Nature vs. nurture, again, and again, and again….

By Razib Khan | May 11, 2011 12:58 am

In The New York Review of Books Richard Lewontin has a long review up of Evelyn Fox Keller‘s last work, The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture. Here’s the blurb from Duke University Press:

In this powerful critique, the esteemed historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller addresses the nature-nurture debates, including the persistent disputes regarding the roles played by genes and the environment in determining individual traits and behavior. Keller is interested in both how an oppositional “versus” came to be inserted between nature and nurture, and how the distinction on which that opposition depends, the idea that nature and nurture are separable, came to be taken for granted. How, she asks, did the illusion of a space between nature and nurture become entrenched in our thinking, and why is it so tenacious? Keller reveals that the assumption that the influences of nature and nurture can be separated is neither timeless nor universal, but rather a notion that emerged in Anglo-American culture in the late nineteenth century. She shows that the seemingly clear-cut nature-nurture debate is riddled with incoherence. It encompasses many disparate questions knitted together into an indissoluble tangle, and it is marked by a chronic ambiguity in language. There is little consensus about the meanings of terms such as nature, nurture, gene, and environment. Keller suggests that contemporary genetics can provide a more appropriate, precise, and useful vocabulary, one that might help put an end to the confusion surrounding the nature-nurture controversy.

Fox Keller may have a novel and fresh take on the whole issue, but let’s not pretend this is a new line of exploration. The fundamental incoherence of the public perception of “nature vs. nurture” is a literal cottage industry, and has been for a long time. Matt Ridley’s Nature via Nurture for example has this description from Publisher’s Weekly:

“Nature versus nurture” sums up in a nutshell one of the most contentious debates in science: Are people’s qualities determined by their genes (nature) or by their environment (nurture)? The debate has only grown louder since the human genome has been found to comprise only 30,000 genes. Some scientists claim that we don’t have enough genes to account for all the existing human variations. Ridley, author of the bestseller Genome, says that not only are nature and nurture not mutually exclusive, but that “genes are designed to take their cue from nurture.” Genes are not unchanging little bits of DNA: their expression varies throughout a person’s life, often in response to environmental stimuli. Babies are born with genes hard-wired for sight, but if they are also born with cataracts, the genes turn themselves off and the child will never acquire the ability to see properly. On the other hand, stuttering used to be ascribed solely to environmental factors. Then stuttering was found to be clearly linked to the Y chromosome, and evidence for genetic miswiring of areas in the brain that manage language was uncovered. But environment still plays a role: not everyone with the genetic disposition will grow up to be a stutterer. Ridley’s survey of what is known about nature-nurture interactions is encyclopedic and conveyed with insight and style. This is not an easy read, but fans of his earlier book and readers looking for a challenging read will find this an engrossing study of what makes us who we are.

As for Lewontin’s essay it reminds me somewhat of ‘concern trolling’. He points to serious confusions and potential intractabilities in how the forces of natural selection operate upon individuals and species, but at the end it is clear that he is mostly just exultant about the problem of ‘missing heritability’ because it keeps at bay a genomic resurrection of concerns which were at the heart of his activism in the ‘sociobiology wars’ of the 1970s.

And I don’t know how to view stuff like this:

Beginning with her consciousness of the role of gender in influencing the construction of scientific ideas, she has, over the last twenty-five years, considered how language, models, and metaphors have had a determinative role in the construction of scientific explanation in biology.

Perhaps Lewontin is using the term ‘determinative’ in a ‘figurative’ fashion for ‘rhetorical’ ‘effect’, but really comes close to the ‘science is just another myth’ line which served for the purposes of obtaining tenure in some Studies somewhere in the 1980s, but generally came to be seen as unserious (especially in the light of the recent revival of Creationism in more sophisticated form as Intelligent Design, which often makes pretty clear recourse to the tools and modes of Critical Theory). Lewontin ends with some allusive scare mongering about scientists playing God:

In May 2010 the consortium originally created by J. Craig Venter to sequence the human genome gave birth to a new organization, Synthetic Genomics, which announced that it had created an organism by implanting a synthetic genome in a bacterial cell whose own original genome had been removed. The cell then proceeded to carry out the functions of a living organism, including reproduction. One may argue that the hardest work, putting together all the rest of the cell from bits and pieces, is still to be done before it can be said that life has been manufactured, but even Victor Frankenstein started with a dead body. We all know what the consequences of that may be.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution
MORE ABOUT: Sociobiology, Sociology
  • http://blogs.plos.org/genomeboy Misha

    That last paragraph is unbelievable. All it needs is a little theremin music and a rubber mask.

  • Pingback: Nature vs. nurture, again, and again, and again…. « Forest Quest()

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    “Keller reveals that the assumption that the influences of nature and nurture can be separated is neither timeless nor universal, but rather a notion that emerged in Anglo-American culture in the late nineteenth century.”

