Steven PInker is a well known Harvard Psychologist that has written a number of interesting books for the lay person. One of these books, “The Blank Slate” influenced my views of people’s environment and inherited traits many years ago. I was listening to a podcast with him, and he got me thinking about about this again.
In the podcast, PInker called out that he considers one of the major achievements of modern psychology is the tracking of identical twins (or monozygotic). He said the rearing of identical twins by the same parents are “one of the most profound discoveries of modern psychology.” (Start at 32 minutes on this podcast linked here.)
Think about these twins. Twin is where a split of the mother and father’s genetic material that is virtually identical between two people. Now, place this genetic material into the same household, and I think anybody could understand that the major outside influences will be similar. I have known some twins in my life time, and while it is conceivable that the twins could be treated differently, my non-scientific, but rational response is that most parents will treat their child virtually identical.
Now ask, “how similar are these kids?”
It turns out that by most observations, the identical twins are somewhere around 50% the same. This is an interesting factoid, because there is so much the same, but both the environment and the genetics can only contribute for roughly 50% of the variance.
Let me unpack this for you, because Pinker rightly calls out that this is a mind blowing fact.
IQ is just one trait, but easy to understand. Most people focus on the fact that identical twins are more related in IQs, even when raised in different households, than fraternal twins that are raised in the same household. But this chart shows a very interesting output. When you move identical twins into the same household, they do not converge at 100%. Mind you, a correlation of .86 is just outstandingly high. No doubt about it. But when two kids are raised in the exact same environment, you would expect the correlation to be .9x.
Now IQ is the simplest thing to correlate, and when Pinker takes a look at many other factors, he arrives that when identical twins are reared together that we actually see overall a .5 correlation in their overall attributes. He rightly brings up in the podcast that this is surprising.
There has been a classic war between the “good or bad seed” mindset and the “the mind is a blank slate” mindset. The good or bad seed (GOBS) mindset will declare that somebody is bad because their parents are bad. They will say that somebody is good because “they got lucky and inherited some good genes.” I look at my own parents, and by in large, they had a tendency to believe that people maybe were a bit more genetically wired than they were environmentally wired. (However, they acknowledged both.) Generally, these people tend to be more right leaning in their politics. They believe that the poor people are going to be poor due to the way that they are wired. These are the folks that believe that spending more an more money on social programs don’t have a lot of benefit because you can’t change human nature.
The mind is a blank slate (MIABS) believe that all difference in the society (or the vast majority of the difference) is driven by the environment in which somebody was raised. In their viewpoint, if we would invest in more training, schooling and social justice systems, we would raise the bottom up, and they would be just as successful as the top. For them, we are wasting vast human resources because we don’t understand that environments are the thing that cause people to be split into different social strata.
So now look at identical twins raised in the same household:
1. Their genetics are virtually identical
2. Their environment is extremely similar.
The “dividing line” of both of these major factors only contributes around 50% to the similarities. So what makes up the difference?
Pinker suggests two things:
a. Perhaps DNA gene expression is slightly different.
b. Random chance
To make a long story short, it is beyond obvious to me that “b” is the predominate answer. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written on this to great extent. If you take a look at the research in behavior economics, you will find that we are almost blind to chance. We always want to assume that everything is predictable and comes from somewhere. However, the twin data would suggest that maybe around 50% of our life is dictated by the “luck of the draw” as much as the environment or genetics that we have received.
I got to see this first hand. In my previous employment there was a set of identical twins. I remember that I met one of them, and then I saw the other one on the stairs. At the time, I did not know they were identical, and for the life of me, I could not figure out how the woman that I had met one day some how grew out her hair on another day. Was it a wig? Was I going crazy? Then somebody told me that I had seen her twin.
Both of them were successful, and they spoke the same and had extremely similar habits. They both worked in the same business. However, one of them was a director level, and the other one wasn’t a director level. I don’t believe that I saw any major difference between them, and they were raised in the same household. They worked at the exact same company, so they saw the same environment at work. Yet, they did not have the same level of title or pay. This speaks to something other than genetics or environment drove the difference in titles.
To me the answer is extremely simple. One got presented an opportunity and the other did not. In other words, one “got lucky.”
My wife and I have a great romance. After 30 years of marriage, we truly and deeply love each other. However, there would have been a thousand ways that I could have missed my wife. She could have gotten a scholarship to Oregon to run. I could have elected to stay in drama rather than join track and cross country. She may have never turned up at my dorm room after I indicated that I was interested in her because of something I had said. There are thousands of students at my college that I never got to know. However, by chance, we met.
As another example, I have turned out to do pretty well financially. While I would love to say, “Hey, I earned this,” in reality, I also got extremely lucky. After one turbulent session of my life, I just happened to fall into a place where I got some stock, then I was fortunately enough that I was so busy that I really didn’t think about it until it had gotten to a pretty high number.
