Saturday, October 18, 2008

More on nature/nurture

In this post I discussed John Derbyshire and the state of the nature/nurture debate.

There are two points about the nature/nurture debate that have always struck me. The first is the manner in which, and this is typical of modern philosophy, the most important points are simply assumed and all the energy is spent debating points of secondary significance. The "human sciences", for example, take it for granted that man can be explained entirely in terms of nature or nurture or some combination of the two, as though these two alternatives self-evidently exhaust the possibilities. Barack Obama, for example, is explained by John Derbyshire entirely in terms of nurture (his mind was "set that way" by cultural Marxism, says Derbyshire.) My point in the prior post was that Derbyshire's explanation of Obama contradicts his own thesis, which is that genetics explains at least half of personal differences.

But why must Obama's political views necessarily be a product of either his genes or his environment? Might not his political views be a product of rational thought, a process that transcends both genes and environment? What is self-evident, surely, is that man cannot be explained entirely in terms of nature and/or nurture. Why does Barack Obama believe in the Pythagorean Theorem? Not even John Derbyshire, I think, would say that it is due to his genes or his environment, as though Obama were raised in "cultural geometry" the way he was allegedly raised in "cultural Marxism." We recognize that geometry transcends culture, and genes, and that the rational process by which we understand geometry is not reducible to either genes or environment. Is it not at least possible that political thought can also transcend genes and environment?

This brings me to my second point, which is that if we accept that man is entirely a causal product of his genes and/or his environment, then the nature/nurture argument is pointless in any event. For then man is a slave one way or the other; a slave to his genes or a slave to his environment. And it's not only Barack Obama's political thought that is enslaved, but also John Derbyshire's thought about Barack Obama's thought, and my thought about both Obama and Derbyshire. There is no escape from this slavery, and in the end the identity of the master, whether it be nature or nurture or Descartes' Evil Demon or a space alien or something else, must be a matter of impenetrable mystery to us. For our thought about the identity of the master is itself enslaved to the master, and therefore subject to his (its?) manipulation. My genes may determine my thinking, but there is no a priori guarantee that my genes will let me in on the fact.


Clare Wilson Parr said...

Just a quick note to thank you very much for taking the time and making the effort to share your intelligent, thoughtful, and ever so lucid perspective with folks like myself.

Your blog entries are always wonderful food for thought.


David T. said...


Thank you for the kind remarks!

You're not my mother writing under a pseudonym are you? Just kidding...