    – coincidentally, around the same time (and among the same people) that sufficient scientific understanding to tease apart these differences began to form.

  • Jim Johnson

    So instead of the assumption that nature and nurture can be separated, we’re to simply assume that there is no difference between innate potential and response to environment?

    This sounds a lot like “This difference is really complex and shifting and abstruse, and we don’t have a good handle on it, so let’s just pretend it isn’t there and not try to figure it out.”

  • Ria

    I find it interesting that Fox Keller seems to be assuming that human interest in “nature” began only in the 19th century. Rather, the concept of mankind’s nature has been a topic of much interest since at least the induction of philosophical inquiry by the Greeks, and remains a topic of interest in philosophical circles in the philosophy of man. While the ancient Greeks certainly had no idea about DNA or genes, they were able to examine man’s behavior and physical characteristics and to try to determine whether or not men were born a certain way (nature) or could learn to alter some traits by choice (a great example of such an inquiry is in the Nicomachaen Ethics by Aristotle, regarding the definition and inculcation of virtue). The current debate about nature vs. nurture in a specifically genetic mode is merely a more specialized version of the exact same concept…how to differentiate what parts of “man” are immutable and what parts seem to respond to differing environments (whether internally or externally imposed). That might explain why Fox Keller is so confused about why this concept seems to be so rooted in Western thought…it’s been around for about as long as “Western thought” has!

    I find it interesting how so often, people in intellectual circles today fail to consider any thought development that occurred prior to the French Revolution. After all, empiricism (scientific thought) is simply one form of philosophy, not the ONLY form of philosophy.

  • jb

    It is either true that, given the proper environment and upbringing, any child is a potential Einstein or Mozart, or else it isn’t true.

    In its most extreme form, this is what the whole nature/nurture debate is about. Public confusion over the precise nature of the interaction between genes and environment takes nothing away from the fact that this is a perfectly clear, meaningful, and important question.

  • gcochran

    Well, if the environment involves lots of genetic modification, nanobots, and direct mind-computer connections – if every kid is fully subjected to the most convoluted interventions of both Mechs and Shapers – I think we may finally be able to get those test scores up.

  • Onur

    Ria, I think the author is trying to downplay – not necessarily intentionally – the role of genes in the development of individual traits and behavior by presenting the nature-nurture debate as a new one, as by doing that, she is implying that the whole nature-nurture debate is an artificial one. That tells a lot about the political motives of the author.

  • Mustafa Mond

    “Well, if the environment involves lots of genetic modification, nanobots, and direct mind-computer connections – if every kid is fully subjected to the most convoluted interventions of both Mechs and Shapers – I think we may finally be able to get those test scores up.”

    Indeed. I imagine I can hear the rationalizations for tampering with egg and sperm cell nuclei now: “Every chid deserves an equal chance of being tall, having green eyes, and an intelligent and agreeable disposition.”

  • John Emerson

    This doesn’t decide the question, but Mozart was mentioned. Mozart’s father was a well-regarded professional musician who specialized in pedagogy. Mozart was his practice dummy.

    His sister had a similar music education and was very talented, but she was married off and had no musical career.

    One factor in all of this is that there are a lot of things which are taught very slowly in even the best schools which a very talented student can whiz through at enormous speed. In music, chess, math, and a few other fields a 10 or 12 year old can be fully competent, if he has talent, access to the materials, and a life organized for him to do that. Terence Tao is a recent example.

  • Onur

    One factor in all of this is that there are a lot of things which are taught very slowly in even the best schools which a very talented student can whiz through at enormous speed.

    That is why I strongly support an education system based on IQ and merit. High IQ, mediocre and low IQ people should certainly be educated in separate classes. Also home education should be in the same legal status as school education.

  • expeedee

    I don’t really care if it’s nature or nurture. If it’s biological, it’s nature.

  • Kiwiguy

    ***The failure to find such genes continues and it seems likely that the search for the genes causing most common diseases will go the way of the search for the genes for IQ.***

    Hopefully Lewontin is around to see the results of the BGI research.

  • Benny Vallejo

    Epigenetics, gene placidity, self organization. The next chapter, or scientific naturalisms next hail Mary pass. One thing is for certain, & and that is that the Neo Darwinian synthesis has been dying the death of a thousand cuts for the last 30 years, at least. RIP.

  • Rob

    “Hopefully Lewontin is around to see the results of the BGI research.”

    Why, so his politically correct “interpretation” spin-job can be plastered everywhere along with that snail researcher’s? No thanks….

    Benny,

    Really? How so? LOL

  • Pingback: Humanity invented in 1800 by the French | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine()

  • ackbark

    I have a critical theory of Critical Theory.

    My theory is that the whole thing is a Catholic conspiracy to undermine modern civilization.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »