Although it’s been ostensibly debunked over and over again, the falsely dichotomous nature/nurture debate seems to have a solid foothold in our minds. Over at New Scientist last week, Evelyn Fox Keller made another attempt to dislodge this idea from the popular imagination.
I think she touches on the answer: it’s not about science. It’s about self. It’s about imagination. it’s about language. It’s about the haunting idea that there might be a million different versions of “you” for each of a million different sets of life circumstances a person with your particular DNA configuration could’ve been born into.
Just the other day, I listened to an Escape Pod story on this very theme: Raising Jenny, by Janni Lee Simner (EP258). Set in a future world, where human cloning is possible and routine, it follows an unconventional woman and her decision to bear and raise a clone of her very conventional mother as her own child, and the struggles and expectations inherent in such an endeavor. It’s an interesting story, for all the same reasons this whole nature/nurture thing refuses to die.
It gets at perhaps the most basic human question of all: Who am I? Was this inevitable? Is it fixed?
For as steady and solid as our selves seem to be, upon examination, fears (or hopes, depending on the situation) well up that they may be entirely tentative; they can change from moment to moment. There’s an impulse, I think, to attempt to define self as either entirely fixed or entirely tentative, whichever appeals more to the person doing the defining. This thought process lends an illusion of separability to the entangled influences of genes and environment.
It’s the nearly unsnuffable idea that we are born full of raw materials that will be shaped by our parents and our life circumstances into what we become as adults; the panicked sense, however misguided, many parents have that they could be fucking up their kids with every decision…
No matter how many times we’re told these influences are not separable, and no matter how deep the scientific understanding of the underlying entanglements, we can’t shake the idea of how we could be different.
What if my parents had done xyz differently?
What if i’d been born into wealth and privilege?
What if my family had never come to America?
Despite my basic grasp of the intricacies of development, the idea that I would be different today if I’d been raised under different circumstances seems an unassailable truth.
Ultimately, of course, this question is entirely moot. I am me because of the totality of my heritage and experience. Not to mention, if the various strands of my family hadn’t come to this country, they likely never would have mingled their respective gene pools into the configuration that produced me…
But it’s still fun to think about.
So, as annoying as we “scientifically enlightened” types may find it, the continued recycling of the old nature/nurture saw is probably here to stay.