Sunday, April 05, 2009

Henderson, Mark. "Nature v Nurture? Please Don't Ask." TIMES March 28, 2009.

The monster Caliban, according to his master, Prospero, was “a devil, a pure devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick”. Yet only a few decades before Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, St Ignatius Loyola had founded the Jesuit order, with its famous maxim: “Give me the child until he is 7, and I will show you the man.” This ancient debate over the relative contributions of inheritance and experience to the human condition has never been more charged than in the genetic age. On one side stood those who sought and saw genetic explanations for human psychology; on the other, those who believed it to be moulded by culture. There was little common ground. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an evolutionary psychologist, has even joked that perhaps we are genetically programmed to set nature against nurture. Since the middle of the last century the nurture camp has been dominant. Just as molecular biology began to unravel the secrets of DNA, genetics and evolution were relegated to psychological bit-players by a new orthodoxy, which held that biology has forged a human mind of almost limitless malleability. It was the doctrine of the blank slate. The idea, usually traced to the 17th-century philosopher John Locke, grew popular in the Enlightenment, fitting the mood of challenge to the supposedly innate authority of monarchy and aristocracy. It was a statement of individual freedom, which became strongly associated with the political Left. Though many early socialists were enthusiasts for eugenics, later generations grew suspicious of genetics, particularly after it was abused to justify oppression of disadvantaged racial and social groups, most brutally in Nazi Germany. Liberal opinion turned against the concept of a biological human nature, which was increasingly seen as a tool with which male and bourgeois elites could rationalise hegemony. The movement was driven by the social sciences. From psychology came Sigmund Freud's notion that attitudes and mental health are explained by childhood experience. The behaviourism of B.F.Skinner added the claim that human beings could be conditioned by training, much as Ivan Pavlov's celebrated dogs salivated at the sound of a bell. From anthropology came the research of Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, whose comparative studies of different societies suggested that traditions could steer human behaviour in a multitude of directions. Mead's purported discovery of free love among Samoan women was influential because - though founded on poor data - it challenged prevailing sexual mores. Karl Marx's political and economic theories saw human nature as something to be reshaped and directed to facilitate revolution. And postmodernism contributed the mantra that even knowledge and truth are socially constructed and relative. What emerged was a new model of behaviour, in which human nature is anything but fixed or shared, but can be moulded into many configurations by culture. If genetic influences are allowed at all, they are wholly secondary to those of the environment. To its supporters, this became axiomatic to a fair society: if anything can be learnt, and anybody can do the learning, then people can be taught to value equality. Social justice and morality became intertwined with the concept that little in life is laid down, or even much affected, by inherited genes. Though well-intentioned, and in some respects an important antidote to pseudoscientific genetic determinism, this view was dangerously inflexible. Any evidence that genetics might be seriously influential after all would threaten the very foundations of liberty and equality - so it would have to be resisted, as would research that might provide it. The result was that scientists who investigated effects on human behaviour found their positions caricatured and their politics demonised as reactionary, even fascist. . . . Read the rest here:

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