Or in my latest example, I was forced to move, and I ended up inn the Silicon Valley. We found a house that had not sold for roughly two years, but by sheer chance. Then we were able to rent out a couple of dwelling on our property, which now covers roughly 60% of our mortgage, property tax, and property insurance. I think that if I had gone off and expressly looked for a situation exactly like this, I would have not been able to find it. It was by random chance that my wife and I accomplished it.
Or was it?
As a Christian, there is yet one more way of thinking about things, and the thing that we need to think through is it “random chance” or “divine providence.” Once we start to understand that there is a true and powerful aspect of a control factor in our life that is not our genetics or our environment, we now need to consider if we believe in a personal God. If we don’t, the uncontrolled is call chance. If do, then we commit an error by saying that we got lucky. The word of the day is divine providence. This is the idea that God works through everything and controls our environment.
This idea is firmly rooted in the Bible, but while we know that God works the environment, it is clearly called out that we are not fatalistic. For example, in the book of Ruth, when Ruth finds herself in a position where she may influence the King to save her people, but she is afraid to make the request, her Uncle clearly understands that she may have well been placed there. “And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” states her Uncle. (Ruth 4:12)
Sometimes we want to want to say “well I’m influencing God by my being good or bad.” I think that Jesus answers this when somebody tried to find out why people got into trouble. He sites a disaster where 18 people were killed in a building collapse. He says, “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty?…I tell you, no!” (Luke 13:4-5)
So, as a Christian, we are to understand that there are things beyond our control, and that it is the environment that is controlled by God that influences maybe around 50% of our outcome and life. We now understand that it is not our actions that control what happens to us, but God’s purpose for us. However, I think we have a grave area if we stop here.
There are two important things that we will fall into if we do not understand the scriptures:
a. We are fatalistic: we cannot influence anything
b. We ascribe our being “good or bad” to the reason God works in our environment
As I mentioned earlier, Christianity is not fatalistic. It does not think “God is going to do anything God is going to do. So all I need to do it watch.” On the other hand, we are told that God takes care of those that love him, but we have many stories and direct teaching that trying to be good does not guaranty that we will be financially taken care of, and we won’t have any problems.
The key behind Christianity is that we have a personal God.
This personal God can be influenced by prayer and asking.
Now, let’s be clear, the Lord isn’t big on giving you what you don’t need. However, he is very open to doing remarkable things in your life if you ask for the right things in the right way. Then if you get what you asked for, you need to receive it and use it, in the right way. The key is to completely understand that God is not a piggybank or an ATM. Our personal God is likened to a parent.
Let’s say that you ask the Lord for more salary or a better living situation. Then, by some miracle, you get these things. If you do better, and you aren’t paying tithes on this increase, I think you will have a problem on either a spiritual level or maybe even a physical level. I am not suggesting that you take all of your wealth and give it away. I am simply saying that there are simply things that we are called to do as Christians that we need to show some discipline and knowledge.
This is an old fashioned concept that it called stewardship that I am afraid that we have forgotten as a church body. I was recently reminded of this as I was flipping through some old TED talks, and a session from Rick Warren was brought up from 2007. When I watched it, I actually started to tear up a bit.
In this TED talk, Warren describes writing the Purpose Driven Life. He said that it has sold millions upon millions of copies of this book, and after he wrote it, the money started flowing in. He said that he did the following:
a. He calculated all the salary that he had pulled from the Church that he had started, and paid it all back.
b. He started to give away 90% of his profits from the book
c. He and his family lived on 10% of the profits from the book
He said that he was not shying away from the fame that came with the book. He said that both the money and fame was something that God gave him, and the call is that he was going to try and use both for God’s glory. He called out that he was going to be a steward of this wealth, and he would use the wealth and fame to try and glorify God.
My wife and I were privileged to go to Saddleback, the church that Warren started, while we were in SoCal. While I have read many vicious attacks by both religious people and secular people on Warren, this is not the Rick Warren that I ever saw. While we did not know him personally, he would sneak out during the service once in a while and give people hugs. My daughter and son got a dose of hugs from him.
Talk about somebody that is ready to show his warts. He was incredibly transparent about the grief in his life when his son died. His wife and him open chat about how they struggled to not get divorce, and how he had to pay to marital counseling because they couldn’t get along. Kay open admits that she struggled with porn at a young age.
I am sure that some reporter will publish a future expose finding out even worse stuff. Maybe Rick was cruel to a staff member, not thoughtful about a situation, or made a bad judgement. However, in the big scheme of things, I do not expect to find a saint on this earth. He and his wife are open about their failings but keen on trying to be the best stewards with what they have. I keep love and respect the Warrens from what I have seen.
In the end, we need to learn that we should not be shy to ask for stuff, but recognize that we are called to be stewards of what we have. We are not going to be perfect, but we need to strive and ask for help.
Our life is not environment, genetics or fatalistic. Our lives require us to balance the whole, and do the best we can, while understanding that we are not perfect.
And if we do this, we will feel God’s pleasure.