Imagine you’re a scientist, and somewhere along the way, the inevitable “Nature versus Nurture” line has been hammered into your head. This is up there with Coke versus Pepsi or Greeks versus Trojans. Nature versus Nurture is just a simplistic view of where influences are influencers on how cells deal with an energy crisis and how this makes us who we are in the most individualistic levels of personality. This view creates a completely false dichotomy built around nature as being deterministic at the very bottom of all the causality of life, inferring that DNA is the code of codes and the holy grail, and that everything is being driven by it. At the other end, there’s a social science perspective, that we are social organisms and that biology is for slime moulds, humans are somehow free of biology and obviously both of these are nonsense. What you see instead is, that it is virtually impossible to understand how biology works outside the context of environment.
One of the most crazy and yet widespread and potentially dangerous notions is that “oh, that behaviour is genetic”. What does that even mean? It means all sorts of subtle things if you know modern biology, but for most people out there, what it ends up meaning is a deterministic view of life, one that is rooted in biology and genetics, that genes equal things that can’t be changed, genes equal things that are inevitable and that you might as well not waste resources trying to fix them. You might as well not put societal energies into trying to improve because it’s inevitable and it’s unchangeable, and that is sheer nonsense.
It is widely thought that conditions like ADHD and Schizophrenia are genetically programmed. The truth is the opposite. Nothing is genetically programmed, there are a very small handful of rare diseases that are extremely sparsely represented in the population that are truly genetically determined. Most complex conditions might have a predisposition that is a genetic component, but a predisposition is not the same as predetermination.
The whole search for the source of diseases in the genome was doomed to failure before anybody even thought of it, because most diseases are not genetically predetermined. Heart disease, strokes, cancers, rheumatoid conditions, autoimmunity in general, mental health conditions and addictions are not genetically determined.
Breast cancer for example. Out of every 100 women with breast cancer, only 7 will carry the breast cancer gene, 93 do not. And out of 100 women who do have the genes, not all of them will develop cancer.
Ten years after President Bill Clinton announced that the first draft of the human genome was complete, medicine has yet to see any large part of the promised benefits.
For biologists, the genome has yielded one insightful surprise after another. But the primary goal of the $3 billion Human Genome Project — to ferret out the genetic roots of common diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s and then generate treatments — remains largely elusive. Indeed, after 10 years of effort, geneticists are almost back to square one in knowing where to look for the roots of common disease.A Decade Later, Genetic Map Yields Few New Cures
Genes are not just things that make us behave in a particular way regardless of our environment. Genes give us different ways of responding to our environment. In fact, it looks as if some of our early childhood influences (the kind of child rearing) effect gene expression by activating or deactivating different genes to put us on a different developmental track which will suit the type of environment we are dealing with.
For example, a study done in Montreal with suicide victims, looked at the autopsies of the brains of these people, and it turned out that a suicide victim is usually a young adult who had been abused as a child. That abuse caused a genetic change in the brain that was absent in the brains of people who had not been abused. This is called an epigenetic effect, epi means on top of, so that epigenetic influence is what happens environmentally to either activate or deactivate certain genes.
In New Zealand there is an ongoing study being done called the Dunedin Study, this study has been running for nearly 50 years since 1972. The study has been following thousands of individuals from birth into their early 20’s. What they have found is that they could identify a genetic mutation, an abnormal gene, which did have some relation to the predisposition to commit violence, but only if the individual had also been subjected to severe child abuse. In other words, a child with this abnormal gene would be no more likely to be violent than anyone else, in fact, they actually had a lower rate of violence than people with normal genes as long as they weren’t abused as children.
A great example of where genes are not the be all and end all, is a technique that was discovered recently where you can take a specific gene out of a mouse, and that mouse and its descendants will no longer have that gene, meaning you have knocked out that gene. There’s this one gene that codes for a protein that has something to do with learning and memory, and in this demonstration that gene was knocked out, leaving you with a mouse that doesn’t learn as well.
Wow! A genetic basis for intelligence! What was much less appreciated in that landmark study that got picked up by the media left and right is that if you take those genetically impaired mice and raise them in a much more enriched and stimulating environment than the normal mice in a lab cage, they will completely overcome that deficit.
So when you say in a contemporary sense that ‘oh, this behaviour is genetic’ to the extent that that’s even a valid phrase to use, what you’re actually saying is there is a genetic contribution to how this organism responds to its environment, genes may influence the readiness with which an organism will deal with a certain environmental challenge, but that’s not the version that most people have in their minds, instead they choose to run with the old version of ‘it’s genetic’ and it’s not that far from the history of eugenics, it’s a widespread misconception that’s potentially very dangerous!
