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TECH TALK: Good Books: No Two Alike

October 23rd, 2006 · No Comments

Sitting down to read a good book is a delight that has no parallel. As one starts reading, one gets immersed in the world that has been crafted by the author. Be it fiction or non-fiction, as a reader, I like to forget about the environs and let the author take over the mind. Books have an immersiveness that watching TV or reading an article on the Internet or in a newspaper can never have. It is like traveling on a long flight. One can easily lose sense of time with no distractions to split attention. So, for the next few weeks, I will pick a few more good books. As the year draws to a close and some of us take vacations, maybe one or more of these books can make a good companion.

No Two Alike was a book recommended by Chetan Parikh at one of our recent Book Club meetings. Written by Judith Rich Harris, it delves into, as the byline suggests, human nature and human individuality. It is about our personality what makes us different. Harris had earlier written The Nurture Assumption, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. As Chetan pointed out in his review during our meeting, it is written in a somewhat of a detective style as a mystery book. Harris considers herself an academic investigator. She suffers from systemic schlerosis and lupus, two autoimmune diseases. Yet, she has conquered her physical limitations to put together a magical journey through the theories beyond personality and behaviour.

Here is how Publishers Weekly [via Amazon.com] summarises the book:

Why do identical twins who grow up together differ in personality? Harris attempts to solve that mystery. Her initial thesis in The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do is replaced here with a stronger, more detailed one based on evolutionary psychology. Reading this book is akin to working your way through a mystery novelcomplete with periodic references to Sherlock Holmes. And Harris has a knack for interspersing scientific and research-laden text with personal anecdotes. Initially, she refutes five red herring theories of personality differences, including differences in environment and gene-environment interactions. Eventually, Harris presents her own theory, starting from modular notions of the brain (as Steven Pinker puts it, “the mind is not a single organ but a system of organs”). Harris offers a three-systems theory of personality: there’s the relationship system, the socialization system and the status system. And while she admits her theory of personality isn’t simple, it is thought provoking. Harris ties up the loose ends of the new theory, showing how the development of the three systems creates personality.

This is what Scientific American wrote [via Amzon.com]:

Where does adult personality come from? Why are we all different? These are the questions energizing Judith Rich Harriss new book.

Harris then develops a complex scheme based on “the modular mind,” a framework set forth by Harvard University evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker and others. (Harris herself has no doctorate and is housebound by systemic sclerosis and lupus, two autoimmune disorders.) She describes three modulesthe relationship system, the socialization system and the status systemand explains how each contributes its part to making us who we are. The relationship system starts in the cradle as infants study and learn the faces and voices of the people around them, collecting information that helps form personality. The socialization system adapts people to their culture. The status system takes all the information collected during childhood and adolescence and shapes and modifies our personalities in accord with our environments.

Harriss last chapter lays out her theory in tabular form, explaining how each module interacts with the others to produce our distinct personalities. It is lavishly footnoted, like the rest of the book, shoring up her strategy of pointing out the failings of other models and then proposing her own. Her goal, she writes, is to explain the variations in personality that cannot be attributed to variations in peoples genes.

Tomorrow: No Two Alike (continued)

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