Ask me: heredity or environment?

>> Monday, March 01, 2010

Mrs. Bitch writes:

You may use your answer to Janiece to segue into a discussion on whether or not you believe we are completely a product of genetics and our life experiences from birth until now, or do we have the intellectual free will to be able to escape or override all that has shaped us up to this point?

I lean towards having free will, but only within the individual constraints of who each of us are. But then I would, wouldn't I?

I prefer the idea of free will, though I've always felt that free will isn't without limitations or bounds--the analogy I've often used is that of a man in a completely dark room with three doors; if he doesn't know the doors are there, or they're not located where he stumble across them feeling along the wall (suppose they're well above the floor, located on a ledge he might be able to climb if the room were lit, for instance), then they might as well not exist at all. This is where I get mad at certain conservative-types who suggest that someone who is poor or uneducated is that way because of his own choices--there are far too many people in this world who don't realize that choices are out there, or who lack the skills necessary to even fill out a job application.

I mean, getting back to talking about my job again for an example of what I'm talking about: you'd be astonished at how many people show up to court dates--criminal, civil or whatever--dressed in t-shirts or bedroom slippers or shorts or other inappropriate dress, and when we're talking about t-shirts, by the way, we're not even talking about something that's one plain color, you see people wearing t-shirts associated with bands or counterculture icons that include violent, sexual or drug content (all of which may be especially unfortunate if the charge or the underlying facts involve a similar theme).

Now, in some cases, that's just what folks have. But here's the thing, and the point: things got so bad in juvenile court that I went and re-wrote the letter we send parents when our office is appointed to include a long paragraph emphasizing "proper" attire, with examples and important phrases in bold type, and as soon as those letters went out, kids started showing up dressed like... well, like they were going to court. Even kids whose parents could only afford to put them in t-shirts at least started showing up tucked in and without unfortunate iconography. Point is, it isn't just what people have, or can afford--it's that a lot of people just don't know how you're "supposed" to dress for court and don't have any reason to think about how they might appear to court personnel, including the judge, or how their appearance might be taken.

Free will and choices are all well-and-good, but to be meaningful they have to be informed, which isn't something that should ever be taken for granted. Even when the economy's good and there are jobs to be had, there are lots of people out there who don't know how to fill out a job application, don't know how to dress for an interview, don't know what to say (or not to say), and don't know you're supposed to call back or how to follow up. And it's not their fault, they're smart, mostly decent people who could do well if given a shot; it's the fault of a society that never took five minutes to say, "tuck your shirt in, say, 'sir' or 'ma'am' a lot, use a pen to fill out any paperwork, try to write legibly, and call 'em back if you don't hear from them within a couple of days." Fat lot of good it does for some asshole to say, "Get a job," the words might as well be in ancient Assyrian for the good they do.

I think buried in there you have some thoughts on environment--how we're educated (in the broad sense of everything that happens to us, and not just what happens in a classroom or what we read)--shapes us. The opportunities we're presented or denied and our ability to seize them or see them at all are very much the product of how we're reared.

But while I say all that, I also have to confess that the science is starting to look like there's a genetic basis for so much of what we are that one has to wonder if maybe free will isn't some degree of wishful thinking. There's evidence sexual preference is genetic, evidence that weight might be, too, evidence that things like alcoholism and schizophrenia run in families. These are predispositions, not destinies, but then to say, for instance, that somebody who is predisposed towards a sexual attraction to members of the same gender can certainly choose to have sex with people he or she has no natural attraction to may merely be cruel, y'know? O'course, it swings both ways--the search for genetic roots for other attributes or disorders has come up short (the fact that at this particular moment in time the more we know about the human genome, the less we seem to understand is a wonderful and magical thing--someday this will be regarded as a golden age of discovery in the field).

I rebel against the idea that we're our biochemistry, whether it's genetic or the residue of what happened in the womb, or the unintended effects of what's in the water and air. But facts are what they are--if prenatal hormone levels turn out to play a role in the choices we make as adults, for instance (as may be the case with sexual preference), it is what it is. My preference for the idea that we can be what we want to be doesn't enter into it. (And how realistic was my preference, anyway? Could any amount of training turn me into someone who can dunk a basketball? And as much as I love the idea that anybody could be a nuclear physicist if they tried hard enough, I know perfectly well that some people, no matter how they try, will not be great nuclear physicists, no more than mere training will make a competent musician a fantastic musician or an okay baseball player into an incredible one.) Even with my idealism, at some point there's the wall o'meat, right? That is, there's an outer limit of whatever physical factors define us that may be stretched through exercise or evaded through savvy, but--well, the basketball's a good example, isn't it? What are you going to do if your body says you're 5'3"? It's not like extreme training will give you another foot-and-a-half, is it, and maybe you'll be a Muggsy Bogues who maximizes your speed and dexterity to be an awesome player (I always loved watching Bogues play when he was a Charlotte Hornet), but at the end of the day you'll still be a really short guy (even by non-basketball standards) playing a tall dude's game.

