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February 25, 2003

Nature v. Nurture


A few years ago I bought a book entitled “Beyond Left and Right.” I thought at the time that I might be in for some genuinely new political thought. Unfortunately, upon examination at home, I found the contents consisted of new fashioned ways to sell old-fashioned left-wing ideas, the desirableness of which were simply taken as a given.

I mention “Beyond Left and Right” because I just read something in the New York Times that feels a lot like it. I refer to Natalie Angier’s column, “Not Just Genes: Moving Beyond Nature vs. Nurture.” (You can read it here.) I won’t keep you in suspense about the similarity; Ms. Angier ostensibly lists examples of how science doesn’t support either position in the political debate over nature or nurture while managing to give the impression of wanting desperately to hang on to the nurture thesis.

Ms. Angier notes what is the politically correct position in science, which is that genes are always dependent on their environment for expression. She also points out that scientists are, like everybody else, politically opinionated:

“Everyone calls themselves an interactionist," said Dr. David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York. "Yet often, when you scratch below the surface, you find a sociobiologist who marginalizes the importance of culture, or a social constructivist who hates the very idea of sociobiology, and they end up painting caricatures of each other. True integrative thinking is in the very early stages."

Regrettably, Ms. Angier is among those who aren’t up to “true integrative thinking” at least at the political level. All the examples she selects appear to support a “nature” hypothesis, but viewed more closely (she claims) are really more ambiguous. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, she selects no examples that, at first glance, appear to support “nurture” but in reality turn out to be more ambiguous.

Beginning her catalogue of ostensibly erroneously "naturist" thinking she cites phenylketonuria, or PKU. This disease results from a genetically inability to break down phenylalanine, found in foods like milk, eggs, meat and bread. Excess phenylalanine then builds up in the body, resulting in tremors, seizures and brain damage. She argues that because it is possible for sufferers to manage the condition by avoiding foods containing phenylaline, this condition can’t be considered merely “genetic.”

Say what?! Last time I looked, the nature-nurture argument had to do with the ability to create new—and better—human relations by modifying social conditions. That is, the better society is the cause that leads to the effect of better human beings. Lefties, by and large, believe passionately that human beings are malleable enough to be manipulated into virtue by their social environment, while righties, by and large, have a much lower opinion of the malleability of human nature and fear that such manipulations are more likely to have extremely nasty unintended consequences.

For this example to have supported the point that Ms. Angier seems to be making—that human beings are more flexible than hard line righties, or naturists, believe—she would have to show how an improved environment would cure phenylketonurics, not merely observing that they can take actions to compensate for their disability. (Self interested coping behavior is not "nurture" in the sense of this argument.)

Another example Ms. Angier mentions as apparently-but-not-really belonging in the “naturist” camp is the strong attraction of baby mallards to their mother's call. This is so pronounced that even duck eggs brought up in incubators, with no exposure to a mother bird’s voice, prefer the call of a mallard over that of any other bird. Apparently a Dr. Gilbert Gottlieb has rendered this example "ambiguous" by showing that if a duckling is surgically prevented from hearing its own peeps in the egg, it responds as readily to a chicken cluck as to a mallard call.

Forgive me if I find this rather irrelevant as a counter example to "nature." All Dr. Gottlieb has shown is that if you interfere with the mechanism by which ducks brains are imprinted with the preferential birdcall, then the mechanism won’t, er, work. Gosh, that’s a surprise. (Viewed politically, moreover, the idea of implementing such modifications surgically on human populations in order to suppress "natural" development and behavior strikes me as unlikely to catch on anytime soon—no matter how beneficial the resulting social flexibility might be.)

Ms. Angier also quotes a Dr. Richerson on the fact that people are more docile and susceptible to social reinforcement than are chimpanzees. While an interesting fact, it doesn’t exactly convert me immediately to either a pro-nature or pro-nurture political position. Saying that people are more suceptible than chimpanzees to social reinforcement doesn’t say whether this susceptiblity is sufficient to, for example, permit the elimination of the profit motive from human society. (Although it does seem to rule out much in the way of social engineering on the part of ambitious chimpanzee leaders.)

