I was reading Derbyshire’s review of “The 10,000 Year Explosion” and came to the quotes taken from the NY Times interview of Charles Murray by Deborah Solomon.
Europeans have historically defined themselves through inherited traits and titles, but isn’t America a country where we are supposed to define ourselves through acts of will?
I have heard such comments in the past and understood them differently than either Murray, Derbyshire or Solomon do. I see the following difference between Europe and America: In Europe one identifies more with ancestral lineage than we do in America. While working for IBM in New York state in 1961 I knew an engineer whose last name was Rockefeller. It never occurred to me to ask if he was of the wealthy American Rockefeller clan. Nor did I hear the answer thru ‘back-channels’. I spent little time wondering about it. I never heard the question raised and I suspect there would have been a slightly awkward pause if it had been raised in a group.

I am slightly surprised to hear of the nurture-nature dichotomy. I see the following divisions among ‘sources of essence’:

Epi Genitics,
Methylation of germ-line DNA and perhaps other signals,
Vagaries of Morphogenesis,
Such as ‘My mother took DES’,
Home culture,
A conventional contribution.
Culture of teen age Peers,
See Judith Harris.
I think the persona is pretty much set by this time. If by “define ourselves” we mean influencing how others see us then I think we do this when we choose our clothes and subconsciously choose how to speak. There is a anecdote; during WW II a high ranking English military man asks an American counterpart “How do you chaps tell each other apart?”. I have presumed that this stems from the English premiss that there are classes and phoneme and speech patterns that signal your class. There are indeed such classes and patterns in America but they are less pronounced, more regional and more haphazard. They are also mostly unfamiliar to the English.

I don’t know how English expectation of mental competence is influenced by class identification. In America there are classes that demean conventional intelligence. Expectation of intelligence of someone with attendant speech patterns is likely to be low.

I plead guilty to the following unconscious behavior. I checked into a Detroit hotel, a city I seldom visit. The bell-hop had a Hungarian accent. Three of the people I had known with such accents were Nobel prize winners and the few others were at least PhD’s. I didn’t know how to interact with the polite bell-hop. It was only later that I deduced the source of my confusion. It isn’t that Americans are oblivious to accent, merely that they use it for different purposes, not all good.