The main character of the first 4 chapters of Harry Potter isn’t Harry: it’s the Dursleys:
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
The Dursleys are awful and abusive in an over-the-top, Roald Dahl way that somehow manages not to cause Harry any serious emotional problems, which even I, a hard-core hereditarian, would find improbable if Harry were a real boy. But Harry isn’t the point: watching the Dursleys get their comeuppance is the point.
JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling both focused on the same group of people–common English peasants–but Tolkien’s depiction of the Hobbits are much more sympathetic than Rowling’s Muggles, even if they don’t like adventures:
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighborhood of The Hill for time out of mind and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him.
We could wax philosophical (or political) about why Tolkien sees common folk as essentially good, despite their provinciality, and why Rowling sees them as essentially bad, for precisely the same reasons, but in the end both writers are correct, for there is good and bad in all groups.
Why are the Dursleys effective villains? Why is their buffoonish abuse believable, and why do so many people identify with young Harry? Is he not the Dursley’s kin, if not their son, their nephew? Shouldn’t they look out for him?
One of the great ironies of life is that the people who are closest to us are also the most likely to abuse us. Despite fears of “stranger danger” (or perhaps because of it) children are most likely to be harmed by parents, step-parents, guardians, or other close relatives/friends of the family, not strangers lurking in alleys or internet chatrooms.
…there were an estimated 57 000 deaths attributed to homicide among children under 15 years of age in 2000. Global estimates of child homicide suggest that infants and very young children are at greatest risk, with rates for the 0–4-year-old age group more than double those of 5–14-year-olds…
The risk of fatal abuse for children varies according to the income level of a country and region of the world. For children under 5 years of age living in high-income countries, the rate of homicide is 2.2 per 100 000 for boys and 1.8 per 100 000 for girls. In low- to middle-income countries the rates are 2–3 times higher – 6.1 per 100 000 for boys and 5.1 per 100 000 for girls. The highest homicide rates for children under 5 years of age are found in the WHO African Region – 17.9 per 100 000 for boys and 12.7 per 100 000 for girls.
(Aside: in every single region, baby boys were more likely to be murdered than baby girls–how’s that “male privilege” for you?)
Estimates of physical abuse of children derived from population-based surveys vary considerably. A 1995 survey in the United States asked parents how they disciplined their children (12). An estimated rate of physical abuse of 49 per 1000 children was obtained from this survey when the following behaviours were included: hitting the child with an object, other than on the buttocks; kicking the child; beating the child; and threatening the child with a knife or gun. …
.In a cross-sectional survey of children in Egypt, 37% reported being beaten or tied up by their parents and 26% reported physical injuries such as fractures, loss of consciousness or permanent disability as a result of being beaten or tied up (17).
. In a recent study in the Republic of Korea, parents were questioned about their behaviour towards their children. Two-thirds of the parents reported whipping their children and 45% confirmed that they had hit, kicked or beaten them (26).
. A survey of households in Romania found that 4.6% of children reported suffering severe and frequent physical abuse, including being hit with an object, being burned or being deprived of food. Nearly half of Romanian parents admitted to beating their children ‘‘regularly’’ and 16% to beating their children with objects (34).
. In Ethiopia, 21% of urban schoolchildren and 64% of rural schoolchildren reported bruises or swellings on their bodies resulting from parental punishment (14).
Ugh. The Dursleys are looking almost decent right now.
In most ways, the Dursleys do not fit the pattern characteristic of most abuse cases–severe abuse and neglect are concentrated among drug-addicted single mothers with more children than they can feed and an unstable rotation of unrelated men in and out of the household. The Dursley’s case is far more mild, but we may still ask: why would anyone mistreat their kin? Wouldn’t natural selection–selfish genes and all that–select against such behavior?
There are a number of facile explanations for the Dursley’s behavior. The first, suggest obliquely by Rowling, is that Mrs. Dursley was jealous of her sister, Lily, Harry’s mother, for being more talented (and prettier) than she was. This is the old “they’re only bullying you because they’re jealous” canard, and it’s usually wrong. We may discard this explanation immediately, as it is simply too big a leap from “I was jealous of my sister” to “therefore I abused her orphaned child for 11 years.” Most of us endured some form of childhood hardship–including sibling rivalry–without turning into abusive assholes who lock little kids in cupboards.