One reason the hypothesis that violence is biological is potentially dangerous is that it’s not only misleading, it can actually do harm because if you believe that, you could very easily say well, there’s nothing we can do to change the predisposition people have to becoming violent, all we have to do is punish them and lock them up, or even execute them, but we don’t need to worry about changing the social preconditions that may lead people to become violent, because that’s irrelevant!
The genetic argument allows us the luxury of ignoring past and present historical and social factors. In the words of Louis Menand, “It’s all in the genes” an explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are. Why should someone feel unhappy or engage in antisocial behaviour when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on earth? It can’t be the system! There must be a flaw in the wiring somewhere. This is a good way of putting it. The genetic argument is simply a cop out which allows us to ignore the social and economic factors that in fact underlie many troublesome behaviours.
Addictions are usually considered to be a drug related issue, but looking at it more broadly, addiction is any behaviour that is associated with craving, temporary relief, and with long term negative consequences along with an impairment of control over it. That person wishes to give it up or promises to do so, but can’t follow through. When you understand that, you can see that there are many more addictions than those simply related to drugs. There’s workaholism, addiction to shopping, to the internet, to food, to video games, and there’s addiction to power, there are people who have power, but they want more and more and more, nothing is ever enough for them.
The addiction to acquisition, corporations that must own more and more and more. The addiction to oil, or at least the products made accessible to us by oil. When we look at the negative consequences on the environment, we see that we are destroying the very earth that we inhabit for the sake of that addiction. These addictions are far more devastating than the social consequences of cocaine or heroin addicts, yet they are rewarded, and considered to be ‘respectable’. The tobacco company executive who shows a higher profit will get a much bigger reward, he doesn’t face any negative consequences legally or otherwise, in fact, he’s a respected member of the board of several other corporations. But tobacco smoke related illnesses kills 5 1/2 million people around the world every year, and these people are addicted to what? To Profit. To such a degree that they’re actually in denial about the impact of their activities which is typical behaviour for addicts! And, it’s respectable to be addicted to profit no matter what the cost, so what is acceptable and what is respectable is a highly arbitrary phenomena in our society and it seems like the greater the harm the more respectable the addiction.
There’s a general myth that drugs in themselves are addictive. In fact, the war on drugs is predicated on the idea that if you identify the source of drugs you can deal with addiction that way. But if you understand addiction in the broader sense we see that nothing in itself is addictive, no substance, no drug by itself is addictive, and no behaviour by itself is addictive. Many people can go shopping and not become a shopoholic, not everybody becomes a food addict, not everyone who drinks a glass of wine will become an alcoholic. So the real issue is what makes people susceptible? Because it’s the combination of of a susceptible individual and the potentially addictive substance or behaviour that actually makes for the full flowering of addiction. In short, it’s not the drug that’s addictive, it’s the question of the susceptibility of the individual to be addicted to a particular substance or behaviour.
It’s been shown for example, that if you stress mothers during pregnancy, their children are more likely to have traits that predispose them to addiction. And that’s because development is shaped by the psychological and social environment, so the biology of human beings is very much affected and programmed by the life experiences of being in utero.
The environment does not begin at birth, the environment begins as soon as you have an environment. As soon as you are a foetus you are subject to whatever information is coming through your mothers circulation, hormone levels, nutrient levels etc. A great landmark example of this is something called the Dutch Hunger Winter. In 1944 when the NAZI’s occupied Holland, for whatever reason they decided to take all of the food and divert it to Germany. For three months everybody was starving, tens of thousands of people starved to death. What the Dutch hunger winter effect is, if you were a 2nd or 3rd trimester foetus during the starvation your body will have learned something very unique during that time. As it turns out 2nd and 3rd trimester is when your body is trying to learn about the environment, it’s trying to find out how menacing it is out there or how plentiful, how many nutrients am I getting by way of mum’s circulation. Be a foetus who was starving during that time and your body programs for ever after to be really really stingy with sugar and fat, and what you do is store it away, every bit of it. Be a Dutch hunger winter foetus and over half a century later with everything else being equal you’re more likely to have high blood pressure, high blood sugar, or metabolic syndrome. That is environment coming in from a very unexpected place…
You can stress animals in a lab when they’re pregnant, and their offspring will be more likely to become addicted to certain chemicals or behaviour patterns. You can stress human mothers, for example, in a British study, women who were abused in pregnancy, will have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their placenta at birth and their children are more likely to have conditions that predispose them to addiction by age 7 or 8. So women who are very stressed, their offspring will have a higher incidence of schizophrenia than the average woman. There’s plenty of evidence now that shows prenatal effects have a huge impact on the developing human being.
