Nature, Nurture, and Thought

Nature, Nurture, and Thought

Those of us who pay attention to such things know that what is commonly called the nature vs. nurture debate continues to generate interest and controversy and that, despite claims to the contrary by advocates of one side or the other, it is neither settled nor ever likely to be. This lack of resolution will persist because underlying what may or may not be scientific arguments for one or the other is something far more important at stake:  ideological supremacy.  It is no accident that those I will call “naturists” generally tend to be right of center politically while “nurturists” tend to be left of center.  If one holds that human nature is largely predetermined by one’s genetic inheritance and that therefore social or cultural learning or experience are comparatively unimportant, then one can at the least argue that society, especially government, should not engage in “social engineering,” because trying to change a person’s nature is doomed to failure.  A more extreme position would argue that, nature being what it is, the best social policy is not to have social policies at all, but rather to let the “market” or some other supposedly neutral or unbiased mechanism sort out individual (and in some cases, racial) successes or failures. Why throw more money at educating the poor when, because of poor genetic backgrounds, they cannot benefit from it?  And it is, of course, the definition of human nature which is at stake—no one really cares if nature or nurture predominates among animals, except insofar as animal models might provide convincing analogies in the debate about human nature.

On the other hand, if one holds that genetics is not destiny and that a person’s society, culture, family, and education are the determining factors in an individual’s or group’s success or failure, society, especially government, should intervene where needful to reshape the environments in which people develop in order to improve their lives.  Thus, devoting more money to education, social and family services, regulations, and so forth (and if necessary raising taxes to fund such ventures) is the best way to improve individuals and society.  We can see that deciding whether it is nature or nurture that decides a person’s or group’s fate also decides whether “taxing the rich” makes sense or is confiscating the fruits of the labor of the naturally superior in order to support the incompetent in a form of parasitism.

Given what is at stake, one can naturally assume that knowing with some certainty which prevails, nature (genetics) or nurture (environment), is very important.  If nature predominates, social policy and politics should logically follow in one direction, but if nurture predominates, then policy and politics should logically follow in the other.  However, I suspect that it is policy and politics, as expressions of ideological positions, that comes first, and that one’s belief in either nature or nurture follows from those.  In other words, I do not believe that the nature/nurture debate is a scientific one, but rather tends to be camouflaged in scientific terms.

In her excellent book The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture, Evelyn Fox Keller, a physicist turned biologist, sorts through the history of the nature vs. nurture debate and pins the blame for its endurance and irresolvability on the problems of language, particularly on the ambiguity and slippage of the meanings of words, especially when those words are used over long periods of time by different people in different disciplines and when their popular usage is quite different from their specialized usages in specific disciplines.  She writes that “our difficulty in maintaining [ . .  . ] conceptual distinction[s] is sustained, if not caused, by the words we use.”  She notes that an author does not need to specifically state certain inferences or assumptions because “they are carried by the language that [we] conventionally deploy.”  Imprecision in language certainly does account for a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding in every complex debate, but I was equally struck by her overview of the history of the nature vs. nurture debate, in which self-justification seems to have been as strong a motive as disinterested science.  It is certainly interesting that many Victorians of the privileged classes almost immediately appropriated Darwin’s theory of natural selection to justify not only their class privileges but the supposed superiority of Europeans (especially the British) over other peoples. Such “reasoning” underlies more recent screeds on the intellectual superiority of Caucasians over Africans (e.g., The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life  by Herrnstein and Murray).  Thus, as much as I agree with Keller’s thesis of the importance of our use of language in  this and other debates (see also her book Making Sense of Life:  Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines), I am not convinced that confusion of language is sufficient to explain the persistence and wrong-headedness of the nature vs. nurture controversy.  I do agree with Keller when she writes, “It depends on politics.”

Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is ubiquitously cited as one of the recent examples of a strong scientific argument for the naturist position, but as its subtitle suggests, the book is not really about the science behind that position. “The Modern Denial of Human Nature” alerts the reader that Pinker intends to tackle something more ideological than mere science, and he quickly gets to it:  the modern deniers of human nature are, in sum, liberal-leftist-Marxists, ranging from such obvious nonscientists as Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin to such eminences as Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, and R. C. Lewontin, an evolutionary biologist and geneticist. Mixing questionable social commentators who have particular political axes to grind with recognized scientists, some of whom grind the same axes, is a rhetorical ploy to damn the science of the latter with the goofiness of the former.  But it also might cause the reader who considers Pinker’s qualifications to note that he is a psychologist by training, not a biologist or geneticist, and that his references to genes and genetics are infrequent and display an amateur knowledge of genetics little better than that of a regular reader of the New York Times Tuesday science section. In other words, Pinker cannot adequately argue the science of the naturist position because he is not enough of a scientist to do so, so he blinds the reader with a snowstorm of vilification of people whose politics he dislikes.

