Nature, Enabling Nurture

Let's put this debate to bed for the last time. Every school child is taught that there is a raging conflict during the human development process between biological predestination and the effect of environmental factors, such as social norms and parenting styles. We have been reminded of this dichotomous--and yet mutually exclusive--relationship so many times that we have given it a very neat name: Nature vs. Nurture.

Constantly in the news, we are indoctrinated time and time again that to be on the side of one is to decry the other. In fact, in the realm of science, where psychology and sociology once had their roots, new methodologies have been created that reflect the assumption that the two determinants exist as the only two possibilities in the quest for knowledge.

On the flipside, Sociology itself has rejected nature out-of-hand by defining its study as limited ONLY to environmental stimuli in the context of our cultural development. Sociology refuses to define any social problems as emerging from biological tendencies, and Biology refuses to conclude that biological status can underly social forces without causing them directly.

Thus, we have a situation that occurs all too often in western thought: a falsely black and white choice in place of what should accurately be defined as a continuum of a multi-dimensional nature. That is to say, the variables of "nature" and "nurture" do not exist in a vacuum, nor do they represent a single set of factors that are so powerful as to preclude all possibility of including others. There is extensive, complex interaction between the two forces, enough to create a universe in which no two people will EVER be identical.

For instance, in the ongoing debate about gender and its place in our taxonomy of knowledge, biologists are always publishing data that depicts a wholly anatomy-determined gender identity, while sociologists are constantly fending off this blasphemy with re-definitions and distinctions between sex, sex identity, gender, and gender identity.

Neither one of these viewpoints is correct, but neither one of them is wholly false, either. They tell two sides of the same story, which at its core simply explains that we are complex creatures with complex beginnings and indeterminate presents. No wonder we haven't learned to tell the future!

All of this stems from a few basic misunderstandings of our own selves and the way we perceive the "self" to be constructed. For starters, let's throw out some facets of this conflict that we don't need to consider. First, religion and spirituality have no bearing on either biology or sociology. We don't need to argue the existence or non-existence of god(s) in order to consolidate these two viewpoints, but we do need to ignore any possible ways in which higher powers touch our lives and stick to a purely humanist analysis of Self. Second, we must assume that subjectivity is NOT the only valid perspective. There are branches of philosophy and sociology that believe the only definition of self comes from within. While this MAY be true, and most certainly has some amount of validity, it is irrelevant to our analysis, and thus should not be used to derail the discussion because the author has a different set of experiences and thus cannot define such a global concept. Subjectivity flows from knowledge, it does not create knowledge, and so if the points raised here are valid, it is up to each person's subjective experience to accept or deny them, but the knowledge will exist either way.

Now that we've determined the playing field on which this debate will take place we can dive right in. I want to stress in this analysis the unique ways in which concepts from either the nature or nurture camps can be applied to the opposition in order to achieve a more powerful argument in favor of a synergy of the two. The first concept is that of Emergent Properties, and comes from Biology, but has been applied to physics, chemistry, and psychology as well. The crux of this idea is that at every level of organization there are interactions that cause behavior that could not have been predicted by the way in which lower-level interactions occur. This is a lot simpler than it sounds; for instance, take a cell, which by itself can sustain life on its own, process its own foodstuffs, do a remarkable amount of self-maintenance and repair, and even replicate itself. Individual cells can process huge amounts of information on their own, but once you get them together, boy, look out! A group of cells extensive enough to be called an organism has an ENTIRELY different set of available behaviors and reactions to stimuli. For instance, the formation of tissues from groups of cells affords us self-contracting cardiac muscle, energy-storing fat tissue, information-processing neural tissue, and many, many others. From tissues, organs are formed. From organs, organ systems. And from organ systems, an organism. So we can see, it's all about organization (look at that word: even the etymology screams of biological processes!). In a sense, we're all very lucky that our cells organized the way they did, because we are a very, very unlikely combination of all the possible ones that exist.

The concept of emergent properties has been used to explain the way in which toxins affect our bodies, how metabolism and homeostasis are regulated, as well as how our emotions and mood-states are formed and maintained. Our understanding of psychological issues such as depression and addiction are underpinned by the biological knowledge we have gathered regarding neural functioning and the way it manifests in reality. In this way, Biology claims to have proven that the source of all human behavior is biological and nature, and thus we are right on to think of it in this way. Social construction of this idea has led to pharmaceuticals being developed for every condition known to humanity, the well supported theory that sexual orientation is innate, and broad social discomfort regarding gender nonconformity on the grounds that biology (sex) determines behavior (gender). The resulting retaliation by queer activists has been to explain that these non-conformists ARE in fact different biologically, and thus their feelings of different-genderness is warranted.

