May 07, 2009
The human conceit that we are the masters of our own destinies may be one of those hard-wired illusions which served an adaptive function in the distant past. Whatever the evolutionary truth of it, despite the fact that Calvinism, Islam, and modern science lean against the position that our will is free, we do live as if control is ours. But this intuition lies at the heart of one of the most pernicious mythologies of the modern age, that the human species is self-creating to such an extent that we have a Promethean capacity to reshape the very roots of our nature. Would that we had the will, up would be down and down would be up!
Such faith is not warranted by observation of nature, where we see regularities and ordered structure. If not for nature’s permanence of law it seems unlikely that the relatively modest mental faculties of man would have been able to stumble upon the truths of modern science. During the first flower of the scientific age it was taken as a given that our species was an animal subject to these laws, endowed with dispositions as inevitable as that of the dog to smell, the cat to stalk, and the bird to sing. It was no coincidence that the second half of R. A. Fisher’s magisterial The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection was given over to humanity. But science is a human endeavor, a creature of history, and the abominations of the Nazi regime cast a pall over attempts to interpret the patterns of our own species as we would count the number of bristles on the fruit fly. Nevertheless, though science is a human endeavor it is also fundamentally ahistorical and has the ability to tear itself away from the shackles of fashion and ideology and bear witness to truth.
Over the past generation the house of cards which was the “Blank Slate” consensus has been collapsing before the findings of current science. With hindsight the reality that our species has a deep and invariant nature is no surprise. Were the civilizations of the New World which Europeans stumbled upon centuries ago fundamentally unintelligible despite their utter isolation from the cultural currents of the Old World? Of course not. The only reason that the savagery of the Aztec civilization was of note, with its bloody gods, is that outsiders saw in the Aztecs a face of their own darker selves, not incomprehensible aliens. Language, religion, architecture, hierarchy, the list of human universals is endless. The very structure of the human mind drives us toward familiar heights and depths.
But hardware is useless without software. A number of unfortunate “natural experiments” have confirmed that human children need linguistic interaction and input during a “critical period” to fully develop our natural competency. Just as the flow of a river is guided by the topography of the valley, so the expression of our human nature is contingent upon the environmental input of human society. Humans are not born, they are raised. Our genetic endowments are the necessary principal, but environmental richness serves as the compounding dynamic which allows us to grow our investment and fulfill our potential.
The constraints of human nature are essential to understanding how societies flourish. We are not necessarily consciously aware of these constraints or their interlocking dependencies. This may explain the disasters of many “planned” societies, from the tragic Utopians of the Burned-over District to the mass catastrophes of 20th century communism. Societies are organic entities scaffolded by latent variables, and naturally some of those variables will have a biological underpinning. To rationally recreate human societies from the ground up presupposes that human nature is but amorphous and formless clay to be re-molded by the social engineer. Not so, it has structure and unfolds of its own will.
Genetics may not only explain human similarity, the profound intelligibility of human to human, but also our differences. This reality is likely one of the impulses that drives many to deny that our genetic endowments have any relation to who we are. But the data can be ignored only so long. Less than 10 years ago the psychologist Judith Richard Harris published a book, The Nurture Assumption, in which she reviewed the copious literature that points to the likelihood that few differences in personality and disposition have anything to do with parental environment. So how is it then that parents and children resemble each other? They share genes! In fact, the non-genetic component of variation remains a mystery to this day, though Harris argues that the influence is that of peer culture, socialization among age cohorts. The implication here is that the control parents have over the outcomes of their offspring are not direct, but mediated through the social environments which they select for their children.
Culture therefore matters in a profound way, but its power cannot be understood without keeping in mind the role that genetic endowments play in shaping the arc of individual development. Genes may explain the variation within the population, but that variation can be understood only in the context of a the environmental background.
Consider what it might mean to be a “problem child” in Mormon culture. Individuals with a common genetic makeup may naturally be more problematic in a quantitative sense because of the lack of impulse control among both Mormons and non-Mormons, but the nature of antisocial actions may differ qualitatively across the two sets of individuals. If individual differences due to genetics are the principle, the value of the compounding dynamic due to environment is defined by the environment. That is, the nature of the society in which an individual develops and expresses their own predispositions.
Our genes matter, as does the environment in which those genes express. Humans are defined by a wide range of universal and invariant characters; deep commonalities in our hardware which allow us to communicate across the most alien of cultural chasms. But the species is also defined by a rich array of diversity of disposition, some of which is rooted in simple but regular modifications of that same hardware. Not only may the hardware differ, but the performance of the machine is contingent upon the software. The world is not black and white. Culture can gainsay and modulate the expression of our biological nature, but it cannot turn the world upside down, only tilt it on the margins. Sweet cannot be bitter through force of will, and the basic parameters of family, faith and nation are only so flexible. The universe of preferences is not flat, individuals and societies flourish when we ascend those peaks which both nature & nurture drive us toward. Nature’s points are finite, but nevertheless incredibly subtle and rich. We would be wise not to neglect the wisdom of ages that it reflects.