Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/What is racism?

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Question 22

Are inhibitions and personality traits inherited, or do they merely consist of habits acquired after birth? Most parents notice that their children seem to be born with distinctive personalities, which sometimes bear uncanny similarities to relatives. Tony’s lack of inhibitions was striking. He didn't fear strangers, and I never saw him act shy or embarrassed. Tony also lacked all fear of heights. I had rather expected Tony to resemble his older brother. Guy was also a little slow to mature. Our only child to suffer serious illness, Guy was born with pyloric stenosis, an obstruction between the stomach and the intestines. Ike and I were terrified when our first-born had to undergo surgery at the age of two weeks, but he quickly recovered, reinforcing our faith that modern medicine could fix anything. Guy didn't talk until he was three. His first words were, “Was ist los?” (What's the matter?), which he would cry when he wanted out of his crib, repeating what Frau Bleicher, our German housekeeper, would say to him. Guy was slow to learn to play with other children and to acquire social skills. Before he started kindergarten, I attempted to teach him a little about numbers and the alphabet. He tried, but obviously wasn't yet capable of such learning. However by the first grade he seemed more average. While he didn't lack all ability to imitate people, as Tony did, Guy had less of that talent than most children. A quiet little boy when not asking questions, he was inclined to daydreaming and absent mindedness. He was often preoccupied with the significance of prehistoric men, molecules and infinity. Once when he was about six, he had a disagreement with a neighbor boy and wrote him an angry letter:

Dear Elmer, You are a pithecanthropus. Love, Guy. (He wrote thank-you letters for gifts from relatives and knew they were all supposed to end with "love, Guy.")

"I'll bet that'll make him mad," Guy said, "'Cause he won't know what a pithecanthropus is."

Nothing upset Guy more than not understanding the meaning of something. Like Tony, he was independent, and announced at a young age that he was now too old for all that hugging-and-kissing stuff. I sympathized. I also felt dismayed when friends or acquaintances greet me by grabbing me and making smacking noises near my ear. A wet kiss would be even worse. Guy considered fairy tales and children's fiction a hoax, and preferred to read science books. When I first took Tony to the pediatrician, and got the impression doctors suspected high intelligence, Guy was in the third grade. He finished reading his first set of children's encyclopedias and requested a more advanced set. He was obviously bright, and I actually worried that I’d be presented with some difficult decision such as whether he should skip a grade in school. To my chagrin, Guy's school problems turned out to be quite different. He had to struggle to learn some things other children pick up effortlessly. He began coming home from school crying, not sure himself why he was unhappy. Our attempts to discover the cause of his misery often ended in a discussion of arithmetic.

"Arithmetic wouldn't be so bad if sometimes four and four could be seven and sometimes it could be nine. But it's always eight." he protested. "And the next day it's still eight. I hate it!"

"But Honey, you had no trouble with arithmetic in the first and second grades," I said.

"I did it with my fingers." he confessed morosely. "This year I don't have enough fingers."

Memorization wasn’t one of his greatest talents. His mysterious unhappiness vanished the moment school was out for the summer. When school started in the fall, Guy admired his fourth-grade teacher, a man, and he enjoyed school again. However Guy puzzled the teacher, and at our end-of-term conference he said,

“This kid has me baffled. He's smart, attentive and interested - but he doesn't do especially well. He's peculiar . . .Well, I don't actually mean peculiar,” the teacher apologized, as he noticed me cringe to hear another of my children called peculiar. “He's a terrific little boy, but he's Just, I don't know...Just doesn’t do as well as he should. . .”

The school provided funds for a special project for the “more able learners” in the class. They made rockets. The teacher invited Guy to participate even though his learning ability obviously wasn’t exceptional. Guy enjoyed the rocket project, but it didn't turn him into a “more able learner”. The teacher also asked the class to write a composition describing a personal problem, and what the student had done to resolve it. Guy's compositions were always concise, and this one consisted of a single sentence: "My personal problems are my own personal business."

Guy's attitude probably reflected my dislike of therapy, which was well discussed at our dinner table. However I was privately pleased that Guy felt responsible for his personal problems. Maybe he wouldn't run to a psychologist looking for someone to blame for his troubles when he grew up. Guy's fourth-grade teacher was concerned his grades might not be good enough for college. I never worried though. He was consumed by curiosity.

"I think it was a big 'splosion, myself," he might say.

"What was a big explosion?"

"The beginning of the universe. Cause there sure had to be a lot of heat to produce all that 'tomic energy," he would decide.

"Well I guess there are two theories--"

"I know what all the symbols stand for, but I wonder what the whole thing really means?"

