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The Nature versus Nurture Debate
The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, gave a realistic basis for questioning the divine shaping of human beings. That, on top of Isaac Newton’s view of the world, enabled people to see themselves as arising out of natural physical processes, shaped by their environment over huge periods of time.
Newton’s view of the cosmos has been summed up by saying that the universe is a giant mechanical clock that is gradually unwinding. This led to a rather mechanistic view of life, of human experience, and even of the mind. Newton’s findings were so clear, so verifiable by continuing research and experiment, that they enabled a level of certainty based on observation, perhaps never experienced by human society before. This produced a fertile environment for a materialistic view of life that hurriedly cast out older, more intuitive, perhaps grander schemes.
Part of the problem was that the atom was found – at that time – to be the smallest component of the material world. This suggested that nothing other thn matter could exist, and therefore it was only the body and its functions that gave life and produced consciousness and self awareness.
Although cultural views differ enormously, this Newtonian mechanistic view of the universe has grown stronger over the years since Newton proposed it. Whether or not we agree, we are immersed in this worldview to a large extent. It pervades the very way we experience the world and ourselves. It shapes the world around us, as most of the mechanical and electronic artefacts around us have arisen from it. It definitely moulds our attitudes to our own sense of who and what we are.
But since 1900, when Max Planck published his quantum theory, another great shift began. Quantum mechanics points out that the underlying stuff of the universe, subatomic particles, do not behave in a mechanistic or material way. Repeated experiments show that we cannot predict the behaviour of these particles, therefore they are not mechanical like the great clock attributed to Newton. Not only that, our observation of them produces changes in them. Gary Zukav writes, “Philosophically the implications of quantum mechanics are psychedelic. Not only do we influence our reality, but, in some degree, we actually create it!”
These fundamental particles do not have a physical body in the same way as, for instance a ball bearing. They shift and change and do not even have a local presence in the same way as material objecrts.
Just as it took a long time for Newton’s mechanistic view to dominate the worldview of western culture, so it will take a long time for the information arising from quantum mechanics to shift the view we have of the world and ourselves. Nevertheless, like Newton’s findings, the fundamental findings of quantum mechanics are also verifiable by continuing research and experiment.
Therefore, this shifting balance between Darwin and Newton on one side, and emerging quantum mechanics on the other, produces some interesting possibilities in connection with the nurture/nature debate, a debate that questions whether our sense of self as a human personality is largely produced by the forces of nature such as evolution, genes and instinct, or the forces of society.
To sum up these possibilities in a slightly exaggerated way, the Darwinian/Newton view might state that we emerge as a person out of the shaping forces of nature, such as we see in our genes. The opposing view to this is that we collectively create our reality, and out of that created reality and its interaction, we grow.
Of course, these are extremes, and so it is helpful to look at how we experience them in our everyday life. We all live in surroundings such as a town or village, a house, a boat, a hospital, or even a prison. Wherever we dwell, our dwelling is in a certain environment, and that environment is almost certainly shaped by human beings. As individuals, or as a group, we have built houses, villages, towns, and all that goes with them. We have, as quantum mechanics suggests, collectively created our environment. And this environment impinges upon us. We feel buoyed up by it, or perhaps we feel threatened by it. It may create great stress in us, or it may open enormous opportunities. We may love it or hate it. And in our responses to it, we are shaped or moved. So not only do we create our reality, but we in turn are shaped by it.
Taken at an even more personal level, it is worth remembering the saying, “As a twig is bent, so the tree grows.” For instance, an oak tree may have as its genetic material the possibility of growing an enormous and tall trunk. But if, when it is a sapling, we take an axe and hack its young trunk, and bend it, the tree will never make real its potential.
If a young girl, who has the genetic material giving her the potential for a healthy body and an outgoing lively personality, is raped by her father while she is young, that potential may never express. Instead she may become an introverted, anxious, and unmarried woman.
In a recent documentary examining the lives of identical twins, twin boys who were separated at birth were shown to have developed very different personalities. This was attributed to the fact that one of them went to live with a family, and in an environment, that was difficult and unloving. The other boy grew up in a loving family in which there were many open opportunities. The first boy, as a man, was very quiet, not successful in undertakings, and lacking self-confidence. The second boy, as a man, was confident, successful in undertakings, with a very different social and physical appearance.
