From The New Republic:
The Two Year Window
The new science of babies and brains—and how it could revolutionize the fight against poverty.
The End of Nature v. Nurture?
The New Science of Babies and Brains
A decade ago, a neuroscientist named Charles Nelson traveled to Bucharest to visit Romania’s infamous orphanages. There, he saw a child whose brain had swelled to the size of a basketball because of an untreated infection and a malnourished one-year-old no bigger than a newborn. But what has stayed with him ever since was the eerie quiet of the infant wards. “It would be dead silent, all of [the babies] sitting on their backs and staring at the ceiling,” says Nelson, who is now at Harvard. “Why cry when nobody is going to pay attention to you?”
Nelson had traveled to Romania to take part in a cutting-edge experiment. It was ten years after the fall of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, whose scheme for increasing the country’s population through bans on birth control and abortion had filled state-run institutions with children their parents couldn’t support. Images from the orphanages had prompted an outpouring of international aid and a rush from parents around the world to adopt the children. But ten years later, the new government remained convinced that the institutions were a good idea—and was still warehousing at least 60,000 kids, some of them born after the old regime’s fall, in facilities where many received almost no meaningful human interaction. With backing from the MacArthur Foundation, and help from a sympathetic Romanian official, Nelson and colleagues from Harvard, Tulane, and the University of Maryland prevailed upon the government to allow them to remove some of the children from the orphanages and place them with foster families. Then, the researchers would observe how they fared over time in comparison with the children still in the orphanages. They would also track a third set of children, who were with their original parents, as a control group.
Back in 2007, I reported on Dr. Nelson's study. He found that the poor kids who continued to get warehoused in these cheerless Romanian orphanages averaged IQs of 73, while those who got to move in with foster parents averaged 81. A control group of non-orphans averaged 109.
As I said in 2007, an 8 point boost for getting out of a bleak Romanian orphanage and into a family setting seems a quite plausible nurture effect to me. But, what in the world accounts for the 28 point gap between the fostered kids and the control group of non-orphans?
I found an earlier report by Nelson noting a big ethnic difference:
"Of the 136 institutionalized children included in the study, 78 are of Romanian ethnicity (57.4%), 36 are Rroma Gypsy (26.5%), 1 is Turkish (0.7%), 1 is of subcontinent Indian extraction (0.7%), and the remaining 20 (14.7%) could not be classified. ...
The control group with the 109 average IQ is much different in ethnicity:
"Of the 72 who consented to participate, 66 children (91.7%) were Romanian, 4 children (5.6%) were Rroma, 1 child was Spanish, and 1 child was Turkish."
In summary, major selection effects seem to be driving part of the almost two-standard deviation IQ gap between the foster care and biological family groups.
Before America goes out and more or less kidnaps black babies away from poor black mothers in order to raise their IQs -- the upcoming Borrowed Generations national apology of 2056 -- some more pointed research is needed.
If there really is a critical 2-year-window where children who don't get talked at enough are doomed for life, that would imply certain falsifiable hypotheses:
- For example, some poor black mothers are taciturn and others are loquacious. Do the loquacious ones have children who grow up to have higher IQs relative to their mothers IQs? If so, how much?
- If what really matters to a person's adult IQ is having a middle-class upbringing as a small child with a mother who constantly is nudging you to look at this thing or that thing, wouldn't it be cheaper to encourage blacks to point out stuff to their kids rather than to take their kids away from them for 14 hours per day? If it's all culture, why not improve the culture of the black mothers? That doesn't strike me as impossible to do. If, say, Oprah and Beyonce teamed up to push for a decade to get mothers to talk more to their babies, I wouldn't be surprised if they could move the needle.
- Many middle class white women turn most of the baby-raising over to low IQ servants, many of whom don't speak English and don't have middle class urges to point out every damn thing under the sun to the babies they are caring for. Are these middle class white women damaging the IQs of their own children? Should they leave the workforce and raise their own kids? But if white women stop hiring Honduran illegal immigrants to raise their own babies for them, then who is going to raise the babies of poor black women for them?