GENES, DESTINY, AND BIG BROTHER

UM Professor David Lykken has spent his career studying the role of nature and nurture in shaping people. And he believes his research shows the best society would be one in which the state decides who gets to have children.
by Jennifer Vogel

           Professor David Lykken sits with his arms crossed in a big cushioned chair out on the screened front porch of his South Minneapolis home. He's lived in this house for more than 30 years with his wife, who bustles silently in the dining room on the other side of a window and a heavy gauze curtain. It looks like he spends a lot of time out here, theorizing and reading. A nearby table hosts a scattering of magazines, including Smithsonian and Dog Fancy, and a book called All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence.

           Lykken has been a professor and researcher in the University of Minnesota's psychology and psychiatry departments since 1957. His work over the years has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, which only seems to lure Lykken further into the political spotlight. Some of his research has concerned lie detectors, which he calls "20th century witchcraft." He wrote a book on the subject and lobbied the state legislature and Congress to get them outlawed in the late 1980s. Since the 1950s, he's been writing about and researching "sociopaths," a subject about which he goes on at great length and which underpins many of his theories. "These are people who are unsocialized," he starts, closing his light blue eyes as if reading the words from a slow-moving prompter on the inside of his eyelids, "not because of a strange temperament or because they were born fearless or aggressive, but because of parental malfeasance. They were never taught how to play by the rules; they are careless breeders and terrible parents. They don't care if they are married or if they are in a position to take care of a kid, they just want to have fun."

           He's made a life out of studying outlaws and outcasts. Last year, he published a book called The Antisocial Personalities. He's delved into genetic research and its inevitable link to nature versus nurture debates as well, gaining considerable attention for papers claiming that qualities like intelligence, happiness, and even authoritarianism are at least partially genetically predetermined. "It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller," he wrote just last May.

           A few months earlier, he wrote a much-discussed piece in Minnesota's Journal of Law & Politics outlining a proposal he hopes will become law someday; he'd like to see a bill that would require people to meet certain licensing criteria before being allowed to have kids. Nearing retirement, Lykken considers advocacy of parental licensing his "main occupation these days."

           A father of three, Lykken talks a lot about the importance of stability and good parenting. He uses himself as an example: Lykken grew up near Lake Harriet, not far from where he lives now, with a mother, father, and four older brothers. "My father was a taciturn Norwegian," he says. "I think he raised his voice two times while I was growing up. But there was no doubt he was the alpha dog. I think it's important to grow up knowing there's a force out there that is stronger than you are. Most socialized people accept that they are limited by society's rules, that you're very small compared to society."

           When Lykken starts talking theories and social engineering, he often falls back on the hard numbers he's come across or even created in his work at the UM. Though he's studied the similarities between twins since 1970, research at the U didn't begin in earnest until 1979. That year, a colleague of Lykken's named Tom Bouchard happened upon a newspaper story about a pair of identical twins who had been separated at birth and reunited 39 years later. It was amazing how much the two had in common, though they didn't know each other at all. Each, as it turned out, was named Jim. Both were six feet tall and weighed 180 pounds. They spoke with the same lilts and speech patterns. Each had been married twice, first to a woman named Linda and then to a woman named Betty. They'd both had children and had given their firstborn nearly identical names; one was James Alan and the other was James Allan. Both Jims had had dogs when they were kids, one of which they'd named Toy. Each had worked part-time in law enforcement, drank Miller Lite beer, and smoked Salem cigarettes. When scientists met them in person, they discovered that both Jims bit their nails, too.

           Lykken says that when Bouchard approached him about starting a twins study, he jumped at the chance. The question of heredity and environment has been intertwined with larger political discourse in this country for centuries, the emphasis swinging back and forth with the times. Lately, the pendulum has swung back toward genetic theories; Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve is the most notorious exemplar of the trend. Lykken, for his part, believes that people have "genetic steersmen" that lead them to seek out particular experiences in their environments, a theory he calls nature via nurture.

           Lykken and Bouchard went to work tracking down the birth records of other twins born in Minnesota between 1936 and 1955. They had great success, finding nearly 75 percent of the pairs on their list. They created what is now called the twins registry, a database of more than 11,000 twins--most of whom were raised together--along with pages of information about each. The pairs have been quizzed on everything from their musical tastes and aptitudes to their taste in TV and the marital status of their parents.

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