Monday, March 30, 2009

Nature + Nurture = More Freedom?

The nature-nurture debate may always be with us. Currently it shows no sign of receding. See, e.g., the timesonline's article "Nature or Nurture? Please Don't Ask." Underneath the heading we read: "The question has fueled some of history's fiercest scientific and political feuds. Now we have an answer."

The "answer," according to the article, is that nature and nurture both shape experience. It's not nature alone, as Steven Pinker argues. "It is simply impossible to find serious biologists who believe that behaviour and social structure are “the inevitable manifestations of the specific action of genes”." And, because humans are not blank slates, it can't be nature alone. The nature-nurture debate is coming to a consensus as "improved understanding of how genes actually work shows the difficulty of separating nature and nurture."

The article claims that the work of scientists Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt "have demolished the nature- nurture dichotomy." For example, persons with a genetic propensity towards depression are more likely to develop it but within "particular circumstances."

The article concludes: "These results show the sterility of the old nature-nurture debate. Nature works through nurture, and nurture through nature, to shape our personalities, aptitudes, health and behaviour. The question should not be which is the dominant influence, but how they fit together."
But is it both "cultural determinism + genetic determinism?" "Cultural determinism can be just as inimical to freedom as its genetic counterpart. It implies that instead of being prisoners of our genes, we are prisoners of our parents, teachers and societies. Those who grow up in poverty will be forever disadvantaged, while those who come from privilege will retain it. Autism can be blamed on “refrigerator mothers”, and adults' relationship problems on their overprotective families. As a world view it is quite as bleak as one based on inheritance."

So - it's not all nature, and it's not all nurture. It's both. Is one bleak "inheritance-determined" world + another bleak "environment-determined" world equal to a less bleal world? I wonder just how far we've gotten with this discovery.