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In her soon-to-be-published book, The Nurture Assumption, Judy Harris argues that parents' contribution to what will be their children's adult personality, interests, and attitudes, is substantially completed when sperm meets egg. The experiences that will interact with the genome to determine that child's adult future occur mainly outside the home, with the peer group. One reason young adults feel slightly uncomfortable going home at Thanksgiving, Harris suggests, is that as children they learned one way of behaving at home and another way outside with their peers and it was the latter suite of habits and values that developed into their adult personas. Back home for a visit, they find themselves again wearing the parent-approved personality, a disguise they had discarded as children whenever they left the house and which they had thought was gone forever when they reached adulthood. This radical doctrine (to which I cannot do justice here, of course) dumps much of developmental psychology into the recycle bin and it is bound to dismay all parents except those whose children haven't turned out very well.

Yet Harris's arguments are so cogent and compelling that I, for one, have been forced to reassess. She says, in effect, that if we plotted the success of children's socialization on the Y-axis, and the skill of the parents on the X-axis, then the function relating the two variables would be a horizontal line. Harris has convinced me that the curve really is flat(that parents really are fungible(in the broad middle range between, say, the 10 percent and the 90 percent points on the X-axis distribution of parental competence. (Harris points out that this 80 percent approval rating is better than Clinton's!) But I think (although I cannot prove) that the curve rises on the far right, that there are some super-parents who really do make a lasting difference, the parents who succeed in socializing the really difficult children, for example. And I am confident that the bottom ten percent, the immature, abusive, unsocialized, or simply incompetent parents (which include a large proportion of the rising tide of impoverished and overburdened single mothers) are responsible for the epidemic of crime and other social pathology that has been accelerating in this country since the 1960s.

In spite of small declines each year since 1993, the rate of violent crime in the U.S. is presently 300 percent higher than it was in 1960. The recent dip is due largely to the fact that there are now 1.3 million Americans in state or federal prisons, compared to about 180,000 in 1965. Because the average inmate will privately admit to some 12 crimes committed in the year prior to his last arrest, imprisoning an extra million men is bound to yield a small but significant decrease in the crime rate. But it is an expensive and an inadequate solution. The place to fight crime is in the cradle. My own proposal would be parental licensure along the lines suggested by child psychiatrist, Jack Westman, in his 1994 book with that title.

Once again, evolutionary psychology and behavior genetics can provide guidance. Traditional societies, in which children are reared much as our ancestors were, experience very little intramural crime. The few outlaws in those communities tend to be people whose innate temperaments made them extraordinarily difficult to socialize, people we would now call psychopaths. We were designed by natural selection to be able to develop a conscience, feelings of empathy and altruism, to become responsible and to carry our share of the load in the group effort for survival. Like our language instinct, these socialization proclivities require to be elicited, shaped, and reinforced beginning in early childhood. In the extended-family milieu of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, with the help of numerous adults and the older children, we can suppose that this process was usually successful. When a modern young couple, inexperienced and untrained, attempt this most demanding of human responsibilities on their own, we can expect the failure rate to be higher. When a single mother, often immature and poorly socialized herself and usually in straightened circumstances, takes on this responsibility, the failure rate is very high indeed. In the U.S., more than two-thirds of(incarcerated delinquents, teenage mothers, high school dropouts, teenage runaways, juvenile murderers(were reared without fathers.

Evolutionary psychology does not tell us that crime is biologically determined but, rather, the opposite. Behavior geneticists have never located any "crime genes" although they have identified heritable traits of temperament that make some children hard to socialize. Regarding this greatest social problem of our time, these two lines of research dictate a message, not of fatalism, but of hope. Those 1.3 million men now languishing in American prisons began as innocent babes, some of them difficult, most of them average, almost all of whom could have been fashioned into taxpaying citizens, friends, and neighbors, had they been luckier in the circumstances of their growing up.

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