In a previous post, I tried to encourage geneticists to simplify their language. They talk about the genetic code in their own linguistic code, with all the baggage of the past. For example, they say “loci” when the usual word would be “location”. Each dollop of jargon halves the audience.
Now I have a further gripe about geneticists: they are messing up the environment. They refer to it as “shared” or “non-shared”. Every time I come across the phrase “non-shared environmental influences” I have to interpret the negative framing, and slowly deduce the meaning.
I think that what geneticists are talking about are “Personally Created Environments”. For example, I can remember a successful executive telling me that as a young girl she coped with her disruptive family life by creating her own study in a garden shed. It became her refuge, and she felt she blossomed thereafter. To what extent is this an “environmental” effect? Once she had built the shed she had to use it regularly for it to have any influence on her studies. To my mind the important factor was that she wanted to do her homework, and searched out a quiet place to do so. The shed on its own would not have attracted the attention of a less studious child, though with external discipline perhaps the latter might have benefitted from using such a facility.
What is the “shared environment”? I think that is the family, mostly, and the school if all of the family’s children go to the same school. Perhaps it should be called the “Imposed environment” or just “family influences”.
Equally, when listening in the child guidance clinic to Bermondsey mothers talking about their delinquent offspring they often used the phrase “and then he fell into bad company”. Similar in interpretative framework was the lament from young girls “Then I fell pregnant”. I was always tempted to ask the latter “Was any sex involved?”
Perhaps it would be simpler to resuscitate the old concept of “locus of control”. When the locus of control is external, as when a child has family influences imposed on them, or is sent to a school chosen by their parents, then that is the imposed environment. Lead in paint on a window frame is an imposed environmental effect. Governments likewise, until you can vote for them, and even then they will probably be imposed on you against your will half of the time.
When the locus of control is internal then I think we are on more debateable grounds. Perhaps we should call these “Personally created niches”. A garden shed does not blot out all social influences for ever. Even university teachers have to notice the world outside the campus. In my view, personally created niches are aspects of our character which can facilitate us in developing our preferences, but they are not truly environmental effects.
Time to turn to the very best measures of environmental influences, evaluated in detail, and ranked according to the scope for personal agency. References, please.