Sunday, August 4, 2013

Nature Versus Nurture

It is interesting, the nature versus nurture debate in the US never resolved along ideological, or even partisan, lines. Perhaps in the 19th century after the Civil War, at that time, with Republicans so strongly anti-immigration, there might have been a clear divide, but otherwise, it seems that proponents exist in both parties, on either side of the liberal-conservative divide and so on. Even those holding otherwise identical political views can't seem to decide on which side to fall. For example, liberals seeking more lenient treatment of criminals sometimes argue that biological determinism means criminals are not responsible, while other argue strongly for "nurture", arguing their environment made crime unavoidable. In fact, this cause is even more interesting, as some use biological determinism to argue for leniency, while other use the same position to argue that they cannot be reformed and should be held forever. Similarly, the gay rights movement often seeks to argue that homosexuality is biological, yet the same people who support that cause were up in arms over any claim to match race and IQ, so many of the same people shift freely between nature and nurture when it suits their needs (or else are simply inconsistent in their belief, as many people are). So, as you can see, it is an argument which is simultaneously loaded down with political baggage, and yet about as non-partisan as one could imagine.

I am, for the most part, on the nurture side of things. I admit that profound physical damage or malformation can change behavior, and I can agree that, perhaps, some sort of inborn predispositions might exist, though even if they do, I imagine they color only our most early experiences, with later decisions having much more influence. Of course, in many ways, that puts me at odds with many contemporary trends, as the supposed success of psychopharmacology, and all the hype over decoding the genome tends to make our age more inclined to seeing behavior as inborn and predetermined. Still, despite the way the current intellectual winds blow, I still see many reasons to incline toward a belief that experience and decisions are much more influential than any sort of innate biological urges.

I write all of this because I recently ran across an interesting essay on a rather intensive long-term study on the "crack baby" phenomenon, and its conclusions, which, while formally, and logically, saying nothing about the nature-nurture controversy, so certainly suggest a few thoughts.

Let me say from the start that I was as skeptical of the "crack baby" epidemic as I was of the "outbreaks" of ADD and autism/Asperger's. (See "Statistical Artifacts", ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe", "Green Kills", "The Politics of Psychiatry") It was always my thought that anyone raised in an environment where crack use as so endemic that on'es parent used regularly during pregnancy, then misbehavior and poor attention were pretty easily explained. (I will give my thoughts on ADD and autism a bit later.) And, in the end, that is pretty much the study's conclusion as well. It finds that "crack babies" are prone to show lowered levels of development, to lag behind other children, and so on, but the same behaviors are shown by their non-crack baby peers. In other words, the environment in which they live seems to play a much larger role than drugs.

Now, before anyone thinks I am on my drug legalization high horse and arguing crack use is harmless, allow me to disabuse them of that belief. I am inclined to think crack use during pregnancy is a bad thing, if not for the child, at least because additional heart and lung strain on a pregnant woman is certainly ill-advised at best. So I am not talking about the harm or harmlessness of drugs. Instead, what I am arguing here is the simple fact that we have a tendency to find easy answers, to continue to believe them despite the best evidence, and to believe them despite evidence to the contrary. And biological answers often fit that bill.

The crack baby example is a perfect choice. It was used in so many ways. It was being prepared to explain the lack of performance in under-funded and poorly managed public schools. It was being set up to explain excessive crime in inner cities. It was even being sued by paranoid folks to show how crack was being used by sinister forces to kill off inner city backs. And yet, in the end, all of the problems of the inner city turn out not to be attributable to some outside demon drug, but to human responses to the society in which they find themselves, as well as simple bad choices by both politicians and those living in the cities themselves.

In a way it reminds me of ADD. In so many schools, unable to punish or expel misbehaving students, instead warehousing them and teaching down to their level, and thus boring the rest of the class, students behaved badly, especially young and energetic boys, and thus the ADD plague was born. I am not saying there may not be some physical problem with some, or perhaps behavior issues, but I think ADD, for all the literature around it, is akin to diagnosing someone with "a fever", it is giving a disease name to a symptom, and then trying to treat that behavior the same way for everyone. In short, it was a way to ignore problems in our schools by diagnosing them as ailments, akin to the "crack baby" explanation for inner city issues.

