"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Nature vs. Nurture–Is Perfectibility An Option?

Petty Lambeau loved everyone.  She loved her mother, her father and her brothers.  She loved her neighbors, classmates, and friends.  She even loved the Puerto Ricans who lived on Harford Avenue.

“Don’t be so naïve”, her mother warned.  “People aren’t what they seem.”

Yet despite her mother, Petty only saw the good in people.  Mrs. Randolph, the next-door neighbor always gave her chocolate cake or cookies when she was baking.  Miss Crandall, her second-grade teacher always smiled at her in the morning and at assembly. Father Brophy was kind, gentle, and warm.  He was so Christ-like, so giving of himself, and so prayerful and supportive.

Life was good, said Petty, and she thanked her parents for having her.

Her brother Fields was antipathetic, suspicious, and even mean-spirited.  “You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors”, he said to his sister about Margaret Randolph, the next-door neighbor; and recounted the rumors about her cinq-a-sept liaisons in the tool shed, the bottles of vodka stashed in the compost heap, and her Wednesday trips south on the New York New Haven & Hartford to act – or so it was said – in burlesque matinees off Broadway.

New York New Haven Hartford RR


“I don’t believe a word of it”, said Petty. “Mrs. Randolph is a good person.”

Petty’s mother and father were at great pains to explain the difference between their two children.  Despite the same genes, the same upbringing, and the same environment, no two children could have been so different.  It would have been one thing to have one child happy-go-lucky, social, and outgoing and the other introspective and reflective; but to have a daughter who ignored even the slightest blemish and a son who saw nothing but warts, moles, and deformities was beyond their comprehension.

“It must be genes”, said Petty’s father. “Not yours or mine, but Hester Thwart’s.”  Hester Thwart had been burned at the stake in Shrewsburyport for prophetic visions, apocalyptic glimpses at the Lake of Fire which awaited the sinners of Massachusetts. She was the only Calvinist who had been executed for too much faith in the Bible and in the predictions of Revelations.

Double helix

“You make her sound like that harridan Joan of Arc”, her mother had replied. “If anything she is more like St. Francis of Assisi – kind, gentle, and obediently faithful.”

“And Fields must have gotten his DNA from the Satanic branch of your family”, said Blaine Lambeau to his wife who winced. Her husband was referring to an Irish misanthropic clan which over two centuries ago had spread rumors throughout County Cork about the coming of the anti-Christ.

Terrible things to say about their children, they both agreed; but how else was one to explain their diametrically opposed natures?

I recount this story because much has been written recently about the political divisions in America.  Conservatives and liberals are so far apart in both policy and worldview, it is argued, that it is doubtful that the sides will ever meet.  Liberals believe in the perfectibility of man and society, and conservatives are convinced of the immutability of a self-interested, protective and aggressive human nature.  Liberals feel that with concern, commitment, sacrifice, and patience the world can be made a better place.  Conservatives argue that history has demonstrated no progress whatsoever; and we are still marching in place to the same drummer. One side says, “Shit happens”, and the other says, “Shit may happen, but it doesn’t have to”.

America seems to have more mass murders than other countries, and each side of the political spectrum tries to lay the blame on the other.  The Left says that the murder, execution, or killing of black men is the fault of the radical, racist, and socially retrograde Right Wing.  The Right says that human beings always behave according to hardwired imperatives, and that seemingly senseless or wanton violence is nothing more than frayed wiring, bad soldering, or crossed connections. Mental illness is behind most social aberration, not vast political conspiracies.

The Brothers Karamazov is instructive. Alyosha is just like Petty Lambeau – innocent, naïve, Christ-like, and beatific.  Ivan is Fields Lambeau, convinced that there is no good in the world, that Christ suckered mankind into believing in him and the promise of eternal salvation, and that the Devil – a vaudevillian – reigns and rules. Dmitri is the cynical, sardonic, and brilliant third party who dismisses both of this brothers as naïve, overly intellectual and spiritual; and is outwitted only by his half-brother Smerdyakov who is troubled by neither faith or reason.

Image result for images brothers karamazov

In Karamazov only Alyosha survives, for Dostoevsky was faithfully religious at heart; and his Grand Inquisitor and Devil were only counterfoils to what he saw was man’s true and hopeful spirit; but the Grand Inquisitor makes a good case, taking Christ to task for selling man a bill of goods when he rejects the Devil’s temptation in the desert; and he makes an even better one when the Devil in Ivan’s nightmare explains that without him, a uniformly good world would be boring indeed.

Those of us who knew the Lambeau family felt sorry for Petty.  No one with her naïveté could possibly survive outside the confines of her Glass Menagerie.  She was no Laura Wingfield who feared the real world because she understood it.  Petty neither understood the world or had the slightest inkling what awaited her.

Image result for images glass menagerie


We knew that Fields would do just fine, equipped as he was with cynicism, an instinctive sense for prey and the preyed upon, and a nose for opportunity. None of us liked him, and preferred his sweet and gentle sister.  Everyone liked Alyosha Karamazov for the same reason – an innocent if naïve view of the world in its perfectibility.

Chris Mooney writing in the Washington Post has written about conservative and liberal brains, suggesting based on recent research that political convictions may be hardwired.

Open people everywhere tend to have more liberal values, said psychologist Robert McCrae, who conducted voluminous studies on personality while at the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health. Conservatives tend to be less open — less exploratory, less in need of change — and more “conscientious,” a trait that indicates they appreciate order and structure in their lives.

In other words personality, character, and genetic disposition lead ineluctably to predictable political choice. Perhaps, but where do Alyosha, Ivan, Smerdyakov, Petty, or Fields fit into this scheme?  In which box do we put Ivan’s and Fields’ nihilism or Petty’s ingénue innocence and naïveté?

No, the world is not so neatly divided; but is a continuum of personality which ranges from the pure and unblemished who somehow manage to remain so; to the categorically indifferent and cynical for whom nothing matters and nothing bothers.

All human behavior can be explained if looked at from the perspective of this spectrum. The Boston Bomber, the Charleston church killer, the messianic television evangelist, the Wall Street wolf, the compassionate volunteer, and the hard-bitten, flinty Silas Marner are all cut from the same cloth, just in different patterns.

“We are all the same”, said my mother, and quoting Francois Villon, “We will all end up ‘en un tas pêle-mêle’. So why parse difference?”

Image result for images francois villon


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