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Nurture Qua Nature

By MatTehCat | The Cat's Mewsings | 3 Mar 2023

Over the past week, I’ve opined on school choice and how culture is shaped by the quality of people shaping it. At their core, these kinds of discussions lead to a nature-nurture debate. For most people, it seems as if the skew is 50-50, i.e., 50% nurture and 50% nature. This idea is flawed.

Humans use reasoning to justify their beliefs. It is very challenging to get people to think in a counterfactual manner, as well. Putting those two facts aside, even if people had all the requisite information at their disposal, they still may not be capable of assessing the information in question for themselves. Thus, if I were to tell someone who wants to shape the world in their image that the development of humans is 50% nature and 50% nurture, they will hear that there’s a significant chance that they can shape themselves and the world around them and look for evidence that affirms that belief. This calls into question most claims made about the influence nurture has on the development of individuals and groups.

From the other perspective, it is not clear what might motivate someone to reason that our development is rooted more in our nature rather than how we are nurtured. The cynic could claim that essentialist arguments, arguments that assert that one’s developmental trajectory is rooted in their nature rather than in how they were nurtured, affirm the status quo and preserve power for a ruling class. If we were to grant this argument merit, it would call into question essentialist arguments. However, this is predicated on the premise that essentialist arguments are used to preserve the ruling class’s power. If they are not, it cannot stand that essentialist arguments necessarily persuade the ruling class.

In either scenario, the reasoning for one side is motivated by the worldview of the reasoner; their validity is conditioned on whether the reasoner can think counterfactually and if he is capable of assessing the information afforded to him. Part of this confusion can be resolved by examining the structure of the claim that we are 50% nature and 50% nurture.  

For a start, it would be prudent to recognize that how we nurture, as humans, does not occur in a vacuum. We do not just nurture. How we nurture is contingent on the environment we find ourselves in, the resources in that environment, and our capacity to grapple with that environment, at least. Our capacity to grapple with the environment we find ourselves in is, first and foremost, a product of our biology. Our hand, for example, is the product of natural and sexual selection, and our mind, as well. Without regard to what we are thinking about, the very act of thinking about what we want in the world and reaching out to grab it is not a process that is the result of how we were nurtured. It is the product of evolutionary mechanisms and processes, themselves constrained by natural principles and the environment.

The environment we find ourselves in, prior to being a product of anthropogenic processes (and even then), is not the mere product of nurturing processes, either. The amount of flora and fauna in a particular environment, the kinds of flora and fauna in a particular environment, are relative to the essential conditions of that environment. Those conditions are constrained by top-down, limiting, and natural principles. The florae and faunae of an environment may vary with respect to those principles, but they will always, ultimately be defined by those principles. When humans find themselves interacting with these florae and faunae, their ability to interact with them is also limited by these principles.

The resources of the environment are naturally limited, as well. The structure of carbon, carbon compounds, the amount of hydrogen dioxide, the state of that hydrogen dioxide, the structure of phosphate, nitrogen, and the kinds of amines in an environment are all limited by natural principles. How we interact with these basic building blocks of life, how cells have interacted with these basic building blocks, though varied in form and structure, has been and will continue to be limited by the natural principles constraining them.

Thus, the extent to which humans can nurture (i.e., interact with their environment), their ability to nurture, is limited by natural principles and their nature. In other words, how we nurture is not separate from our nature; it is the product of our nature.

What I am ultimately getting at is the idea that nature limits nurturing capacities, such that those capacities can be said to have essential qualities, and thus are not a separate category. Nurture is a subcategory of the category Nature. How we nurture is in our nature. The nature of a bat predisposes it to nurture its young in a particular fashion. The alligator and snake are predisposed to nurture their young in a particular fashion, as well. Nurturing processes may also vary within a species, particularly between subspecies that find themselves in different circumstances, limited by different environmental variables. For example, a snake species whose jaw develops the ability to eat whole eggs after finding itself in a new, island environment. It is under these kinds of circumstances that the greatest amount of variation likely occurs.

It is these kinds of nurturing behaviors that, when they are targets of selection, can increase or decrease the fitness of an organism and also generate speciation. It is also an overemphasis on these various forms of nurturing behavior (the targets of selection) within a species, between subspecies or subpopulations, that may be used to fallaciously argue that we are equal parts nature and nurture. Yet still, this kind of plasticity is limited by the anatomy and physiology of the organism under selection and, thus, is limited by the organism’s nature.

Existentially, this calls into question how we are best to regard the state of our fellow man. If we were to give more power to the Nurture position, we might make claims about systemic and institutional causes of variation within a group. If we were to give more power to the Nature position, we might fall prey to deterministic arguments and forgo personal agency or responsibility. Both of these positions are inaccurate.

The institutions and systems that are in place do not magically appear from nothing. They are emergent products of a people. Since we are making the claim that human nature defines the nurturing (developmental and character) capacities of humans, these institutions and systems should behave similarly across different environments; certain behaviors conducive to a functioning society should occur more frequently across all societies and for longer periods of time than others. If these systems did not behave similarly across different environments, then human nature would not define our nurturing capacities or, in other words, our ability to shape ourselves and our environment.