The point about human development, specifically human brain development, is that it occurs mostly under the impact of the environment after birth. If you compare humans to a horse, which can run on the first day of life, we see that we are very undeveloped. We can’t muster that much neurological coordination, balance, muscle strength and visual activity until between 1 and 2 years. That’s because the brain development in the horse happens in the safety of the womb, and in a human being it has to happen after birth. That has to do with simple evolutionary logic, as the head gets larger due to our burgeoning fore brain, which is what creates the human species, and at the same time we walk on two legs so our pelvis narrows to accommodate that, so now we have a narrower pelvis, a larger head and bingo, we have to be born prematurely.
That means that the brain development in other animals grows in utero as opposed to after birth and much of that under the impact of the environment. The concept of neural darwinism simply means that the circuits that get the appropriate input from the environment will develop optimally and the circuits that don’t will either not develop optimally or not at all. If you take a child with perfectly good eyes at birth and place them in a dark room for five years they’ll be blinded for the rest of their life because the circuits of vision require light waves for their development and without that even the rudimentary circuits that were present and active at birth with atrophy and die and new ones will not develop.
There’s a significant way in which early experiences shape adult behaviour, especially behaviours for which there’s no recall memory. It turns out that there’s two types of of memory. There’s explicit memory, which is recall, when you can recall facts, details, episodes and circumstances, but the structure in the brain called the hippocampus, which encodes recall memory, doesn’t even develop fully until around 18 months of age and is not completely developed until much later, this is why we don’t have recall memory prior to 18 months. The other type of memory is an emotional memory, where the emotional impact and the interpretation the child makes of the experiences is ingrained in the brain in the form of nerve circuits ready to fire without specific recall.
People who are adopted, often have a life long sense of rejection, they can’t recall the adoption, or the separation from their birth mother because there’s nothing there to recall with, but the emotional memory of the separation and rejection is deeply embedded in their brains, so they are much more likely to experience a sense of rejection and a greater emotional upset when they perceive themselves as being rejected in other people. This is not unique to people who were adopted, but it’s particularly strong in them because of implicit memory.
Hard core addicts, according to the literature, were virtually all significantly abused as children, or suffered severe emotional loss, their implicit and emotional memories are those of a world that’s not safe, not helpful, caregivers are not to be trusted, and relationships that are not safe enough to open up to vulnerability, and their response is to keep themselves separate from really intimate relationships, not to trust caregivers and doctors and other people who are trying to help them. In general they see the world as an unsafe place and that’s strictly a function of implicit memory which sometimes has to do with incidents they don’t even recall.
Infants who were born prematurely and are often placed in incubators and attached to machines for weeks or months, it’s well known that even if these children are touched and stroked on the back for just ten minutes a day that human touch promotes brain development. Human touch is essential for development and in fact, infants that are never picked up will actually die. That’s how much of a fundamental need being held is to humans.
In our society there’s an unfortunate tendency to tell parents not to pick up their kids, not to hold them, not to pick up babies who are crying for fear of spoiling them, or to encourage them to sleep through the night you don’t pick them up. This is the exact opposite of what they need,and these children might go back to sleep because they give up and their brains have shut down as a way of defending themselves against the vulnerability of being abandoned by their parents, but their implicit memory will be that of a world that doesn’t give a damn.
A lot of these differences are structured very early in life in a way that if you like the parental experience of adversity, how tough life is or how easy it is, is passed on to children whether through maternal depression or parents being bad tempered with their children because they’ve had a hard day or just being too tired at the end of the day. These have very powerful effects, programming children’s development, which we know a lot about how, but that early sensitivity isn’t just an evolutionary mistake. It exists again in many different species, even seedlings, there’s an early adaptive process to the kind of environment they’re growing up in, but for humans the adaptation is to the quality of social relations, and so, early life, how nurturing or how much conflict or how much attention you get is a taster of the kind of world you might be growing up in. Are you growing up in a world where you have to fight for what you can get, watch your back, fend for yourself, learn not to trust others, or are you growing up in a society where you depend on reciprocity, mutuality, cooperation, where empathy is important, where your security depends on good relations with other people, and that requires a very different emotional and cognitive development. That’s what the early sensitivity is about and parenting is almost unconsciously a system for passing on that experience to children of the kind of world they are living in.
The great British child psychologist, D.W. Winnicott said that fundamentally two things can go wrong in childhood. One is that things happen that shouldn’t happen and then things that should happen but don’t. In the first category is the traumatic and abusive and abandonment experiences. But then there’s the non-stressed attuned non-distracted attention of the parent that every child needs, that often children don’t get, they’re not abused, they’re not neglected, and they’re not traumatised. But what should happen, the presence of the emotionally available nurturing parent just isn’t available to them because of the stressors in our society and within the parenting environment. Psychologist Allan Schore calls that Proximal Abandonment, when the parent is physically present, but emotionally absent.
