On ‘nature versus nurture’

I have noted, for a while now, a strong bias among social scientists in the “nature versus nurture” question in favor of nurture, that is, that traits can largely be attributed to one’s social environment, especially as a child. The most obvious counterexample is sexual orientation; many gays and lesbians insist strongly that they were “born that way.” I think people whose gender identities do not accord with their biological sexual characteristics would make a similar claim.

Accordingly, I’m inclined to repeat what should be obvious: The answer to “nature versus nurture” can’t possibly be exclusively one or the other.

But outside specific research interests, the question is actually only important for three other questions with which it in fact gets conflated: First, which attributes we recognize as valuable; second, the means by which we assess those attributes; and third, the failure of our economic ideology to adequately reward even some of those attributes we recognize as valuable.

As a society and particularly as a culture, we inherently value conformity. In a racist society, that means conformity with being white. In a sexist society, that means conformity with being male. In a classist society, that means conformity with being rich. This is a list that goes on and on and on. It is intrinsic to the “us versus them” mentality of hierarchically invidious monism.[1] We only care about “nature versus nurture” because some attributes are valued, others are devalued, and we want to assign a blame akin to that for Calvinist predestination.

In this temporal perversion, and despite the original question, we ask whether we write off an individual entirely for the incorrigible defects of their immutable genetic essence or imagine they should redeem themself for the defects of their upbringing. By this moralistic shift, the social and economic situation evade accountability, absolving us of responsibility for their condition.

A problem with the “nature” argument is its association with racism and, especially, claims of a racial hierarchy in intelligence. This seems to be a wall that Kathryn Paige Harden has run into in her claim that genetics do play a role.[2] Really, something similar goes on with a much too common doubt of women’s intelligence, and as we see conversely with the attention paid to the likes of wealthy white males Bill Gates and Elon Musk, a presumption that associates wealth with intelligence, even as they pontificate on matters outside their expertise.

Something else I’ve been trying to argue is that standardized tests, including for an “intelligence quotient” (IQ), measure particular forms of literacy rather than actual abilities. When we attempt to define ‘intelligence,’ indeed, what we get really boils down to what people agree is ‘intelligent,’ the classic pattern of a social construction.

Quantifying social constructions is particularly dubious and in the case of intelligence, any attempt to do so assumes that all forms of intelligence can be reduced to a single linear measure.

It happens I’m terrible at math. Does that make me an imbecile? Perhaps not; when I’ve taken freely available online IQ tests, I’ve scored well above average, in the range of 130-135. I dimly recall taking the real thing when I lived in Pittsburgh as a child; I recall a murmur that my results were impressive, but my parents (only one is still alive) were told not to reveal the results to me and they never have.

I think as well of music, which I appreciate but have no talent for producing. How shall we compare a musician’s ‘intelligence’ to my own? How about that of an artist, a poet, or a novelist? We can’t really; to do so would be a disservice to each of our gifts.

I think also of mechanics and, because I tried my hand at at their craft a couple times, locksmiths. The intellectual qualities to these trades are not, for me, particularly difficult. But I’ve never been any good at working with my hands. I am incompetent here even if I am ‘intelligent.’ Which is also to suggest that our assessment of ‘intelligence’ relies on cherry-picked attributes.

The racist assertions of a racial hierarchy in intelligence rely heavily on IQ.[3] And our valuation of human beings relies heavily on their putative ‘intelligence,’ often even more crassly quantified by their ability to make money.

The academics in their “ivory towers” may be derided for their ignorance of the “real world” and, sadly enough, indeed, sometimes some of them (solipsistic post-modernists come to mind) are. But what about the capitalists who dismiss concerns about social inequality, instead praising inequality as essential to “innovation?” Are they not willfully ignorant of a harsh reality? And what about the discarded potential of people we throw away? As one professor wrote,

Although I am not a gambler, I also thank Lady Luck for being employed as a tenured professor, which makes my academic production possible. It might have been otherwise. Countless potential discoveries, innovations, and advancements are never made because most faculty and intellectuals have been discarded, living as coffee baristas and wait staff versus the alternative of a homeless existence in a McDonaldized contingent academia.[4]

John Asimakopoulos there points to a discrepancy between outcomes and potential and, indeed, as Thomas Shapiro writes,

A core element of the American credo is that talent, skill, hard work, and achievement largely determine life chances. We believe that everyone has a fair shot at whatever is valued or prized and that no individual or group is unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged.[5]

Any definition of intelligence influenced by social outcomes is at least partly circular, another characteristic of a social construction.

But not just in academia, rather in society as a whole, we love our numbers.[6] And so, gaily oblivious to diversity of talent, we succumb to the notions of IQ and riches.

That IQ is utterly fallacious does not mean that genetic makeups do not play a part in personal attributes. The trouble is that, put in if-then form, that is, the form of linear causation, the first racist assertion is that if Black people score lower on IQ tests, then it follows that intelligence (a social construction, remember) is determined genetically. The second, closely related, racist assertion is that if Black people are poor, economic outcomes are determined genetically. Again, the attempt is to evade holding the wider social and economic system to account for systemic and overt racism by finding fault with the victims. And it works much the same with other forms of bias, including sexism and classism.

Hence the opprobrium that Harden encounters from social scientists who recognize multiple social factors (“nurture”) in social outcomes, particularly including discrepancies in opportunity.[7] But this opprobrium is, again in if-then form, to suggest that if some attribution of social outcome to genetics is racist, then all of it must be so, a classic error in syllogisms.

One of the fallacies that positivism (scientific method) routinely succumbs to is of linear causation, classically in if-then form. It entirely neglects mutual causality, in which a system arises from factors that influence each other, amplifying and constraining the capacities of each, and, in addition, yielding unpredictable emergent properties. Mutual causality should be regarded as the rule, rather than the exception,[8] and this applies to social systems as well as natural systems.

To reduce poverty or intelligence or any attribute or outcome to either “nature” or “nurture” neglects mutual causality. Which is why I have been inclined to think that both play some role in almost everything social.

What we need to do is to find a way to value people for who they are, regardless of the extent to which they are the products of “nature” or “nurture.” Assigning supremacy to quantitative exchange value, capitalism is particularly incapable of doing this.

  1. [1]Simone de Beauvoir, “Woman as Other,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Philadelphia: Westview, 2017), 268-270; Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991); Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005).
  2. [2]Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “Can Progressives Be Convinced That Genetics Matters?” New Yorker, September 6, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/09/13/can-progressives-be-convinced-that-genetics-matters
  3. [3]Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “Can Progressives Be Convinced That Genetics Matters?” New Yorker, September 6, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/09/13/can-progressives-be-convinced-that-genetics-matters
  4. [4]John Asimakopoulos, Acknowledgements in The Political Economy of the Spectacle and Postmodern Caste (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2020), xiv.
  5. [5]Thomas M. Shapiro, “Introduction,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 3.
  6. [6]Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, John Wilkinson, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1964); Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993).
  7. [7]Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “Can Progressives Be Convinced That Genetics Matters?” New Yorker, September 6, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/09/13/can-progressives-be-convinced-that-genetics-matters
  8. [8]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996); Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2014); Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995).

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