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Putting Paid to Nature vs. Nurture

Updated on August 14, 2010

Originally published as a Note on Facebook

During Week 1 of my class on adult learning, part of the discussion of course involved the age-old "nature versus nurture" debate. I for one have always thought it has to be both; neither one works on its own to explain why we are and do what we are and do.

I'm currently reading Daniel Goleman's Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. It's fascinating on many, many levels. The quantity of research and advances in science related to the human brain and emotions that's been going on in the last 15 years is boggling. Here's what hit me, today:

Goleman's discussing the study done by John Crabbe at the Oregon Health and Science University, involving a particular strain of mice renowned for their "voracious appetite for alcohol" (Goleman, 2006, p. 149). The experiments were conducted at three different labs, using mice from this strain and others, eight strains in all, with identical conditions: everything was the same from the food they ate to the way they were shipped to the lab. The experiments were done on the same day at the same local time with "identical apparatus" (ibid.).

One test was for preference of water or alcohol. No surprise there, the mice whose strain contains the alcohol-loving gene went for that, the others didn't. Then, a test for anxiety involving two runways, one with walls, one without. Anxious mice hug the walls. Adventurous ones head for the open road, as it were. Oddly, these results didn't pan out as expected. Mice in one lab were adventurous, mice from the same strain in another were anxious. Apparently the genes weren't as powerful as one might expect, leaving the scientists to ponder what was different between the lab settings. Anxious genes should result in anxious mice, right?

Right, unless the handlers are able to calm the anxiousness. Or, in the case of adventurous genes yielding anxious mice, the opposite--handlers were too rough, or otherwise unpleasant in their manners. Crabbe says, cited in Goleman, "My bet is that mice can 'read' the emotional state of the person handling them, and that state in turn has an impact on the mouse's behavior." (pp. 149-150)

Genes can't make any difference in development until they do their job of informing the body to synthesize the RNA. That expression is the genes' job; otherwise, they're just sitting idle, present and accounted for but not actively doing anything. "Epigenetics" studies "the ways the experiences we undergo change how our genes operate" (p. 150). Our surroundings affect the workings of our genes, causing them to be active or not, or to act in certain ways instead of others.

"Such insights put to rest the century-old debate on nature versus nurture: do our genes or our experiences determine who we become? That debate turns out to be pointless, based on the fallacy that our genes and our environment are independent of each other; it's like arguing over which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, the length or the width." (p. 150)

I feel so vindicated.

Goleman, Daniel (2006). Social intelligence: the new science of human relationships. New York, Bantam Books, Random House.


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