Ian McEwan's Saturday

I marked forty-five separate passages in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, an intellectually rich novel about a single day in the life of Henry Perowne, a British neurosurgeon. http://www.ianmcewan.com/bib/books/saturday.html Perowne is a deeply reflective man. He muses, ruminates, broods and wonders about one thing or another--the nature of his discipline, his family the routine chores that occupy his day, and the troublesome times in which he lives during the early years of the 21st century. The changing conditions of the contemporary world are a constant worry, as is the apparent decline of Western values and ideals. McEwan describes “the drift, the white noise of [Perowne’s] solitary thought” and at one point characterizes his state as a “folly of overintrerpretation.”

In turn, I was led to reflect on those same topics as I paused to place my marks in the margin and then to ponder his musings and the extent to which I agreed with them or not. As a result, although it was not a very lengthy novel, it took me forever to read—a pleasure devoutly treasured by this reader. McEwan speculates a good deal about the origins of human behavior and difficulties of identifying them with any precision. Since I have been concerned with those very same issues throughout my professional life, I marked a goodly number where McEwan writes about this issue.

Parental Influence

It’s a commonplace of parenting and modern genetics that parents have little or no influence on the characters of their children. You never know who you are going to get. Opportunities, health, prospects, accent, table manners—these might lie within your power to shape.

We hear much doubt expressed today about the direct impact of parents on their children's personality and adult behavior, indeed, whether or not they matter at all or matter as much as their peers. It is said, for example, that parental influence on their children has been overestimated. Studies of identical twins (reared apart or together) are cited to show that genetic factors control about a half of a person's intellect and personality. Other studies of fatherless children are said to be consistent with this evidence. Rearing a child without an adult male in the household appears to have very little particular impact on children. Instead, factors associated with income, frequency of moving, and peer relationships are said to matter more.

My own feeling is that these claims say less about the influence of parents on their children and far more about the methods used to obtain the evidence, especially the methods used to assess adult behavior and personality. Frankly, I do not believe these methods tap the important dimensions of human personality and intellectual ability. Nor do I think the findings have a very high degree of generality

I also believe whatever influence parents have on their children is not likely to be very specific. Instead, their influence has much more to do with very general personality and character dimensions rather than specific behaviors, table manners included. We learn from our parents very general aspects of character and motivation. We learn to value learning, not any particular discipline. We see what it means to be generous and helpful, not any particular instance of these acts. In short, our parents provide exemplars for those deeper aspects of human character and feeling that find are expressed in the sort of person we become.


Scientific Truth

In Saturday and elsewhere McEwan has expressed his optimism about the ability of science to unravel the mysteries of the brain and the truth about consciousness. There are several passages in Saturday that deal with general matters of scientific inquiry and method. I was especially struck by this succinct remark.

…statistical probabilities are not the same as truths.

This claim is at the heart of the disenchantment I began to experience with psychology. Psychologists seek to establish very general laws of human thought and action. Yet I never understood how evidence derived by averaging the scores of a group of individuals could serve as the foundation for a science of individual behavior. Laws based on aggregate data tell us very little about specific individuals and serve only to obscure crucial features of human variability and uniqueness. Further, the many exceptions to these laws severely limits their generality. So, it is impossible to say with assurance that they hold for a particular individual at a particular time and place.

This conclusion is not unlike one often voiced in judicial proceedings where the legal standing of psychological research is called into question. Legal cases are decided on an individual basis and so, even when the weight of evidence clearly supports the relevant social science generalization, the courts still require "proof" that it applies in the case being adjudicated. When judges ask psychologists to link the general principle to the specific case, it is difficult, if not impossible for them to do so with certainty. But that is what the law requires. Psychologists can provide relevant case knowledge and guidance, but the information they present is rarely, if ever, decisive in judicial decision-making.

Similarly, I know enough about psychology to be wary of psychological generalizations and the statistical methods used to analyze “supporting” data. You can never be entirely confident about the applicability of evidence derived from this approach. I have come to believe that psychology will always have to be content with this sort of limitation. Laws based on group means hold for some people, some of the time, but one never can be sure on any given occasion if they apply to a particular individual in the situation at hand.