"What symbols?"

"E equals M,C squared. Mommy, yesterday the teacher said light always travels in a straight line. I raised my hand 'cause I wanted to ask about Einstein saying it travels in a curve. The bell rang though, and I didn't get a chance."

Too bad the bell rang just then. It might have been interesting to know how fourth-grade teachers answer such a question.

Guy used to insist he was incapable of memorizing anything. The Boy Scout oath was his first success and required weeks of effort. He is grown now and has apparently acquired an adequate memory. Happily married to a Russian wife, he has learned to speak that language so fluently they speak it at home. Recently he remarked that I taught him algebra when he was a child. I didn't remember doing such a thing.

"Well I guess you didn't actually teach it to me," he agreed. "You just showed it to me, and it made sense."

Although Guy hadn’t talked much until he was three, the label of autism wasn't yet common, and it would never have occurred to me to consult a doctor about his development. Today he gets along with people just fine; he is unselfish, kind and considerate. Becoming a physics professor, he had to learn to communicate. Actually, it seems to me that he has acquired quite a charming talent for social conversation. Like the rest of the family, he is concerned with philosophical questions and committed to pondering the difference between right and wrong. He is beloved by his family and well-liked by his students and colleagues. As far as I can judge, his life has been a spectacular success. When he was about nine, he once declared,

"Even if I can't learn the multiplication tables, I'm still glad I'm me!"

How wonderful if everyone had such an attitude! Like Guy, I have become attached to my talents and am willing to work on my deficits. I admit it would be nice to have a dynamic, extroverted personality, with an ability to entertain people. However I do have abilities, and from what I’ve read, even the most talented among us harbor imperfections. Given a choice, I don't know of anyone other than myself whom I'd rather be. I've tried, but I never really succeeded in overcoming my regret over Tony's retardation. Today Tony is obviously happy and contented, but sometimes I can't help feeling a poignant speculation about the life he might have led if. . if?? . . if he were someone other than Tony? I try to repress such feelings, for while I hope all my children and grandchildren make an effort to overcome their faults, I wouldn't want any of them, including Tony, to waste energy deploring their own unique natures.

From birth, our daughter's personality differed from that of her brothers. An affectionate, outgoing child, she talked early. She loved fairy tales and was people oriented. When she started kindergarten she would rush home every day, eager to share her experiences. One February afternoon she breathlessly related,

"Today, Mommy, the teacher told about a blinkin. This blinkin just roamed through the woods all day, looking for books, 'cause it wanted to read. And when it grew up, Mommy, it became THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA! Or maybe it grew up to be a man. I'm not sure which. Anyway, there's another man. I think his name is George. And George and the blinkin both have birthdays this month."

Once when Sherry was playing house, Guy asked how many children she planned to have when she grew up.

"Three," she answered, "a boy, a girl -- and one like Tony just for fun."

Sherry, with her stepson, Nick, and her husband Michael. Dr. Jampolsky's office was off to the left, behind those yachts. (photo)[1]

Some people have reported feeling embarrassed about a retarded sibling. I don't think Guy and Sherry suffered embarrassment over Tony. He was cute and funny, and pity was one of the last emotions Tony might have evoked when he was small. Feelings of inferiority were obviously something Tony never experienced, and the things he did were startlingly unexpected. In any case, many children learn to cope with problems such as a retarded sibling, without suffering emotional damage. If Tony were less attractive, I hope Guy and Sherry would have profited from learning to deal with such painful feelings at an early age.

  • -*-*

One of my Russian granddaughters was about seven when she arrived in this country. She was a dedicated communist and planned to be a member of the Supreme Soviet when she grew up. She didn’t speak any English when she was admitted to a first-grade class, and our schools had no Russian interpreters. Within a few months she spoke fluent English, and her attitudes had quickly become American. I remember a few years later we were watching ET on television. Government scientists tried to captured ET and take him to their laboratories. Elena exclaimed indignantly,

“The government can’t just do that to someone without their permission! Why I’d haul them into court and sue their socks off!” Surely “suing someone’s socks off” would not be an expected reaction from a member of the Supreme Soviet.

My other Russian granddaughter has lived with a diagnosis of mental illness. I'm not sure of the specific label. She has led a productive life, holding down high-paying positions as a computer programmer. Her achievement is something to be respected. However she blames her mother, my very loving daughter-in-law, for all of her troubles. I suspect most psychiatrists have stopped blaming mothers. However mentally ill people in our culture have spent many hours on couches, obsessing over mother’s maltreatment, and the concept has become imbedded in our culture.

