Close your eyes, take a moment, and think about where you are today, and the journey that took you there. How much of that was due to your environment and upbringing? And how much is due to your genes? These are questions that scientists are trying to answer, today. On one side of the debate you have the idea that we are primarily a product of our environment, upbringing, and culture, and on the other side, we are primarily a product of our genetics, and the environment plays only a secondary role.
This is a debate that I personally find fascinating, because it can reveal to us a lot about ourselves as well as where we are going. It has significant implications for us in our quest to maximize our life expectation. If nature is more influential, then nature also sets bounds on where we can and cannot go. If nurture is more influential, then some of us are born significantly luckier than others. We do, however, have the chance to change our course as time goes on.
Which do you think has been more influential on your own life: nature, or nurture?
Life is a journey forward, with our hands at the helm and a destination we are all trying to reach. However, not all of our boats started at the same place, and each of us has a different boat; some faster, some stronger, and some more agile.
It has once been said that life, and evolution by extension, is a series of accidents. We are the product of millions and billions of those accidents. Over the long period of biological history, these accidents have sometimes resulted in an organism that was a little bit fitter than its predecessor: A little faster, a little stronger, or perhaps a little more efficient and adapted to new conditions. Over time, this has led to an explosion of life on this planet, and it has given rise to the first species with high intelligence and a large brain: us!
We originally started out in Africa, and I imagine that life for most of these early humans was more or less the same. Then over time we spread out all over the world and discovered agriculture, which lead to civilization and the spread of culture. Our species has become incredibly diversified as a result, with thousands of different languages, cultures, and races spread across the globe.
The idea behind nature being the primary determinant of who we are is that we are a product of our genes. Some of us are smarter, some faster, some more outgoing, and some more reserved. This is a very random process, as parents don’t have much control beyond choosing their mate. There is no telling how everything will mix together and what kind of person will result.
Nature sets its own bounds
Because this is such a random process, what does that mean for us? It leads to a very deterministic view of the world. We all admire geniuses such as Einstein, or athletes such as Michael Jordan. Pop stars such as Michael Jackson are legends whose names will probably never be forgotten. These are the names of people who have had a big impact on our world, in one way or another. However, how much of this success can be attributed to the unique make up of their DNA?
As people, we tend to treat the world as if nature only plays a small role. Anyone can succeed in anything if they just try hard enough. Maybe it won’t be as easy as the greats, but it all comes down to effort. We judge people who are different from us; perhaps they’re shy, or act a little weird in some way. Perhaps they’re too outgoing. We tell the shy person “Why don’t you just be a little bit more outgoing?”, we ask the over-outgoing person if they can calm down a bit, and we look down on the weird person because they are different from us.
We treat other people as if they act purely out of volition; they are different solely because they choose to be so. In fact, our entire legal system is based on this concept. We treat people as rational actors with intent, not as biological machines acting out on their genetic programming, even if genetics does happen to play a large role in how we behave.
So, if nature determines a large part of our personality and physical characteristics, does that mean we’re screwed? Not necessarily. It’s true that some of us are stronger and faster than others, and it’s true that most of us will never reach the level of someone like Einstein or one of the Michaels, no matter how hard we try. In this sense, free will is somewhat of an illusion. If we are not good in math or if we are not as charismatic as we’d like to be, this isn’t necessarily something that can be fixed just by willing it to be.
However, the belief that we can change things is a very powerful thing. It doesn’t matter if nature places limits on where we can go, if we don’t even try, we will never get anywhere close to those limits to begin with. If I believe that I can make a difference and if I believe that I can change my life for the better, then I will be able to go much further and much closer to my limits. Life dealt us a random starting hand, but we still get to choose how we play out that hand.
Instead of genetics being the primary driver, perhaps it is our environment and upbringing that plays a large role. Nurture is just as random as nature: We didn’t choose if we were going to be born to loving parents or to unkind parents, in a rich country or a poor country, in a rich family or a poor one. Someone born to a crack mother in an inner-city ghetto certainly had no more influence over that choice than someone born to an upper-class household. Someone born and raised in a tribe in Africa is most certainly going to have a different life experience than somebody born and raised in a middle-class household in Los Angeles.
Because our life circumstances are so different, you would expect that these differences would play a huge role in the kind of person we become and the type of life we experience. There is no doubt that the environment plays a huge role, but it has also been shown that the personalities of adopted siblings are less similar than the personalities of identical twins raised in separate families, so its role is not absolute.
How bounded are we by our starting circumstances in life?
This is a question that is important to me. Is our life going to be determined by where we started out? Are we destined to have a good life if we were born in a good home? Conversely, are we screwed and destined for failure if we had a more troubled start in life?
Undoubtedly parents play a huge role in passing on their values and providing guidance and love to their children. I can see the good heart and spirit of my girlfriend and the love of her parents which has been passed on to her. Some of my fellow bloggers, such as Bret from Hope to Prosper, share their wisdom and wonderful experiences of parenting and the lessons that they have passed down from generation to generation.