The superior explanation is that there is something about Harry that they just can’t stand. He’s not like them. This is expressed in Harry’s appearance–the Dursleys are described as tall, fat, pink skinned, and blue eyed with straight, blond hair, while Harry is described as short, skinny, pale skinned, and green-eyed with wavy, dark hair.
More importantly, Harry can do magic. The Dursley’s can’t.
It’s never explained in the books why some people can do magic and not others, but the trait looks strongly like a genetic one–not much more complicated than blue eyes. Magic users normally give birth to magical children, and non-magic users (the term “muggle” is an ethnic slur and should be treated as such,) normally have non-magical children. Occasionally magical children are born to regular families, just as occasionally two brown-eyed parents have a blue-eyed child because both parents carried a recessive blue eyed gene that they both happened to pass on to their offspring, and occasionally magical parents have regular children, just as smart people sometimes have dumb offspring. On the whole, however, magical ability is stable enough across generations that there are whole magical families that have been around for hundreds of years and non-magical families that have done the same.
Any other factor–environmental, magical–could have been figured out by now and used to turn kids like Neville into competent wizards, so we conclude that such a factor does not exist.
Magic is a tricky thing to map, metaphorically, onto everyday existence, because nothing like it really exists in our world. We can vaguely imagine that Elsa hiding her ice powers is kind of like a gay person hiding the fact that they are gay, but being gay doesn’t let you build palaces or create sentient snowmen. Likewise, the Dursely’s anger at Harry being “one of them” and adamantly claiming that magic and wizardry don’t exist, despite the fact that they know very well that Mrs. Dursley’s sister could turn teacups into frogs, does resemble the habit of certain very conservative people to pretend that homosexuality doesn’t exist, or that if their children never hear that homosexuality exists, they’ll never become gay.
The other difficulty with this metaphor is that gay people, left to their own devices, don’t produce children.
But putting together these two factors, we arrive at the conclusion that wizards are a distinct, mostly endogamous ethnic group that the Dursleys react to as though they were flaming homosexuals.
How many generations of endogamy would it take to produce two genetically distinct populations from one? Not many–take, for example, the Irish Travellers:
Researchers led by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and the University of Edinburgh analysed genetic information from 42 people who identified as Irish Travellers.
The team compared variations in their DNA code with that of 143 European Roma, 2,232 settled Irish, 2,039 British and 6,255 European or worldwide individuals. …
They found that Travellers are of Irish ancestral origin but have significant differences in their genetic make-up compared with the settled community.
These differences have arisen because of hundreds of years of isolation combined with a decreasing Traveller population, the researchers say. …
The team estimates the group began to separate from the settled population at least 360 years ago.
That’s a fair bit of separation for a mere 360 years or so–and certainly enough for your relatives to act rather funny about it if you decided to run off with Travellers and then your orphaned child turned up on their doorstep.
How old are the wizarding families? Ollivander’s Fine Wands has been in business since 382 BC, and Merlin, Agrippa, and Ptolemy are mentioned as ancient Wizards, so we can probably assume a good 2,000 years of split between the two groups, with perhaps a 10% in-migration of non-magical spouses.
Harry is, based on his parents, 50% magical and 50% non-magical, though of course both Lily and Petunia Dursley probably carry some Wizard DNA.
In The Blank Slate, Pinker has some interesting observations on the subject of sociobiology:
As the notoriety of Sociobiology grew in the ensuing years, Hamilton and Trivers, who had thought up many of the ideas, also became targets of picketers… Trivers had argued that sociobiology is, if anything a force for political progress. It is rooted in the insight that organisms did not evolve to benefit their family, group, or species, because the individuals making up those groups have genetic conflicts of interest with one another and would be selected to defend those interests. This immediately subverts the comfortable belief that those in power rule for the good of all, and it throws a spotlight on hidden actors in the social world, such as female sand the younger generation.
