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Why nature & nurture won’t go away

Why nature & nurture won’t go away

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Published by: Soulyoga on Oct 14, 2010
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W
hen Richard Mulcaster referred in1581 to “that treasure. . . bestowed onthem by nature, to be bettered in themby nurture,” he gave the world a eupho-nious name for an opposition that hasbeen debated ever since. People’s beliefsabout the relative importance ofheredi-ty and environment affect their opinionson an astonishing range oftopics. Doadolescents engage in violence becauseofthe way their parents treated themearly in life? Are people inherently ag-gressive and sel½sh, calling for a marketeconomy and a strong police, or couldthey become peaceable and cooperative,allowing the state to wither and a spon-taneous socialism to blossom? Is there auniversal aesthetic that allows great artto transcend time and place, or are peo-ple’s tastes determined by their era andculture? With so much seemingly atstake in so many ½elds, it is no surprisethat debates over nature and nurtureevoke more rancor than just about anyissue in the world ofideas.During much ofthe twentieth century,a common position in this debate was todeny that human nature existed at all–to aver, with José Ortega y Gasset, that“Man has no nature; what he has is his-tory.” The doctrine that the mind is ablank slate was not only a cornerstoneofbehaviorism in psychology and socialconstructionism in the social sciences,but also extended widely into main-stream intellectual life.
1
Part ofthe blank slate’s appeal camefrom the realization that many differ-ences among people in different classesand ethnic groups that formerly were
 Dædalus Fall 2004
1
Steven Pinker
Why nature & nurture won’t go away
Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in thedepartment of psychology at Harvard University,conducts research on language and cognition. A Fellow of the American Academy since 1998, heis the author of six books, including “How the Mind Works” (1997), “The Language Instinct”(2000), and “The Blank Slate” (2002).
1
Carl N. Degler,
 In Search of Human Nature:The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in AmericanSocial Thought
(New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 1991); Steven Pinker,
The Blank Slate:The Modern Denial of Human Nature
(New York:Viking, 2002); Robin Fox,
The Search for Soci-ety: Quest for a Biosocial Science and Morality
(New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UniversityPress, 1989); Eric M. Gander,
On Our Minds: How Evolutionary Psychology Is Reshaping the Nature-Versus-Nurture Debate
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); JohnTooby and Leda Cosmides, “The PsychologicalFoundations of Culture,” in
The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture
, ed. Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides,and John Tooby (New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 1992).
© 2004 by the American Academy ofArts& Sciences
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thought to reflect innate disparities intalent or temperament could vanishthrough immigration, social mobility,and cultural change. But another partofits appeal was political and moral. If nothing in the mind is innate, then dif-ferences among races, sexes, and classescan never be innate, making the blankslate the ultimate safeguard against rac-ism, sexism, and class prejudice. Also,the doctrine ruled out the possibilitythat ignoble traits such as greed, preju-dice, and aggression spring from humannature, and thus held out the hope ofun-limited social progress.Though human nature has been debat-ed for as long as people have ponderedtheir condition, it was inevitable that thedebate would be transformed by the re-cent efflorescence ofthe sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. Oneoutcome has been to make the doctrineofthe blank slate untenable.
2
No one,ofcourse, can deny the importance of learning and culture in all aspects of human life. But cognitive science hasshown that there must be complex in-nate mechanisms for learning and cul-ture to be possible in the ½rst place. Evo-lutionary psychology has documentedhundreds ofuniversals that cut acrossthe world’s cultures, and has shown thatmany psychological traits (such as ourtaste for fatty foods, social status, andrisky sexual liaisons) are better adaptedto the evolutionary demands ofan an-cestral environment than to the actualdemands ofthe current environment.Developmental psychology has shownthat infants have a precocious graspofobjects, intentions, numbers, faces,tools, and language. Behavioral geneticshas shown that temperament emergesearly in life and remains fairly constantthroughout the life span, that much of the variation among people within a cul-ture comes from differences in genes,and that in some cases particular genescan be tied to aspects ofcognition, lan-guage, and personality. Neurosciencehas shown that the genome contains arich tool kit ofgrowth factors, axonguidance molecules, and cell adhesionmolecules that help structure the brainduring development, as well as mecha-nisms ofplasticity that make learningpossible.These discoveries not only have shownthat the innate organization ofthe braincannot be ignored, but have also helpedto reframe our very conception ofnatureand nurture.
