Nature VS Nurture – the Full Version

It is my contention that the nature VS nurture debate is often framed in a bad way. I wish to make it clear that it is not an inverse relationship, not an either/or kind of thing; we have natures and we have a lot of nurturing to do, it’s not one or the other.

When discussions of behaviour take place, when crime is studied, it very naturally leads to talk of the ‘nature VS nurture’ debate, and understandably so. Both principles play huge parts in our lives, and determining what is in our natures and what we are actively creating in our lives would seem to be an endeavour the importance of which really can’t be overestimated. Many believe that we really might benefit greatly if we knew which aspects of humanity, which aspects of ourselves are “hard-wired” and which are or can be learned. Why that is, why so many of us find this dichotomy important may be an interesting query, but not just yet. First, let’s look at the present state of this old debate.

Genetics is a fast maturing science, and is taking many other branches of science to new levels of complexity and understanding. I believe the present state of the ‘nature VS nurture’ debate is that some things may be all one or the other, but that in many behaviours, many instances of predisposition as well as many illnesses are brought about or not, as the result of some interaction between the two. Genes have been identified to correlate with many of these things in people, but many cases show that environmental factors can act as switches for these genetic occurrences, that is, have the effect of turning genes on or off. This is not remotely my area of knowledge, but as an example, there are genes that have been identified as making certain cancers more likely, but of course, everyone with the particular cancer gene doesn’t get the cancer. I’ve even heard of a “psychopath” or “warrior” gene (the MAOA-L allele) that requires abuse or neglect in childhood to activate it; again, not everyone with the gene actually displays violent behaviour and not every abused person with the gene does either. (Again, the disclaimer: this is not my area, but it shows the interaction of genes and environment.)

The existence of such a gene is certainly a useful piece of information, an important type of contribution from the ‘nature’ side of the conversation, perhaps a couple who possess the gene could be counselled to either adopt children, or at the very least, to be educated in a gentler method of child-rearing. This would be a practical thing resulting from this scientific discovery, the first, a ‘nature + nurture’ problem with a ‘nature’ solution, the second option being a ‘nurture’ solution for the same problem. I think I’ve made no secret of which side of this debate I feel to be the more important. Suffice to say, a major improvement in human nurturing would render the scientific discovery of the ‘warrior gene’ moot. If no-one abused, no ‘warrior genes’ would be activated.

I thought this topic needed mentioning, but honestly, I only bring it up to pass over it. For the record again, I am a ‘nurture’ guy, and that may be genetic: the apparent determinism of the ‘nature’ argument doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve read some stuff about the ‘twin studies’ – twins separated and adopted out at birth have been studied specifically for the unique value the resulting information would bring to the ‘nature VS nurture’ debate, and apparently some of these twins have lived amazingly parallel lives, giving support for the ‘nature’ side. Strong as that and some other things are on the ‘nature’ side of the conversation, I can’t seem to accept it; to me it seems hopelessly counter-intuitive. And so, I have developed a philosophy that simply ignores it, but consciously. I have made great efforts not to base my musings upon on the idea that my side has won the debate, which is certainly not the case. An argument for the ‘nurture’ side would be the many studies, some of which I have included here in this project that show the negative consequences of childhood abuse and corporal punishment. Those are very strong, well vetted arguments for the ‘nurture’ side, at least in terms of ‘negative’ nurturing. That may be an important thing in the ‘nature VS nurture’ conversation.

Positive nurturing seems not to be in evidence, at least not as clearly and obviously as it is in the case of negative nurturing, or abuse. It would appear that the power of nurturing is seen and felt most strongly when it’s all gone wrong. Partly, influences on us have their greatest power when we are younger; every year we age things get less influential on us, so the damage of early abuse is rarely completely resolved later, even with many years of positive nurturing stimulus. This usual arrangement of things makes it difficult to separate it, but it doesn’t prove that abuse isn’t just plain more powerful than positive nurturing. It may be. If so, that is very important in the discussion. Positive nurturing may be losing the debate, but negative nurturing can win it – again, if it were a debate, if information from one side negated the knowledge gained from the other.

That, however, is not the case.

I cannot imagine in what way a complete understanding of our natures could ever negate the importance of nurturing. How can a full map of the human genome, all labelled with predispositions for behaviours, even for brain disorders or psychoses ever mean that we don’t need to be careful and nurturing with one another, with our kids? Conversely, how could improvements in the nurturing of human beings invalidate scientific inquiry? This is an apples and oranges sort of thing. The only way there is a ‘debate’ here is in the most negative extrapolations. ‘Nurture’ folks may legitimately worry that the ‘nature’ people wish to institute some program of eugenics, mandatory sterilizations and such. As a member of the ‘nurture’ crowd, my worst fantasy is that the ‘nature’ folks are looking for a way out of any responsibility that is implied by the importance of nurturing, that they want to believe their parental roughness isn’t hurting their kids. Obviously, science should march onward, I don’t caution against any learning, but I am having a hard time imagining a good, moral reason for any argument from the nature side if it is intended to detract from the importance of nurturing.

Having chosen sides in this false argument, I simply choose to exempt my arguments about punishment from the ‘nature VS nurture’ issue in this way:

In terms of behaviour, nature is what it is. The time may have come when we have difficult policy decisions to make regarding exercising control over our genetics, but to date, eugenics has spoiled the enthusiasm about it, morally. The spectre of total control over our lives that way, total control over our breeding habits is not a pretty one, and we know that the efforts made throughout our history, and our long pre-history to fit our actual breeding into a scheme anyone thinks it should follow have failed spectacularly. Even in societies that exercise extreme control over their females, still the behaviour of the males ensures that breeding remains nearly as random as that of our primate cousins. This may be a sort of genetic imperative, providing randomness in the gene pool.

So, to repeat, nature is what it is, and not to sound anti-science, but it probably should be. So even if we develop a workable plan to start breeding in a far more conscious and scientific manner, I think we should direct a large portion of our effort to nurturing issues.

When approaching any problem, Occam’s razor – the simplest explanation is probably the truth – is probably the first tool to apply. One interpretation of this idea can be to first test the things we do know, before searching for more information. In the case of the problem of human misbehaviour and crime, we should look first at what we do regarding these problems now, and wonder what effects the things we know that we do are having – of course I am referring to punishment. Punishing is certainly a part of the phenomena we are investigating, so considering that abuse is known to damage people, causing defiance and misbehaviour, and corporal punishment does the same, perhaps Occam’s idea should be applied to punishment in general. Although difficult to consider for most of us, for a variety of reasons, purely logically, this is a simple question: is it possible that the very thing we do – the only thing we do – to cure crime and misbehaviour is actually the cause? Again, emotionally challenging, but logically simple: is it possible that the only thing we do is the thing we’re doing wrong? I think Occam’s razor demands that we at least test it somehow. Otherwise we are probably doing the equivalent of running around town searching for our spectacles while they’re right there on our face.

In summary, then, advances in the understanding of our natures, brought about by genetics and other disciplines are not in any opposition to the human need for nurturing. The present state of the science of the debate is that there is an interaction between genetics and environment. Nurturing can affect our natures. The power of nurturing is most visible in its negative form, the damages of abuse, where we know that nurturing can affect our natures. We have natures, yes, and to learn about them is a good, useful pursuit, but we have nurturing to do. There is plenty of room for improvement in the human administration of nurturing. Nurturing is what we do, what we can do, and where we should be concentrating our efforts to solve the social problems of crime and misbehaviour. It may be exactly the things we do in the area of nurturing, and not our natures, that cause these sorts of problems.


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