Psychologists for long pondered the question, “Which is more important — Nature or Nurture?” It has always been an emotionally charged debate. Political demagogues in the twentieth century incited their peoples to extremes of racialism having convinced themselves that certain cultural features ‘were there in the blood’. This led to eugenics. Research now shows conclusively that it is nurture that provides the stimulus which unlocks our innate natures; it is nature via — not versus — nurture1.
Confucius was right all those years ago; “Man’s natures are alike; it is their habits that carry them far apart”.
Humans behave flexibly, argued Stephen Pinker, “because they are programmed; their minds are packed with combinational software that can generate an unlimited sets of thoughts and behaviours”2. It is indeed our habits that carry us far apart. The development of the genetic instructions which shape brain processes and behavioural patterns has been a very long process. Some scientists have speculated that it would be theoretically possible, given a time machine, to snatch a late Palaeolithic baby from beside a campfire of thirty thousand years ago and raise it in a twenty-first century English home so that it could eventually earn a degree in astrophysics or computer science. That is not necessarily the stuff of science fiction for there are still a few tribes in remote and inaccessible terrains living in just such Stone Age conditions who exhibit just such behaviours.
Consider the early English settlers seeking to build better relations with the indigenous peoples of Virginiawho offered to sponsor some Indian young men to attend the Collegeof Williamand Mary. The offer was considered carefully but eventually declined; “We are convinced you mean to do us good by your kind offer but you, who are wise, must know that different nations have different conceptions of things”3. This offer had been made once before noted the Indians, “but when our young men returned to their people they were no longer good runners. They were ignorant of every means of living in the woods, fit neither for hunters nor for councillors; they were totally good for nothing”. Politely the native American indians reciprocated with an offer to educate the sons of the settlers in the ways of the Indian tribes, which in their turn the English declined. Different forms of nurture on a universal human ‘blue print’ inevitably produced totally different cultures.
The behaviours that have been fashioned through evolution to activate our natural predispositions were shaped long, long ago within the collaborative, intergenerational, co-operative behaviour of our distant ancestors. Without similar cultural stimulants to those that have fashioned our own predispositions, future generations of young people may never learn those techniques which unlock so many of our preferred ways of doing things. As a small-group species we expect love, pity, generosity, remorse, friendly affection, reciprocity and enduring trust to be part of our genetic heritage.
All too often such attitudes and behaviours are being squeezed out of the experience of today’s young people. Is it possible that, in the ever-faster moving de-socialised, de-spiritualized and essentially depersonalized life of modern man we are losing so many of the cultural factors necessary to unlock our real potential? If so, the human race is in trouble; we have to enter a world where our genes are not puppet masters pulling the strings of our behaviour, but rather our genes are puppets at the mercy of our behaviours. That is not meant to be a circuitous argument for it is through the experience of such emotions that the human brain develops. It is Nature via Nurture; and it is why problems of education are as much about matters of culture as they are about a misunderstanding of how brains function.
Thesis 11: 24th August 2006