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?

Dualistic Thinking and Intellectual Self-Defense

Duslistic divisions often bother me. When dualisms are conceptual, they are most irritating because at that level they can cause the greatest mischief, and of course all dualisms are ultimately conceptual.

Maybe it is the Western frame of mind that exacerbates the risk of dualisms. What I mean is that dualisms appear to be inherent to human thought and so, to that degree, they are neither good nor bad, just something to take note of. But as many have noted, dualisms play a particular role in the Western tradition (with its Zoroastrian/Manichaean monotheism), that of polar opposition leading to conflict and antagonism. Western dualisms at times bring up a battle mentality, of a line being drawn.

We have become more conceptually sophisticated in recent generations, but I would argue not yet sophisticated enough. More people seem to understand in theory about the potential problems of dualistic thinking. Nonetheless, people continue to get easily get drawn into and polarized by old conceptual dualisms.

In genetics debates, this is obvious. The standard division of nature versus nurture, genetics versus environment are ultimately meaningless. Almost everyone agrees that no such division exists in reality, but that doesn’t stop people thinking in those frames and arguing as if they were real. Many people seem to think that they can still hold onto this old dualism just by tinkering with it a bit, as if the problem wasn’t really the dualism itself but just finding the right formulation of it.

The actual problem is much deeper, though. In reality, there is no such thing as genetics separated from environment. Genetics are just one aspect of the larger environment. Similarly, environment exists within genetics and other factors related to genetics. The best example of this is epigenetics, where the environment of an individual influences or even determines the genetic expression of the following generations of their offspring.

These are just words, genetics and environment. Not reality.

Yet, even many scientists go on making claims that some trait is some particular percentage genetic influenced and a corresponding percentage environmental influence. Heated debates regularly happen in arguing over these percentages. It is complete and utter nonsense, but old narratives die hard. If we were to speak of the complexities of reality, we would have to come up with a new way of speaking about it. That would require immense effort and, more importantly, it would require us to be collectively humbled by our near inability to come to terms with reality.

There are many examples. There is the simplistic thinking of race realists who actually believe the division between black and white is genetically and biologically real. This simplistic thinking is  so powerful and pervasive that few know how to challenge it. There is much power in even the simplest of ideas.

Another example is that of economics, even more overtly mixed up with conceptual confusions. The ideological battle lines of dualistic thinking are often quite stark. We speak of politics and economics, public and private. These social constructions seem real to us. A social construction is basically an idea in the social sphere, but many people can’t comprehend how something so powerful can be a mere idea. That is the main deficiency in our understanding, that we don’t fully appreciate the power of ideas.

Ideas are powerful because they are the justications for power and so they shape how power is used. To say something is private, it is to say this is my territory and I claim it before all challengers. They are fighting words. It’s just in the modern world we use trained officials do the fighting for us. Police defend our property for us. Or if we kill someone on our property, the courts defend us and this usually keeps the family of the killed from seeking out vengeance.

All of this in defense of a fiction, the private. I’m making no moral judgment here. I’m not saying private ownership is necessarily bad, but I am pointing out that it isn’t necessarily good as based on an inherent reality. It is a fiction and we should choose our fictions wisely. If we are going to kill people over a fiction,we better be sure that fiction offers some great value.

The challenge we face is few people are educated in or well-read about philosophy. Most people don’t understand and appreciate the history of ideas. That collective state of ignorance is what allows social constructions to have so much power over us. This as true for the scientist as for the layman, as true for the economist as for the average citizen. We lack intellectual self-defense, as Noam Chomsky calls it. We are easily controlled by ideas and easily manipulated by those who control ideas.

More basically, it just leads to a lot of confused thinking and pointless debate.