Nature vs. Nurture

In the dichotomy of nature vs. nurture, nurture wins.  Most characteristics that tend to be placed in the nature column in fact belong to nurture, such as much of the supposed gender divide.  The sometimes held myth that women are not as good at mathematics, for example, is more a result of imposed gender roles than any intrinsic proclivity. While genetics (perhaps the epitome of the nature aspect) does play a factor in people’s lives, but it is also not uncommon for genetics to be overcome or at least mitigated by training and lifestyle changes (i.e. nurture).


Nature is closely associated with being original, pure, and unchangeable.  Nurture is oft viewed as artificial, added-on, and mutable.  Nature is what people start with, while nurture is what they gain along the way.


Nurture can be (and often is) a form of control – it teaches what emotions are appropriate at a given situation, what actions and words are expected and so on.  This is not a bad thing per se.  It is part and parcel of living in a society with other people, other viewpoints.  However, nature is also a form of control, especially when it is taught that so-called natural tendencies/aspects cannot or should not be challenged.


Any bit of nurture that disguises itself as being “natural” is much more controlling because it is not challenged.   The most powerful form of control is the control that is not even noticed (i.e. looks to be natural).  To find a basic example of this, one only needs to look at table manners, explored in great detail in the book History of Manners by Norbert Elias. The very idea of sharing a glass to drink with another at the dinner table seems dirty and perhaps too familiar, pointing a knife is rude and even hints at danger, and of course one should use a fork and not use the hands (even if clean).  Today, objecting to these standards would seem odd or even childish.  Yet, all these ideas are the result of training and historical development, despite seeming natural and “just the way things should be.”


One reason for this acceptance of nurture as being natural is because its development has been lost to history.  For something to seem natural, it should consistent regardless of time and place – or at least seem that way.  To make nurture appear to be “natural,” one trick is to not give any credence to earlier forms of development, making it timeless, that it “has always been this way.”  At best, it can be argued that things always were that way until recently (i.e. “We were wrong before but now we have got it back to rights”).


As mentioned in earlier posts, “orthodoxy” (link) holds a similar reputation to nature.  To object would be viewed as odd, subversive in certain cases, and would certainly take a fair bit of courage.  However, orthodoxy is not purely nurture clothed in the aura of nature; it does have some overt elements of nurture, such as what is taught in classrooms and television programs.    Some of these developments are quite positive, such as greater racial and sexual tolerance and understanding.  But these ideas should not simply be viewed as static, outside the currents of change.  When viewed as timeless, the ideas and lessons are not examined and not understood.  It is similar to putting a label on a phenomenon without further understanding it (link).


The positive developments we see in society are inspired by examining the previously unexamined.    Orthodoxy and nature are respectively viewed as not needing further understanding or incapable of being examined.  This is false.  There is always more to learn, no matter how natural it seems.

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