The inadequacy of the science behind the naturist position is best summed up by Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb in their book Evolution in Four Dimensions:  Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life:

One of the things that molecular studies have reinforced is something that had already been accepted by modern geneticists:  the popular conception of the gene as a simple causal agent is not valid. The idea that there is a gene for adventurousness, heart disease, obesity, religiosity, homosexuality, shyness, stupidity, or any other aspect of mind or body has no place on the platform of genetic discourse.  Although many psychiatrists, biochemists, and other scientists who are not geneticists (yet express themselves with remarkable facility on genetic issues) still use the language of genes as simple causal agents, and promise their audience rapid solutions to all sorts of problems, they are no more than propagandists whose knowledge or motives must be suspect.  (Italics in original.)

Note that the title of their book includes “epigenetics,” a term which is not to be found in Pinker’s book, yet epigenetics complicates the genetic picture exponentially and cannot be ignored in any consideration of the interaction of genetics and environment in the development of organisms.[i]

Nonetheless, that “nature” cannot be said to be the determining factor in “human nature” (however defined) does not mean that “nurture” carries the day by default.  Human beings are biological organisms, as much creatures of flesh and blood as any other animal, bodies whose shape and functions are determined first by genes. I am blue-eyed and light-skinned because of my genetic ancestry, not because of what schools I attended or what books I read or what experiences I have or have not had.  And no amount of wishing or hard work can change the color of my skin and eyes or the position of my liver or the basic structure of my brain. I have neurons because my genes directed the development of neurons well before I was born.  As a wise man once said, “Who by taking thought can add a cubit to his height?”

It is true that I speak English, that I hold certain values to be self evident, and that if I had been born elsewhere or in a different historical time, I would speak a different language and hold noticeably different values, but it is also true that I could not have been born anywhere else nor at any other time, even should I wish I had, because this body which is me could only be the product of the particular man who is my father making love to the particular woman who is my other on the particular day on which I was conceived.  A week earlier or later, and someone else would have been born (same egg, different sperm cell).  I also had little choice or control over many aspects of my social and cultural environments, including which elementary and high schools I attended and which religion I was raised in, and it cannot be denied that those schools and that religion greatly influenced my life and continue to do so today.  My parents made many of those choices for me, as did my teachers and preachers.  Clearly, to whatever degree the human mind or personality is malleable, able to be shaped by culture (nurture), much of that shaping occurred without either my knowledge or consent.

And it is in the matter of consent (or rather its absence) where nature and nurture come into alignment, for both nature and nurture as traditionally discussed are deterministic.  They are deterministic in the sense that they are external to and beyond the control of the individual, whether they be natural causes such as genes and climate or human causes such as parents or teachers.  B. F. Skinner infamously said, “Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything,” and in so doing encapsulated not only the extreme nurturist view but expressed that which naturists find most alarming about nurturism and its cognates such as constructivism and social engineering.  If naturists are determinists in a pseudo-Darwinist sense, they often at least recognize the integrity of the individual over against what they consider the busy-body interference of misguided do-gooders; on the other hand, if nurturists are determinists in an opposing sense, they at least recognize that individuals are not condemned or chosen from birth to be bad or good, failures or successes.

What neither side bothers to consider is the role of thought in shaping human life—the thought of the individual as well as the shared thought of generations of men and women.  To paraphrase what Marilynne Robinson wrote in a somewhat different but related context, in both naturism and nurturism, the experience, testimony and reflection “of humankind is not to be credited.”[ii]  Even so thoughtful a writer as Evelyn Fox Keller never mentions “thought” in Mirage of a Space, even though her book is exemplary of what human thought is and does.  I suspect that thought is neglected because it is not amenable to scientific study at more than a trivial level (such as the discovery, if that’s what it really is, that drivers move their foot to the brake pedal before the thought to do so arises in their consciousness—but that used to be called reflex action). Science, or at least evolutionary science, falls into an awkward silence when faced with the philosophy of Kant, the novels of Henry James, or the frescoes of Piero della Francesca.  There is no Darwinian explanation for any of these things and never will be.  Darwinism is a powerful theory, but it is not a theory of everything.  Likewise, cultural explanations of human behavior do explain a lot, but again, they do not explain everything.  There could be no such thing as originality if culture determined all, yet throughout human history, originality has pushed human beings forward.[iii]  The first person to realize he could create a blade by chipping away at a chunk of stone had neither genes nor traditions to guide him in that enterprise:  he had to think about it, he had to imagine how to do it before he could do it.  That we can think may be explainable by evolution; what we think cannot.

Note that while Pinker’s book was published in 2002, The New York Times has published articles on epigenetics since at least 1998 and the term has been used in its contemporary sense since well before that.

Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010)

Lest the reader mistake this sentence as stating an evolutionary position, I should note that I am making a chronological statement here, not an evolutionary one.  I prefer not to muddy the meaning of the term “evolution” by applying it to every change over time and prefer to limit it to biological evolution as best expressed by Darwinism.

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