Why won’t Nature/Nurture just die already?

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.

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  1. Without even reading the post (yet), just the 1st few lines, I was just struck by such a nerdy analogy that I had to post it anyway… I’ll read everything later and see how it fits…

    Anyway, imagine a world-wide terrorist plot has blown up all the Lego factories in the world, no more new Legos. In a decade or so, the only available Legos are from yard sales and Ebay, and complete kits are very rare and instructions are non-existent. So kids only have random sets of blocks, no two the same. They can build lots of similar structures, but any kid can build something that no one else can duplicate exactly. The blocks are nature, the building is nurture. (Once in a great while, a particularly creative kid can construct new blocks by cutting up existing standard shapes with a Dremel tool and gluing the pieces together: mutations.)

  2. @Buzz Parsec: It sort of works, except you’d need to imagine that the legos could only be assembled in the same organizational pattern as the original box they were shipped with (pirate ship legos still want to be pirate ships, Millenium Falcon legos still want to be Millenium Falcons). The point is that more and more studies show that we can’t just “build something that no one else can duplicate exactly,” at least as far as this speaks of freedom of choice. Nature is nature. Nurture is insignificant.

  3. I suppose we can choose how to play some of the cards we’re dealt and we can teach our children how to reasonably manage their cards…, and to never go all in pre-flop with a pair of jacks.

  4. As a parent of two girls, I can honestly say that in most cases, kids survive their parent’s raising them. I have no idea whether it’s nature, nurture or both. Or maybe other influences, too.

    Or maybe it’s space aliens with orbiting mind control lasers.

  5. If nurture had died and left me only with nature, then sure, I’d be a different person today. I think they call that feral.

    Kidding aside, this argument reminds me of something I learned from my brother. Obviously, we had some similar nature & nurture conditions growing up together and all, but he’s deaf and I’m hearing. And as a kid trying to understand what it’s like to be deaf when you’re not, this led us finally to the similarly mistaken question: “Wouldn’t you rather be hearing?” To which he basically said, “No. I wouldn’t be me.”

  6. Dunno about the nature\nurture thing. I look back on my life and see easily how it could have been different if the stuff that happened had happened to someone else, or…if I had made different choices about how to respond.
    But, in some ways the choices you can make are limited.
    Anderson Cooper on The Mole – there was this episode where a bull injured one of the contestants. In the camera shot of the others witnessing the accident, most of them are flinching and pulling back. Two people (Cooper and a different contestant) are moving forward. There wasn’t time for rational thought to kick in, just an instinctive reaction.
    Most people pull back from painful experiences, other confront them. I’m not sure that’s a choice.
    I am pretty positive I’m rambling again, though.

  7. How does this play out if I’m totally planning on fucking up my kids?

    I mean I don’t understand the point of having children unless they’re an endless supply of specimens for testing science!

  8. @Siveambrai: Advice?

    Some of the interesting bits of nature/nurture actually come, IMO, from my niece. She is, in many ways (including the genetic), my brother’s child… but there are very definite things about her that have a lot more in common with my sister-in-law’s sister and myself… she’s a lot more outgoing than either of her parents, for example.

  9. Nature/nurture, consciousness, free will. We’re much less in control of our actions than we like to think. Depending on your definition of “we”, “control” and “action”, of course.

    [Re-iteration of the points of the post deleted]

    Good post.

  10. @Buzz Parsec: First RATS! I had a great opening line to my followup, which got derailed when I discovered that the link is to the 2nd page of the article. Anyway, here goes:

    Nailed me in the first paragraph! (Well, the 1st paragraph of the 2nd page.) I had forgotten that genes coding for static, structural proteins (Lego blocks) are far from the only genes and may even be in the minority. So the whole Lego block vs Lego structures analogy goes out the window. Maybe I can use it for something else? Legos are cool.

    @hamertime: I think it’s more Nature IS Nurture (or Nurture is Nature) than that Nurture is insignificant. There’s feedback in a nonlinear system, so trying to separate out the factors in some simplistic dichotomy is worse than useless.

    @Siveambrai: Most of the kids I’ve encountered turn out better then you would have any right to expect given their amateurish and incompetent parenting, so good luck to you! Or maybe my friends and relatives are less incompetent than they seem, or maybe its the Lake Wobegon effect. where all the children are above average.

  11. I think the reason that the conflict doesn’t go away is because some people need to cling to reasons to be bigots and hate. That is the main reason for all the genetics of intelligence stuff. Even when the data shows that genetically there is no such thing as “race”, the bigots still need to cling to reasons why their “race”/ethnicity/religion/color/politics/etc/etc/etc is better than all of the others.

    It is a need to rank people in a social hierarchy and put some people at the bottom where they can be abused or killed. That is the whole point of politics, religion, and most every activity.

  12. I think the belief that identity is necessarily static is a societal harm. People should feel comfortable changing to the version of themselves they want to be without making up divine placebos to help them explain why they are able to change.

  13. It’s clear that the reason the nature/nurture debate continues is that Trading Places is a timeless classic that ALSO includes Jamie Lee Curtis’s boobies.

  14. @Mark Hall: hah! <3

    Now to actually add something useful to the conversation….

    I know that many children tend to have dualistic thinking as their brains and cognitive abilities develop (up until their teens sometime). I've seen arguments where this is the basis for many of the binary thoughts that we have within society such as mind/body, nature/nurture, Kirk/Picard. I also know that many people have difficulty working beyond these binary patterns or simply fail to reanalyze thoughts that fall into these patterns when they become older.

    It is possible that the nature/nuture debate is still going simply because most people haven't spent the time really understanding how just a binary separation of ideas is flawed and examined alternative views about them.

  15. I’m still not exactly getting how our upbringing doesn’t influence who we turn out to be. If our parents actions don’t dictate in a small part our future selves then why do I have the interests I have? My father influenced my taste in music by introducing me to opera at a young age. My mother demonstrated mental strength and tenacity by re-learning to walk after her motorcycle accident. Doesn’t this qualify as “nurture”?

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