This week, I read Matthew Ridley's book, The Evolution of Everything. The timing was providential. It was exactly the book that I needed to write Part Five of my book, Christian Economics: Teacher's Edition, which I am posting daily here. I have been waiting to find a book like Ridley's for 35 years . . . to refute.
He believes in Darwinian evolution. I mean, he really believes it. He thinks it governs everything. He is also a disciple of Hayek, Mises, and even Ron Paul. So, his account of economics is accurate. His account of genetics is not. He ignores the book that I recommend to anyone who calls himself a Darwinist: David Stove's Darwinian Fairytales (1995). Stove's demolition of the book that Ridley relies on, The Selfish Gene, is one of the most devastating intellectual attacks I have ever read. It is also one of the funniest. What makes it even more devastating is that Stove is a Darwinist with respect to species other than man.
Ridley's book has lots of insights that I never would have thought of. I especially found interesting his chapter on the evolution of personality. It begins with the work of Judith Rich Harris, who is a psychologist at Bell Laboratories. She wrote a book in 1998: The Nurture Assumption. She wrote another one in 2006: No Two Alike. Here is one of her insights, according to Ridley.
Harris's explanation is ingenious and persuasive. She points out that human beings develop certain social systems as they mature--to socialise, to develop relationships and to achieve and recognise status. Socialisation means learning how to fit in with other people of your own age. Children acquire their habits, their accents, their favoured language, and most of their culture from their peers. They spend a lot of time learning to be similar to these peers. In forming relationships, however, they learn to discriminate between different people, adopting different behaviors with different individuals.
And then in their teens they begin to assess their relative status within their peer group. In the case of men, this mostly means working out how tall, strong and domineering you are, and adjusting your ambitions and personality accordingly. there is a fascinating finding in economics that taller men earn more money throughout their careers, but that it is their height at 16, not 30, the best predicts their earnings. The reason for this, as other studies have shown, is that this is when men decide their status, and shape their personalities accordingly. So what employers are rewarding are the attributes of self-confidence and ambition that came partly from being a tall, strong football player at school, rather than the height of the person today. Women tend to decide their status based largely on relative attractiveness, and they judge their attractiveness based on how others seem to judge them. In both sexes therefore, says Harris, there is a tendency to settle some aspects of your personality in the mid-teens, based on how high you think your relative status is amongst your peers. That, she thinks, is the likely cause of the differences in personality that are not directly or indirectly genetic (p. 163).
I don't know if this is unique to the United States, and especially the education system. It may exist in other cultures. But I have little doubt that it does exist here.
What we are at the age of 16 should not have much influence on what we are at the age of 30, but it does. If you are in any way thinking of taking a leadership position, you may have to overcome what you were at 16.
Most people at age 16 have not had major victories. I did, and these were significant in shaping my self-image.
But I did not have a normal high school experience.
I suggest that you sit down with a pencil and a piece of paper and write down your good qualities and bad self-image at the age of 16. Create a T-square. On the left-hand side, write down the positive things that you did at age 16. On the right-hand side, write down the negatives that have afflicted you ever since.
Which influences at the age of 16 are stronger in your life today? My bet is that the negatives overwhelm the positives. You may even have trouble remembering the positives in your life at age 16. Most people at 16 were struggling to figure out who they were and how they fit in. That should have little bearing on how they fit in today, but it does.
If, in retrospect, you find that your self-image at age 16 has afflicted you ever since, that's where you have to start working on a kind of self-confidence recovery project. You should recognize that what you were at 16 should not have much influence over what you are now and how you think of yourself now. You have had a lot of victories since the age of 16.
I don't know if going through this exercise can help you recover from years of self-doubt. Ingrained habits are hard to break. But at least you should be aware of this burden. If you can see that what you were at age 16 should not be central to what you are today, you have a starting point for recovery program. It is a recovery program for lost self-confidence.
My experience confirms the thesis. But for me, 16 was sweet 16. I was 6 feet tall. I had been 6 feet since 13. At 16, I was elected president of the school's scholarship society, and I was then elected president of the regional scholarship society. A few weeks later, I went to Boys State. That established my status in my own mind. I won a statewide office. Ironically, it was the office that today I hate the most: Superintendent of Public Instruction. Today, I am convinced that the office should not exist. Nevertheless, I won that position. That convinced me six months later to run for student body president, which I won. That changed everything in my life.
My self-confidence had been building for a couple of years. I had an after-school job in a record store. I was doing all right there. My grades were good. I was in the junior play at 15. I was gaining self-confidence. But at 16, my personality was put into its final form. I have not fundamentally changed since then in terms of my leadership ability and my speaking ability. Age 16 was the turning point in my life. This was a great advantage for me at the time, and it has remained a great advantage.
I know people who, at age 16, did not have a strong self-image, and they have been afflicted ever since. The sooner anyone can shake this negative self-image, the better.
I recommend that at some point you should take leadership in some area of your life. In some area, you are in a position to exercise leadership. You may not have found this yet, but you are way ahead of the curve in terms of what most of your peers are aware of today. You will be in an even stronger position as the economy becomes less predictable and more threatening to millions of Americans. In a time of crisis, influence and power flow to those who take responsibility. That's why the good guys had better be willing to take responsibility.