Another viewpoint on this was detailed in a recent issue of New Scientist (21 April 2001, www.newscientist.com ) in a feature entitled Opinion Essay. The essay starts by saying:
Today we view TV documentaries about identical twins who, despite being separated at birth, have amazingly similar life experiences and grow up to have similar IQs. But when we think about what those twins imply, idle entertainment turns into concern. Must we believe that genes virtually determine IQ and that IQ differences between racial groups are caused by genetic differences? For psychologists, there is a special cross to bear. The race and IQ debate has created a paradox about nature versus nurture that appears insoluble.
Ever since the American military tested conscripts during the First World War, it has been known that whites in the US outscore blacks by 15 points on IQ tests. In 1969, Arthur Jensen, an educational psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, shocked liberal American public opinion by arguing that the racial IQ gap had a strong genetic component.
Jensen’s model of IQ, had as a fundamental principle, that IQ is based on the person’s genetic make-up. In his model, environment had virtually no effect upon the IQ of the people being studied. In fact it ruled out the possibility of an environmentally caused IQ gap between the races. However, in 1987, James Flynn did a worldwide study of IQ trends. He found that the current generation outstrips past generations by between 9 and 20 IQ points. The speed of this development is too fast to be attributable to evolutionary changes in genes. Genes do not change that quickly! Therefore, the change must have been produced environmentally, and Jensen’s model had completely misled the public.
The report suggests that the environmental cause for such enormous change could be as follows:
Take those born to be a bit taller and a bit quicker than average. When they start school, they are likely to be a bit better at, say, basketball. The advantage may be modest, but then reciprocal causation between the talent advantage and environment kicks in. Because you are better at basketball, you are likely to enjoy it more and play it more than someone who is a bit slow or short or overweight. Your genetic advantage is upgrading your environment, the amount of time you spend playing and practising. In turn, your enhanced environment upgrades your skill, so you are much more likely to be picked for your school team. There you get professional coaching, which makes you even more proficient.
Genes, the “natural” in one’s life, still provide the background influence in the IQ testing. But it is environment, social relationship, and other people, who provided the other half of the equation.
This influence of social environment is nowhere more apparent than in the cases of children raised by animals. The environmental surroundings here are so different, they are an excellent way to see the input that most of us receive unconsciously. These children, adopted by animals prior to their learning to speak, never become human in the sense of developing an identity, self-awareness, language, a sense of time, and all the subtle equipment that we accept as being human. Genetic material does not make us human. Genetic material does not lead us toward self-awareness. Genetic material does not spontaneously give us language skills. These are all gifts of our environment. They arise in us out of our relationship with other people.
Considering this enormous influence that environment has on the shaping of our identity, and the skill with which we express our innate, genetic, potential, we must at least assume that when human beings live on another planet, or in a vastly different environment, their humanness will also, presumably, be different too. Playing with this idea in fiction, Robert Heinlein, in his book Stranger In a Strange Land, has his central character reared in a Martian culture. The emerging “human” is as different to an earth raised person, as the child raised by animals.
From what has been said, the influence of “nature”, and the influence of “nurture”, both play enormous parts in our personal development or the inhibition of it. But if we are to really understand the forces out of which we emerge, we must perhaps see ourselves as being intricately interwoven with every aspect of life around us and in us.
See: Animal Children.
Before he had no future. Now he is a talented star pupil
Kamal Ahmed reports on an experiment that turned an expelled pupil into a public school hero in 12 months
This story will reignite the controversy about nature versus nurture. It will renew the debate about race and schools. And it will raise serious questions about how schools deal with what on the surface appear to be no-hope pupils.
In a remarkable social engineering experiment, a black teenager expelled from school, roaming the streets of inner-city London and on the edges of the criminal world, was placed in one of Britain’s top public schools to see how he would cope.
He excelled. Ryan Williams, 15, is now studying for 10 GCSEs, came top of his class in Latin and biology and is a leading member of the school rugby team. His report card put him in the top third of pupils at the school.
