The Ending of the Nature vs Nurture Debate

The other day, I was directed (by my friend Charles W. Abbot) to an article about cities and ambition. I wrote about that article and this is a continuation of my thoughts. The discussion I’ve had with Charlie has been ongoing and he linked to yet another thoughtful piece. The second article is about the power of environmental influences:

The idea of zero parental influence
by Judith Rich Harris

Harris asks, is this idea dangerous? Is it false?

“A confession: When I first made this proposal ten years ago, I didn’t fully believe it myself. I took an extreme position, the null hypothesis of zero parental influence, for the sake of scientific clarity. Making myself an easy target, I invited the establishment — research psychologists in the academic world — to shoot me down. I didn’t think it would be all that difficult for them to do so. It was clear by then that there weren’t any big effects of parenting, but I thought there must be modest effects that I would ultimately have to acknowledge.

“The establishment’s failure to shoot me down has been nothing short of astonishing. One developmental psychologist even admitted, one year ago on this very website, that researchers hadn’t yet found proof that “parents do shape their children,” but she was still convinced that they will eventually find it, if they just keep searching long enough.”

Her conclusion is damning:

“And what has all this sacrifice and effort on the part of parents bought them? Zilch. There are no indications that children today are happier, more self-confident, less aggressive, or in better mental health than they were sixty years ago, when I was a child — when homes were run by and for adults, when physical punishment was used routinely, when fathers were generally unavailable, when praise was a rare and precious commodity, and when explicit expressions of parental love were reserved for the deathbed.

“Is my idea dangerous? I’ve never condoned child abuse or neglect; I’ve never believed that parents don’t matter. The relationship between a parent and a child is an important one, but it’s important in the same way as the relationship between married partners. A good relationship is one in which each party cares about the other and derives happiness from making the other happy. A good relationship is not one in which one party’s central goal is to modify the other’s personality.

“I think what’s really dangerous — perhaps a better word is tragic — is the establishment’s idea of the all-powerful, and hence all-blamable, parent.”

This past decade, Harris has written two books that I plan on reading:

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality

She challenges the whole nature versus nurture paradigm. In the first book, she focuses on the nurture side in order to show its true complexity. In the second book, she looks at all the angles.

If you add in the criticisms many others have made of the genetics research, you’ll realize how many of our assumptions have been wrong in this society (I’ve read about this a lot in terms of race and ethnicity). It turns out it is much harder to actually prove genetic correlations are causation.

Take twins for example. There is no way to control for their shared experience in the womb and early childhood. Nutrition, pollution/toxicity, stress, etc has powerful impact on early development, from fetal to childhood development. Plus, there are environmental factors such as growing up in the same class, neighborhood, city, region, etc; there is the shared media influences as well; and there are factors of having the same race and appearances which influences how people treat you.

No one has any realistic conclusion about how much genetics influences twins. We know even less about genetic influences on people in general. There is no doubt genetics plays a role in a very complicated process, but it is clear that beyond some physical traits there are probably few (if any) traits that are directly and/or solely caused by a single gene and nothing else.

Science is in the middle of a paradigm revolution. The centuries old dualistic model of nature vs nurture, especially in the form of genetic determinism vs parental influence, is being shook at its foundation. It no longer is a debate of either/or, but what greater theory that is arising from improved research.

We presently don’t have a language to speak about this developing view. Too much is still up in the air. It will take decades for it to settle out into a new consensus. Until then, we should speak with the utmost care and not let our desire for certainty to overreach what can presently be known.

Some might find this disconcerting or even unacceptable. It isn’t just ideologues who are being challenged. Scientists too are being challenged. All of society is being challenged because the challenge is to the very ground of our human nature. A lot of this research has happened just this past decade and still is barely beginning to filter into mainstream awareness.

Also, it’s going along with a larger shift in our society which I’ve noted before in relation to climate science and biblical studies. Combined with shifts in majorities developing in support of such things as drug legalization/decriminalization, gay marriage, etc and the challenge we face is immense. We are living in an era that might turn out to be equivalent to the Enlightenment Age or the Axial Age. Nothing may remain unturned.

I see these shifts and trends, but I don’t know much more than anyone else. I just pay attention to diverse info and recognize some important changes are happening, however it may add up. Maybe this is part of a greater turning of events or maybe not. That is what makes it exciting. Possibilities are opening up, possibilities of knowledge and possibilities of technology, possibilities of social change and possibilities not yet imagined.

How these possibilities will or will not manifest depends on many things, including our response to them. We could use this opportunity to try to re-create the past, shore up the old order, and salvage what is left of the crumbling paradigm. But that would be a waste of a rare and maybe fleeting opportunity. I’d recommend loosening our grip on perceived certainties and reaching forward into the unknown, the greatest unknown being human nature.

* * * *

I noticed two other books I’d like to read by Jay Joseph:

The Gene Illusion – Genetic Research in Psychiatry and Psychology Under the Microscope

The Missing Gene: Psychiatry, Heredity, And the Fruitless Search for Genes

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