Mike Kueber's Blog

July 7, 2012

Nature vs. Nurture

Filed under: Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 5:37 pm
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While leaving yoga practice yesterday, a friend told me that she and another friend had a common problem – namely, late 20ish daughters who hadn’t grown up and were still quite dependent on them.  When she mentioned that they had commiserated with each other and accepted that there was nothing they could have done, I jumped in with, “you made the bed; you have to sleep in it.”  For good measure I threw in, “they were a blank slate when you got them.” 

My friend is no pushover, however, and she responded with multiple stories of one kid in a family turning out to be functional and the other being dysfunctional.  According to her, that proves that the parents did nothing wrong with the dysfunctional kid.  For some reason, I couldn’t think of how to counter her argument.  All I could think of was “nature v. nurture” from college days, but I wasn’t sure how that issue eventually played out. 

According to Wikipedia, my “view that humans acquire all or almost all their behavioral traits from ‘nurture’ was termed tabula rasa (‘blank slate’) by philosopher John Locke, and proposes that humans develop from only environmental influences.  SimplePsychology.org calls people like me empiricists and describes those who adopt an extreme heredity position as nativists – “Their basic assumption is that the characteristics of the human species as a whole are a product of evolution and that individual differences are due to each person’s unique genetic code.”

The Wikipedia article goes on to describe studies of adopted kids and twins that geneticists conduct to disentangle the effects of genes and environment – so-called heritability estimates – and they essentially conclude the following about us blank-slate believers: 

  • This question was once considered to be an appropriate division of developmental influences, but since both types of factors are known to play such interacting roles in development, most modern psychologists and anthropologists consider the question naïve – representing an outdated state of knowledge.”  Oops, I guess I’m not only naïve, but also outdated.

Several Wiki other quotes are especially insightful:

  •  “Concrete behavioral traits that patently depend on content provided by the home or culture—which language one speaks, which religion one practices, which political party one supports—are not heritable at all. But traits that reflect the underlying talents and temperaments—how proficient with language a person is, how religious, how liberal or conservative—are partially heritable.” – Steve Pinker
  • “Many properties of the brain are genetically organized, and don’t depend on information coming in from the senses.” – Steven Pinker
  • “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.” – John B. Watson
  • In response to a journalist’s question of “which, nature or nurture, contributes more to personality?” – “Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?”  Donald Hebb

Other on-line views on the Nature v. Nurture subject include the following:

  • About.com says, “For example, when a person achieves tremendous academic success, did they do so because they are genetically predisposed to be successful or is it a result of an enriched environment? Today, the majority of experts believe that behavior and development are influenced by both nature and nurture. However, the issue still rages on in many areas such as in the debate on the origins of homosexuality and influences on intelligence.”
  • SimplePsychology.org says, “In practice hardly anyone today accepts either of the extreme positions.  There are simply too many ‘facts’ on both sides of the argument which are inconsistent with an ‘all or nothing’ view.  So instead of asking whether child development is down to nature or nurture the question has been reformulated as ‘How much?’  That is to say, given that heredity and environment both influence the person we become, which is the more important?”

With respect to my yoga friend with the co-dependent daughter, a blog on PsychologyToday.com convincingly debunks her argument that, because one sibling may be functional and the other dysfunctional, this means the parents have little control over how their kids turn out.  According to the PsychologyToday.com article, titled “Scientific Fraud in the Nature v. Nurture Debate” by David Allen, M.D.:   

  • “Just because two children are close in age and grew up in the same household, this does not mean that they had even remotely similar experiences.  Unbelievably, I still occasionally hear the argument that a particular behavioral disorder could not possibly be shaped primarily by dysfunctional relationships with parents, because siblings of the offending parents have turned out completely differently. That siblings turn out differently is quite true. In fact, they can and often do turn out to be polar opposites! In some families, for example, one son becomes a workaholic and the other a lazy freeloader who refuses to keep a job. I have difficulty imagining a shared genetic mechanism that would lead to an outcome like that, but it can be easily explained by looking at family dynamics and psychology.”
    “The Smothers Brothers comedy duo made an entire career out of feigned sibling rivalry summed up by Tommy Smother’s catch phrase, ‘Ma always liked you best.’ Clearly this theme resonated with a lot of people. Does anybody really treat all of their children in a nearly identical manner? How could they? Children are born with major differences from one another that force parents to react differently to them even if the parents try not to. Even more important, anyone who thinks that some parents do not pick out some of their children to treat like Cinderellas and others to treat like princesses has his or her head in the sand. Or some other dark location that I’m too polite to mention.”
    “In some ethnic groups, contrasting and seemingly unfair treatment of siblings because of their birth order is actually mandated by the culture. For example, in some Chinese families the oldest son often is groomed to inherit the family business, while a younger brother inherits much less if anything. In many Mexican American families, the oldest daughter has the duty to look after her younger siblings. She may have to forego her own high school social life in order to do so, while her younger sister has far fewer family obligations and gets to party on. Of course, parental behavior is not the only influence on how children turn out after they grow up, but it remains one of the most important ones.”

Although my yoga friend will probably not be receptive to this reasoning, I think it is a better life strategy to operate under the belief that we are not controlled by fate and that we can affect the way we and our kids turn out.

As Dr. Allen concluded his blog posting – “I guess I like to think that I have free will. I just don’t know about you.” 


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