Monday, January 05, 2009

Nature vs. Nurture (Redux)

The Chronicle Review just published an article entitled "The Nature-Nurture Debate, Redux: Genetic research finally makes its way into the thinking of sociologists." This is an excellent, helpful introduction to the current discussion.
The first sentence reads: "If sociologists ignore genes, will other academics — and the wider world — ignore sociology?" The answer is: many of them will.

In case you haven't noticed nature is outstripping nurture. For example, psychology (lit. the study of the "psyche") is historically interesting but functionally irrelevant because, on neuropsychology, there is no psyche, just as there's really no "mind" and no "soul."

Historically, first came sociology, then came sociobiology, and now comes bio-sociology. "A see-no-gene perspective is obsolete."

Do genes shape human lives? (Nature, not nurture) Do genes interact with environmental forces? (Nature and nurture) Or do genes get overpowered by environmental forces? (Nurture, not nature) Haven't we debated such things before? Yes. For me, it happened back in the 70s when we were looking at B.F. Skinner's "nature" argument , E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology, and even the popular, mostly not-read, ultimately ignored Julian Jaynes's The Origin of Consciousness In the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Whew - what a title! And I read the entire thing...)

We're still discussing such things, except for many "nature" is now God. Philosophy and theology are explicable in terms of neuro-philosophy and neuro-theology. There's a gene for everything, to include a gene for genetic research (neuro-neuro-biology).

Intellectually we're in the stream of a genetic revolution. The American Journal of Sociology (Vol 114, Number 51, 2008) has a supplement dedicated to the nature-nurture discussion as it stands today - "Exploring Genetics and Social Structure." Three of the essays are free. It seems that, generally, sociology departments are of course acknowledging genetic constraints but are leery of giving genes too much power lest we become a "bell curve" culture. Sociology can protect us from the "increasing authority of reductionist science." "If anything defined sociology, [NYU sociologist Troy] Duster said, it was its role as "century-long counterpoint" to such efforts to connect the roots of social problems to biology."

This essay is a very good introduction to the heavyweight match of the millenium - social contraints vs. genetic constraints. which is the more powerful? Scholars are cited on both sides, all having their data. On the extreme ends are those who worry that their polar opposite might gain strength and win the next round.

What do I think? I think philosophers and theologians would now do well to quickly move to study Intro to Neurobiology in order to be relevant in the days ahead. That's what I'm doing.