A television company is paying £15,000 a year for Ryan to attend Downside Catholic boarding school in the rolling Somerset countryside for three years. Pepper Productions, owned by the leading Labour politician, Trevor Phillips, followed his progress for 12 months for a film to be broadcast by Channel 4 later this year.
Described as a cross between Pygmalion and Trading Places , the film examines Ryan’s new-found confidence, his academic achievements and his rejection of his former life. ‘What this demonstrates is that, in the right environment, children’s lives can be changed,’ Phillips said. ‘Instead of criticising the existence of private schools, people should be working out how we bring all schools up to the standards of the very best.’
Some have questioned the ethics of television companies plucking children out of their home life and placing them in an alien environment, but Phillips said: ‘We have changed one child’s life and I make no apologies for that. What we need to do now is see how we can change every child’s life.’
Educational psychologists employed by the programme interviewed Ryan to see if he was a suitable candidate. The fact that he was black added to the experiment as schools have been criticised for failing ethnic-minority children.
Ryan was 14 when the programme-makers approached his mother, Jacqui, last year to see if they would take part in the series, called Second Chance . Ryan had been forced to leave his previous school, ADT College in Putney, south London, after a string of clashes with teachers. The headteacher wrote to Ryan’s mother as often as three times a week about her son’s behaviour, and said that unless he agreed to leave he would be expelled. One report described him as ‘rude, disruptive and unmanageable’.
Three months later Ryan was still hanging around the streets of the Larkhall Rise Estate in Wandsworth, south London. He often stayed in bed until late in the afternoon and was regularly with people who turned to petty crime to fill the hours. Police chases were common. ‘I didn’t care about the teachers or the work,’ Ryan said.
Ryan’s mother agreed to move him to Downside, a boarding school with a 400-year history, after the approach from Pepper Productions. When he started in September last year he discovered a different world. Class sizes are 16 pupils rather than more than 30, Latin, prayers and army cadet training are staples of the school, and rugby, which Ryan had never played, is the school sport.
On the first page of the school’s website a pupil is pictured reading The Philosophy of Religion . One of Ryan’s fellow pupils was a Hanoverian prince.
‘I felt amazed and grateful,’ Ryan said to the programme-makers at the beginning of the experiment. ‘It is going to be a fresh start – I will be able to learn instead of getting into trouble. I want to get a good education and a good job.’
In the programme Ryan is seen being gently ribbed about his London accent and says the fact the school has only six black pupils is ‘weird’. He becomes the star of the rugby team and is described by the headmaster, Father Anthony Such, as an ‘excellent pupil’. Academically he is viewed by many of the teachers as one of the brightest in the school.
The film shows him returning home for a week’s holiday and swapping his school uniform for the street uniform of hooded tops and baggy jeans. Kicking around with his old friends, Ryan says: ‘At first there was, like, a bit of making fun, but then they could understand the position I’m in – to get a good education and a good job. First there was knocking but now there is support. A few months ago I would have been spray-painting graffiti, but now I just feel to myself you have to give up those kind of things if you want to get what you want.’
One of his closest friends questions Ryan about life at the school. ‘I thought you were going to come back talking all posh. I would have been scared, I would have run away if you had come back like that.’ Another friend jokes: ‘So, are you going to turn gay?’
‘I’m feeling happy that I chose to come here,’ Ryan says at another point in the programme, ‘because I know that [otherwise] I would just be sitting around, doing nothing. Now I’m playing football with my new friends and saying hello to teachers. I’m not getting bored.’
Although Ryan is warned about playing ‘too rough’, his housemaster, Ken James, makes it clear that a telling off does not mean he is a marked person. ‘The biggest test is going to come when there are difficulties along the line,’ he tells Ryan. ‘But don’t feel that the first mistake you make, that’s your card marked. We will tell you off, of course we will, but we also want to know what recompense there will be, what you are doing to move on and to grow.’
Pepper Productions has agreed to support Ryan until he finishes his GCSEs in 2004, and will then be guided by what he wants to do. ‘It would have been totally wrong if we had simply said after a year, right, that’s the programme over, let’s put you back into your other life,’ said Ambreen Hameed, the director of the programme. ‘He has shown what a talented person he is.’