Saturday, August 16, 2008

Personality Crissakes*

*simultaneously posted on Blog for Cranial Gunk.

My wife and I have this game we play. Actually, it's a game I play. My wife participates by default. In fact, sometimes she doesn't even know she's playing!

It's a game I learned from my parents, who I suspect learned it from theirs, who probably learned it from theirs, and so on, and so on. It's called: Just like your father! (or mother depending who goes first and under what circumstances)

I like to say my boys are tenacious like me but they are stubborn like their mother. They are detail oriented like me but obsessive compulsive like their mother. I say this jokingly but underneath the humor are questions regarding the origin of their behavior. While some of it might be mimicry of my wife and/or me, I am hesitant to say that it is the sole explanation. Their penchant for certain tasks and their distaste for others is not something my wife or I have taught them.

In Child Development courses, you are told there are two primary schools of thought regarding children's behaviors and personalities: Nature v. Nurture. The former asserts that genetics is the primary factor in determining how a child reacts to a given situation. The latter favors environment; a child reacts based on how it was taught to respond and/or how it learned to respond from past experience with similar conditions.

For the most part, modern psychology has determined that nature and nurture are intricately intertwined in influencing how a child responds to different stimuli. According to Wikipedia, psychologist Donald Hebb said, regarding nature's vs. nurture's influence on personality: "which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?"

But where's the fun in that?

While I agree with Hebb, the notion of inherited response is too mysterious to ignore. It is easy for me to accept the physical attributes of my children being genetically determined. I have accepted that my youngest looks like my oldest when he was his age. I have accepted that my eldest has my wife's hands, long delicate fingers, where my youngest has my hands, indistinguishable. But how do I explain my eldest's preference for solitary activity just like me? My youngest finds energy in interaction with others just like my wife. How?

It is a stretch of the imagination for me to accept personality as a genetic trait. It seems too simple. imagine being deprived of everything that makes you unique - an individual. We like to think our children are "just like us," but we don't mean it. No matter how much our children resemble us or share the same physical ticks, they are only facsimiles. There is "them" and there is "us." Each an individual despite current thought on DNA.

Acceptance seems bleak to me. Acceptance means the child of alcoholics is doomed to be an alcoholic. The baby of a Crack-addicted mother will grow up to be a junky. And that's only the extreme addictions! How about the one's that go unnoticed or are tolerated? Obsessions and phobias? My mother is a "germphobe," properly: Misophobia. Is that my fate? Hand sanitizers by the gallon and wet wipes? Or worse does it skip a generation? Will my boys be so phobic that they'll live in plastic bubbles - willingly?

Science A Go Go presents personality - "the vast biological hotchpotch of emotions and behaviors that organisms exhibit" - as a result of natural selection in the animal world. Natural Selection: the process by which favorable heritable traits become more common in successive generations. Heritability being "the extent to which genetic individual differences contribute to individual differences in observed behavior."

The consequences of these statements are dire. They condemn my children to walk the footprints I've left in my journey to me-here-today. Not that I am complaining about me-here-today but there were parts of the trip I pray my children skip. They were particularly unpleasant and some even painful today despite the time.

The Science A Go Go article tells of guppies who reproduce earlier and more often than other fish as an adaptive evolutionary tactic for survival. It's a Catch-22, however. In reproduction, they are slower and more easily targeted by predators. It is similar for a spider that is so predatory that it hunts its own males, hindering the chances for advancement of the species. It takes two to tango (if you know what I mean).

The article also says recent research suggests that "barring other secondary environmental factors... personalities are determined by genetics, and that personalities can and do evolve through natural selection." The article points to naturalist, Stephen Jay Gould, who believed that maladaptive behavior could be offset by positive behavior (ie. a negative personality trait could be canceled by a positive one). So there is hope for my boys, right?

The journey to me-here-today was not always pleasant but the experiences greatly influenced my personality in positive ways (at least I think so); I like to think I approach people with an open mind, avoid snap judgements and select my words carefully knowing that what I say can hurt others. So there is a chance my children make the "right" adaptive choices and excel beyond anything I can do or provide.

In speaking about genetics and its influence on personality, I am constantly astounded watching my sons interact with each other and the world around them. Just like my parents attempted to create an environment where I would develop and excel personally and professionally, I believe I have done the same for my boys. They are a little bit me and a little bit my wife. We are strong where we are similar in traits and we are stronger where our differences compensate for our shortcomings.

1 comment:

Mama Nabi said...

I remember staying awake thinking about these things - not only do I have my own bad personality traits that I don't wish to pass on, don't get me started on my own parents and add to the mix my ex-in-laws AND ex-husband. I thought my LN was doomed! (Hahaha... no, really.)
I even talked to my favorite geneticist at my work about this - and having him tell me that there's only so much that genes can do to influence the final outcome, i.e. need to consider nurture factor, was helpful. Still, though. :-) Ah, the things we parents worry about.