Sunday, May 29, 2011

Nature, Nurture and Family

I can trace my family back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable.
W.S. Gilbert. “The Mikado”.

Wikipedia -Creative Commons
Every generation has had its own version of a hung jury or mistrial when it comes to the debate of nature versus nurture. As I mull over the roots of my own family tree, I often ponder where the balance between the two might lie. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. There are strengths and weaknesses on both side of the equation.

For example, my great-great grandmother was slim as a young woman, and then a bit more padded in midlife, and then stout - as she would call it - later in life. Me too. Is that nature or nurture? Were both of us born with this combination of a somewhat slowish metabolism, an ever-hungry appetite, and the inability to turn down food whether we need it or not? Or is there something in how we were raised that has lead the two of us to eat more than what would be best, and/or to move too little? Is lack of will a moral issue or a genetic legacy? Where do we look to sort this out?

It is obvious when I look at family pictures where I have inherited my brown eyes, my mouse hair, and my ankles, the latter being one of my better features. It is also obvious when I look at photos of my grandfather, who died before I was born, that he holds his body exactly the same way that my younger brother Martin does. They each have the same tilt of the head, and a slight slouch. Me, I always walk around with my hands in pockets, same as Grandma Brown. A cousin and I laughed when we realized that we each squint into the mid distance with a closed left eye when the day is too bright for us. Somewhere, somehow, this is all written down in our DNA.

The image of the double helix may be a useful image for envisioning more than just a picture of DNA. Maybe it is also how the dance between Nature and Nurture works, never quite coming together, but also never moving any further apart. Epigenetics, the study of what turns the effects of genes on or off, has recently added a third element to the mix. Not that this is entirely new. Long before scientific tools were available to study this, philosophers and poets had come up with something like this with respect to the issue of free will. So I guess this means there are least three dancers: the first being what is written down in our bodies in our DNA map; the second being the influences of our culture and people and events in our life, and the third that is a born out of the interaction between the first two.

I have my own personal mixture of anecdotal stories combined with a cobbled together layman level of science.

One anecdotal picture of how the world works with respect to the nature/Nurture balance struck a chord with me back in the mid 1960s. At the time, I roomed with a widow who had two grown up, adopted children. Her ancestry was Scots, but the daughter’s ancestry was Ukrainian. The daughter hadn’t been told about her ancestry until she was an adult. That was how it was often done back then. When she was a young child, she painted Easter eggs with the same black, red and white patterns found in the Ukrainian tradition. No one had ever showed her how. She just knew. They were the only kinds of eggs that she did. She also embroidered pillow covers with remarkable skill and intricacy, and once again she used the same shapes and colour palate of her unknown to her ancestral tradition.

The second story that resonates with me is often cited in books on family systems theory. It involves an experiment done with two groups of mice, the mammal of choice because in no time at all there can be half a dozen generations through which generational changes can be observed. At feeding time, the first group of these mice was exposed to low level electrical shock. Not enough to put them totally off their food, but enough to set up the conditions of anxiety. The second group, lucky them, enjoyed their feed without interference. In the intervening five generations, nothing out of the ordinary was done to either group of mice. The results? Five generations later, the descendants of the first group continued to display anxiety at feeding times while the offspring of the second group did not. To me, this explains a lot.

Finally, and this one is kind of fun. Charles Siebert, a poet, journalist, essayist, and novelist, wrote an article five years ago for the New York Times where he talked about researchers exploring whether the ranges of personalities that are part of the human condition are peculiar only to humans. What about other animals? Personality theory for humans uses five aspects as a measure. It’s a simple yardstick, and like many human yardsticks, it is probably no coincidence that we also have five digits on each hand. The five psychological categories are:

  • Openness
  • Neuroticism

Well, lo and behold, dozens of studies confirm these same kinds of personality variations in all sorts of animals: rats, guppies, fruit flies, monkeys, sea gulls, water striders, stickleback fish and so on. Even more intriguing, other studies are also starting to paint a picture that herds of cows, flocks of birds and such not only display a similar range of introvert/extrovert, playful/serious, risk taking/security minded and so on as humans do, but that they also display these characteristics in roughly the same proportions.

The tentative conclusion at this point is that that there must have been some evolutionary advantage to all sorts and conditions of men as the Bible would have put it. That, and that when we think of ourselves as homo sapiens, lets also not forget that we come with some pretty old hard wiring in our DNA. Also, we are also all herd animals. We always have been, and always will be.

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