The Standing Invitation

Ideas Worthy of Nurture

with 6 comments

For human failing/strength/preference/proclivity x, which is more important, nature or nurture?

Nothing could be more of an empirical question. Science can’t explain everything, but there are some things that are absolutely slap-bang in the centre of what science can explain.* This is one of them. The methodology is well laid-out. Take a group of people who have similar a genetic makeup but different environments (like identical twins raised apart), and another group have a shared environment but different genes (like adopted children). See how much variation in x there is between groups, and compare that to the variation within the groups. Perform the necessary statistical tests, see what the outcome is.

This should be as simple, or as complicated or imperfect or conclusive or vague, as any other scientific enquiry. Nevertheless, the nature/nurture question is different. No other issue has more power to fog the process of rational investigation, because it is so intimately involved in how we apportion blame.

It is easy to blame people for things they choose. But it is much harder to blame them for what they are.

For human trait x, whichever one you’re interested in, the research will exist ­– or it won’t. It will be a well-planned experiment or something so poorly executed you’d be amazed it snuck through peer review. It’ll tell you one thing or another, or something in between, or nothing. But in a lot of cases, this won’t matter. In a world of conflicting information, complicated science and a lack of understanding of the relationship between how we were born and what we can become, a lot of people will select the evidence that suits the prejudices of the time. And sometimes great harm results.

To an extent, this is a question of who speaks loudest. The voice of a scientist with graphs and facts is too easily drowned out by a hysterical politician’s claims that people are born violent or raised gay, brought up female or psychotic from birth (or the other way around, as suits). The scientist’s problem is not just making herself heard: she must also overcome the public’s misunderstandings about what exactly we mean when we say that a gene influences behaviour.

If something is genetically determined, that does not make it inevitable. And just because a thing is natural, that doesn’t make it good. Until these two ideas are widely understood, a society built on an accurate understanding of human nature will always face hostility from people who won’t be told what they don’t want to hear.



All of this and more (and better) in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker. See also Freedom Evolves by Daniel C Dennett for the difference between determined and inevitable.

* Don’t even get me started on homeopathy.


Written by The S I

August 23, 2011 at 11:59 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Though, I expected you to at least give your point of view on the starting question. It is a question I am not able to answer yet and I’d like to be able one day.
    Somewhere I read/I was told/I heard that there’s a couple of parents somewhere else that are raising their two children (or one, depending on the source or maybe on a different couple of parents) without any distinction for gender. They gave them neutral names, they provide them with both “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” and so on; they (the parents) are the only ones to know which gender they are and all the other relatives don’t. They say they want them to grow up without any preconstituted ideas, preconcepts.
    I wonder if this will ever give any contribution to the question and, in any case, if we will know the results of all this.

    On a side note, when you say “just because a thing is natural, that doesn’t make it good” what are you talking about? Poisonous mushrooms or people?

    Without the intention to wind you up, I see that you mention “homeopathy”; could you please explain to me what it is?


    August 25, 2011 at 4:52 pm

  2. The answer to the nature/nurture question must depend on what it’s being asked of. The ability to learn languages might well be natural, but the ability to speak Chinese rather than French is purely a result of upbringing.

    Whatever trait you pick, it’s unlikely to be either wholly genetic or wholly upbringing. I am tall because I have tall parents — but I would still be short if, in childhood, I had had a bad diet. Malnourishment would have just as much an impact on my height as genetic variation.

    As for individual questions, I have, as I wrote in an earlier post, No Opinion. It’s a matter of fact, and I do not know enough for what I have to say to be worthwhile. But what interests me in this issue is that it is convenient for us to call ‘natural’ those traits that we do not wish to blame people for, and convenient to call ‘learned’ those traits we wish to correct in others. If temporary social convenience overrides scientific truth, only harm can result.

    As for the natural/good connection, a lot of people think that because one is born some way, it is wrong to try to change it; it is better to accept it. This is a gross simplification. I was born with terrible eyesight, but I can correct this with glasses. If one day I decide not to wear my glasses, get into a car and crash it, this is MY fault, even if I was born with bad eyesight because I could have done something about it. Some people might well be born violent, but this does not necessarily excuse them for their violent actions. Acknowledging that violence might have a genetic character does not mean we should put up with violence; it does not mean that violence is simply ‘their way of living’ that must be respected. Just because it is natural does not make it acceptable.

    The S I

    August 25, 2011 at 6:26 pm

  3. I entirely agree with you and I am aware I might have explained myself incorrectly.

    I was thinking more about the character of a person when comparing nature/nurture and, now that I think about it more without being at work, I’d say that I believe that the environment plays a big part in the character. (can you see I live with a psychologist?)

    As for the natural/good connection, I would say it is greatly due to the overreaction of people being afraid of being racists – I find this aspect much more pronounced in UK. A latent hypocrisy is not good.

    I apologize for the oversight of your main point there; once again I agree with you.

    All in all, this comment is worthless as I add nothing to the discussion but I felt the need to clarify 😀


    August 25, 2011 at 7:53 pm

  4. The fear that taking seriously the idea of genetically determined personality traits will lead to justified racism is a very real and serious problem, and is really worth considering. I touched on it in an earlier post (Maths With Morals), but I want to give it a more proper treatment sometime soon.

    The S I

    August 25, 2011 at 9:10 pm

  5. In Italy a woman has just been sent to prison. One of the evidence that she is guilty of murder has been the “morphology of her brain and her genes”.


    August 30, 2011 at 7:42 am

  6. Interesting. I wonder what evidence they had that led to that conclusion. But still, if her brain and genes made her “want” to kill someone, then it’s the same as wanting to kill someone because of money, jealousy or anger. Anybody can have a desire; but you don’t have to act on it.

    The S I

    August 30, 2011 at 9:41 am

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