The Old Naturists
I’m not as sure of this as I’d like to be, but the ‘Nurture’ side of the argument is the newer idea, right? It’s modernity, some analogue of science. It’s an increase in complexity in our understanding, the suggestion that not only are things what they are, but they are also what we make them. At least that’s how it looks from today, with the framework of progress superimposed on it. If we really thought in the past that we were simply as God made us, then that might be difficult to reconcile with any sort of strivings for change and success anyone ever had at it, so clearly even Christendom leaves us some ability to direct ourselves – even Jesus gives us the choice to believe or not, to choose the light or the darkness. The framing of that choice shows us that Nature ruled the world in Christendom, though: our choice was to deny our sinful natures or not. It would seem to have been the enlightenment, Rousseau and his ilk who were the early Nurturists, who suggested that our evil was not inherent, that we create it with our interactions.
During that time, while these ideas were being tossed about, the Nature side of the argument in Europe and European societies elsewhere was held most strongly by the church: if we don’t have specific natures, then we don’t all need the church’s cure for it. These were the Old Naturists, and their stance was Man is Evil by Nature, and if he were to direct himself without God’s laws, all that Man produced would be evil. If Man turned away from God, the Devil was already inside him and ruled him. There are still plenty of these sorts of Naturists around, but they may not be the only variety of them anymore.
The Old Chestnut
Ideas of Nurture appear to have derived from the evolved human psychological faculty, our ability to “read” one another, to glean other peoples’ intentions and motivations. This explains why psychology seems obvious to so many of us, because of course we’re able to understand some of what’s going on in one another’s minds, we need to. The workings we perceive in those minds and in our own are clearly changeable; if minds cannot be changed, why develop complex language? The ability to add to one another’s information (or misinformation) and alter their calculations would seem to be the definition of the Nurture idea. And it really happens, people tell each other things, people learn, people change their minds with enough time and evidence. Not every time, sure, but we do. ‘Nurture’ as such, is a real thing in the world.
Of course, ‘Nature’ is too, and like so many things, the old debate is always increasingly polarized. There have been famous grandiose pronouncements from the Nurture side of the house, declarations like the big three from Pinker’s book, the Blank Slate (also the title), the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine and others, Watson’s claim to make whatever professional he wished to out of any child, all of which are regularly trotted out today to show the error of the Nurturists’ ways – but the Nurture principle is not really destroyed just because it doesn’t destroy all others. Just because there is more to life than the Nurture idea doesn’t mean there is no Nurture, the same as everything else in the world.
The Nurturists are still in the debate, despite their sometimes jingoistic denial of any human Nature at all, due to the innate belief in our natural psychology most people share, and in that sense they always will be – but this rift has biology and psychology on divergent paths. That situation is all too common in matters of human affairs, but intolerable to science and to true understanding.
The above mentioned atheist fallacies that the enlightenment produced to replace the old world order of church and king – the blank slate, etc. – were loud, flashy, provocative ideas, and to some folks they were worth checking out. There have been famous failures, famous human rights violations. What they are today, though, I think, are strawman arguments. It seems today that all that is required to win the ancient debate is to show that any trait varies more with the presence or absence of a genetic connection more than it varies with some environmental factor, or rather, I suppose, with all the environmental factors we can reasonably vary within the law. Any measurable facet of Nature would seem to disprove any Nurture, which, perhaps I should just give it up: sure. Nurture has not yet been measured.
Rumours that it has actually been measured but in fact lacks dimension have been exaggerated – like all other negative propositions, like the existence of God. Of late, the Real Sciences have been giving the Nurture-based attempts at science like psychology the gears for their famous failures, for their lack of evidence. Of course, finding objective evidence for subjective processes is probably an impossible task in the first place, a setup for failure.
I recently saw a film that convinced me I’d been naïve regarding the existence of antisemitism as a real, distinct thing, its own species of racism. I mean, I knew it, but I must not have, because the experience of the film – The Woman in Gold – really drove the point home and I have a changed understanding of that phenomenon now. That is Nurture in action, isn’t it? Is it not an actual Nurturing event because there is no evidence other than my say-so? Nurture operates subjectively. There may indeed be no way to objectively quantify it – it hasn’t changed my understanding to the point where I might provide evidence, such as some sort of financial support for Israel, or write something pro-Israel, nothing concrete – but twenty such steps, if life somehow arranges them for us, and we have reversed ourselves completely. Some number of steps along that road and my voting habits can change.