Good parenting definitely plays a role in producing good children. However, we all know cases where kids have for one reason or another been troubled, even though they seemingly come from good homes. We also know cases where people went through less than ideal circumstances, yet somehow they managed to push through it and build a good life for themselves in spite of the adversity they faced. Sandy from Yes, I am Cheap reminds us why parents need to take an active role in their children’s lives, and Sandy from First Gen American shows us how to be strong in the face of verbal abuse and hardship. I find it very inspiring how people can be dealt such a bad hand, yet manage to go so far and put on a brave face in spite of it.
My own story
I have my own story to tell, here. My mother was pregnant at 16 and my father left shortly after; we have never met. It was not an easy pregnancy as she was a smoker and a drinker. There is a whole family and culture I have never known. My mother was unstable and we moved around from place to place, often in the middle of a school grade. I would just start to get accustomed to a new place when it would be time for us to move for one reason or another.
As she was unable to look after me well, I had a lot of freedom at a very young age playing in construction yards by myself or with friends, though looking back I guess it was somewhat dangerous at the same time!
My grandmother would help out where she could, but as a newly widowed woman who lost her house there was only so much she could do at the time.
Jumping into the fire
Finally my mother found someone that she loved enough to marry; a convicted criminal with a record for beating up his ex-wife. Me and him got along well at first, but later the relationship turned verbally and physically abusive. He had no interest in being my dad; I was only along for the ride, and I had to refer to his parents by their surnames. Due to bankruptcy and other various reasons, we kept moving around, and this is when I entered my “lost decade” for my pre-teen and teenage years. Things were bad enough that I had to go see a school psychologist, though they ignored her recommendations.
The last straw for me was when my step-dad was drunk and complaining that I was a good for nothing, and kicked me down the stairs after I had said something he didn’t like. I left the house and, having no car to go anywhere else, took my bicycle and slept in a field that night. When I came back, my mother screamed at me for not having washed the dishes.
I didn’t know where else to turn to, so I asked my grandmother for help. She helped me move out and I went to stay with a high school friend of mine, and things from then on slowly started to improve. Though my grandmother’s generous help and support, I was able to complete college and university, even though I had to work many hours on the side to help pay for it. Even long before this, she was the one that helped me to start to come out of my shell when I lived with her during the last couple of years of high school. My parents could never accept this decision, that I would choose my grandmother over them, and to this day they look at me as if I am the devil’s spawn.
Light at the end of the tunnel
I have a half-sister whom I was able to spend a few years living with together, and whom my step-dad loves and adores, and I know that they are happy together, although we have not spoken to each other in about a decade now. My life has drastically improved in the past 10 years; I went from an angst-filled teen that was chronically depressed, withdrawn, and didn’t care about anything to a more reasonably rounded adult who now lives with a great girlfriend of 7 years, graduated with distinction and is able to hold down a stable job.
Sometimes I feel that I don’t deserve any of it. I look back to how bad things were and I feel that somehow I must have deserved being in such a bad situation. I still carry around this baggage inside of me, and I wonder why it is that they are able to be happy together and not move around from place to place, have bankruptcy, and why he loves his daughter yet was never able to truly accept me. I wonder why my mom has gone along with it and why she hates her own son. Maybe I was the problem all along.
Nonetheless, I am still thankful for many things. I was born with complications, but I am still healthy, strong, and intelligent. I had a hell of a rough time growing up, but I also had the strong, unconditional love of my grandmother who was able to toughen me up and kick me in the behind, helping me to get to where I am today. I am very, very fortunate that I was born in Canada and that I have access to opportunities that people in other parts of the world can only dream of.
Nature versus nurture
In the end, we come back to nature versus nurture and now you know why I am so personally interested in both. On both counts I have not been dealt with the best starting hand, but if I take an objective view of my own life I have not done so badly up until now. Is it possible for us, as human beings, to overcome the situations we were born in, and to become something more? I believe it is.
Nature and nurture doesn’t begin and end with birth. As time goes on, we gain more and more influence over our own lives. I firmly believe that we can improve ourselves as human beings by surrounding ourselves with people that are better than ourselves. This is how I became a better person; by meeting my girlfriend who has the polar opposite life experience of myself and by surrounding myself with colleagues that are smarter than myself, and through the love of a grandmother. I don’t know where I would be in my life today without their guiding light. We are able to change the role that nurture provides by surrounding ourselves with better influences. The journey has only begun, and I hope to go much further.
It turns out that we may even have more control over nature than previously thought. While gene modification is still some time away from becoming widespread, we are already capable of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the idea that we have more control over our brains than previously thought — we can actually shape our personalities and thoughts. We don’t have to be the victim of our starting circumstances; within certain bounds, we can actually improve our starting hand and become a new person entirely.
I want to thank Bret from Hope to Prosper, Sandy from Yes, I Am Cheap, and Sandy from First Gen American for encouraging me to share my own history through their revealing and thought-provoking posts. When I read the submissions at the Yakezie Writing Contest, I am awed by what some people have gone through and are willing to share with others. I am still somewhat of a guarded person, and I am embarrassed to share this part of my history as I feel I will be judged for coming from such a background. Nonetheless, I feel that the posts and essays of my fellow bloggers are so much richer knowing the personal context, and I hope that you will also see my writing in a new light now that you know where I am coming from.
So, reader, what impacts has nature and nurture had on your own life? How do you feel about your journey and the destination you have in mind? We are all travelling together, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.