Author of Saving Democracy!, Wasted Genius and Common Genius

The Nature VS Nurture Problem — Part I — What Forces Shape the Adult Person?

It is common knowledge that every individual is unique. But what determines the many combinations that make each of us different? And, let’s face it, those final differences, at maturity, make some individuals much more competent and praise-worthy than others. Since we know that all human embryos, everywhere in the world, are endowed with an approximately equal range of potential, why do some end up as aborigines grubbing in the ground for food, while others end up teaching Astro-Physics at MIT?

Most reasonable observers agree that all human adults are shaped from conception to adulthood by the interplay of two forces: their genes and the environment they are exposed to. Those that stress the environment are of the general opinion that the new born infant is actually a “blank slate” waiting to be developed and matured strictly by whatever environment and nurturing he or she is exposed to. But even they, while advocating the supremacy of nurture over nature, will usually concede that each child is stamped with certain predetermined traits, most obviously height, skin color, body shape, hair and eye color, the various forms of intelligence, predisposition to specific diseases, and even individual personality traits. In those respects, we all tend to resemble our parentage.

The “nature” people argue, rather ineffectively, that most everything about a person is predetermined at birth with little subsequent impact from the environment. This argument is sustained only if you consider an adult to be no more than his physical appearance and personality. Numerous best-selling books by eminent academics stress this “predetermined” nonsense by concentrating merely on what are really quite superficial traits. Being born a natural “blond,” or with an attractive physique or personality, will help a person succeed in life, but there is much more to a mature adult than just a pretty face. Simple examination of history’s great men and women shows that they functioned in extraordinary manner regardless of their widely different inherited characteristics.

Modern neuroscience has provided environmentalists with support for their emphasis on the importance of positive nurturing. It appears that human beings have the unique distinction, compared to most all other living forms, of possessing brain structures that develop gradually after birth in response to challenges encountered and environments experienced. Unlike a gazelle, that can get up and flee a lion within minutes after birth, humans accumulate specific skills until they are about 25 years of age. Gazelles, like ants and bees, are pre-programmed, largely determined by genes, and lack the adaptability to acquire important skills best suited for their particular environment. This adaptability, a gradual accumulation of skills and knowledge by each young person, renders the human adult light years ahead of the child he once was.

Now, granted, genes do contribute to some of those advances gained as a child grows up. A child with a certain type of brain, one that is especially facile with abstract or algorithmic concepts, may turn out to be a great scientist; and one with a high level of physical skills may be a great athlete or dancer. But those acquired skills cannot be developed in a vacuum. There are virtually no scientists or ballet dancers in the remote jungles of undeveloped areas of the globe. There has to be an enabling society and supportive institutions for any significant and positive development. And, even within an advanced society, one that offers wide exposure to enabling experiences, many great minds and bodies languish in obscurity, undeveloped, and never applied to beneficial activities, despite being endowed with the most favorable genetic blueprints.

Thus, although it seems fairly well established that genes are a relatively small part of it, and environment is critical in shaping human development, there is little consensus on what the most favorable “environment” should be. Many parents devote extraordinary effort in trying to create the best environment for their children only to despair at the frequently mediocre results. Social engineers call for more school funding, headstart programs, more college scholarships, a “new” math, and every possible reform du jour. It would very helpful to know what really counts, and what is wasted.

Sometimes it pays to step back, take a fresh look, and see if you have strayed off course. The folly of pursuing useless policies, or accepting what are commonly accepted solutions, is an all too human failing. It may pay to re-evaluate the environment we are providing our children, and that will be considered in Part II of this blog.