Further in the book, Pinker continues:
Tolstoy’s famous remark that happy families are all alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way is not true at the level of ultimate (evolutionary) causation. Trivers showed how the seeds of unhappiness in every family have the same underlying source. Though relatives have common interests because of their common genes, the degree of overlap is not identical within all their permutations and combinations of family members. Parents are related to all of their offspring by an equal factor, 50 percent, but each child is related to himself or herself by a factor of 100 percent. …
Parental investment is a limited resource. A day has only twenty-four hours … At one end of the lifespan, children learnt hat a mother cannot pump out an unlimited stream of milk; at the other, they learn that parents do not leave behind infinite inheritances.
To the extent that emotions among people reflect their typical genetic relatedness, Trivers argued, the members of a family should disagree on how parental investment should be divvied up.
And to the extent that one of the children in a household is actually a mixed-ethnicity nephew and no close kin at all to the father, the genetic relationship is even more distant between Harry and the Dursleys than between most children and the people raising them.
Parents should want to split their investment equitably among the children… But each child should want the parent to dole out twice as much of the investment to himself or herself as to a sibling, because children share half their genes with each full sibling but share all their genes with themselves. Given a family with two children and one pie, each child should want to split it in a ratio of two thirds to one third, while parents should want it to be split fifty fifty.
A person normally shares about 50% of their genes with their child and 25% of their genes with a niece or nephew, but we also share a certain amount of genes just by being distantly related to each other in the same species, race, or ethnic group.
Harry is, then, somewhat less genetically similar than the average nephew, so we can expect Mrs. Dursley to split any pies a bit less than 2/3s for Dudley and 1/3 for Harry, with Mr. Dursley grumbling that Harry doesn’t deserve any pie at all because he’s not their kid. (In a more extreme environment, if the Dursleys didn’t have enough pie to go around, it would be in their interest to give all of the pie to Dudley, but the Dursleys have plenty of food and they can afford to grudgingly keep Harry alive.)
Let’s check in with E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology:
Most kinds of social behavior, including perhaps all of the most complex forms, are based in one way or another on kinship. As a rule, the closer the genetic relationship of the members of a group, the more stable and intricate the social bonds of its members. …
Parent-offspring conflict and its obverse, sibling-sibling conflict, can be seen throughout the animal kingdom. Littermates or nestmates fight among themselves sometimes lethally, and fight with their mothers over access to milk, food, and care…. The conflict also plays out in the physiology of prenatal human development. Fetuses tap their mothers’ bloodstreams to mine the most nutrients possible from their body, while the mother’s body resists to keep it in good shape for future children. …
Trivers touted the liberatory nature of sociobiology by invoking an “underlying symmetry in our social relationships” and “submerged actors in the social world.” He was referring to women, as we will see in the chapter on gender, and to children. The theory of parent-offspring conflict says that families do not contain all-powerful, all-knowing parents and their passive, grateful children. …
Sometimes families contain Dursleys and Potters.
Most profoundly, children do not allow their personalities to be shaped by their parents’ nagging, blandishments, or attempts to serve as role models.
Quite lucky for Harry!
The offspring cannot rely on its parents for disinterested guidance. One expects the offspring to be preprogrammed to resist some parental manipulation while being open to other forms. When the parent imposes an arbitrary system of reinforcement (punishment and reward) in order to manipulate the offspring to act against its own best interests, selection will favor offspring that resist such schedules of reinforcement.
(Are mixed-race kids more likely to be abused than single-race kids? Well, they’re more likely to be abused than White, Asian, or Hispanic kids, but less likely to be abused than Black or Native American children [Native American children have the highest rates of abuse]. It seems likely that the important factor here isn’t degree of relatedness, but how many of your parents hail from a group with high rates of child abuse. The Dursleys are not from a group with high child abuse rates.)
Let us return to E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology:
Mammalogists have commonly dealt with conflict as if it were a nonadaptive consequence of the rupture of the parent-offspring bond. Or, in the case of macaques, it has been interpreted as a mechanism by which the female forces the offspring into independence, a step designed ultimately to benefit both generations. …
A wholly different approach to the subject has been taken by Trivers (1974). … Trivers interprets it as the outcome of natural selection operating in opposite directions on the two generations. How is it possible for a mother and her child to be in conflict and both remain adaptive? We must remember that the two share only one half their genes by common descent. There comes a time when it is more profitable for the mother to send the older juvenile on its way and to devote her efforts exclusively to the production of a new one. To the extent that the first offspring stands a chance to achieve an independent life, the mother is likely to increase (and at most, double,) her genetic representation in the next breeding generation by such an act. But the youngster cannot be expected to view the matter in this way at all. …
If the mothers inclusive fitness suffers first from the relationship, conflict will ensue.