Autism is slightly different, as it was largely a matter of continually expanding definitions until behaviors of almost any sort could be fit into the definition. It did serve several ends, the anti-vaccination crowd blaming the rise on Thimerosal, while various schools used it (again) to explain poor performance, while bulking up special ed funding. However, it also served a secondary purpose, providing parents with normal children a way to explain away all those problems of childhood. Just as the "worried well" in perpetual therapy diagnose the ups and downs of everyday life as symptoms of disorders, parents sometimes find it easier to explain problems in their children as disease rather than symptoms that, like everyone else, their children aren't perfect.

But I suppose all of this is a bit off point. What I really wanted to say, before I launched into a long aside sure to draw many angry comments, was that this article, above all else, does seem to suggest that environment and rearing have a pretty dramatic effect on children. I suppose the biological determinists could argue that the poor end up poor because of genes, and thus pass it along to their children, thus it is genetic, not environmental, but considering how many now poor were descended of those who had more, I would say that is a weak argument. But, in the end, if you want to find nature or nurture, I suppose you can fiddle with the arguments to make them fit. But in this case, I think the evidence leans much more toward nurture than nature.


My writing on biological determinism can be found in "Biological Determinism", "Biological Determinism II - Reductionist Fallacies", "Biology as Justification","Don't Liberals Notice the Contradictions?","Correlation and Causation Revisted", "Just Asking For It", "Myths of Homosexuality", "A Question About Biological Theories of Sexual Identity","Passing Thought on PET Scans", "Gay Two Ways" "A Sign I Have Made It" and "Hollywood Illogic"


  1. Newt Gingrich now admits that neoconservative foreign-policy interventionism has backfired. “It may be that our capacity to export democracy is a lot more limited than we thought,” the former Speaker said.

    (Before I get to the significance of this, one quick point: Gingrich says expressly, “I am a neoconservative.” I got a chuckle out of this, because it called to mind all the times we’ve been told that there’s no such thing as a neoconservative, that the term was originated by anti-Semites who use it to demonize Jews, but that there really is no such thing. And here’s a guy who actually admits he is one. So they aren’t just figments of our imaginations after all!)

  2. @ TSG

    “I am a neoconservative. But at some point, even if you are a neoconservative, you need to take a deep breath to ask if our strategies in the Middle East have succeeded,”

    --NEWT GINGRICH (staunch Israel-firster, warmonger, 'conservative' front-runner in 2012 Primaries, leader of 'conservative' revolution of the mid-1990's, promoter of ACA back in the 90's, advocate of Moon Base)

    Ruh-roh...looks like your neocon leaders are starting to jump ship like the rats they are...

    BTW, TSG, I thought there was "no such thing as a neocon"?

    Man you're stupid!

  3. LOL...its only taken you neocons a decade+ to figure what libertarians were saying BEFORE you idiots decided to go "spread democracy" in the Graveyard Of Empires and Iraq!

    'Conservatism' had been TOTALLY discredited...

    However, Obama and Hillary thank you for propelling them into power!

  4. I would guess it’s some of both, although I agree that environment is probably the more important factor. We know there is a higher incidence of crime among certain cultures and among people growing up under certain environmental conditions; but we also know that siblings can grow up in the same environment and turn out to be very different from the standpoint of their propensity to commit crime or be successful in life.

    As for evolving attitudes towards crack-babies, ADD and autism, particularly by school administrations and groups like the AMA, it seems to be a classic case of liberals taking problems with some fraction of legitimacy and using them to minimize the responsibility of parents and create the “need” for more societal involvement.

    1. Reagan campaigned on a pledge to abolish the DOE.

      By the end of his term its budget had increased by 50%.