I made the mistake of watching a NOVA program that celebrated the career and scientific achievements of an important biological scientist, Professor E.O. Wilson. Dr. Wilson has been a wonderful observer of the behaviors and lives of ants, termites and other ‘social insects’. He describes them as instinctive creatures whose behavior is strictly determined by their programmed genetics. In an attempt to generalize his observations, he recorded reliably repeated behavioral observations in monkeys, documenting a series of social phenomena that — because they are held in common — must be inherited by all monkeys of that species. As he wrote about this subject, he then made a great leap to humans, stating that we’re just another species that is imbued with common, inherited (human) traits that we all share — which, of course, is true.
Alas, Professor Wilson then jumped from this statement of the obvious to exaggerate the role of inheritance as a source of explanation for our behaviors. On the NOVA program, he made the bald (untrue) statement that he had stepped into a firestorm of criticism because sociologists saw our brains (the neurological basis of our behaviors) as a ‘blank slate’. To the contrary, Professor Wilson believes that the slate is pretty much full. it’s NATURE trumping nurture, for the professor.
The reason that sociologists opposed his arguments that our genetics explain our behaviors is because they knew, from a very long history of studies of the origins of human behavior, that we humans just aren’t quite that simple.
How should we think about ‘nature’ vs ‘nurture’? The issue has been resolved for decades.
First, consider NATURE: We’re all humans. Not giraffes. Not squirrels. Not alligators. Not tenrecs. Not spider monkeys. We humans share general physical and behavioral characteristics that define our humanity. We’re social creatures. We’re bipeds. Watch the general movements of a band of human hunters, or of human gatherers, and their movements and reactions and social interactions will follow a specifically-human pattern. Our complex emotional repertoires, on the statistical average, are shared by other members of our species. When they were documented by the earliest human writers (e.g., the Greek poets and playwrights) , the elementary characteristics that define the complex ways that we humans feel and interact with one another are ageless, at least over these several thousand years of our history. Our communication abilities, more elaborate than any other mammalian species, derive from special features of the vocal track and our neurological control of it, and from the characteristics of our neurological processing of complex acoustic information that, in detail, are specifically human. As a consequence, the thousands of human languages share common architectures and ‘rules’ for their reception and production. ALL of these fundamental characteristics that define our core abilities are, of course, inherited.
Second, consider NURTURE: We humans are the most strongly differentiated operational creatures on the planet, and our remarkable tribal and individual differentiation stems directly from a remarkable scale of brain SPECIALIZATION driven by brain plasticity. Ants, termites or even monkeys do not have an equivalent capacity for experience-driven brain remodeling. Each one of we humans is defined operationally, as a distinct ‘person’, by billions of moments of experientially-driven CHANGE (plasticity) in our individual brains. A large proportion of those experientially-driven moments are internal, driven by our memories and thought and reasoning. By this remarkable capacity for CHANGE, operating more magnificently in our species than in any other, we are each absolutely unique Persons, no two identical. Vive le difference!
Since a main ‘gift’ handed to us by our genetics is the gift to be DIFFERENT, individual by individual, and because that individuation can result in a truly remarkable range of behaviors in our species — far greater in its extent that are the differences that distinguish any other species from all others — Dr. Wilson’s critics correctly responded to his exaggerated Nature-First perspective. Nurture can lead one clan to eat their con-specifics for dinner, while another clan would abhor such behavior. One clan can be matriarchal, and the next patriarchal. One can be monogamous, the second polygamous, the third (temporarily) celibate. One can treat every visitor as a friend, while the next will enslave them and the third kill them. One will act on their dreams, even if they are thereby instructed to kill or banish or torture their children, while the second would be completely repulsed by any such behavior. One would rob as a rule, while the second would give as a rule. One would worship the sun, the second an invisible spirit, the third a thousand spirits, the fourth the dead, the fifth spirits embued in every living thing, the fifth the earth, the sixth a living ruler, the seventh nothing at all.
In our distortions, we are lovers, haters, saintly, evil, mechanically skillful, clumsy, mentally agile, dull-witted, empathetic, apathetic in 6.5 billion complicated variations, many extremely distorted every which way, substantially resulting from NURTURE.
Professor Wilson, in the human species, it’s never been NATURE or NURTURE. You are — we all are — a wondrous collaboration!
A final note: Social insects (bees, ants, termites, et alia) learn and adapt in simple but important ways through brain plasticity. THEIR tiny ‘brains’ are a LOT more plastic (it turns out) and adaptable than historic biology had imagined!