Thanks for the question, and I hope that was a crommulent answer!

EDIT: I revised the first paragraph because while I think from responses that people understood what I meant (I hope), I actually said the exact opposite of what I meant because of unartful phrasing and omission of a word in my rush to type, which I didn't even notice when proofing. Sorry.


Janiece Monday, March 1, 2010 at 12:18:00 PM EST  

Your example of having to explain to people what their kids should be wearing to court made me chuckle.

When my spawn was younger, the Smart Man and I were having to constantly give him guidance on what to wear to various events. (He tried to wear a "Smart Ass" T-shirt to a job interview. Really?) He finally did "get it," though. When my Gram died, he went out and got a suit and tie, picking it out himself with no guidance from me (other than to call and ask if he could put it on the Kohl's card, since it was pricey). When my little family showed up at the funeral dressed to the nines, I couldn't have been more proud. Especially when other members of our extended family showed up in jeans and tennis shoes. My kids' reactions? "What were their parents thinking?"


So yeah, I think personality is at least SOMEWHAT determined by genetics, but the final outcome is pretty closely aligned with environment.

Random Michelle K Monday, March 1, 2010 at 12:46:00 PM EST  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mrs. Bitch Monday, March 1, 2010 at 5:37:00 PM EST  

Thanks for the crommulation! Like you, I've always wanted to believe that I had free will. Sure, environment and genetice played a role, but I told myself that I could superscede all of that and make completely independent choices in my life.

I now realize that probably isn't true. Genetics aside, I was raised by parents who valued education, had a strong work ethic, never abused any of us, but did believe in corporal punishment -- you know, all of the crap that shapes who you are. All of that gave me
advantages that I can't take credit for, over lots of other people.

Yes, I did all right in school, but it was expected of me. I question things and continually try and learn, but that was encouraged in my childhood, too.

When you wrote about educating folks on proper court attire I remembered when I did an internship at the DNR in Lansing while I went to college. One night we found a waste basket full of resumes and applications from people who obviously hadn't been hired. It was the saddest thing - cover letters in pencil, misspellings, letters on notebook paper torn out of a spiral spine. You have to assume they wanted to be hired since they took the time to make out their "resume" and either mail it in or bring it in, and just didn't possess the
information on how to do it correctly.

Your examples all give me insight as to why I have kind of gone against what I figured was the normal aging process - I'm getting more liberal as I get older. Seems assbackwards to me, but I think it's because I've realized that given different life circumstances and experiences and just plain old dumb luck, I am where I am (comfortable, well-educated)
by work and planning, yes, but my choices could only have occurred given the luck-of-the-draw events that led up to this point in my life.

This is really Philosophy 101 and I don't know why I've been obsessively hashing it all over recently.

neurondoc Monday, March 1, 2010 at 9:17:00 PM EST  

Nature vs. nurture...

Mrs. Bitch, your comment about your parents expectations regarding education really resonated with me. I am a product of parents who never expected less than college for me and my brother. I went a bit beyond that, but that was because of pure cussedness. :-)

TheHusband's family, OTOH, placed no importance on education. He also had the misfortune to be in a crappy school system. TH never got in real trouble when he cut school. When he brought home C's, D's and F's, no fuss was made. He's not dumb, not by a long shot. He just never learned to learn or to like learning for its own sake. He got his post-secondary education the hard way -- the Navy.

To this day, he hates the whole formal education system concept and is suspicious of ThePinkThing's teachers. OTOH, he totally expects her to go to college.

Not sure what I'm blathering about, but there it is.

John the Scientist Wednesday, March 3, 2010 at 12:47:00 PM EST  

It's hard to isolate those two variables, isn't it? I knew a couple of really smart guys who flunked out because of poor meta-skills imparted at home. I know a lot of mediocre intellects who got Ph.D.s because of good parenting.

Twin studies might shed some light, but finding split twins raised in extremely different socio-economic circumstances is hard - we don't let really lower-class people adopt that often, so the environments, while different, are generally still middle-class.

As a parent I put the split at about 60 / 40 nature : nurture. for the average person, of course. As with all things human, you can find exceptions, but I don't think you're talking about the boundary conditions here. Mental illness and other issues can skew things mightily.

Non-genetically related health can really skew things, too. My father had a hole in his heart induced by my grandmother getting rubella when she was pregnant. It colored his entire life. Was that nurture, or nature?

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