N
ature and nurture, ofcourse, are notalternatives. Learning itselfmust beaccomplished by innate circuitry, andwhat is innate is not a set ofrigid in-structions for behavior but rather pro-grams that take in information from thesenses and give rise to new thoughts andactions. Language is a paradigm case:though particular languages such as Jap-anese and Yoruba are not innate, the ca-pacity to acquire languages is a uniquelyhuman talent. And once acquired, a lan-guage is not a ½xed list ofsentences, buta combinatorial algorithm allowing anin½nite number ofnew thoughts to beexpressed.Moreover, because the mind is a com-plex system composed ofmany inter-acting parts, it makes no sense to askwhether humans are sel½sh or generousor nasty or noble across the board. Rath-er, they are driven by competing motiveselicited in different circumstances. And
2
Pinker,
The Blank Slate
; Gary F. Marcus,
The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of GenesCreates the Complexities of Human Thought
(NewYork: Basic Books, 2004); Matt Ridley,
 NatureVia Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What MakesUs Human
(London: Fourth Estate, 2003);Robert Plomin, Michael J. Owen, and PeterMcGuf½n, “The Genetic Basis of Complex Hu-man Behaviors,”
Science
264 (1994): 1733–1739.
2
 Dædalus Fall 2004Steven Pinkeronhumannature
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ifgenes affect behavior, it is not by tug-ging on the muscles directly, but by theirintricate effects on the circuitry ofagrowing brain.Finally, questions ofwhat people in-nately have in common must be distin-guished from questions ofhow races,sexes, or individuals innately differ. Evo-lutionary biology gives reasons to be-lieve that there are systematic species-wide universals, circumscribed ways inwhich the sexes differ, random quantita-tive variation among individuals, andfew ifany differences among races andethnic groups.
3
This reframing ofhuman nature alsooffers a rational way to address the polit-ical and moral fears ofhuman nature.
4
Political equality, for example, does nothinge on a dogma that people are innate-ly indistinguishable, but on a commit-ment to treat them as individuals inspheres such as education and the crim-inal justice system. Social progress doesnot require that the mind be free ofig-noble motives, only that it have othermotives (such as the emotion ofempa-thy and cognitive faculties that canlearn from history) that can counteractthem.
B
y now most scientists reject both thenineteenth-century doctrine that biolo-gy is destiny and the twentieth-centurydoctrine that the mind is a blank slate.At the same time, many express a dis-comfort with any attempt to character-ize the innate organization that the minddoes have (even in service ofa betterunderstanding oflearning). Instead,there is a widespread desire that thewhole issue would somehow just goaway. A common position on nature andnurture among contemporary scientistscan be summarized as follows:
No one today believes that the mind is ablank slate; to refute such a beliefis to tipover a straw man. All behavior is the prod-uct ofan inextricable interaction betweenheredity and environment during develop-ment, so the answer to all nature-nurturequestions is “some ofeach.” Ifpeople onlyrecognized this truism, the political re-criminations could be avoided. Moreover,modern biology has made the very dis-tinction between nature and nurture ob-solete. Since a given set ofgenes can havedifferent effects in different environ-ments, there may always be an environ-ment in which a supposed effect ofthegenes can be reversed or canceled; there-fore the genes impose no signi½cant con-straints on behavior. Indeed, genes areexpressed in response to environmentalsignals, so it is meaningless to try to dis-tinguish genes and environments; doingso only gets in the way ofproductive re-search.
The attitude is often marked by wordslike ‘interactionist,’ ‘developmentalist,’‘dialectic,’ ‘constructivist,’ and ‘epige-netic,’ and is typically accompaniedby a diagram with the labels ‘genes,’‘behavior,’ ‘prenatal environment,’ ‘bio-chemical environment,’ ‘family environ-ment,’ ‘school environment,’ ‘culturalenvironment,’ and ‘socioeconomic envi-ronment,’ and arrows pointing fromevery label to every other label.This doctrine, which I will call holisticinteractionism, has considerable appeal.It is based on some unexceptionablepoints, such as that nature and nurtureare not mutually exclusive, that genescannot cause behavior directly, and thatthe direction ofcausation can go both
3
 John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, “On theUniversality of Human Nature and the Unique-ness of the Individual: The Role of Geneticsand Adaptation,”
 Journal of Personality
58(1990): 17–67.
4
Pinker,
The Blank Slate
.
 Dædalus Fall 2004
3
Why nature& nurturewon’t goaway
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