  • -*-*

Some years ago, I attended the christening of a grandchild, Guy's firstborn daughter. “You came all the way from California for the christening,” the Russian priest exclaimed approvingly. Actually I had just learned of the event upon my arrival in Pennsylvania the night before, but I smiled in demure acknowledgment of his praise. Three flags decorated the little Russian Orthodox Church, the flag of Pennsylvania, the American flag, and the flag of the Tsar. The priest was six and a half feet tall and weighed more than two hundred pounds. He wore velvet robes under his embroidered robes and he had a long black beard. There were no chairs in the Russian church; everyone stood. The godmother belonged to another denomination than the church my daughter-in-law attended. Christening ceremonies of both were performed, each seeming endless. The priest and his attendants circled the room, swinging a smoking bronze incense burner and chanting in Russian. Finally they returned to the altar, and the priest began painting crosses on each of the baby's tiny toes with a little watercolor brush dipped in holy water.

"What's he doing?" I whispered to my son.

"He's exorcizing demons and rebellious thoughts," Guy whispered back.

Just one moment, I was tempted to protest as an indignant grandmother. What's wrong with a few rebellious thoughts? The priest had probably been in this country since the Russian revolution, but some of his attitudes had remained Russian. Our society once valued obedience more highly. Wives obeyed husbands, children obeyed parents and teachers, students accepted academic authorities without challenge, and memorization was stressed in school. Citizens obeyed their rulers, and no one questioned the dominant religion. When heads of government wanted war, everyone obediently fought. I'll admit that an obedient society might function more smoothly, but where is it written that "smooth" is supposed to be the purpose of Man's existence? Many people seem to feel a life of blissful contentment should be our goal. I'm not so sure. Most of us find a way to avoid such bliss. Boredom seems an aspect of our natures, a stimulus that provokes us into abandoning contentment in a search for challenge.

Guy and the godmother at Eva's christening (photo)[2]

The priest finished painting crosses on each of Eve's toes. Then he picked her up and dunked her three times in the pot of holy water. Eve exploded into a violent bundle of screaming rage. I relaxed. Any granddaughter of mine would surely always be capable of a few rebellious thoughts, I decided. In fact, by the time she was sixteen, Eve was a full-blown rebel -- a vegan with green hair, tattooed and wearing a ring in her lip, an animal rights activist, a circus trapeze performer and a self-proclaimed anarchist. (Actually, rebellious appearing teenagers might not even be nonconformists. Like members of unusual religious sects, they may merely be conforming to a different set of attitudes.) But whatever Eva turns out to be, I hope she remains confident of her ability to change and grow, while not deploring her basic nature.

I do not believe nonconformists are superior to conformists. Or more intelligent. Perhaps even more intelligence is required for a conformist to reject an obsolete concept, to which they are emotionally committed, than for a nonconformist whose commitment is weaker. I acknowledge that society would be in trouble if everyone were like me. Society probably wouldn't function if everyone were like Einstein. Or Mother Teresa. Variety is essential to our complex, creative culture.

One of my granddaughters has a degree in biophysics and is working on her Ph.D. But I also have a grandson who became addicted to drugs for many years, something that broke all our hearts. However he entered treatment and has been free of drugs for over three years now. If he succeeds, he will have accomplished something that most of us are not called upon to achieve, and as a result, will be a stronger than average person.

Hunter's first day of school (photo)[3]

I have a great-grandson who seems to have been born with a double dose of self-confidence and “free will”. I baby-sat him just before he turned five. He explained, politely, “Now you are supposed to do what I say, because I’m the boss. OK?”

I told him he was a cute little rascal.

“Yes,” he agreed. “I know.” He has an abundance of people skills. He sometimes complains in exasperation, “Why are people always telling me what to do!

Yes, people feel entitled to tell four-year-olds what to do, I was tempted to tell him. Most four-year-olds don't question it. I've seen Hunter show a remarkable sensitivity and consideration for other people, especially children younger than him. He seems to be developing an exceptionally kind, loving personality. But whatever my grandchildren grow up to be, I'm confident none of them will consist of all talents and no faults. Our family seems to be variable, including tragic failures and also spectacular successes. (Spectacular success as human beings, that is; none seemed to have pursued fame and fortune.) We are all far from perfect. Perfection is not a fate I would wish upon any child. I fear perfect children might grow up to be similar, successful, untroubled, perennially-contented, useful citizens - people who could only age, never grow. And a life of blissful contentment might not even be the most rewarding.

