The Dark Ages of Temperament

The most basic assumption in all theories of temperament is that temperament is inherent in our DNA.  Unfortunately for this idea, we mostly didn’t know we had DNA until  Watson and Crick laid the story out for us in 1953.  Today we accept the idea that height and hair color and many other physical characteristics are genetic, but there is still a squeamish feeling that nothing should be controlling our needs, wants, and wishes but our moment to moment self–however hard it is to define what that self is and where that self dwells.

In 2002 Steven Pinker published the finest defense of inherited temperament that has been written, in his book The blank slate:  The Modern Denial of Human Nature. What is important to note in this title is the concept that it is a “modern denial”.  As I noted in my blogs of June 15th and June 21st , the idea of  inborn temperament was undoubtedly a near universal assumption, even in the days of our cave-man ancestors. Going back to the Greeks and Romans, there were formal temperament models over 2,000 years ago.

Among philosophers, the counter argument  that we are all born a ‘blank slate’ and shaped entirely by society, the church, parents, etc.  has also been around for a very long time, but not as a common, everyday belief.  Although there have always been assumptions  that behavior can be shaped by appropriate rewards and punishments, as in the biblical precept “Spare the rod and spoil the child”, this is not the same as a belief that underlying personality is permanently altered by actions of the family and/or of society.  The development of this idea required the combined efforts of 20th century psychologists, psychiatrists and child development experts. These wunderkinds did not necessarily agree with one another on the specific processes of child molding but they surely agreed that the important force that shaped human personality was nurture, not nature.  Sigmund Freud would have given some room for innate drives, while behavioral psychologists in the tradition of Pavlov often gave no ground to nature.  It really didn’t matter;  the idea grew beyond all bounds and became a part of all Western Society.  Ask yourself if you never explain (at least to yourself) one or another shortcoming with the the words “well, my mother was so….” or my dad never seemed to …”.

But why?  How did an almost revolutionary idea sweep away the everyday beliefs of the past thousands of years, invading every home in America, Europe and points beyond?    Like many massive changes it was multiply determined by many different forces.  I would suspect that an early one was the nature of Sigmund Freud’s theories.  They were complex, thus challenging to intellectuals of the time, and they were explicitly sexual, and thus a new direction for a society in which sex was not an open topic.  It became fashionable, early on, for what might be called the cultural elite, to go into analysis, sometimes interminably.  Ideas quickly spread from the more serious journals to the popular press.  Behavioral psychologists, meanwhile were demonstrating that rats, dogs, pigeons and other creatures could be taught to do many things, could learn new fears and (later) could even acquire “learned helplessness”.  This was soon carried forward to human children, giving us the classic case of “Little Albert”, a baby who was conditioned to fear white rats and ultimately to scream at the appearance of anything white and fuzzy.  Over the years these ideas have been blended and niceified (my word for taking the indigestible parts out), culminating in the concept of “Attachment Parenting”  where all emphasis is on building a very strong positive child-parent attachment with emphasis on a series of important B strategies, including Bonding, BottleFeeding, BedSharing and BabyWearing with little or no discipline seen as needed.

To so radically change our views of child rearing, personality development, and human nature itself, there had to be some great advantages in this new and widely shared concept.  And there were.  For the first time we could rattle off dozens of good reasons for all our faults and failings.  For the most part, these were all due to poor behavior on the part of moms and dads.  Since we never entirely lose that parental voice in our heads when we fall short somewhere,  there was enormous gratification available.

More broadly, there was a general message of freedom and redemption in all of this.  We could get to the root of our problems, confront our subconscious thoughts and be whole and new.  This message held, not only for individuals but for society itself.  With the right environment, man was perfectible and thus, society was perfectible.  Particularly in the middle of the 20th century this had strong political resonance.  The genetic theories of Nazi Germany, the concept of an Aryan super race and the horrifying experiments carried out by the Nazis, all produced an intense revulsion toward any ideas of innateness.  To those interested in the ideas of Marx and Lenin, on the other hand,  the Blank Slate and its environmental determination were profoundly attractive.

Last but not least are two related concepts–the tipping point, and the zeitgeist.  A tipping point, of course is that time when events come together to sweep away everything in their path.  Zeitgeist translates literally as the ‘spirit of the times’. It may, at times, be the end result of a tipping point.  In this case we came to a point where every intelligent and educated person knew that optimal parenting and optimal environments were critical to raising your blank slate to be a happy and mentally healthy child.  If you disagreed, well how smart were you, and where did you go to school?

But what if that ain’t necessarily so?  Coming next week!

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