Still, there will be variation between societies, yet this variation does not undermine the nature argument. Instead, social variation can be explained as a natural by-product of humanity expanding into various different environments. Different environments have different conditions and resources; and because humanity has a nature, as it expands into and explores these different environments, it has to creatively adapt to the new environment or it will die. If humans did not have this nature, if nothing was limiting the nature of humans, if the capacity for humans to adapt to various environments was greater than their inability to adapt to those environments, humans could expand into any environment. Yet, some environments are inhospitable to humans, humans are limited by their nature, and thus their nature defines the developmental capacities of humans.

Social institutions and systems, thus, cannot be the limiting factor of a group because systems and institutions are not inherent to an environment. Those systems and institutions emerge as an organism interacts with its environment and builds a niche that is conducive to its fitness, decreasing the selective pressures of the organic environment. To be clear, systems and institutions should make people’s lives easier if they’re functioning properly. If we were to forgo personal agency and responsibility, we would totally be at the mercy of our environment, yet we are not. A great example of this is what rational choice theory purports we should do in a Centipede Game; rationally, you just shouldn’t play.

We have the ability to shape our environment, based on certain natural predispositions (yes), but because we have that ability, we cannot be totally at the mercy of our environment. Our behavior is not beaver-like either. We do not seem to be automatically generating artifacts, institutions, and systems. These systems, institutions, and artifacts seem to be consciously created to reduce the pressures of any environment we find ourselves in if we can reduce those pressures.

A well or dam is not effective in every environment, nor can its constitution be the same in every environment. A well in a deciduous forest biome should differ significantly from one in an arid or desert biome, as should a dam. Humans have the ability to perceive their environment, think about how different components interact in their environment, and then abstract and manipulate those components into a structure that increases their ability to interact with that environment. And, because humans can do this in various environments, this doesn’t seem to be determined solely by the environment. If humans were really automatically generating artifacts and structures like dams and wells, their ability to expand into different environments, the plasticity of their behavior, would be more limited than it is. The very ability of humans to expand, adapt, and create in various biomes or environments suggests that they do have agency, i.e., are responsible for their circumstances; and that agency, it is in their nature. An individual or group that is less successful at adapting to the environment it finds itself in, while another is more successful, truly lacks the agency, i.e., ability, to adapt to that environment. It cannot create for itself a niche that increases its fitness, enabling it to achieve an equilibrium with its environment.  

When we look at individual humans, the question of nature or nurture cannot be answered, either. Any examination of a single individual cannot tell us whether their character is the result of their nature rather than how they responded to their environment, or how they nurtured themselves. You cannot extrapolate a pattern from a single instance of an event. To do so, to make an example of a single instance of an event and to claim that it is representative of a whole, is to make a compositional error. These kinds of particular incidents are used by individuals bent on arguing for radical conceptions of personal responsibility like David Goggins and Jocko Willink. While I think Responsibility is a virtue, the degree to which one is responsible is limited by their psychology and biology. Thus, the biology and psychology of an individual and group (their nature) will determine the extent to which they can be regarded as responsible.

Lastly, I think the question of incentives needs to be considered. Incentives can influence the choices people make. For example, when given the choice, are people more apt to eat a bowl of grapes or a bowl of steamed broccoli? When we examine the question of incentives, people will respond to incentives that they are evolved to respond to and that have the highest relative payoff, e.g., it is better to eat the grapes rather than the bowl of steamed broccoli. Incentives that do not feed into these kinds of fundamental needs or desires are less potent than those that do. In other words, even whether an incentive is enticing is dependent on our nature.

Importantly, whether one chooses broccoli or grapes is also contingent on his environmental circumstances. Under conditions where food is scarce, it is far more likely that an individual will choose grapes rather than broccoli. Yet, under conditions where an individual has a large array of food at home, if given the choice between grapes and broccoli, perhaps he would choose broccoli; i.e., the incentives people respond to are relative to the environment they find themselves within. Food, shelter, wealth, care, etc. can only influence behavior if they are needed or in demand. This relates quite nicely to my exploration of institutions.

Institutions and systems, to reiterate, seem to be emergent products of people in certain environments. The people create the institutions and systems, for example, a judicial system, to resolve some selective pressure in their environment, e.g., a blood feud between two large groups. Given that institutions help to relieve the selective pressures an environment imposes on a population, the coordination of a society or people based on incentives will be contingent on whether the individual or group coordinating the members of a society is able to fulfill the needs of the group and alleviate the pressures of the environment. The most effective group organizers, then, will be coordinating the actions of groups around their natural needs; food, shelter, energy, mates, etc. In theory, then, any group that responds to needs that are not of the quality just discussed likely will be less effective at coordinating the members of their society than those who do.

I felt that it was necessary to explore this concept because I think too much weight is given to our ability to overcome our nature. This is the wrong approach because how we overcome our nature is limited by our nature. There really doesn’t seem to be a way to escape our nature. We make claims about how ideas control people, or how some ideological software corrupts a population, but those ideas and that software would be unable to affect a given population unless they were capable of being affected by those ideas and that software; their nature, their conditions, the institutions they’ve created for themselves either decrease the likelihood of them being affected by some meme or they increase it. If we do not recognize that our natural capacities limit how we can respond to and interact with our environment, we will not be able to generate effective solutions to the problems we are experiencing. 

It would be wise to recognize our limitations, to act with respect to those limitations, and to organize around those limitations, only because, as is true in most artistic endeavors, limitations spur creative solutions.

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Writer, Blogger and Vlogger creating stories, rhetorical arguments, and editorials on philosophy, psychology, religion and art.

The Cat's Mewsings
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