Thursday, March 25, 2010

The nature/nurture non-dichotomy

Are we on the verge of a swing back to environmentalism? Otherwise known as the 'nurture' of the 'nature/nurture' dichotomy. Sunday's New York Times Book Review has a piece on a new book by David Shenk, called "The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong". We haven't read the book, but the review by Annie Murphy Paul describes it as a book that assures us that we can all be brilliant, if we only work at it. It's not about innate potential anymore, it's about hard work. Talent isn't a thing, she reports, it's a process.

The problem with this, of course, is that there is no nature/nurture dichotomy. It's not either/or, it's both.

Years ago, before technology enabled us to identify genes and their variation with precision, the dogma was that things are mostly environmental -- and many things are set in very early infancy (Freud and all that). Antagonism to genetics was intense, and medical students were discouraged from going into genetics because there was no future in it. The environment-is-all fervor was just as mistaken, and just as ideologically encased, as the genes-are-all fervor is today. Then technology arrived and the pendulum swung all the way in the other direction, where it's been for a while now.

So, if we do swing back in the nurture direction, we'll have to start writing posts about the errors of environmental determinism.

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