Nurture is a stealth operation. No evidence for each of many steps in the execution – but people do change their minds, we do learn. Perhaps that is the question that should be asked in this discussion. Is our inner life not a real thing, does our inner life not have its effects in the real world? What may be the New Naturists’ Bible, The Blank Slate, is all about that it does, that those three toxic atheist ideas have had huge effects on the world, not all desirable. So how has the geneticists’ objective evidence somehow shifted the point from the importance of the subjective world to ‘give us some proof or step aside?’
Does the Nature VS Nurture argument mean it’s like “Highlander” for scientific disciplines? There can be only one?
I think the Nurturists bought into it, is what it is, at least to some degree. Some of them must have gotten overly excited about the twin and adoption studies, they maybe thought they had a chance, thought they were going to be able to compete on that playing field, numbers and graphs. Of course, we all want objective success for psychology, for a potential cure for our hurt. But Nurture stepped into Nature’s home ground with some piss-poor assumptions with which to build their evidences, and they got their asses kicked. The geneticists had real numbers; it was hardly even a battle. Now the narrative (written by the anti-narrative explanation of life people) is that social science has lost the war. Of course psychology, the subject of which shares its subjective nature with religion, can also never be killed objectively – but I too search for the Holy Grail, the connection to objective science from psychology.
Everyone knows of times when they themselves had an inner life experience that changed at least their inner life going forward and many will say they’ve had ones that changed their lives objectively as well, and so psychology can’t ever die. This apparent divergence however, the perception that a good and thorough search for objective support for evidence of parental or environmental influence has been done and the hypotheses of social science have been debunked and the implication that psychologists are pushing ahead regardless of having been disproved – this is a clue about the New Naturists over and above their limited, disciplinary point of view. First of all, the scientists railing against the blank slate tainted psychology paradigm are failing at science: they’ve accepted the classic psychology studies’ data as valid data, bugs, bad assumptions (blank slate included!) and all. Apparently the geneticists don’t know what was wrong with those classic studies today anymore than the psychologists who did them at the time, because they’re comparing data, as though they’ve signed off on the conception, assumptions, and parameters of the old studies.
That is my clue: no improvement in the science, and no desire to improve social science. These folks are saying “psychology has done as good as it ever can and they haven’t proved anything. Let it go.” That is sort of an incurious attitude, coming as it ostensibly does from scientists, who are normally rather sensitive to the closing of avenues of study.
If we consider that psychological disciplines began from a positive place, from a repair point of view, that it began as the study and search for the cure for some our more extreme subjective hurts, we know it’s something we hope would work out. Adding to that the obvious subjective importance of our narratives, the data and the causal relationships by which we understand our lives that is the Nurture principle‘s subjective apparent proof of existence and we may have to wonder. Who wants to win the argument against Nurture? And why?
The New and the Old
Of course Pinker laid it out: the toxic, pure reason sort of ideas that seemed to arrive with atheist science, the blank slate, etc. He tells of how it’s destroyed social science and delayed better science, and he tells of some horrific communist experiments, breaking families up, that resulted. That’s all well and good, and politically those ideas created nightmares, and they certainly stained social science and all of that, just as he says. Who am I to argue with him? But that isn’t enough to explain anti-nurture sentiments. Just as there is more to any religion than it’s most radical, fundamental sect, Nurture generally is not the enemy of Man because blank slate extremists would take things too far. Further to this idea, that blank slate paradigms do not represent the Nurture principle, I must add that blank slate paradigms took over some politicians’ minds, some governments, and some universities – but not the world generally. Blank slate ideas may be the unreasoning ancient, incumbent evil to be fought at the universities – but there are sure to be a whole lot of Naturists lining up behind the geneticists that never went to school and never gave the blank slate a second thought.
In fact, it may be the older kind of Nurturists lining up in front of the geneticists too, there may be funding from the larger world’s incumbent rulers, the churches and their associations. A lot of money still flows where the churches think it should, and in issues like this, the original polarized debate almost, there are only two sides. Nurture is psychology and atheism. Religion, with all of its inertia and ties to the ancient world of God-kings and emphasis on bloodlines and inheritance, is naturally aligned with the geneticists, on the Nature side of the argument.
Be careful where you place your resources for “science.”
Ancient forces have them pitted against each other, and the “winner” here is not the new kid, as he may want you to think. He may not be working for himself. Nurture is real, so psychology needs a hand up – not to be finished off or shut out of the conversation.
April 5, 2016