The Buddha argued that everything depends on everything else. He says that the one contains the many and the many contains the one. But you can’t understand anything in isolation from its environment. The leaf contains the sun, the sky and the earth, obviously. This has now been shown to be true all around, specifically when it comes to human development. The modern scientific term for it is the Bio-Psycho-Social Model of Human Behaviour, which says that the biology of human beings depends very much on their interaction with the social and psychological environment. Psychiatrist and researcher, Daniel Segal, at UCLA, has coined a phrase, Interpersonal Neurobiology. which means that the way our nervous system functions depends very much on our relationships, in the first place with our parents and caregivers and the second place with other important attachment figures in our lives, and in third place, with our entire culture so that you can’t separate the neurological function of a human being from the environment in which he or she grew up in and continues to exist in. This is true for the entire life cycle, particularly when you’re dependent and helpless and your brain is developing, but it’s true even in adults at the end of life.
Human beings have lived in almost every kind of society, from the most egalitarian hunting and gathering societies, which seemed to be very egalitarian based on food sharing and gift exchange, these were small bands of people people living mostly off foraging and a little bit of hunting. Predominantly you have people that you have known each other for their entire life, surrounded by third cousins or closer, in a world where there’s a great deal of fluidity between different groups in a world in which there’s not a whole lot of things in terms of material culture. This is how humans spent most of their hominid history, so there’s no surprise that makes for a very different world, one of the things you get as a result of that is there is far less violence. Organised group violence is not something that occured at that time in human history.
Where did we go wrong? Violence is not universal. It’s not symmetrically distributed throughout the human race. There is a huge variation in the amount of violence in different societies. There are some societies that have virtually no violence and there are others that systematically destroy themselves. Some of the Anabaptist religious groups that are strict passivists, like the Amish, the Mennonites and the Hammorites, among some of these groups the Hutterites have no recorded cases of homicide. During our major wars, specifically WWII, when people were being drafted, they would refuse to serve in the military, and would go to prison rather than serve.
In the Kibbutz in Israel, the level of violence is so low that the criminal courts there will often send violent offenders, people who have committed crimes, to live on the Kibbutz in order to learn how to live a non violent life because that’s how the way people live there.
We are completely shaped by society. Our societies in the broader sense including our theological or metaphysical or linguistic influences etc, our societies help shape us as to whether or not we think life is basically about sin or about beauty. Whether the afterlife will carry a price for how we live our live or if it was irrelevant. In a broad sort of way, different large societies could be termed as individualistic or collectivist, and you get very different people in different mindsets and I suspect different brains coming along with that. We in western countries are the most individualistic of societies, and capitalism being a system that allows you to go higher and higher up a potential pyramid, and the deal is that it comes with fewer and fewer safety nets. By definition, the more stratified a society is, the fewer people you have as peers, the fewer people with which you have symmetrical reciprocal relationships. Instead, all you have are differing spots and endless hierarchies and a world in which you have few reciprocal partners is a world with a lot less altruism.
This brings us to a total impossible juncture which is to try to make sense and gain perspective of science as to what the nature is of human nature. On a certain level, the nature of our nature is not to be particularly constrained by our nature. We some up with more social variability than any other species out there. More systems of belief, styles of family structures, ways of raising children, the capacity for variety that we have is extraordinary.
In a society which predicated on competition, and often the ruthless exploitation of one human being by another, the profiteering of other peoples problems, and very often the creation of problems for the purpose of profiteering, the ruling ideology will very often justify that behaviour by appeals to some fundamental and alterable human nature, so the myth in our society is that people are competitive by nature and that they’re individualistic and selfish. The reality is quite the opposite, we have certain human needs, the only way you can talk about human nature completely is by recognising that there’s certain human needs. We have a human need for companionship, for close contact, to be loved, to be attached, to be accepted and to be seen. If those needs are met we develop into people who are compassionate and cooperative and we have empathy for other people.
So the opposite is in our societies, we see the distortion of human nature, we live in societies where so few people have their needs met, yes, you can talk about human nature, but only in the sense of basic human needs that are instinctively evoked, or should I say, certain human needs that lead to certain traits, if they are met and a different set if they are denied.
When we recognise the fact that the human organism, which has a great deal of adaptive flexibility allowing us to survive in many different conditions, is also rigidly programmed to certain environmental requirements, or human needs, a social imperative begins to emerge. Just as our body requires physical nutrients, the human brain demands positive forms of environmental stimulus at all stages of development, while also needing to be protected from other negative forms of stimulus. And if things that should happen do not, or things that shouldn’t happen do, it is now apparent that the door can be opened for not only a cascade of mental and physical diseases, but many detrimental human behaviours as well.
As we turn our perspective outward and take account for the state of affairs today, we must ask the question, is the condition we have created in the modern world actually supporting our health? Is the bedrock of our socioeconomic system acting as a positive force for human and social development and progress? Or, is the foundational gravitation of our society going against the core evolutionary requirements needed to create and maintain our personal and social well-being?