Monday, November 26, 2007

Nature and Nurture

In "Dolly's Fashion and Louis' Passion," Stephen Jay Gould argues that science is influenced by the whims of fashion, with particular emphasis on the nature/nurture dichotomy. Gould says that at various times, either genetic or environmental explanations for human identity and behavior are in fashion; during certain periods we emphasize genetics, during others we emphasize environment, and the pendulum swings back and forth.

Gould also argues that at the time he's writing (1997), biological explanations are in favor. I always consider this when reading articles about current science. Are we still in a period emphasizing genetics over environment? Generally, I think so: a lot of science articles I read in Time magazine focus on neurology, seeming to imply that all secrets to human identity and behavior are in the biochemistry of the brain. I expected the same when I saw this week's Time cover, featuring a graphic of a human brain, images of Gandhi and Hitler with lines leading to points within the brain image, and the headline "What Makes Us Good/Evil."

But Jeffrey Klugar's cover story "What Makes Us Moral" offers more complexity than that. Certainly there is discussion of parts of the brain. But there is also a section on how the community socially conditions morality onto individuals, and some of the explanations for aspects of human morality seem to stem from deep-rooted environmental influences.

Are we moving away from a period of genetic emphasis, where pharmaceuticals are used to solve our problems and we're all prisoners of our biology? Is the pendulum swinging toward environmental emphasis (where we can perhaps still be recognized as prisoners, but as Rene Gallimard says in M. Butterfly, prisoners of our place and time)?

Hey, one article in Time magazine isn't going to answer that question.

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