False Beliefs, Fables, and Facts

Language carries our wisdom but it also carries old thinking. We carry it around and we pull it out at times without giving it a second thought. What does it mean when you say let’s watch the sun set? What goes through your mind when you notice the earth’s rotation? How difficult is it to say Auf Wiedersehen to the sun as the earth rotates away and our day turns into night? We use phrases that originate from misguided thoughts expressing beliefs long proven wrong. These thoughts are deeply ingrained in our language and this prevents us from acknowledging new found evidence. 

In a recent NPR radio piece titled The science of siblings and their unusual shared quirks, Ari Daniel, a freelance contributor to NPR’s Science desk, centers a five-minute story around two siblings. A sister and her older brother, who are using their feet to pick up crayons from the floor. I’m able to use my toes this way and so I’m listening to this story. 

The journalist ‘introduces’ us to Nancy L. Segal, a psychologist at California State University in Fullerton. * She “spent her career” studying twins regarding the influence of genes on our personality. The journalist refers to the psychologist saying “the environment plays a role, but she thinks it’s our genes that are often behind what makes each of us an individual, quirks and all.” Wherever you are on the spectrum of “we’re born this way” to “we grow up to become this way”, nature vs. nurture is still open for discussion. So, I keep listening.

I’m not sure what the agility of my toes says about my personality. I have no idea which of my genes affect which of my habits. And I wonder, what is the point of this story about siblings picking up crayons under the table while having lunch at a restaurant? The journalist makes his point in his last sentence. He chooses to ramp up his aimless story about genes and habits by pulling a rabbit out of his 19th century hat. He concludes that the playful competition between siblings shows that “even amongst these shared sibling idiosyncrasies, it can still be survival of the fittest.” 

What? Where did that come from? None of the mentioned case studies was about survival. The journalist uses Segal’s findings – that some genes express themselves in one family member but not in the other –  to ram his belief into our heads. Do I detect glee in his expression?

Maybe you think, I’m over-reacting. Maybe, you argue, he didn’t think that far. [Exactly my point!] But maybe he knew exactly what he was saying. All things considered, he sounds relieved that he can boil down human interaction, even between family members, to a struggle for survival. Do I detect glee in his expression?

I object. Did this journalist never hear of humans as interdependent, cooperative, and communal creatures? Why is he regurgitating an outworn theory that claims our survival depends on competition and the exploitation of the earth? It is this view of ourselves that got us into trouble. It is this view that promotes self-serving humans who cling to the belief that we are nothing more than egocentric carnivores, “self-maximizing mammals”, as Ruha Benjamin labeled the “homo economicus” in her latest work, Imagination, a Manifesto

As a sociologist I can’t help myself. I have to tell you, in case you didn’t know, that the expression ‘survival of the fittest’ is often wrongly attributed to Charles Darwin. It was Herbert Spencer who introduced this term in The Principles of Biology and used it synonymous with ‘natural selection.’ After twenty years of meticulous research Charles Darwin offers his treasure trove of collected data On the Origin of Species. What he labeled ‘natural selection’ leads to ‘biological diversity’ and my conclusion is that evolution happens as nature plays with variety. No plan, only play. 

Darwin observed nature not human society yet the scientists of his days made it all about humanity. Social Darwinism. An ill-advised jump to conclusions. From here it was not far to manipulating our thinking into having the right to ‘human selection’ in pursuit of a uniform society. Thus ‘survival of the fittest’ serves to justify imperialism and conquest, social injustice and oppression. This makes me sick to my stomach. 

You can believe in chance or a divine plan, in fate or in destiny. No matter what you believe, but social Darwinism has outlived its days. In Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea – Evolution and the Meaning of Life, the philosopher has described the idea that the successful deserve their success while those who fail deserve their failure, as “an odious misapplication of Darwinian thinking in defense of political doctrines that range from callous to heinous.”

All things considered; I wonder what the psychologist thinks about the five minutes the journalist spent on a question she spent her career trying to find answers to. Not that the journalist mentions this, but Nancy L. Segal has published nearly a dozen books between 1997 and 2023. One of them appeared in 2017: Twin Mythconceptions: False Beliefs, Fables, and Facts about Twins.

Language is an important part of being human. The use of language as a tool opens new horizons but, like any tool, it can also be misused. As a book coach I support my clients to express their ideas and ideals in the appropriate language.

* Dr. Nancy L. Segal, a twin herself, is a Professor of Developmental Psychology at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), and the Director of the Twin Studies Center which she founded in 1991. 

featured picture: Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial photographed May 24, 2015

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