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.

           Most of the registered twins are white, reflecting the racial makeup of the state during that time. But they represent, says Lykken, "all levels of socioeconomic status, educational level, both urban and rural living. Twins, some people think they must be special psychologically because they are twins. But that's not true. They do the same on the tests we give as do singletons. Except for one trait--social closeness, which measures the needs and habits of having intimate relations. They are remarkably representative." Lykken and others working on the twins projects have turned out papers discussing spousal choice, tendencies toward divorce, intelligence, religious attitudes, recreational and vocational interests, and happiness. The happiness study, published earlier this year, was picked up by television and print media from New York to Rome. And there are more twins studies being conducted that promise to bring more publicity: one on aging that seems to indicate that genetic influences fade over time; another on families, in which 11- and 17-year-old kids are being tracked.

           Lykken's most recent endeavor, launched four years ago, involves young male twins in their early thirties. "My interest," he says, "has moved to focus on crime and violence and its causes. And one of the things that I decided to study was the relative importance of genetic temperamental factors versus familial factors in crime. There has been about a 200 percent increase in violent crime. We want to ask how much of this can be explained in terms of temperamental or personality factors, which we know from other evidence are largely genetic. Traits like aggression, fearlessness, impulsiveness, and so on." With talk among politicians of weeding out criminals before they reach kindergarten by locating the "crime gene" or the "violence gene," doesn't all this stuff about genetic determinism lead to some very ugly politics? "I believe it's always better to know what the facts are," says Lykken, "what the truth is."

           City Pages: You've said before that people's characters are basically 50 percent nature, 50 percent nurture.

           David Lykken: Yes. I think a lot of psychological traits are like this. Not just happiness, but aggressiveness, self-confidence, all of these traits. A lot of these psychological traits vary from time to time. Your average is set by your genes. It's innate. But shyness can vary from situation to situation and can also be influenced by parenting or experiences. I think the same thing is true about happiness. You can't change your set point but you can change your ways of behaving. You can change your experiences that get you above the set point.

           I think there is a lesson here for parents. Too many parents have it in mind that they want their kid to be happy. But they assume that in order to be happy they have to have a lot of money and be a professional. That isn't true. All this research indicates that the men who come around and collect the garbage, that is the happiest bunch of people I come across in a day. They are just as happy as a lot of PhDs I see at the University. The fact is that your happiness is not determined by big things, but by being in the right niche for you and having the sense to do the everyday things you need to make you happy.

           CP: How do genetic and environmental factors mingle?

           Lykken: To a large extent, the genes affect the mind indirectly by influencing the kind of environment and experiences you have to learn from and the process begins in infancy. A squally, difficult baby, for example, elicits different parenting behavior than a happy smiling child. And when they get out into the neighborhood, they begin to have the ability to seek out, to elicit, environments that are compatible with their own temperament and their genetic inclination. And so it's as if there's a genetic steersman that's pushing in a direction that's appropriate for you.

           CP: It seems that twins research is changing how we look at ourselves.

           Lykken: Well, I think so. When I was a student, way back before the flood of this, almost all intellectuals and all academics were radical environmentalists. We all believed that under the skin we could explain that we all started from the same spot and that individual differences could be explained psychoanalytically or by learning theory or by all of the various theories of the time.

           That was a very dumb thing for us to have thought, even then. Because even then, practical people realized that, for example, breeds of dogs or other breeds of domestic animals differ not only in their appearance but also in their personalities. Some dogs are smarter than other dogs. Shelties will herd things, and if you don't have any sheep around, they will herd you. My bull terrier is bred as a fighting dog and he's relatively fearless and fierce. Just that kind of common sense observation should have made us realize that it's crazy to think that in our species alone, our brains would be like so many Apple computers coming off the assembly line.

           But everybody accepted it in those days. The pendulum has swung back the other way. I think the biggest single obstacle to genetic research was Adolf Hitler. There are a lot of people now, even psychologists and geneticists, who think that if you believe that the genes have anything to do with the mind, you must be a secret fascist.

           CP: How do you respond to people who say that about you?

           Lykken: I've stopped arguing with them because these people are getting old, as I am. And I think that they'll never be convinced and we'll just have to wait for them to die off. I am encouraged by the fact that people, journalists in particular, and I don't know how many journalists I've talked to about these different things, seem to find this perfectly reasonable. And the studies are accumulating and the resistance among the better academics has fallen to a whisper. And so now, we know there are a half-dozen names that still resist this sort of thing, names of otherwise respected scientists. But it's a group that doesn't seem to be growing.

           CP: If most twins are reared together, how do you sort out which traits are genetic versus environmental?

