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Shrinks in conflict

11 March 2016

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ONCE upon a time, it was all about the potty-training. Then it was the social and cultural status of parents. Recently, we have been blaming it on our genes. But now? What is the mechanism by which, as Philip Larkin puts it, misery is passed on from man to man, deepening “like a coastal shelf”? If the psychologist Oliver James is to be believed, it’s the environment.

It is all there in his new book; and if you don’t care to shell out £20 to discover how you have been doing that thing to your kids that Larkin so elegantly says we do, then you could catch Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday of last week) instead.

Mr James is an angry man; or at least that is his broadcasting persona. But if he was born with the angry gene, then he would be the last to admit it. Our obsession with finding genetic origins for emotional and psychological traits has been misguided, hesays. And he declared “incontrovertible” the lack of evidence for genetically encoded personality traits.

Trying to get a word in edgeways was Marcus Munafo, Professor of Biological Psychology at Bristol University, who was, perhaps, too polite to mention that arguments from silence hardly inspired confidence. Accused by association of being a ruthless genetic determinist, Professor Munafo attempted to inflect the biological case with some nuanced arguments about the interaction of genes, but Mr James had the bit between his teeth: as far as he is concerned, it is time for the gene-counters to move aside, and let the shrinks back in.

The most useful contribution to the discussion came from Helen Pearson, a science journalist who has written on the Life Project, the largest population study of its kind in the world, whose first cohort was born in 1946. In those days, nobody bothered to ask questions that we would regard as essential today, such as whether a mother smoked during pregnancy.

The lesson is clear: we can never be confident that we are asking the relevant questions. In 100 years’ time, our descendants will be laughing at us for not having realised that the answer to human happiness and misery does, indeed, reside in potty-training after all.

In Stephen Johnson’s series of essays on Radio 3, Music in its Time (weekdays), he alighted last Tuesday on the Mass for Four Voices by William Byrd; a setting of the ordinary of the Latin mass which is now a staple of the Anglican repertoire, but which was conceived at a time when full liturgical performance was outlawed by the Elizabethan regime.

It is easy to overdo the riskiness of the enterprise; and Johnson, although not sparing us the priest holes and false fireplaces, was right to remind us that Byrd at least remained a special case in the eyes of the monarchy: he was protected from punishment for his recusancy, and, up until his death, still a member of the Chapel Royal.

It was also useful to be reminded that an “authentic” performance of this work might better be achieved in a small room, or even a barn, perhaps with women taking the top voice, rather than in an ornate cathedral intoned by cherubic boy trebles.

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