Nature versus Nurture?
Updated: Jan 22, 2022
No, that argument has not gone away.
The question assumes a dichotomy -- that “nature” and “nurture” are two separate things, disconnected, like you and your wife.
Or maybe "east is east, west is west”. Except for China, the “West” is actually “East. And really for everyone, the “twain”: is everywhere, which is the case with "nature" and "nurture".
Of the two parts of the Nature / Nurture dualism, “Nurture” is the hardest to understand, to the extent that we take what Mommy and Daddy taught us as “natural’ which it is (partly) – and is not (partly). Keeping in mind that while "nurture" calls forth images of sucking at nipple, it is also "go to your room and do your homework" and "stop figeting in class" and "detention for you". And "don't touch yourself down there!"
Putting that aside, the popular concept of what we call “nurture” is in fact as an all-encompassing heuristic – a big word, poorly understood-- but popularized by Daniel Kahneman in his book: “Thinking Fast and Slow” and much misunderstood by everyone, as a form of cognition. .
Whatever Kahneman says, heuristic “thinking” is in most cases NOT “thinking” at all – it is set of conditioned responses so we can react automatically to pre-defined situations.
Heuristics (so-called) can have a kind of logic dependent on the assumptions that support it and experience. For the most part, however, they inculcated along with language in late infancy, developed, reinforced and built upon through socialization processes such as education. There is little opportunity for analysis or rational choice. As habits of thought, this kind of "thinking" forms the basis of all culture.
In other words, this form of “nurture” is really conditioning. Please salivate at the bell, and eat your Big Mac.
Needs – and Wants
As you wolf down the burger – with the fries and ketchup, of course –please realize before cardiac arrest that all modern cultures must meet the needs of “nature” --which include but are not limited to:
· Imagination (expression including art and music)
“Nature” after all is the Body, which includes the Brain, which is the place where your “mind” is supposed to reside. And you can’t do much without a body. Or a brain.
Raw or Cooked?
Our needs are the social “staples” of humanity, from which we create "dinner", or lunch or breakfast. They are out social being’s version of meat and potatoes. Or, in my case, wine and wine. In your case, that burger.
Levi Strauss--who was French and distained American food righteously - distinguished nature and culture as the “raw” and the “cooked”. Every culture takes one of these needs and “cooks” it.
So love is like a steak. You can eat it raw – as the French do. But Americans cook it and add sauces, garlic and onions – and try to be French by drinking red wine and insisting your kids eat it properly with knives and forks after thanking God who art in Wall Street.
You are not supposed to eat with it your fingers or slather it with butter and ketchup, like I used to do as a kid. I ended up in Japan eating raw fish with fingers.....
A Good American does NOT eat steak for breakfast. The US Constitution only allows bacon and eggs or toast or pancakes. You get the idea. We gotta have rules for everything. And we call those rules “culture”.
The rules re-define “needs” as “wants”. Stuff you want, like running shoes or a wide screen TV or a boob job, but are not actually necessary to survival.
Prehistoric cultures managed an excellent fusion of nurture and nature – they were fluid, flexible dynamic and interactive – since “culture” was a result of consensus-- evolving through engagement with the environment.
With only 30 to 50 people in a group, these societies were egalitarian, usually matrist, and valued diversity, which enhanced them not only genetically but in adaptability. These were “reverse dominance” societies in which no one person was allowed to dominate others. Each person was autonomous; but each shared his or her identity with others. Every day was Pride Day. And they had a lot of sex, which meant paternity was difficult to prove.
While each person had a name and a “self” which were unique and denominators of autonomy, each could surrender that sense of self to recognize and identify with another’s. Hence, the emphasis on transcendent spirituality including hallucinogens and the reverence for dreams, dreaming and “visions”.
The capacity for this kind of transcendent empathy meant altruism because it enabled us to act for others without any quid pro quo.
All ya need is love?
Today, we call this evolved sociality simply “love”, which unfortunately has a zillion definitions . Just go to Pornhub.
Functionally, however, we tend to think of “love” as some kind of contract, except for biological maternal / paternal love, which all animals have and is actually temporary. Thank god for schools so we can get some rest from the little monsters.
In a neoliberal society, all other forms of love framed by a social metaphysical worldview which derives from a “root metaphor” – business.
The contract metaphor is implied in our understanding of all social (and political) relationships. When you work you have a contract? When you marry you have one too. If it is not written, it is understood. And it is very much quid pro quo—which we can see from divorce courts.
Our ancestors did not have contracts. As I said, they had consensus. Division of labor was not decided by pre-existing contractual rules, with penalties for non-compliance – it was a result of exigency. To paraphrase Marx: “from each according to his ability to the needs of the community”.
“Love” as empathy / altruism was the glue that bound these prehistoric communities together. It was the basis for everything else down that list of natural needs—sex, play, food, etc, etc. It was also the reason these societies were so small and so peaceful.
You can only empathize with a limited number of people at one time. Empathy in a small group means violence against another is self-violence. The hippy slogan Make Love Not War was truly atavistic – about 35,000 years atavistic!
Our prehistoric groups were remarkably tolerant of not only in-group difference, however, but to out-groups, such as other groups in the neighborhood. They needed these outgroups if only to prevent inbreeding and as to prevent social stagnation.
Genes in your jeans: epigenetics
One way that “nurture” interacts with nature is by altering the expression of our genes. While the genomic sequences are transmitted unchanged, gene expression is influenced a range of external factors, toxins, diet, behaviors mediating stress and neurochemistry, etc, etc. and these alterations are at least in some cases heritable.
Biologically speaking we are neurochemical machines, responsive to “epigenetics”, a new buzz word, which simply means “above genetics.”
Love, and empathy, and tolerance for difference produces a social environment that affects our neurobiology, turning off genes that would predispose us to violence and dominance behaviors.
Despite what faux “evolutionary psychologists” like Pinker say we are not naturally warlike. That is not to validate Rousseau -- the guy who believed that the Noble Savage lived in the Garden. Violence did occur among hunters and gatherers but it was almost always occasioned by special circumstances, an unnatural aberration, that was usually recognized as such—and often forgiven, following contrition and an attempt to make amends. There is nothing in the archeological record to prove that prehistoric human beings were naturally violent . And there were so many good reasons for them NOT to be!
Of course, there were psychopaths and sociopaths -- but they could not fit into reverse dominance societies and were normally not considered human and just expelled or killed.
Are you a falcon or a chicken?
In our modern societies we reward certain kinds of sociopathy and sociopathic behavior, which is understandable since our “root metaphor” is “business” and all corporations are by definition sociopathic, emphasizing gain at the expense of others. We don't like Ted Bundy type sexually sadistic psychopaths -- but Jeff Bezos is AOK.
Still, even without culling sociopaths, our genomes remain remarkably intact, with only 3% of people genetically sociopathic. Sociopaths in law, politics and business are as much as 30% but these are likely mostly epigenetic sociopaths, in which case the genes for empathy and altruism are turned off thanks to nurture.
On the other hand, civilizations prioritizing individual survival rather than that of the group tend to have a limited lifespan. As a lifestyle adaptation, mass multilevel hierarchical "civilizations" have only been around for about 8000 years, each lasting just a few centuries.
Hunting and gather lifestyles while marginalized for that period have remained, viable for a total of 50,000 years or so.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The Second Coming
Yeats wrote this poem in 1919, dismayed by the violence of WWI and what seemed like anarchy and disorder. But our ancestors were proto-anarchists.
Falcons do fine without a falconer. And most people are not falcons, which may be predators but just kill to eat and fee their babies.
Most of us are chickens. And our destination is the slaughterhouse.
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