           Lykken: Because identical twins share all their genes. Fraternal twins, like ordinary siblings, share, on the average, about 50 percent of their genes. And so, if genetic factors are playing a role, the identical twins should be more similar than the fraternal twins. And by appropriate statistical manipulations, you can actually make an estimate of the heritability. Also, of twins reared apart we have been able to show that for almost every trait that we have measured, and we are talking now about dozens and dozens of psychological traits, the similarity of identical twins reared apart is as high as the similarity of identical twins reared together. And what that means is being reared together in the same home does not tend to make you more alike as adults. That is true for the broad middle range of society, that is for middle-class people.

           It is not true, I think, although this has never been studied, for the underclass of society and I think that common sense would suggest that if you take two foster children and give them to a single mother on welfare to rear who is overburdened or may be unsocialized herself or uneducated, she isn't going to do as good a job with those kids as a better educated, more mature mother would do.

           CP: Do you see a genetic difference between people in the middle class and people in the underclass then? Or are any differences environmental?

           Lykken: Nothing is entirely one way or another. We do know that because our society has become a lot less arbitrary and stratified than it used to be, and we have social mobility so people can rise and they can fall, there are differences in genetic characteristics. For example, all the excitement about The Bell Curve was based on the fact that people are made nervous to learn that people higher on the social ladder have higher IQs than people down here. People don't like to believe that.

           CP: But you consider that to be true?

           Lykken: Oh, yeah. There is no question about that. There is no question about the facts regarding the stratification of IQ. And there is no question that IQ is strongly determined genetically. And it all makes perfect sense. It would be very difficult to understand our not finding this stratification since there is social mobility and since people with higher IQs are likely to get better jobs and better education and to move up. And people with lower IQs are likely to move down. It's inevitable.

           CP: You don't think that factors like race or sex discrimination have anything to do with it?

           Lykken: Race is a different issue. There is a big IQ difference between blacks and whites in this country, there is no question about that. It's about a 15 point difference in the average.

           CP: And do you think that difference is genetic?

           Lykken: Just a minute. We know that among whites, the individual differences in IQ are about 75 percent determined by genetic factors. That has been clearly demonstrated. I mean that is standard mainline scientific opinion. We don't know that the heritability of IQ is as high as that among blacks. The reason is there haven't been enough studies, twins studies among blacks. If we did know that, if we knew that heritability was the same among blacks as among whites then it would be hard not to believe that the IQ difference between the two groups was genetically based, in part at least.

           But we don't know that. So it's impossible, and remember this, the heritability of a trait tells you as much about the culture as it does about human nature. The fact that the heritability of IQ is 75 percent, at least among whites, tells us that we have been able, for most of the white population, to provide equal opportunity. Reasonably equal opportunity. I mean if you go back to Dickens's time, and do the same study, or do a study of identical twins reared apart where one of the twins ends up being reared by an aristocrat and another one being reared in some gin mill in east London, then you would not have found the results on that study that we've got now, because the environmental variance was so much greater in those days than it is now. Now the environmental variability relevant to IQ among blacks seems to be a lot higher in this country, so it may be that the heritability among blacks is lower.

           CP: What do you think of Charles Murray's contention inThe Bell Curve that people who are poor or socially marginalized are there because they are genetically inferior in some way?

           Lykken: The science is perfectly standard science. It is perfectly legitimate, and the conclusions they come to are pretty well accepted by most of the people who study in this field. You have to be careful about stating those conclusions. I don't think that they use the term inferior anywhere in the book. But they do say that it is the case that the reason why people in lower sociological levels have lower IQs is not because they were disadvantaged, but because people with lower IQs tend to sink economically and socially in a lower direction. The heritability of a trait tells us as much about the culture as it does about human nature. To find a high heritability means there is not a lot of environmental difference any more. It means we are giving kids a good chance to reach their limits, that we are giving them opportunities across socioeconomic levels.

           CP: Some inner-city neighborhoods compare in infant mortality statistics and poverty to some third world countries. That's a far cry from the suburbs. Are you saying that those conditions don't make any difference, don't keep people from achieving?

           Lykken: I think they make a big social difference. Are they responsible for the low IQs for children coming from those areas? The answer is that there is no reason to think so. The only thing that might have an effect would be bad prenatal care and various kinds of nervous system or brain injuries due to bad early care and nutrition. There is no reason to think the IQs are a consequence of the unemployment rate. It's more likely the other way around.

           CP: You blame lack of fathers for wayward youth, but I've also seen studies that show that most people in prison, for example, grew up poor. You don't think lack of opportunity or hopelessness has anything to do with choosing a life of crime?