None of those ideas are inherently wrong. In fact, antidepressants have positively affected millions, biological support for gayness has forced many uncomfortable with the concept to finally accept the normalcy of their gay brothers and sisters, and the same seems to be true of research into the biological source of sex and gender (it's not as clear cut as you'd assume!). But, like almost all things in this world, the situation is not as clear-cut as simple biology, and Sociologists have capitalized on the inadequacy of this theory with a very different perspective in mind. For the most part, this new type of research is done by assuming the following. First, that biology inadequately explains the social forces at play in our world. Second, that social forces can be described without manipulating them, and should be done so from a lens of objectivity. The result has been a huge body of work in the last 50 or so years that seeks to catalog and categorize the experiences of millions of people, paying close attention to those who were once considered exceptions to the rule. And, in large part, Sociology is succeeding. We are now especially attuned to ways of thinking that may be socially induced instead of personally solicited, and as a result our society moves in the direction of addressing social ills such as sexism, racism, and classism in some of the same ways that biology's attunement to the needs of the physical led to the cure of many of the most debilitating diseases of our time.

Sociology also introduces the concept of a Social Problem into our lexicon, which is the basis for all of its workings as a discipline. A social problem is simply something, anything, that a group of people considers enough of a social ill to publicize and integrate as a meme into our social heredity. No judgment is passed on the legitimacy of this problem, or the evidence produced in order to bring it to public attention. That it captures our attention is enough to label it a problem. The point in identifying these problems is so that our social framework can be looked at in a higher resolution in order to "connect the dots," so to speak. The result of defining social problems is an overwhelmingly complicated tapestry of issues raised by almost every identifiable interest group in the world regarding where we are headed as a society or group of societies. We owe our ability to define social movements and trends to this taxonomy created by sociology, and it is indispensible in the study of social changes or lack thereof. Basically, our society IS a collection of social problems, either solved (the American Revolution "solved" our social problem/conflict with Britain), present (gay rights is a big one these days, competing directly with the movement to deny them these rights), or just budding (I forsee a huge outcry surrounding the utilization of technology, the greying of america, and so forth). We are described and defined by these problems, and we need not look further than these to see who we are and where we came from.

This, too, is inadequate in describing our world. We are biological beings, and we act based on biological principles that CREATE our ability to be social. There is no getting around our biology in order to end up in a place where we even have a social tapestry to discover! Likewise, there is simply no way to discuss our biology if we don't have a social structure or institution of science that allows us to do so! The purpose of Biology's denial of the Social is the same as Sociology's denial of the Biological: it's simply too difficult to combine the two. And while it may be true that a study of both would be overwhelming, it is for this reason that specific scientists focus on specific subjects. In reality, the only time Biologists and Social Scientists exist is when they are describing themselves to a person who many not understand the specific field they belong to. This is neither here nor there, but it is important to understand that definitions sometimes do a poor job of describing, and the subsequent integration of these poorly described concepts into our understanding is generally detrimental.

Here, we see that the stated reason for the impasse between social and biological science is demarcation, or artificial separation based on criteria decided on using majority-based opinion. However, these disciplines are not mutually exclusive, and considering them to be so obscures the truth of the nature/nurture debate while further encouraging participants to disagree on what amounts to be a non-issue.

Let's first take the example of Emergent Properties. In our explanation we halted at the organismal level for the sake of brevity, but it is entirely accurate to say that levels of organization continue indefinitely until acted on by the fundamental laws of the universe (in this case, it's because we have a hard time breathing without an atmosphere). That is to say, organisms group themselves into social units, and these social units collectively make up a Culture. On each level, the organization of the components below dictate and describe the current level, but do not account for all of the interaction possibilities that are now available. Just as a billion separate cells living a billion separate lives will enable a single organism to perform extraordinary tasks when grouped properly, a group of people is always capable of behaviors and thoughts and actions of which a single human is not. The same goes for small communities of families being grouped into a town. The only difference is, WE provide the organization. At some point, someone stood up and said, "let's all live close together together to keep warm and to discourage predators from eating us!" and we all said "great, let's also divide responsibility based on who is good at what." This basic process has repeated itself over and over until we find ourselves where we are today. The agents of change have become different, and the net result is much more significant today than it was during the organization of the first communities, but the concept is the same: each level of organization finds itself where it is BECAUSE of the level it rests upon.

Thus, social forces emerge from biological ones, but once above the level of pure biology, we see quite a bit of improvisation and differentiation that cannot be explained simply by biology. For instance, the curing of disease is an entirely social force that basically counteracts the purpose of our biology--the drive to survive based on fitness and genetic integrity alone. By curing diseases that once killed us, we are weakening the biological gene pool but strengthening our social bonds by merit of real or perceived altruism. Likewise, the idea of consumerism is entirely contrary to biology and has been linked to harmful behaviors (overeating, sedentary lifestyles, environmental destruction, apathy due to materialism, monetization of social classes, etc etc) that seem to be reinforced by biological desires to survive and find themselves re-manifested in the social arena due to their entrenchment at a level of organization high above that of the biological individual.

