Sunday, January 11, 2009

September 2007: Nature vs. Nurture

As written in an earlier letter, my advisor was Dr. Fran Cousins back in 1972: my sophomore year. She was a Professor of Sociology and as such strongly suggested that I take courses in Psychology and Sociology. I resisted her advice and encouragement. I thought it was all pseudo-science and attracted students who liked to wax eloquent in a vocabulary I still refer to as psycho-babble.

Still, I was curious and had been for a few years about this psychology stuff. I had been since high school. I studied mostly science and math. Both are based on logic. Science was based on the scientific method of hypothesizing a theory and verifying or negating such empirically.

Mathematics was based on a set of axioms or basic assumptions upon which the rest of a specific field of mathematics is based on the logical consequences of these axioms.

If psychology and sociology meant anything, they had to mean something to me in these terms. Back then, I was as yet, ignorant of approximate mathematics: probability and statistics. It was a field of mathematics that deals with decision making in the face of uncertainty. It is a field of mathematics that looks for trends, partial trends, correlations, and partial correlations. It is a field of mathematics well suited in both the quality and social sciences.

In 1972, while ignoring Dr. Cousins advice, I was still a sophomore. As such, I was subject to many sophomoric interests. I had over my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college, wanted to know more about the psycho-babble other sophomores were bandying about with such assuredness. I wanted to know what they were talking about and how to participate in such conversations intelligently and defend my position.

My position was quite simple. I believed in a soul and innate qualities that were largely responsible for the talents, skills, behavior, and development of people. This was supported mostly by the science of genetics, the then recent work of Watson and Crick defining DNA, and my strong belief in the existence and power of the soul.

Back then, most of my sophomore fiends in psychology and sociology believed more in Behaviorism. This concept often attributed to the eminent Harvard professor B. F. Skinner. He simply believed and advocated that behavior. He had written a landmark book in 1948, Walden Two, the outlined this basic belief. Skinner advocated that environment determines behavior. Behavior can be changed by changing the environment. Skinner actually showed this experimentally on animals. He had a theory that behavior could be changed by creating a new environment of positive reinforcement.

The argument was simply one of Nature vs. Nurture. Is our personality, who we are, how we behave, and what we do or do not achieve based on innate traits we are born with (Nature) or due to the environment, opportunities, and education we grow up in (Nurture)? This is one of the key sophomoric issues that occupied a large part of our general discussions back then.

Out of school, unless one is actually working in the field, such concerns tend to fade into the background. Yet, this Nature vs. Nurture thing never really went away. It was always lingered just under the surface. It was around when it came to raising children. The concept of positive reinforcement was pretty much at the heart of the self-esteem movement that dominated the home and school rearing of children the past twenty years.

The same applies to management of people in the workplace. Most of the management training most of us receive today is based on positive reinforcement and creating an environment where people can succeed in helping the organization reach its goals.

Both the child rearing and workplace management philosophies are based on or are an evolution of, at least in my limited knowledge, Skinner’s theories. Furthermore, the tenets of Quality Management are rooted in process development and management. One way of looking at this is to set the right environment, design the process, and then provide the proper system of reinforcement i.e. manage the people and process to deliver the expected and continually improving results. Even though I was a Nature kind of sophomore back in 1972, it is clear that I have been a practicing behaviorist, an adherent of the Nurture school, in my professional career.
So, which is the answer, Nature or Nurture? The answer is both. My background in Quality Management also included becoming a Statistician, things do not have to be one extreme or the other, and they do not have to be either black or white. Things are often shades of grey; part Nature and part Nurture. Depending on the situation, I now believe that we behave with some mixture of Nature and Nurture.

Consider the following. Stratify the students in high school in the United States by household income. Compare and contrast the top 20% vs. the bottom 20% of this sorting by household income and answer the following questions which can easily be measured, should anyone care and have the resources to do so. What is the percentage of each population that:
- Goes to College/University
- Goes to a Top 25 University
- Serves time in the Armed Forces
- Is arrested

I am certain that there will be quite measurable and significant differences in these percentages.

