are partly genetic in origin. A 1996 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology used a sample from the Minnesota Twin Registry to establish that identical twins are similar in probabilities of divorce. A 1997 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry indicated that there is even a great resemblence between twins in intensity of religious faith. Twin studies have offered evidence that homosexual or heterosexual orientation may be partly a genetic matter.

For my own part, I’ve concluded that much of the variation among individual human beings can be attributed to genetic predispositions, and I see the study of separated twins as the best evidence for this conclusion, which is why I’m eager to obtain Dr. Segal’s new book. Beyond this, though, I’m curious about several other “nature versus nurture” (or “nature interacting with nurture”) questions. One of those concerns just what genetic identity means among highly adaptable human beings. The same individual will react in dramatically different ways to different circumstances, so one of the meanings of “socialization” could be how genetically shaped personalities respond to varying social environments.

One of the biggest issues, opening great possibilities for controversy, is whether significant genetic variation exists at the aggregate or categorical levels, as well as at the individual level. Even twins separated early in life generally grow up within the same cultural and national settings. Even if we could find individual sets of twins reared in different countries or within different racial or ethnic groups, we would not have a large enough number to draw conclusions about the extent to which variations at group levels result from genetic predispositions, shared historical legacies, or environmental influences.