But astonishingly, in making the comparison with chimpanzees, Ms. Angier brings up the following point:

People have tried to raise chimpanzees as they would children, [Dr. Richerson] said, and the chimpanzees are clever and do a lot of humanlike things, but they are not nearly as responsive as children are to praise and scolding. "They're rougher back," said Dr. Richerson. "They're the terrible twos gone berserk."

Gee, sounds like nature to me.

I think the whole point of “naturists”—a viewpoint that has always struck me as far more in touch with reality as I have lived it—is not that people are hard-wired to live in exactly one way. It is that for all of human beings’ flexibility in means, they are fairly inflexible about goals. And social engineering that ignores those goals—or, worse, declares war on them—is either cynically or naively trampling on human nature. Which, like most forms of nature, will generally bite back.

Sort of like those darn chimps.



posted by Friedrich at February 25, 2003


Angier's example of how barnyard fowl have an instinct to imprint on their mother, but that you can manipulate whom they imprint upon is not exactly something new. This is the example that Konrad Lorenz, the 1963 Nobel Laureate who revitalized the concept of in-born instincts, became world-reknown for in the 1950s. He got newborn geese to imprint on him and follow him around like he was their mother.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on February 25, 2003 5:38 PM

Angier is a bad science writer and a bad science editor. She seems unable to put things in larger context, extrapolate, or to bring general observations to bear.

Nature? Nurture? Who cares? It seems fairly clear that most people, most of the time, learn to behave in ways that will benefit them the most. Or maybe it just seems that way to me because it's in my nature to bitch-slap.

Posted by: j.c. on February 25, 2003 8:12 PM

I tried some book Angier wrote a few years back (I think it was her book "Woman") and threw it aside in fairly short order, more or less the reaction I have when I try to read her columns too. She's got such a determined pro-nurture agenda it's almost funny. She reminds me of a fussy schoolteacher, spending all her energy making sure her little charges don't get out of hand and congratulating herself at the end of the day for having done some teaching.

Annoying as people like Angier are, I still have to give a sigh of relief at the way so many people are willing to allow for "nature" these days, and at the way people like Angier are so on the defensive, forever stuck playing a "yes, but" game. Lordy, it was an awful time, back in the '70s, when you got looked at as though you were Goebbels if you dared so much as make an observation about (say) men and women. What a relief that that particular thought-police monopoly has been broken up. Those days, sheesh. It was like the whole world was populated by little Natalie Angiers.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 25, 2003 9:52 PM

I always wonder, when I read an article or a book on this topic, if the author or researcher has kids. Once you have kids, the whole nature/nurture thing sorts itself out pretty quickly. It's both nature and nurture, and both seem to have a 50/50 stake, meaning roughly half of a child's identifiable organic/built-in/hardwired traits can be traced back to either mom or dad, or in some cases the grandparent. The rest of behavior comes from some event that shaped their reactions. An analogy is their personality is formed from the mixture of a template (hardwiring) and original content (events and reactions to the same), to create the multimedia experience every child is.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on February 26, 2003 11:41 AM

In reference to Mr. Sailer's remark: "(Lorenz) got newborn geese to imprint on him and follow him around like he was their mother." Mr. Sailer also mentions on his website that everybody who grew up in the 60s was familiar with film footage of ducklings following Lorenz around. Apparently, Gary Larson, the cartoonist of the much-missed "Far Side," was also familiar with that footage (along with just about every PBS and National Geographic nature special). There was a "Far Side" cartoon titled "When Imprinting Goes Wrong," and showed a scientist waddling robot-like after a mother duck and her ducklings.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on February 26, 2003 12:37 PM

Sadly, I can't find a link to the original news stories reporting that a cabal of genetic researchers issued a statement about hazards of leaping too quickly on the bio-determinist bandwagon.

We can observe much of what people do, but we can't be sure why they're doing it. That was their point, god love 'em.

Posted by: j.c. on February 26, 2003 4:36 PM

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