At some point, of course, the child is grown and therefore no longer benefits from the mother’s care; at this point the child and mother are no longer in conflict, but the roles may reverse as the parents become the ones in need of care.
As for humans:
Consider the offspring that behaves altruistically toward a full sibling. If it were the only active agent, its behavior would be selected when the benefit to the sibling exceeds two times the cost to itself. From the mother’s point of view, however, inclusive fitness is gained however the benefit to the sibling simply exceeds the cost to the altruist. Consequently, there is likely to evolve a conflict between parents and offspring in the attitudes toward siblings: the parent will encourge more altruism than the youngster is prepared to give. The converse argument also holds: the parent will tolerate less selfishness and spite among siblings than they have a tendency to display…
Indeed, Dudley is, in his way, crueler (more likely to punch Harry) and more greedy than even his parents.
Altruistic acts toward a first cousin are ordinarily selected if the benefit to the cousin exceeds 8 times the cost to the altruist, since the coefficient of relationship of first cousins is 1/8. However, the parent is related to its nieces and nephews by r=1/4, and it should prefer to see altruistic acts by its children toward their cousins whenever the benefit-to-cost ratio exceeds 2. Parental conscientiousness will also extend to interactions with unrelated individuals. From a child’s point of view, an act of selfishness or spite can provide a gain so long as its own inclusive fitness is enhanced… In human terms, the asymmetries in relationship and the differences in responses they imply will lead in evolution to an array of conflicts between parents and their children. In general, offspring will try to push their own socialization in a more egoistic fashion, while the parents will repeatedly attempt to discipline the children back to a higher level of altruism. There is a limit to the amount of altruism [healthy, normal] parents want to see; the difference is in the levels that selection causes the two generations to view as optimum.
To return to Pinker:
As if the bed weren’t crowded enough, every child of a man and a woman is also the grandchild of two other men and two other women. Parents take an interest in their children’s reproduction because in the long run it is their reproduction, too. Worse, the preciousness of female reproductive capacity makes it a valuable resource for the men who control her in traditional patriarchal societies, namely her father and brothers. They can trade a daughter or sister for additional wives or resources for themselves and thus they have an interest in protecting their investment by keeping her from becoming pregnant by men other than the ones they want to sell her to. It is not just the husband or boyfriend who takes a proprietary interest in a woman’s sexual activity, then, but also her father and brothers. Westerners were horrified by the treatment of women under the regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2001…
[ah such an optimist time Pinker wrote in]
Like many children, Harry is rescued from a bad family situation by that most modern institution, the boarding school.
The weakening of parents’ hold over their older children is also not just a recent casualty of destructive forces. It is part of a long-running expansion of freedom in the West that has granted children their always-present desire for more autonomy than parents are willing to cede. In traditional societies, children were shackled to the family’s land, betrothed in arranged marriages, and under the thumb of the family patriarch. That began to change in Medieval Europe, and some historians argue it was the first steppingstone in the expansion of rights that we associate with the Enlightenment and that culminated in the abolition of feudalism and slavery. Today it is no doubt true that some children are led astray by a bad crowd or popular culture. But some children are rescued from abusive or manipulative families by peers, neighbors, and teachers. Many children have profited from laws, such as compulsory schooling and the ban on forced marriages, that may override the preferences of their parents.
The sad truth, for Harry–and many others–is that their interests and their relatives’ interests are not always the same. Sometimes humans are greedy, self-centered, or just plain evil. Small children are completely dependent on their parents and other adults, unable to fend for themselves–so the death of his parents followed by abuse and neglect by his aunt and uncle constitute true betrayal.
But there is hope, even for an abused kid like Harry, because we live in a society that is much larger than families or tribal groups. We live in a place where honor killings aren’t common and even kids who aren’t useful to their families can find a way to be useful in the greater society. We live in a civilization.