           Lykken: You talk about poverty and of course there is a great tendency for people to think that poverty is what leads to crime. There is no good evidence for that. Crime rates, historically, in this country, in this century, have been highest during good times and lowest during depressions, and that is a surprise. Take the people who commit the drive-by shootings that we are worried about. They are not poor people who are hungry. They are people who can buy a car and a gun and who can play these cowboy games. It's not a question of poverty producing crime. It's a question of too many children being deprived of their birthright to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by parents not doing their job.

           CP: I understand you've been lobbying the legislature about your views on genetics, specifically as it relates to the licensing of parents.

           Lykken: I got a call some months ago from a legislator from Duluth--[Mike] Jaros, an interesting guy. He's a Bosnian immigrant from years back and speaks numerous languages including Latin. An interesting guy. He had heard something about my views and was wondering if I would like to suggest some legislation. He's thinking of introducing it next session. My proposal would be a licensure requirement.

           The only result of having a child without a license is that you would be expected to be visited by child protection workers annually. They would check progress for 18 years and a file would be kept on all unlicensed babies. I believe that the difference between that group of kids, the social pathology, drop outs, abuse, teenage pregnancy, the difference between that group and the licensed children would be so enormous that the public would have to sit up and say we can't let this continue and take the next step.

           CP: What's the next step?

           Lykken: The next step is to remove the unlicensed babies at birth before bonding takes place and place them up for adoption. That would mean that thousands and thousands of parents--one out of six couples are infertile. Many go shopping for babies in Korea and other places. They wouldn't have to do that anymore.

           Many say this sounds radical and authoritarian. What I hope is that it will get people to start thinking. What is more important, the rights of the child or the rights of the parent? If they don't care about children or rights, and all they care about is cost, the statistics show that the sociopaths are costing us annually $200 billion. Aggregates over the years. It's going to increase. In 20 years, it will be $400 billion each year. Whether you're concern is for tax dollars or for the babies, I think you have to agree that something needs to be done. This proposal is so innocuous. All it means is to start some systematic data collection.

           CP: You talk about elevating the rights of the child over the rights of the parent, but aren't you really talking about elevating the rights of society over the rights of the parent?

           Lykken: I think you can look at it either way. And people do look at it that way. The hard-bitten conservative is only concerned about tax dollars. I would say to them that we know the sociopaths already among us are costing $200 billion annually and that the price is going up as the numbers are going up. But if I talk to the people I know, the people who are liberals and concerned about others, concerned about social welfare, then I say what about the children, what about the babies?

           CP: Has your genetic research affected your politics?

           Lykken: I don't think so. I used to believe that people on the right took a biological deterministic point of view that some people are born bad and some people are born good and that the people born good should run things. In reaction to that, liberals tended to be extreme environmentalists, believing that everybody can succeed as well as anybody else and that the successes of the rich are consequences of advantages and that the poor are poor because of disadvantages. We know now that that is wrong. We know now that people with talent and energy can rise to the top and they do. Our class structure now is more determined by personal characteristics rather than by social fiat--the structure of society or the position your parents were in.

           CP: How would your licensing proposal make things better?

           Lykken: I think that the reason that crime rates are so much higher in the black community than in the white community is that the causal factors are the same in both communities, but higher in the black. Something like 55 percent of young black men are being reared without fathers, as compared to about 15 percent of the white kids in the high risk group, 15- to 25-year-olds. We're beginning to catch up, the whites are beginning to catch up with the blacks. So one way to equalize things is to do nothing, because sooner or later everybody's illegitimate and there aren't any fathers and we're living like chimpanzees in a violent jungle community. But I don't think we want to do that.

           I think that if tomorrow, by some miracle, we could arrange it so that every baby, black or white, was being reared by both biological parents who were grown, aged 21, let's say, self-supporting, committed enough to the enterprise to be married to each other. I don't care if you have a religious concern or not. You can be married by a judge, as a demonstration of commitment to the enterprise. And neither one having been convicted of a violent crime. That's all it would take. Just that much. If every child had that chance, I genuinely believe and it just seems so obvious to me now, I've been thinking about it for so long, that 20 years from now, the crime rates would drop. And I also think that the IQ differences would diminish because who are the people who are breeding the most carelessly, and just treating this as nothing? They are the people that are less well socialized and less intelligent.

           CP: Are you sure about that?

           Lykken: I can't prove it, but I'm sure about it in this sense [points to his chest]. Not as a scientist, but just as a reasonable person. And again, we do know this: that if we take and measure IQs of children from the underclass, they are lower than children from the middle class.

           CP: But again, we talked about how there could be other factors involved there.

           Lykken: Yeah, but aside from that, what I believe is that the sociopathic element and the psychopathic element, the ones with the bad temperments, and also the people with lower IQs, tend to breed carelessly and to make poor parents.