Can we attribute this to Nature? Can we say Nature has made some smarter and thus wealthier? If the stratification of household wealth shows clear race or religious differences there are many that will easily jump on this correlation to show the superiority of one race or religion over the other.

We can also make the case for Nurture. There are definitely more opportunities for the wealthy growing up in a community with a collective expectation that everyone goes to college. These are significant environmental factors that reinforce expectations and ambitions from birth. They cannot be easily discounted.

Yet, it is not cut and dry. I know a derelict from the most privileged class to a poorest of the poor from Harlem that has a PhD from Harvard. Nature may have played a larger factor for these two than the majority in their socio-economic class. It is not cut and dry because there are so many people with so many different Nature given physical and mental traits. There are also so many environmental factors from parents, teachers, and other influencing adults when one is growing up. The influences can be most positive on one hand to most abusive on the other. A physical or sexual abuse certainly influences what one becomes.

We are definitely born with certain physical traits. The science of genetics has definitely advanced since 1972. Based on the basic DNA work of Watson and Crick, the Human Genome Project was an ambitious thirteen year project ending in 1993 to identify the 23,000 or so genes in the human DNA. Before this project and more so because of it, scientists are now able to pinpoint genes various physical behaviors including:

- 80% of the risk of developing Alzheimer’s is genetic
- One gene dictates the way nicotine is metabolized. So, if one is a smoker this gene predicts the number of cigarettes one will smoke

Research is being done on genetic predisposition to alcohol and drug abuse and dependency. The study began in the 1970’s and has accelerated with the Human Genome Project. Henry Kranzler, Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Connecticut School of Medicine, stated:

There are now four genes that have been shown by multiple research groups to contribute to risk of alcoholism. This is a rapidly developing field, such that I would anticipate that up to another 10 such genes will be identified, with the findings replicated independently, in the next decade.

It is now widely accepted that genetic variation predisposed to alcohol and drug dependence, but it’s also very clear that without environmental factors – including access to alcohol and drugs – addictions don’t occur.

Genetic predisposition is not destiny.

It is truly not cut and dry. It is not black and white. There are many factors some genetic and some environmental. There are probably significant random events that can have massive positive or negative effects that can keep one from either mitigate the predisposition or amplify it.

When I was reading Dr. Kranzler’s comments, I immediately thought about the effect of alcohol and alcoholism on the American Indians, Russians, and the Irish. Is there a predisposition for dependency in the Indians? Cleary, the problem was non-existent until alcohol was made available.

We have all heard the terms about how someone can either “hold” or “not-hold” their liquor. We usually attribute this phenomenon to physical make-up, family heritage, or ethnic background. If we filter out any politically incorrect innuendos or conclusions, we are really saying this is Nature at work. There is another factor to consider. Some drink often and excessively whereas others rarely drink. Are these two dimensions or factors related? Independent? How do they interact i.e. how do they work in conjunction?

Look at the following four combinations of two factors: Can/Cannot Hold Liquor and Drinks Often & Excessively/Rarely Drinks:

1. Drinks Often & Excessively AND Can Hold Liquor
2. Drinks Often & Excessively AND Cannot Hold Liquor

3. Rarely Drinks AND Can Hold Liquor
4. Rarely Drinks AND Cannot Hold Liquor

In each of the four combinations above, one could do a scientific study to try to determine the Nature and Nurture causes of the effect shown. There are probably several other factors that also determine the behavior. How do we use positive re-enforcement to move folks from 2 to 4. AA does exactly this combining a belief in a higher power and a system of positive re-enforcement

Clearly, scientists agree that many physical traits are driven by genetics, hence Nature. Eye color, hair color and baldness are examples. Even the predisposition for certain diseases such as heart conditions or cancer seem to run in some families. Yet, can we say the same for personality traits such as ambition vs. complacency, aggressiveness vs. passiveness, and congeniality vs. surliness? Do these come from within? Is one simply a “good egg” or a “bad egg?” Or are these traits learned?

If they are learned, they are learned at a very early age based raising my own children. Amazing personality traits were evident in both my son and daughter well before I would have thought they very much time to absorb them from the family environment. I could argue that they were born with these traits, they were genetically engrained every bit as much as their eye and hair color. I could also argue that while their eye and hair color is certainly genetic, certainly Nature driven, their little minds were empty and absorbed every little personality nuance from those around them the most, their parents, siblings, extended families.

The argument of Nature or Nurture quickly can become religious. At the extreme, a Nurture belief can take on aspects of Darwinism, survival of the fittest, and human beings are involved from apes. At the extreme in the Nature school, everything is cast from birth, it is all God’s will, and there is no free will. It is easy to see how a Nature – Nurture debate could quickly get peoples blood boiling.

One of the articles I read on the internet ( quoted from the International Social Survey Program a multi-country multi-university endeavor that included the University of Michigan… and thus had to be a valuable and true study. There were five factors that were surveyed against. I have edited the dimensions a bit to suit my own view of things:

Fate or God Factor: At the extreme, this is the relinquishing all free will. At a less extreme viewpoint, there is a God who may at times test us with trials and tribulations but may also answer our prayers and help us overcome illness or achieve what we seek.

Genetic Factor: Some people are born with “better” genes than others. Think of genius vs. autism, gifted athletic skill vs. birth defects. This is the heart of the Nature school.
Society/Environmental Factor: If the genetic factor is the heart of the Nature camp, this is the heart of Nurture. Ones environment can really influence and alter what one becomes in both positive and negative ways.

Work Factor:
This is all about self-determination, initiative, and applying both to overcome what all the other factors may have thrown at you to define or re-define yourself.

Chance Factor:
Good and bad things can happen to people that definitely influence what they are and what they can become.

These factors work for me. Everything I am or am no are due to The Genetics, Societal, Work, and Chance factors in some combination or weighted average. Work is truly the only one anyone can really control.

Notice that I had left out the Fate/God Factor. I could argue that fate vs. chance is a matter of belief or they are the same thing. Is winning the lottery chance or fate? Is not winning the lottery when the numbers you always play win but you forgot to buy a ticket chance or God’s will? Is getting cancer chance or fate? Is overcoming cancer against all prognostications chance or God’s will? I thought about merging the two factors, but I did not think of it long. Both work for me as well. There is most certainly chance… yes I am absolutely certain about uncertainty. I do believe in God, that each of us has a soul, and something, most likely this soul lives on after death.

So to conclude, I was once fully in the Nature school. Today, I find the five factor view a much better model to explain how things work. The topic of Nature vs. Nurture is very complicated with more variables and interactions that we can possibly track and use to predict. The factor model simply puts things in perspective.

I might have simply saved time by simply quoting Jawaharlal Nehru:

Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism; the way you play it is free will.
This was not the easiest letter to write. I thought I could have whipped it out quickly and eloquently provided some brilliant insights. I really struggled with it and had to push at the closing hours of this month to deliver this rambling discourse.

Maybe I should have taken Dr. Cousins advice way back in 1972.


  1. I can prove the nature vs nurture debate and prove thats its nothing other than social class people geting more opertunity than others through social acceptedness I suffer from dylexia that was caused through no attention at school but yet I have an uncle who is now becoming a judge and the fact of the matter is I have more ability than he does we both share the same features and chactheristics wich proves nature but yet I was never given the chance to prove it unlike him I can scientifiallcy prove the nature vs nurture debate and have been well known for it, but I have suffered from the responce of no one caring due to not being accepted again I point out social class I could bring this debate to its end or revolutionise it ( fact ) but who cares? and I can also link it to religion christianity and show through nature and nurture that it becomes a race of people that falls into 3 races I doubt you'll answer me but if u feel up to the challange my address is

  2. I did actually try to email not actually looking for a challenge but more out of curiosity and here is the response I got:

    Hi. This is the qmail-send program at
    I'm afraid I wasn't able to deliver your message to the following addresses.
    This is a permanent error; I've given up. Sorry it didn't work out.

    : does not like recipient.
    Remote host said: 550 Requested action not taken: mailbox unavailable
    Giving up on