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On ‘Nature vs Nurture’

October 4, 2008 - 10:00am -- Nick Young

Here’s a familiar topic: how much of what we are, our character, behaviour, interests and desires, comes from nature (construed as raw genetic material) and how much from nurture (environment, culture, education etc?) Supposing some very clever behavioural scientist came up with the answer: 62.4 per cent nature, 37.6 per cent nurture. How could this not be fatuous (whether asserted as a human universal or applied to a single individual?)

In medical science, there would be nothing especially objectionable about weighting a person’s susceptibility to cancer or Alzheimer’s disease in this way (although that degree of precision would be odd, and emphasis would likely be on interaction between raw genetic material and lifestyle rather than the dead weight of each.) But surely we would rebel against any such formula for answering the broader and deeper question that many of us ponder at some time. We would not, for example, say ‘Can you please check your data and your calculations; are you absolutely sure it isn’t 38.2 per cent nurture?’ For what could count as data?

A human life is not susceptible to this kind of analysis, is something of which we cannot speak in this way. Ambiguity, contestation, a multiplicity of interpretations and the arguments between them are facts of human biography as much as they are facts of history. The nature versus nurture question is a question for illuminating the complexity of the subject, not one that calls for an answer. October 4, 2008 Kampala