           CP: So your answer is to prevent them from having babies?

           Lykken: No, we're not going to prevent them. We are just going to say, unless you pull up your socks... We are not going to have an IQ test. We are not going to have a color bar. We are going to say that if you've been convicted of a violent crime, you are out of luck. But otherwise you'll have to grow up and get a job and get married. That's all. And then you can have children. And some of those people who meet those requirements are going to be terrible parents. There is no simple solution to everything. But the difference between that situation and what we have now is enormous. Remember that this crime and violence and suffering and social pathology involves 6 or 7 percent of the population. And that's the group that needs the help, and if you believe that children born in America truly do have a right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then they have a right to decent parenting. Because without decent parenting they might not keep a life. And they may not keep their liberty and they are sure unlikely to be happy.

           CP: But in your happiness study, you said that people adjust to whatever circumstances they are in--that the garbage man is just as happy as the doctor.

           Lykken: People adjust to things, but bad things keep happening to people like this.

           CP: Yet there plenty of people, even artists and inventors, who come from poor neighborhoods, who were maybe even raised with single parents, and turn out fine.

           Lykken: It's astonishing that again, there are some people with such a talent for socialization that they do manage. There was a television program a while back based on a Pulitzer prize-winning series [about] this black woman in Washington who was just a wretch. She made her living as a small-time drug pusher and a prostitute. She turned her 13-year-old daughter on to heroin and prostitution. She was really the pits. But two of the six or seven children somehow avoided all this, pulled themselves out, became married, family men, self-supporting. They had such a talent for socialization that they went out on their own. It does happen. The other question that is implied by what you say is that there are people that come out of these backgrounds and turn out to be great people. Jessie Jackson, for example. That suggests that it would be wrong for us to make social changes to prevent that from happening. Just because you recognize that some people who have turned out well were raised in terrible conditions, would you move into a housing project? Would you beat your kids the way some of these kids have been beaten? Would you give them adversity in order to be good to them?

           CP: Well, that's not really the question. I'm thinking that economic or social status lines aren't the best indicators of whether somebody's going to be a good person or the best indicators of who should be allowed to have a child.

           Lykken: I wouldn't base the licensure on income.

           CP: Well, that's one of the requirements you've mentioned.

           Lykken: The qualifications I would require are the same ones that you require for someone who wants to adopt someone else's child. That the man or woman be 21 or older, self supporting. If you decide you want to have a baby, but you can't support it, so I have to support it, is that right? I don't think so. You can't have been convicted of a violent crime nor incapacitated by mental illness. Those are requirements that 90 percent of responsible parents can meet without trouble whatsoever. It's true that it would impact more heavily on the underclass. It would reduce the size of the underclass.

           CP: If you could mandate how society would run, what role the government would play, what would you do?

           Lykken: The first thing I would do would be to start working on the understructure we need to help these kids. We know how to train parents and a lot of the bad parents including those in the underclass really want to do the right thing and are willing and able to learn, but it's expensive because it takes a lot of time and involvement. And there have been two or three demonstration projects, expensive projects that have shown positive results. So we should invest money in that, in parental training. I think we ought to have a parental practicum training course, three months and six months in every community college in the country for new parents, and if we did them, I'd add that to my licensure requirement. You have to get through that course.

           But an awful lot of really bad parents are not going to take the parental training. They are going to drop out. And we know that happens. What we have to do is to take children away from those parents and put them in healthy incubators. Take them out of that infection and put them into a place where they are going to be safe. Many of this generation of social workers still believe in this family preservation baloney and that there is still something magical about the biological tie. So even though the mother is an addict and a nut and incompetent and so on, that still she is better for the child than anyone else.

           That's going out of fashion. We need to create a professionalized foster care system in this country. I think we should set up systems of boarding schools as other people have suggested for the older kids. Boarding schools staffed by some of the retired, non-commissioned officers coming out of the service who know about discipline and so on and can exert obedience with a word, the way a good father can. And they'd be mainly boys' schools because the boys are the source of the problem. And we also know that especially among adolescents, it's better to keep the boys and girls apart. The girls get into more trouble in co-educational schools and the boys get into more trouble also. Keep the nitro and the glycerin apart is what I say. The only sensible thing to do is to invest money now in these ways, to salvage the kids that have already been produced by parents who never should have had children.

           Somebody had this wonderful analogy. You're standing by a river and you are seeing hundreds of babies and kids floating by, headed for the rapids, more and more kids. You jump in and save a few, but many of them are swept out. Sooner or later, you say jumping in and grabbing them is not the solution. You have to go upstream and find out who is throwing the babies into the river. Who you find upstream will be the immature, unsocialized, sociopathic parents who shouldn't be allowed to have babies.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest