Symbolic Dissociation of Nature/Nurture Debate

“One of the most striking features of the nature-nurture debate is the frequency with which it leads to two apparently contradictory results: the claim that the debate has finally been resolved (i.e., we now know that the answer is neither nature nor nurture, but both), and the debate’s refusal to die. As with the Lernian Hydra, each beheading seems merely to spur the growth of new heads.”

That is from the introduction to Evelyn Fox Keller’s The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture (p. 1). I personally experienced this recently. There is a guy I’ve been discussing these kinds of issues with in recent years. We have been commenting on each other’s blogs for a long while, in an ongoing dialogue that has centered on childhood influences: peers, parenting, spanking, abuse, trauma, etc.

It seemed that we had finally come to an agreement on the terms of the debate, his having come around to my view that the entire nature-nurture debate is pointless or confused. But then recently, he once again tried to force this nature-nurture frame onto our discussion (see my last post). It’s one of these zombie ideas that isn’t easily killed, a memetic mind virus that infects the brain with no known cure. Keller throws some light on the issue (pp. 1-2):

“Part of the difficulty comes into view with the first question we must ask: what is the nature-nurture debate about? There is no single answer to this question, for a number of different questions take refuge under its umbrella. Some of the questions express legitimate and meaningful concerns that can in fact be addressed scientifically; others may be legitimate and meaningful, but perhaps not answerable; and still others simply make no sense. I will argue that a major reason we are unable to resolve the nature-nurture debate is that all these different questions are tangled together into an indissoluble knot, making it all but impossible for us to stay clearly focused on a single, well-defined and meaningful question. Furthermore, I will argue that they are so knitted together by chronic ambiguity, uncertainty, and slippage in the very language we use to talk about these issues. And finally, I will suggest that at least some of that ambiguity and uncertainty comes from the language of genetics itself.”

What occurred to me is that maybe this is intentional. It seems to be part of the design, a feature and not a flaw. That is how the debate maintains itself, by being nearly impossible to disentangle and so not allowing itself to be seen for what it is. It’s not a real debate for what appears to be an issue is really a distraction. There is much incentive to not look at it too closely, to not pick at the knot. Underneath, there is a raw nerve of Cartesian anxiety.

This goes back to my theory of symbolic conflation. The real issue (or set of issues) is hidden behind a symbolic issue. Maybe this usually or possibly always takes the form of a debate being framed in a particular way. The false dichotomy of dualistic thinking isn’t just a frame for it tells a narrative of conflict where, as long as you accepts the frame, you are forced to pick a side.

I often use abortion as an example because symbolic conflation operates most often and most clearly on visceral and emotional issues involving the body, especially sex and death (abortion involving both). This is framed as pro-life vs pro-choice, but the reality of public opinion is that most Americans are BOTH pro-life AND pro-choice. That is to say most Americans want to maintain a woman’s right to choose while simultaneously putting some minimal limitations on abortions. Besides, as research has shown, liberal and leftist policies (full sex education, easily available contraceptives, planned parenthood centers, high quality public healthcare available to all, etc) allow greater freedom to individuals while creating the conditions that decrease the actual rate of abortions because they decrease unwanted pregnancies.

One thing that occurs to me is that such frames tend to favor one side. It stands out to me that those promoting the nature vs nurture frame are those who tend to be arguing for biological determinism (or something along those lines), just like those creating the forced choice of pro-life or pro-choice usually are those against the political left worldview. That is another way in which it isn’t a real debate. The frame both tries to obscure the real issue(s) and to shut down debate before it happens. It’s all about social control by way of thought control. To control how an issue is portrayed and how a debate is framed is to control the sociopolitical narrative, the story being told and the conclusion it leads to. Meanwhile, the real concern of the social order is being manipulated behind the scenes. It’s a sleight-of-hand trick.

Symbolic conflation is a time-tested strategy of obfuscation. It’s also an indirect way of talking about what can’t or rather won’t otherwise be acknowledged, in the symbolic issue being used as a proxy. To understand what it all means, you have to look at the subtext. The framing aspect brings another layer to this process. A false dichotomy could be thought of as a symbolic dissociation, where what is inseparable in reality gets separated in the framing of symbolic ideology.

The fact of the matter is that nature and nurture are simply two ways of referring to the same thing. If the nature/nurture debate is a symbolic dissociation built on top of a symbolic conflation, is this acting as a proxy for something else? And if so, what is the real debate that is being hidden and obscured, in either being talked around or talked about indirectly?

17 thoughts on “Symbolic Dissociation of Nature/Nurture Debate

  1. I didn’t mean the biology side, completely, B. I’m not with those guys either. I do invite you to come to the centre position, where both the pure naturists and the pure nurturists have left the field wide open. I forget it now, but there was a context when I said that. You think I’m a naturist? I have failed utterly to express myself then.

    • Well, I’d say there was a failure of communication that was going both directions.

      I frustrate easily these days. I’ve wasted too much of my life on pointless debate. I’ve made a promise to myself to never waste another second on discussion that goes nowhere. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is that miscommunication happens. I can accept miscommunication when it is minor and occasional, but for whatever reason I was hitting the breaking point of miscommunication in our last interaction on your blog.

      I’m just not in the mood for even the slightest whiff of bullshit. All I ask is that you be straight with me and don’t play games. I don’t have the patience to try to interpret what some one is saying. Be as clear as possible because the internet by its nature is fraught with miscommunication. There is no point in making it worse than it needs to be.

      I realize you’re dealing with your own frustrations and I have no desire to add to your frustrations either. I am where I am at. And you are where you are at. Neither of us can be anything other than what we are.

  2. For myself, I see the nature/Nurture argument as one of where do we take responsibility for ourselves? If it’s all nature, then we’re just an aggressive intelligent ape and so be it, game on. If it’s all Nurture, then we create all of this, we’re responsible for all of it. Almost no-one thinks the second thing, everyone knows nurture has limitations at the very least, I think nearly all nurturists lean towards a space in the middle. But the first scenario is what we are all given to understand we are going to discover through science. The biologists in my feed don’t seem to have any room for behavioural choices in their world, and so they seem to me to not be on the side of personal responsibility. They identify some social idea, say crime, and they show that some genes are more correlated with “crime” than others, and one has the impression that the social idea of “crime” is a scientific foundational element for them, and so they appear to be proposing a genetic solution, they don’t see a social problem, where we all have responsibility, the discovered “gene” is the key to their future solutions and the “social problem” never existed.

    • To me, all Nature or all Nurture is a false choice. It means absolutely nothing to me. It simply makes no sense, as far as I’m concerned. Ultimately, I don’t even think a middle position solves any problem. What is the middle between two meaningless positions? Whatever is a useful way of understanding all of this must be entirely outside of the nature/nurture frame… or at the very least a completely redefinition and re-envisioning of the frame, such that it wouldn’t be recognizable according to most debates about the topic.

    • You didn’t piss me off. Just frustrated me. It seemed like every response you gave me completely missed the point I was trying to make. I was arguing for a middle position, that we simply can’t make absolute claims. But even my attempt at intellectual humility was dismissed by you.

      It’s a mystery not because I romanticize mystery, but just because we fucking know so little. There is no way around it. We can either admit to our ignorance or pretend it doesn’t exist. Either way, it doesn’t change our ignorance. There are just lots of pieces of data that don’t fit neatly together according to any preconceived ideological conclusions.

      I was feeling frustrated. No matter what I said, it felt like no real communication was happening. I lack the patience these days to persist for months in trying to communicate the same thing over and over again. I’m at a point in my life where either people get me or they don’t. I’m not going to try to explain or justify myself to anyone.

      It’s not necessarily to blame anyone for a failure to communicate. But it is what it is. Either communication happens or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, I’ll accept it and move on. Life is too short to waste on frustration. That is the closest I’ve come to wisdom so far. There isn’t too many things that are worthy of arguing about. For damn sure, nature vs nurture is not worthy… nor anything along those lines.

      I’m sorry to be so lacking in patience.

  3. Maybe miscommunication between us was inevitable under the terms of this debate. No matter how aware we are of the falseness of the nature/nurture frame, it has such immense power to still make actual dialogue so difficult. Even the talk of a ‘middle’ plays right back into the frame, further propping it up. The more one pulls on the knot, the tighter the knot becomes. The only way to get past this is to entirely change the frame of debate, which is easier said than done.

  4. I know I’m a one trick pony. If that’s all I talk about, it’s because it’s all I think about and all I’m feeling competent to talk about, so yes, I’m having my own conversation, I guess. You dumping ten paragraphs and ten links to ten books in a comment isn’t exactly conversation either, sometimes, it can be overwhelming and unanswerable. Sometimes I just pitch my little thing in, it isn’t supposed to answer the entirety of one of your talks every time.

    • If you’re not interested in involved dialogue, you aren’t interested in me. And that is fine. Since you don’t like detailed responses and consider them ‘dumping’, I won’t give them. But that means I won’t give any responses at all at your blog. That is who I am. There is nothing that says you have to like who I am. I’m just not going to waste my time with someone who makes it clear they don’t like who I am.

    • Be straight with me. Do you actually see my longer comments as ‘dumping’? If not, I can let that go as just temporary conflict. But if that expresses how you actually feel toward me and how you perceive my way of communicating, then our relationship very well might be at an end. That is the crux of the matter, as far as I’m concerned.

      • sometimes I just wanna talk, I ain’t always looking for homework, is all I’m saying. I know I look like the troll, I type a paragraph for every ten of yours, I just haven’t got that in me. Sometimes I’m trying to get your opinion on something specific, and I wouldn’t mind the lessons, but sometimes I still don’t feel like you’ve answered my question – it’s no problem, do whatcha like. I wasn’t coming after you, I didn’t write a whole blog about you. Sure, let’s have a rest.

  5. I hold no bad feelings toward you. I understand and sympathize that your life is crappy right now. I’ve long known what crappiness is like. I don’t expect you to be anything other than what you are. And I won’t try to be anything other than what I am. But maybe we simply aren’t compatible.

    What you call my ‘dumping’ was my challenging the debate frame. It’s not easy to challenge such things. It relates to the propaganda model of media and the problem of sound bites, as Chomsky explains. To bring forth new ideas requires detailed explanation. That is simply the way it is. I’m interested in discussing the difficult issues, which can’t be discussed in short comments.

    There is no reason anyone should care about detailed explanations of anything. It’s just a matter of how interested someone is in understanding something. I admit that my interest is much greater than that of most people. That is why I seek out people who share my interests, in the hope of finding those who would be compatible dialogue partners. If you and I can’t meet on this level and in this kind of space, then so be it.

  6. It seems to me that you are still ideologically committed to and psychologically invested in the nature/nurture frame. You may be seeking a middle position within that frame, but the point is that you are locating yourself within it. I’m looking for a different frame entirely.

    If you are more less satisfied with the nature/nurture frame in your seeking to avoid the extremes, that puts your purpose contrary to my own. Assuming my assessment is correct, it’s unsurprising that our dialogue has been frustrating and fruitless. In that case, any attempt of dialogue between us, in terms of this frame, will be impossible.

    That might be why you see my comments as mere ‘dumping’. I’m coming from a different perspective that is at cross purposes to your own. My comments either don’t make sense to you or don’t seem worthy. So, you dismiss my comments as ‘dumping’.

    If we can’t agree to the terms of debate, how would we have any hope of meaningful and satisfying dialogue?

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