Conversely, we see biology influencing the very social concepts it helps define, such as in the previous example of consumerism. This can be seen in the very unfortunate mechanism that defines our "first impressions" of other individuals of our species. Intrinsic, biological fear is frequently the response to socialized racism and directly reinforces its hold over our society, even as we have attempted to intellectually and collectively eradicate such behavior from our social lexicon. The fear and response to someone we consider to be an "other" is almost certainly a vestige of pre-urban, pre-agricultural societies in which someone who looked different most likely did not belong in your habitat and thus deserved to be approached with caution. Today, it's an excuse for terrible and unequal treatment for those we perceive as different. For the most part, social definitions of racism and "other"ism ignore any discussion of the role of biology, resulting in a body of knowledge that only desires to describe half of the situation. It can be clearly seen that there are other, non-social influences on the way in which we perform socially, and thus these factors deserve attention in the interest of better defining the way in which we interact as social and biological beings.

We can very easily take this model and explain how to incorporate biology into the concept of the Social Problem by questioning the individual starting points for the strong emotions that are required to publicize and defend a position on an issue of public scope, but I'd like to take our discussion in a different direction and bring us back to the false choice of nature versus nurture. Earlier it was declared that these two factors are points in a multidimensional matrix that represents all possibilities for explaining human behavior and existence. Nature represents what we are given inherently by biology, genetics, psychology, and Nurture represents what we learn from environmental factors, such as social interactions, life events, family structure, cultural context, and so forth. Each of these sub-elements of Nature and Nurture deserve a "corner" of our matrix, whereby visually placing a behavior closer to that "corner" indicates that the behavior is best explained by that factor.

To grasp exactly how this matrix works, visualize for a minute each of these seven (somewhat arbitrary) factors placed equidistant on a sphere. This is the model by which all behaviors can be "measured." Assuming our model has an infinitely perfect knowledge of the question "why do we do things THIS way?" we can toss any behavior into our sphere, give it a good shake, and have it place our behavior in an area proportionally distanced from each of these seven factors. This is INCREDIBLY complicated to comprehend, as we are moving from two variables (nature and nurture) to at least seven. Our brains are much more comfortable with black/white choices, and (watch me prove my own theory here) thus this BIOLOGICAL tendency was exploited by the SOCIAL forces of the media in the relaying of information regarding this debate. Pop culture in turn was able to influence scientific research sufficiently, leading to the institutionalization of a debate that honestly should never have occurred. The universe is rarely as simple as we make it out to be, and playing on the mutual desire of the public and the research community to simplify our understanding of life, the universe, and everything has directly and negatively impacted the way in which we understand ourselves as individuals and as a species.

It is my belief that we will be unable to truly understand WHY we act the way we do socially without accepting biology as a possible explanation at some level, just as it is entirely unthinkable to me that a person's own actions can be described ONLY by biology without any social factors. We live in a society of biological organisms, and we are each individual organisms with intensely social tendencies. We can never escape our genes, or our physical biology any more easily than we can change what culture we were brought up in or how our society impacts our thoughts and actions.

All that thinking and explanation for this: I am hereby calling out all "science" types who discount social research due to its lack of quantification, as well as "social" types who discount biological explanations as valid based on a lack of concern for social factors. True, both disciplines need to reconcile their differences if we are to see any synergistic literature that contextualizes biological and sociological processes, but in the meantime, a healthy dose of skepticism will do in a pinch. However, be careful about WHY a piece of research is discounted; it is contrary to our deeper understanding of our existence to deny credibility to research with which we simply disagree. Logical analysis is the bedrock upon which both biology and sociology stand, making impartiality of the utmost importance.

So let's do this again:

Nature or Nurture?

I'm sorry, I don't understand the question.


Jake said...

The only difference is, WE provide the organization. At some point, someone stood up and said, "let's all live close together together to keep warm and to discourage predators from eating us!" and we all said "great, let's also divide responsibility based on who is good at what."

You really think this is an accurate description of what happened? And if it isn't, then doesn't that dramatically weaken your point?

Sam Gimbel... said...

The point you bring up is definitely hostile to the thesis. And no, I don't think that my explanation is well-researched, but I do think that regardless of the specifics, social organization occurred over a long period of time via communication between biologically capable individuals.

I'm not really interested in putting forth a bullet-proof thesis, I just want to provoke thoughts and recognize this perspective (one that rejects the right/wrong white/black duality of most debates in our society).

And, knowing you, Jake, I can tell you have a full-fledged opinion on this! So, what is it? I couldn't care less if it dashes my argument to pieces, let's hear it!

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A blog about social change, written from Brooklyn, New York. Currently looking for contributors.