Planet Earth

Nature vs. nurture, again, and again, and again....

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 11, 2011 4:58 AM

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In The New York Review of BooksRichard Lewontin has a long review up of Evelyn Fox Keller's last work, The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture. Here's the blurb from Duke University Press:

In this powerful critique, the esteemed historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller addresses the nature-nurture debates, including the persistent disputes regarding the roles played by genes and the environment in determining individual traits and behavior. Keller is interested in both how an oppositional “versus” came to be inserted between nature and nurture, and how the distinction on which that opposition depends, the idea that nature and nurture are separable, came to be taken for granted. How, she asks, did the illusion of a space between nature and nurture become entrenched in our thinking, and why is it so tenacious? Keller reveals that the assumption that the influences of nature and nurture can be separated is neither timeless nor universal, but rather a notion that emerged in Anglo-American culture in the late nineteenth century. She shows that the seemingly clear-cut nature-nurture debate is riddled with incoherence. It encompasses many disparate questions knitted together into an indissoluble tangle, and it is marked by a chronic ambiguity in language. There is little consensus about the meanings of terms such as nature, nurture, gene, and environment. Keller suggests that contemporary genetics can provide a more appropriate, precise, and useful vocabulary, one that might help put an end to the confusion surrounding the nature-nurture controversy.

Fox Keller may have a novel and fresh take on the whole issue, but let's not pretend this is a new line of exploration. The fundamental incoherence of the public perception of "nature vs. nurture" is a literal cottage industry, and has been for a long time. Matt Ridley's Nature via Nurture for example has this description from Publisher's Weekly:

"Nature versus nurture" sums up in a nutshell one of the most contentious debates in science: Are people's qualities determined by their genes (nature) or by their environment (nurture)? The debate has only grown louder since the human genome has been found to comprise only 30,000 genes. Some scientists claim that we don't have enough genes to account for all the existing human variations. Ridley, author of the bestseller Genome, says that not only are nature and nurture not mutually exclusive, but that "genes are designed to take their cue from nurture." Genes are not unchanging little bits of DNA: their expression varies throughout a person's life, often in response to environmental stimuli. Babies are born with genes hard-wired for sight, but if they are also born with cataracts, the genes turn themselves off and the child will never acquire the ability to see properly. On the other hand, stuttering used to be ascribed solely to environmental factors. Then stuttering was found to be clearly linked to the Y chromosome, and evidence for genetic miswiring of areas in the brain that manage language was uncovered. But environment still plays a role: not everyone with the genetic disposition will grow up to be a stutterer. Ridley's survey of what is known about nature-nurture interactions is encyclopedic and conveyed with insight and style. This is not an easy read, but fans of his earlier book and readers looking for a challenging read will find this an engrossing study of what makes us who we are.

As for Lewontin's essay it reminds me somewhat of 'concern trolling'. He points to serious confusions and potential intractabilities in how the forces of natural selection operate upon individuals and species, but at the end it is clear that he is mostly just exultant about the problem of 'missing heritability' because it keeps at bay a genomic resurrection of concerns which were at the heart of his activism in the 'sociobiology wars' of the 1970s. And I don't know how to view stuff like this:

Beginning with her consciousness of the role of gender in influencing the construction of scientific ideas, she has, over the last twenty-five years, considered how language, models, and metaphors

have had a determinative role in the construction of scientific explanation in biology.

Perhaps Lewontin is using the term 'determinative' in a 'figurative' fashion for 'rhetorical' 'effect', but really comes close to the 'science is just another myth' line which served for the purposes of obtaining tenure in some Studies somewhere in the 1980s, but generally came to be seen as unserious (especially in the light of the recent revival of Creationism in more sophisticated form as Intelligent Design, which often makes pretty clear recourse to the tools and modes of Critical Theory). Lewontin ends with some allusive scare mongering about scientists playing God:

In May 2010 the consortium originally created by J. Craig Venter to sequence the human genome gave birth to a new organization, Synthetic Genomics, which announced that it had created an organism by implanting a synthetic genome in a bacterial cell whose own original genome had been removed. The cell then proceeded to carry out the functions of a living organism, including reproduction. One may argue that the hardest work, putting together all the rest of the cell from bits and pieces, is still to be done before it can be said that life has been manufactured, but even Victor Frankenstein started with a dead body. We all know what the consequences of that may be.

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