Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Nature and That's It"

You hear it all the time: There’s “nature” and there’s “nurture”. “Nature” implies, “Chip off the old block.” Literally. “(S)he’s just like me.” This is usually expressed in a positive context. You rarely hear, “(S)he sets kitties on fire, just like me.” On the negative side, “nature” provides a ready-made excuse: “My biology made me do it.”

“Nurture”, on the positive side proclaims, “There’s no such thing as a bad boy.” “Nature” is never the final word; “nurture” can ride to the rescue and repair the damage. On the negative side, “nurture” offers forth the West Side Story excuse: “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived.”

It’s a fascinating issue. And much studied. I remember in psychology classes, in order to identify the contributions of “nature” versus “nurture”, researchers focused on identical twins raised apart. “Identical twins raised apart” serves as the quintessential Petrie Dish. You have the “nature” component, represented by the identical twins’ matching genetics, and the “nurture” component, supplied by their having been raised in differing environments.

I always found the whole arrangement extremely curious. “Identical twins raised apart.” How exactly does that happen?

It wasn’t like there were two or three cases, there seemed to be dozens of them. What exactly went wrong? Did they lose one twin in the hospital? Did an infant twin fall out of the car on the way home? Or is it more deliberate. The parents drive across the country, walk up to some stranger and say, “Hi. We’ve got two kids who are exactly the same. Would you like to raise one of them?”

Somehow it happened. They raise one, and the other one grows up in the South. And yet, the similarities between identical siblings who have never met are often quite astonishing.

“We both hate cantaloupe.”

“It makes me come out in hives.”

I was going to say that.”

I was going to say, ‘We both hate cantaloupe.’”

For decades, arguments over the pre-eminent contributor to personality have raged back and forth. Substantial sums have been spent searching for the definitive answer to this mystifying question:

“Which is more important, ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’?”

None of these efforts were actually necessary. All they had to do…

…was ask me.

I would have told them.

“Nature” is everything.

Case closed.

Oh, Earl.

There. I said it for you.

I’m sorry. It’s “nature” and that’s it. “Nurture” doesn’t really exist. It’s simply expressed “nature.” Where’s my evidence? I don’t have any. I offer my opinion unencumbered by study or research. I have no patience for that stuff. Blame it on my nature.

Okay, here we go.

Everyone (except the identicals) is born genetically different. That, my friends, is the ballgame.

Your genetic recipe is you. Unique and distinct. Now. Everything that comes at you, external stimuli, what’s happening with your body, everything is filtered through your individualized genetic screening system.

There is no “natural response” to anything. There is only your response. And how is your response determined? The only way it can be – as interpreted by your unique and distinct genetic recipe.

It’s always “nature”.

Calm babies. Fidgety babies.


Clingy children. Risk-taking children.


What about the nurturing effect of their parents?

The parents “parent” according to their nature. It’s the only way they can “parent.” The kids respond their parents’ “parenting” according to their nature. It’s the only way they can respond. There is no nurturing in the process. One machine acts according to its genetic programming; another machine responds according to its genetic programming.

Jumpy mother. Easygoing kid: “Oh, Mom. It’s nothing.”

Jumpy mother. Jumpy kid: “Oh, my God!!! It’s bad!!!”

Easygoing mother. Easygoing kid: “Snoozerama.”

Easygoing mother. Jumpy kid: “There’s something she’s not telling me!”

And where do the parents learn to “parent”? From their parents. Isn’t that “nurture”? No. Why not? Because their parents were “parenting” according to their nature. And their kids (now the parents) were interpreting that “parenting” through theirs.

It’s always “nature”.

Blue eyes – nature.

A sense of humor – nature.

But her Dad’s funny too.

That’s his nature.

His parents weren’t funny.

But his uncle was.

What about peer groups?

What about them?

“She learned it from her friends.”

She learned it from her friends’ what?


Generated by what?

Her friends’ nature?

Interpreted by what?

Her nature.

So it’s always what?

“It's always nature!”


So you’re saying people can’t change?

Genetic mutation.

And that’s it?

You ever been in therapy? Change is possible, but it’s really hard. Why? Because you’re taking on biological hardwiring. I imagine some people are more genetically predisposed towards change than others. Of course, they’re not as likely to be in therapy. Or at least not for the decades that those who are less predisposed have endured.

Does my solving the “nature-nurture” dispute make any difference? I’m not sure. If it’s always “nature”, you can stop studying “nurture” and save half the money. That can’t be bad in this economy. And if it’s always “nature”, they can stop giving away one of the twins. That always seemed wrong.

As a natural excuse-maker, I strongly prefer the “nature” excuse.

“My environment made me do it”?

Change your environment.

“My biology made me do it”?

That feels more sturdy.

You don’t agree with my “everything is nature” theory? That doesn’t surprise me. It’s simply your nature to believe in “nurture.”

In this case, however, your nature happens to be wrong. *

* Either that, or I’m wrong but it’s my nature to believe that I’m right.


Joseph said...

Read through this blog and tell me if you still think the same way.

Anonymous said...

Totally makes sense, in a yo-yo confusing kind of way, but still sensible. Really enjoyed this one. Thanks, Earl!

William said...

Yeah, that's a good argument, but it has nothing to do with the nature vs. nurture debate. What you're arguing for is called physical determinism, the idea that "what happens next" can be determined exactly from "the state of the world at this exact moment." Also, it's not really controversial. Kind of the default assumption of every scientific discipline.

Nature vs. nurture is about whether certain aspects of personality can be predicted from a child's genetics INDEPENDENTLY of any property of the parents. So if you start talking about the parents' genetics, you are not arguing in favour of the nature position anymore, see?

Sorry if I took this all too seriously. Just started reading the blog, and I really enjoy it so far.

A. Buck Short said...

Damn! I had $20 on nurture, and still might make it with the point spread. Otherwise thank God I read the comments in time. All this time I thought our daughter Haley was starting her residency Numerology. Now I realize it’s Neurology. Neurological affect: load off my mind. The Tufts hypothesis on the influence of parental behavior that happens even before pregnancy sounds a little too inheritance of acquired characteristicky to my mind. On the whole though, I’d have to say the twin studies gave me less of a headache. But since they’re just talking about just triggering rather than actually changing the DNA, I guess I’ll have to keep the rest of my Lamarcks to myself. And my nature tells me we could have saved a bundle on dog obedience classes. Well, live and learn --- or, not.

Anonymous said...

One of the problems with this argument is that, okay, say it is all nature. That means you can stop spending the research money on the nurture part, right? Well, no, you can't, because you are needing to research the nature of the parents as well as the kids, you are still needing to research all of the same things, you are just calling the things that were previously called 'nurture' 'nature'.

growingupartists said...

Earl, of course it's in men's nature to believe they're right. But their mothers know better. And based on your upbringing, a life of having your toenails clipped by the women around you, I'm not surprised you comfort yourself with that.

But, is change inevitable? I'd assume no.

Anonymous said...

For the guy relieved that they aren't talking about *changing* DNA, well, they are in other studies: