Nature, Nuture, and Social Justice

Over the past week, several articles have come to my attention for various reasons that stress the “nature” part of “nature vs. nurture”. And as I read them, I noticed that the reaction they provoked wasn’t a scientific one necessarily, but a philosophical one. Maybe even a moral one. And here’s the thing: I think that “solving” the “nature vs. nurture” debate is actually a sideline from the moral issues of equality and justice that make that very debate interesting to most people.

See page for author [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
See page for author [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Study 1: Chimpanzee Intelligence Is Inherited

A recent study examined heritability of intelligence in chimpanzees raised in laboratories. Because these chimps were not raised in the wild, the researchers postulated that cultural effects or effects based on who raised the chimps would be minimal. Nonetheless, they observed significant inherited variation in chimp intelligence — especially spatial awareness and communication skills. This inherited variation, they posited, had to be genetic.

Practically, the authors suggest that this provides evidence that similar heritability of intelligence observed in humans are caused by genetic factors; and not purely due to socioeconomic or cultural factors.

By Tomgally [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Tomgally [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Study 2: Musicians Are Born, Not Made

Another group of researchers used a twin study (looking at identical and fraternal twins) to see whether musical ability was genetic (more likely to be shared by identical twins than fraternal twins) or environmental (equally likely to be shared by identical twins and fraternal twins). They saw that, in fact, not just musical ability but the tendency to practice was influenced by genetic factors. Which is to say: practice wasn’t overriding a genetic predisposition in these kids, but rather the more “naturally talented” kids were also the ones who practiced more.

This is in certain ways an even more damning study than the one in chimpanzees, if you take it literally: because it turns the very qualities we look to to overcome obstacles (determination, hard work) into obstacles themselves (a genetic tendency to avoid hard work).

On the other hand, it’s a flawed study as well: because a willingness to practice could be born from some inbred determination, or love of music, or it could be created by the positive reinforcement talented students often receive at the beginning of their training. More practice means more accolades means more practice.

By imagesbywestfall (imagesbywestfall) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By imagesbywestfall (imagesbywestfall) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Study 3: Americans Don’t Study Genetic Causes of Athletic Talent

Finally, a review of athletic training literature revealed that American researchers, more so than researchers from other nations, do not examine the genetic causes underlying athletic ability (although genes like myostatin, alpha actinin, and others have been linked to athletic skill). The researchers suggested that this was due to the taboo nature of such “inborn” talents in American culture.

Equality, Justice, and Talent

This all ends up being very personal for me because of my dual experiences with both dance and science. I was reading novels before I could safely walk down stairs, but at this point in my life I have acquired a degree of proficiency both in athletics and in intellectual pursuits. My athletic story is one of hard work and determination turning into talent over time. My intellectual story is also, at base, hard work and determination turning into talent over time. And it’s all muddy for me — my parents are both relatively sedentary and very intellectual, our house was a library growing up; surely that helped create a bookworm daughter. But I’ve also been in acrobatic classes continuously since I was five years old, often many times a week, in part because my mother saw her own sedentary lifestyle as something she did not want her daughter to inherit.

In the end? For me, science always wins. Maybe that’s the reality of hard work and determination: they work best when paired with the right environment from birth, and the right alleles. Do I think I could have made a career as a professional acrobat if that was what I wanted? Maybe. But today, a few hours’ time doing acrobatics is as much as my body can take in a given day; I don’t know if I could handle the grueling schedule of touring performers. On the other hand, doing science for 10 hours in a day is something I can keep up for quite a while, especially if I’m around other people who are also doing it.

Which brings me back to the idea of equality. When we say that we value equality between people, what do we even mean? What are we measuring? In what way is everyone equal? And how do we work towards ‘greater equality’ without sacrificing our diversity? And in this theoretical utopia where everyone has the freedom and support to find something they are good at, and they love, and do it — who is taking out the trash?

(I guess maybe robots?)

I don’t know the answers to that any better than the next person, but the best I’ve come up with is maybe to value diversity rather than equality, and to stop defining people by their careers (or lack thereof). Any great ideas? And where do you fall in the nature/nurture debate? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

Featured image is from Orphan Black

Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth is a geneticist working for a shady government agency and therefore obliged to inform you that all of the views presented in her posts are her own, and not official statements in any capacity. In her free time, she is an aerialist, a dancer, a clothing designer, and an author. You can find her on tumblr at, on twitter at @lysine_rich, and also on facebook or google+.

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