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, ) 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: Programmed  to really understand the problem we all face.



-kylieelizabeth 2011-05-19 19:13:52


    -lala 2011-11-08 19:14:20


      -Tony Crisp 2011-12-07 13:13:22

      Yes, I laughed my arse off too the first time I left my body. It was after I was terrified by the experience, and then realised and laughed uncontrollably to release tension. So I hope the first time you experience dying doesn’t do the same to you.


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