Author of Saving Democracy!, Wasted Genius and Common Genius

Nature Vs. Nurture — Part III — Culture Trumps Both Genes and the Environment

In Parts I and II we have noted how the huge advances made by human societies over the last 5,000 years were made possible, unfortunately in only a few regions of the world, by the gradual accumulation of knowledge and the development of enabling institutions, beliefs, and attitudes. Thus, our extraordinary “evolution” has been cultural, and not biological. There has been no significant change in the genetic ability of the world’s human population over that same period. The vast improvements for the “winning” nations’ people, in both affluence and freedom, have resulted from the way those societies have been organized and their children reared.

History tells us that a safe environment combined with the provision of healthy nutrition and stimulating experiences will make useful and mature adults. Consequently, in America, vast sums have been spent on schools and colleges in the hope of providing the best “environment” for our childrens’ development from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. Curiously, before 1900, children grew up with very little of those advantages, and yet the nation grew from a wilderness outpost to a world superpower. And, we must note, much of the Industrial Revolution was fueled in England by generations of youth with virtually no education who were apprenticed out at puberty to work in a trade. So we must ask two questions: Is it really necessary to make the physical environment so attractive? And what accounts for the undeniable success of England and America when the physical environment was harsh?

Robert Epstein, writing in “The Case Against Adolescence,” has argued that we are hurting ourselves by trying too hard to provide extraordinary security and stimulation to our youth, because it has led to a harmful “deferment” of growing up and is creating a new generation of immature adults. Maura Pennington, writing in Forbes magazine has described the related problem about how many of today’s young adults are “lost,” plagued by an internal emptiness and lack of purpose. “In a life with goals and meaning, anything can be achieved. Without it, a person is lost. . . The lost ones are smart. They pay attention to what goes on in the world. They read the news along with the lists of 37 GIFs. Yet what can they do? They have minimal discretionary income and their free time is spent unwinding from occupations that force them to look at backlit words for eight hours or deal with whining strangers. They are fully adults and can’t boast of anything their parents had at this age besides better means of communication, which many are horrible at maintaining.”

Pennington writes this about the half of the country’s youth who are overindulged. She doesn’t even address the problems of the other half, many illegitimate, isolated in urban and rural ghettos, with little hope of ever having meaningful roles in the mainstream society outside gangs, drug dealers, and personal dependency. This dual problem illustrates the fact that the “environment,” as it affects our youth, is made up of two parts: the physical and mental. It seems that we have overdone the physical part and neglected the mental and spiritual basis of both personal and national strength. In Parts I and II the point was made that throughout history progress has been made possible by encouraging the creativity of individuals whose positive attitudes and motivations drove them to make use of the enabling institutions they enjoyed. Unless the culture and the family injects a purposeful mind-set in its youth, the provision of a beneficial physical environment is wasted. Surprisingly, it is the collective “attitude” of a populace that makes or breaks a nation! Race, genetics, and luxurious surroundings are irrelevant.

So what have been the cultural factors that accelerated national advances and led to the personal growth and maturity of its citizens? Clearly, the technical innovations that built prosperity were devised by hard-working and ingenious individuals–governments did not invent the cotton gin, the combustion engine, the electrical generator, and antibiotics, nor did they design the bridges, airplanes, and magnificent buildings that adorn the land. And we know that those individuals who deserve credit were no smarter or more capable than the people populating the areas in the world that stagnated. What caused the different outcomes? The common denominator for progress has often been attributed to the personal characteristics passed down from prior generations endowed with the Greek-Judeo-Christian heritage. That heritage celebrated the importance of each individual human life and encouraged personal accomplishment, honor, thrift, and family. The uniquely Christian idea of free will taught those people that they were responsible for their behavior, and endowed with the capability to accomplish great things. After the Protestant Reformation, Kings, priests, and aristocracies were resisted, since everyone’s prime allegiance was owed directly to God, and secular authorities became secondary. In most Western nations the coexistence of Science and Faith was affirmed. The resulting freedom and personal striving unleashed the wonders of modern technological progress, and it occurred very rarely anywhere else on earth!

There is a lesson about the rise and fall of nations here: America was founded by self-reliant and restless people who were sick and tired of waiting for Old Europe’s aristocracies to grant them equal opportunity and economic liberty. These like minded individuals arrived in the New World and founded a land of freedom that remained for a long time unburdened by aristocrats or intellectuals. The only thing they brought with them was the English common law and a respect for private property. And, it is noteworthy that the subsequent success of these common immigrants was unparalleled in history. It was their attitude and beliefs that set them apart. Each new generation was imbued with the values and attitude of the pioneers.

But, with the huge success we have enjoyed, our populace has grown a hundred-fold, and not everyone is as fearlessly independent as those who crossed the oceans to carve out free lives for their families from a wilderness. It doesn’t help that our educational elites teach the children that all cultures are equally good, and go on to denigrate many of the unique features that made America great. And it looks like the tipping point for America has been reached–approximately one-half the voters now want a permissive mommy state, especially if she is indulgent and “compassionate” with her hand-outs, regardless of the dollar costs or its impact on the independence of the people. More harmful is the splitting of the populace into two halves–the spoiled and advantaged versus the despairing and dependent–a division greatly valued by the two major political parties that feast off the grumblings and emotions of both sides. The result is that neither the haves nor the have-nots possess the essential attitude and beliefs that made our grandparents and our country such winners. As Paula Cole laments:

  • Where is my John Wayne
  • Where is my prairie song
  • Where is my happy ending
  • Where have all the cowboys gone

In summary, our genetics and physical environment have not changed; indeed the physical environment has improved. But our beliefs and attitudes have softened, motivation has declined, and the former moral compass is being lost. The self reliance and contribution of a growing portion of the citizenry is falling. The “best and brightest” are increasingly applying themselves to careers that feed off the bureaucracy, the growing regulatory morass, and the corrupt alliance between Wall Street and Washington. Moral relativism and multiculturalism have blurred the difference between constructive behavior and dishonorable behavior. These trends, seen so clearly at the national level, are simply reflections of the populace at large.

It should be obvious that if all America’s children were raised to be responsible, honest adults, and raised their families to repeat the process, as they have for generations past, the nation would keep getting stronger and more prosperous. Given security, and even a half-reasonable physical environment, both our children and our nation will succeed if they maintain the positive and constructive beliefs and attitudes of our forbears. Without such a mental and spiritual foundation, no nation, or individual, regardless of their endowment, can long endure.

But, to look for a bright side to it all– It was a great run–for almost 400 years! Not too bad for just another of the recurring cycles in the rise and fall of successful societies. The shame is that it is all just so darn predictable! It doesn’t have to end!