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Nature vs. Nurture vs. Free Will

February 13th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Why am I so fucked up? Is it because of my genes? My parents? Or is it all my fault? How much of my current personality is the result of my own decisions? How much is a result of the way I was brought up and of my cultural surroundings? How much was simply there right from birth, a handicap that I’ve never had any hope of overcoming?

One thing just about everyone agrees on when it comes to the Nature vs. Nurture debate is that it’s a combination of the two. Scientists working in the fields of psychology and neuroscience are really only arguing over which is the stronger influence. Personally, I think that Nature vs. Nurture is a false dichotomy, and when considering the explanations for any given person’s personality we have to take his or her own decisions into account as well. The actual dichotomy, in my mind, is between Nature/Nurture and Free Will. The balance between how much of your personality is due to genes and how much is due to upbringing is, I feel, less important the balance between how much of who you are is a result of circumstances beyond your control and how much is your personal responsibility.

My background in psychology is limited to two survey courses, one in high school and one in college, so I don’t claim to have any special insight. These are just my thoughts on what kinds of things ought to be attributed to which category, and you’re free to agree or disagree or add whatever you want.

Nature

Before experimental psychology, people could justifiably believe that a human mind is a blank slate at birth. That physical characteristics are the only things attributable to genes and personalities are entirely a result of upbringing. We now know, thanks largely to case studies involving twins separated at birth, that genes have a far greater effect on personality than we once thought. Twins who share the same genes and yet grew up in radically different social and cultural situations have nevertheless shown uncanny similarities in personality.

So in addition to physical characteristics, I’d say that Nature also determines certain predilections. An optimistic or pessimistic disposition, a higher susceptibility to addiction, aggressive or passive tendencies and the like, I believe, are all mostly determined by the genetic soup you came from.

Intelligence too, I believe, is mostly a matter of genetic luck, though not of the same sort. Brilliant people have moronic children all the time, and geniuses are often born of idiots. But in almost every case, the ease at which the brain can absorb, store, and apply information depends almost entirely on the hardware itself and not on how it’s used.

Also, I strongly believe that sexual orientation is present from birth, and that it can never be changed no matter what kind of upbringing you have or what decisions you make. A homosexual person can be brought up to despise gays and choose to get married and live a straight lifestyle, but deep down I believe that person will always be homosexual.

Nurture

A person’s upbringing and cultural surroundings will either augment or stifle the natural predilections instilled by genes. A naturally aggressive person might be made more passive by peaceful parents, while a naturally passive person might be forced to turn aggressive due to harsh circumstances. A person naturally inclined towards optimism can be easily converted to a pessimist if the circumstances of his or her childhood were difficult. Although a natural optimist may actually have a better chance of getting through a difficult childhood in the first place.

Intelligence can also be nurtured or stifled according to childhood circumstances. A brilliant child who was never encouraged could easily wind up holding many extremely stupid and idiotic beliefs. Just look at theologists—clearly some very intelligent people can nevertheless believe in some crazy and ridiculous things because of how they were brought up. Conversely, I think it’s a lot harder—perhaps virtually impossible—for someone not blessed (or cursed) with natural intelligence to be nurtured into becoming brilliant. A genius can become an idiot, but an idiot will never be a genius.

Finally, looking at the major differences in cultures throughout the world shows what an enormous influence early surroundings have on a person. A child born in the West with Asian parents who were born in Asia will more often than not take on the culture predominant in the country they live rather than that of their parents. Just think of all the poor girls killed by their fundamentalist Islamic fathers because they were becoming “too Western”. Clearly, cultural surroundings are a major determinative factor when it comes to personality.

Nature vs. Nurture

So where does the balance between Nature and Nurture lie? I don’t feel qualified to say. While I’m inclined to believe that upbringing and cultural surroundings have a greater impact than genetics, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that much of who we are is completely foredoomed from birth. Homosexuality is the best example, as no matter where you are raised, almost everything about your personality will be determined by that fact and how others react to it.