  • -*-*

Society seems to acknowledge statistical personality differences between men and women, while still recognizing their shared humanity, so I'll dare to suggest that personality traits are inherited, and Freudian psychoanalysis might be most relevant to Jewish people, known for their guilt and angst, and apparently suffering from inhibitions. Jewish culture has persisted throughout centuries of dispersal among other societies. Perhaps such a strong, cultural cohesion is why so many famous psychoanalysts have been Jewish - members of one of the strongest, most persistent cultures in human history. Freud openly fretted that psychoanalysis might remain a Jewish science, and Jewish people themselves sometimes concede the phenomenon of “Jewish angst“. (That same "angst" may also have been a stimulus for growth, thus accounting for apparent Jewish over-achievement.)

If personalities and cultural attitudes are real, they could have physical components. I understand that someone named Nicolas Wade has written a book, A Troublesome Inheritance, in which he speculates that cultural traits might be detected in the genome. Wade has been denounced for promoting racism. Many people notice the apparent inheritance of culture, but some people seem to think it would be wrong to acknowledge such things – racist – and we shouldn’t even talk about it in public like this. However everyone’s attitude toward racism might change as science learns more about epigenetics, and we relinquish the notion of biological change occurring only by random mutation and natural selection. (The ability to respond to the environment is how we define life, as distinguished from inanimate matter, and if the genome were incapable of purposeful change, it might be the only living organ to which science attributes such inflexibility.) I’m confident that culture is one way that organisms participate in their own evolution, and the growth we achieve after birth is just as significant as that which occurred in the womb.


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The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.

Current page: What is racism?

  1. Wouldn’t volition be an essential aspect of creativity?
  2. Could an inherently creative universe, a living universe, ever be defined by mathematical formulas?
  3. How did the laws of nature originate?
  4. Are some scientific concepts too sacred to be debated?
  5. Are intelligence and creativity two separate and distinct processes?
  6. Are psychoanalytic theories profound? Or just convoluted?
  7. If purposeful creativity exists as an aspect of reality, why should we assume it is a process unique to human consciousness?
  8. Can the value of scientific knowledge ever justify enrolling people in research projects without their knowledge or consent?
  9. Exactly what technical knowledge enables psychiatrists to manipulate ids, egos and psyches?
  10. Should "normal" be equated with average?
  11. What technical knowledge enables psychologists to declare people emotionally abnormal?
  12. Are psychologists able to scientifically measure parental love? Or its lack?
  13. Is the universe, including life, an automatic, mechanical process, driven by nothing but the laws of physics and chemistry (the materialist position)? Or do other forces play a role, such as mind, consciousness, judgment and volition - most of which we presently have only have limited understanding?
  14. Should doctors and scientists refrain from expressing skepticism about theories of colleagues in other fields?
  15. Do people generally choose the challenges which force them to grow?
  16. How can we claim to scientifically manipulate thoughts and emotions if we don't even understand how such elusive phenomena relate to physical reality?
  17. What is faith? If belief that God organized the universe is a matter of faith, why isn't the materialist belief that the universe came together by some accidental, mechanical process also a matter of faith? (Or, the Buddhist belief in self-organization.)
  18. Are living creatures constantly evolving as they strive to grow and adapt? Or must evolutionary adaptations passively wait around for a random mutation to accidentally pop up in someone's genome?
  19. Should we have official committees to define scientific knowledge? Or is an ever-changing, constantly-challenged, general consensus our best way to keep our understanding of reality vibrant?
  20. Could lying on a couch and obsessing over a traumatic childhood ever be therapeutic?
  21. Would it even be possible to conduct a scientific study to determine whether psychological treatments are effective?
  22. What is racism?
  23. Does free-will exist?
  24. Would obsessing over a traumatic event ever cure any mental illness?
  25. Could a creative intelligence be an innate aspect of all Nature?
  26. What would define economic theories as materialistic or non-materialistic?
  27. Is intolerance often the result of personal insecurity?
  28. Consciousness and free-will may be defining characteristics of all life, but do we have much understanding of what they actually are?
  29. Can we do other people's growing for them?
  30. Are Western democracies civilization’s ultimate achievement?
  31. Which would produce the most psychologically stunted individuals? Being emotionally challenged? Or never encountering any challenges?
  32. Could the purpose of life be to participate in the growth of the universe?
  33. Can science investigate and attempt to describe a non-materialistic version of the universe?
Current page: What is racism?
  1. The photos used by Berthajane can be found by linking a copy on the pdf file. Click "photo" to reach the appropriate page.
  2. The photos used by Berthajane can be found by linking a copy on the pdf file. Click "photo" to reach the appropriate page.
  3. The photos used by Berthajane can be found by linking a copy on the pdf file. Click "photo" to reach the appropriate page.