Author of Saving Democracy!, Wasted Genius and Common Genius

The Nature VS Nurture Problem — Part II — What Do We Mean By “Environment?”

Students of Darwinian “evolution” believe that all living forms have evolved gradually based on an essential and ongoing adaptation to their environment. Thus the giraffe’s long neck is attributable to its ability to reach forage that lies beyond the reach of other ruminant animals, and the walrus’ thick layer of fat allows it to survive in arctic cold waters.

But humans have survived in all regions of the world under every conceivable condition–from the jungles of Borneo, to the arid Australian outback, and the Northern tundra of the Arctic. How can this be? What happened to Jared Diamond’s theory about climate and geography determining human advances? The obvious fact is that modern humans, who first appeared 50-100 thousand years ago, and found themselves blessed with an innovative brain, have had little need to adapt because they figured out how to control and master their environment. Since the dawn of modern humanity, our inventions (like Fire, Tools, Clothing, and Mechanical Engines) have made us increasingly independent of the physical environment.

Now, there have been a few isolated regions, bereft of favorable climate and geography, that, as Diamond asserts, have limited the inhabitants’ ability to progress from primitive conditions. But, those are exceptions; the vast bulk of the world’s people lived in reasonably benign conditions and they steadily and increasingly advanced their well being–from violent and ignorant societies to advanced enlightened communities. Think Classical Egypt, China, India, and the Western Civilization that grew from Greece, to Rome, to Europe to America.

Those successful regions of the world all made extraordinary advances in the degree to which they control the environment–just stay in a five-star hotel, or fly to a foreign luxury resort, or have a pacemaker installed at the Mass General Hospital, and you will understand this progress from our shared savage past. Or, equally important, recognize the personal safety and law and order that comes from our Constitutions, judicial courts, Bills of Right, and trained fire and police forces. Long gone, for most humans, are the constant dread of fang, claw, civil strife, and hunger. How did this huge progress happen?

We have reason to believe that those of us who inherited this success, and perhaps even added to it, are not any smarter than those who initiated it. Our artists, statesmen, and scientists are certainly no smarter than those who made ancient Greece a wonder of the world. The subsequent success has been due to a gradual accumulation of recorded knowledge and the development of beneficial social and political institutions. Thus, our extraordinary “evolution” has been cultural, and not biological.

The cultural environment humans now grow up in varies around the world, and even from town to town, and family to family. In spite of the current fashion to consider all cultures as “equal,” there is no doubt that those different environments have very different success stories. Would you really like to have been born in Uganda, Iran, or sub-Saharan Africa? Or, equally undesirable, to a single welfare mom in Detroit or Chicago? Or into a radical Muslim community in the Middle East? The birth lottery, what largely determines a child’s future, is not biological; it is not all about IQ or EQ, or one’s looks or personality–it is primarily about the culture a newborn is raised in. A child will obviously live a happier and more productive life if raised in an empowering and ennobling culture. And a nation will rise or fall depending on how many of its citizens develop and mature within a positive empowering environment. So, what is a good environment?

It is currently in fashion to concentrate on the physical environment–the degree of poverty, the availability of modern classrooms, athletic and extra-curricular opportunities, social outlets, etc. The emphasis on these accessories to “growing-up” is a recent phenomenon, dating perhaps from John Dewey’s time less than a century ago– But, the world, and most of its people , made huge strides forward for thousands of years before that.

If the physical environment needed for societal advance was merely to provide a minimum foundation, perhaps the same is true for individual children growing into adulthood. If so, a relatively benign physical environment may be seen as only a first condition for success. In all those places, from Scotland to Japan, that possessed only average climate and geography something more was needed. And that something more is what allowed some societies to advance more or less than others. The same is true for our children–it is not enough to be born into a clean safe neighborhood, and sent to modern schools and the most elaborate playing fields. Something else determines the child’s future success and happiness.

There is really only one reasonable explanation for mankind’s advances, and that answer also makes clear why some societies advanced more than others in comfort and freedom: It has been the cultural attitudes and institutions that have allowed and encouraged productive behavior from its people. Similarly, even the future of those children from the most favored environments, will rise and fall based on their values and attitudes. Part III of this series will elaborate on which cultural factors have determined national advances and how that is connected with each individuals own growth.