In fact it’s difficult to draw a line for precisely that reason. Your upbringing may have a huge effect on who you are, but who you are will also have a major effect on your upbringing. Parents of rebellious children have to adjust their parenting style accordingly, just as parents of extremely stupid or extremely smart children have to adjust to their child’s intelligence. Nurture may have a greater determinative effect on your personality, but you can’t forget the determinative effect that Nature has on Nurture.

Free Will

As someone heavily influenced by existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, I have a strong conviction that everything boils down to personal responsibility. Even your personality, I would say, is to a large degree a result of decisions you make.

The catch, of course, is that during the most crucial formative years of your personality, you have very little to go on with which to make good decisions that will lead to better outcomes. A child chooses to spend all his time alone because it’s easier that way, not really considering that as he grows older this is going to lead to a very reclusive lifestyle. As an adult, he has his own decisions to blame for turning out the way he did, but looking back he understands exactly why he was inclined to make those decisions in the first place: his genes and his upbringing.

The list of examples goes on. An intelligent child chooses not to study much and work too hard, and as a result never becomes as smart as she could have been. A homosexual child chooses to deny his orientation and as a result suffers incredible feelings of shame and self-loathing as an adult. A naturally aggressive child may have an inherent predilection but he chooses to beat people up, and as a result remains a bully all his life.

The point is that in each case, the child could have chosen otherwise and turned out a lot differently. You can’t completely absolve anyone of responsibility for who they are.

Nature and Nurture vs. Free Will

The most important question with regards to this whole issue is therefore to what extent we are responsible for our own personalities. A person who was abused as a child and then goes and abuses other children may use their painful upbringing as an excuse, but we still punish them for their actions and rightly so. Yet a person who grew up with alcoholic parents and becomes an alcoholic is often treated like an innocent victim who just couldn’t help it.

Obviously, I’m more inclined towards blaming the individual than excusing it based on the circumstances of their past. One may not be able to help one’s inclinations, but one always has the choice of whether or not to act on them. Of course, most people will never have to struggle to resist the temptation to molest a child because that temptation simply isn’t there, but even though the person who is tempted is not responsible for having the temptation, he is responsible if he ever acts on it.

So that’s one part of the answer: people are far more responsible for their actions than for their predilections. They may have had the option of either ignoring or indulging in these predilections, but I don’t think we can justifiably condemn them (or praise them if the qualities are positive) for having them in the first place.

Which leads to the final question: at what point do we draw the line? How young does a child have to be before we completely absolve him or her of all responsibility for who they are? That’s an extremely difficult determination to make, and I think it actually varies from individual to individual depending on how self-aware they naturally are. A stupid child who can’t easily examine the repercussions of his own actions is far less responsible for himself than a brilliant child who is predisposed to reflection and self-examination.

But this is no good if we’re looking for a broad generalization as to when we should start holding kids completely responsible for themselves. I’d say that the best candidate for a universal dividing line is puberty. Before puberty, children tend to live in a fantasy world and their decisions are based on their distorted worldview, be it a religion (which a child is far less inclined to question) or merely an invention of his or her own fancy. But once puberty is reached, the sex-drive is discovered, and the mind becomes capable of understanding how the real world works, we can start holding them responsible.

A religious child, upon reaching puberty, can either question her religion or stick to it. This is her decision and she is responsible for whichever she chooses. A stupid child, upon reaching puberty, can either resign himself to stupidity or choose to work hard and make up through ambition what he lacks in intelligence. Again, he is completely responsible for making this decision. Upon reaching puberty, a homosexual can either embrace or deny his orientation, and this decision is entirely his to make. A child raised as a republican, upon hitting puberty, can begin to take an objective look at the world and reconsider her opinions if she chooses. Puberty seems to be the age at which almost (not all) children start to become capable of understanding the world, and whether or not they make an effort to understand it is up to them no matter what their genes or upbringing.

In conclusion, the reason I’m so fucked up is probably mostly a result of my genes and the circumstances of my childhood. But I still have to blame myself for not trying hard enough to un-fuck myself up when I became capable of trying.

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