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

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Nature-Nurture And The Hard Facts Of Genetic Determination

Bobby Lucca got his mother’s red hair, his father’s oversized lips, Uncle Harry’s long, Roman nose, and Aunt Betty’s ears.  Every Easter when the family got together at Tilly’s for antipasto, lasagna, pork roast and ham pie, the family marveled at how much Bobby looked like just about everyone around the table.

“Let’s hope it stops right there”, said Lou Lehman, the next door neighbor, referring to Harry Grillo’s temper, Leona Petrucci’s drinking, and Joe Bello’s womanizing.  Lou had seen generations of Luccas come and go, chips off the old block, clones of wayward fathers and flighty mothers, and collages of the second and third cousins who sat in Tilly’s living room, gossiping about their men and how this irresponsible, wayward strain would someday have to peter out.  Lou doubted that the men would ever change, and that as caring and pleasant as the women were, there would always be a succubus in the bunch.

See the source image

Angie Panto, for example, was an apple from a different orchard, and as much as the Luccas tried to figure out where this nasty, brutish, harridan came from, they came up empty. Genes and heredity being what they are, searching in a more distant past might be revealing.  Bits and pieces of genetic material come down through the generations, get twisted and gnarled and show up in the most unusual places in the most surprising forms.

Of course memories of anyone that far back had been so distorted by telling and retelling that after two generations of false recollections resembled nothing like what they might have been; but she had to have come from somewhere, so the Luccas pinned Angie on ‘The Fat Lady From Silver City’.  In fact, in Lou Lehman’s opinion she was a lot like Tilly’s sister, but no one had ever brought that up.

In any case, everyone knew where Bobby came from, but, given the vagaries of genetic code, they watched him carefully to see how closely his DNA matched that of his parents, aunts, and uncles.  There were early signs of stubbornness and inattention, and later a certain moroseness and funk, all of which traits were unfortunately recognizable.  He got none of the intelligence of his father’s side of the family, and certainly none of the looks and charm of his mother’s; and his personality was just as jumbled and Francis Bacon-looking as his face. 

The argument over Nature-Nurture goes back and forth depending on socio-political zeitgeist.  In a more progressive era, few want to nail anything down.  There can be no such thing as an immutable, predictable human nature, for if there such a thing one would have to accept territorialism, aggression, and implacable self-interest as givens in human society.  If, on the other hand, human nature was only genetic predisposition – a predilection for putting one’s family first, expanding one’s horizons and fields, and guarding against one’s enemies – then it could be tinkered with and reconfigured to fit the time’s utopian vision.

Image result for images dna

In a conservative era, few want to accept any kind of genetic weak wiring.  We are as we have always been, and better off for it.  Competition between weak and strong always end up in evolutionary progress.  Wars may be unpleasant but necessary to clear the chaff from the wheat.  There is no such thing as the best of all possible worlds, just worlds as they are.

Yet it is hard to understand how, with only a cursory look at history's wars, empires, territorialism, and concentration of wealth; internecine warfare between competing tribes, religions, and regions; and the family battles for wealth, influence, and power, that anyone can dismiss a hardwired, genetically-programmed, immutable and ineluctable human nature - one that is fundamentally self-interested, protective, territorial, and aggressive.

Image result for images genghis khan army

It is equally hard to understand why there is such a reluctance to attribute personal traits to DNA.  If it is absolutely clear and uncontested that physical traits are passed on through the genetic material of mothers, fathers, uncles, and ancestors, then why not non-physical attributes? Scientific work on shyness has determined that whereas there may not be one specific gene for the trait, there are certainly others which facilitate its emergence.  Twin studies of adult individuals have found a heritability of IQ between 57% and 73% with the most recent studies showing heritability for IQ as high as 80% (Ploman and Deary). 

What then to make of the high performance of Asians in America? Over 80 percent of talent schools like Stuyvesant High School in New York which admit students on the basis of test results only are Asian.  In previous decades Jews were similarly disproportionately represented.  While it is likely that the Confucian ethic in China, the rigorous family standards in India, and the importance given to the Torah and to learning are largely responsible for such performance, might not genetics play a role?  That is, a social selection process where intelligence is valued, marriages are based in part on it and thus its predisposition is strengthened.

At the same time Asian academic success is more than likely due to a highly-disciplined society which values intellectual achievement; and the natural selection of the most ambitious families and the genetic predisposition to intellectual ability within them account for the rest.

Image result for images confucius

American Jews have always been represented disproportionately in academia, science, the arts, and other professions requiring intellectual ability, mental discipline, and insight.  The situation may not be little different from that of high-performing Asian Americans - a combination of a millennia-old tradition of intellectual excellence and highly selective marriages. Whatever the reason, these high-achieving, ambitious groups leave other ethnic groups far behind.

Black athletes have always been outstanding for their athletic preeminence. There have been no white Olympic gold medalists in the 100 yard dash since 1980 – and black athletes who have won come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds as diverse as low-income African countries to highly developed Western countries like America, Canada, France, and the UK, suggesting at least some genetic link.  Any such excellence valued by society is sure to gain and hold ground through successive generations, a fertile, accommodating environment, and socio-cultural homogeneity.

Such physical genetic predisposition is found in many ethnic groups. Recent physio-ethnic studies have shown that Ethiopian children born to Ethiopian parents but raised in Europe consistently outperform white children in long distance running events, a phenomenon laid to a genetic ability to more efficiently use oxygen.  It is no wonder that Ethiopians, Somalians, and Eritreans are consistent winners in international marathons.

Image result for images lebron james over the rim

We live in an era which defies and challenges common sense.  Everyone in the Lucca family could see right before their eyes where Bobby came from.  His narrow eyes, hanging ears, large mouth, and long nose shouted ‘Lucca!’; and as he grew older and out of the range of the meddlesome aunts and uncles of his childhood but well within the radar of very different, equally eccentric, unique friends and colleagues, he still retained the same fortunate and unfortunate personality, character, and cognitive traits of his family.  ‘Once a Lucca always a Lucca’ went the refrain around Tilly’s Easter dinner table; and no one ever doubted it.

There is no multivariate equation to determine the balance between nature and nurture; but while there is no doubt that environmental factors influence personality, character, response, and ability; it is hard to dismiss the essential traits that come with the human package.  Physical characteristics are clearly inherited; but more subtle, complex, and hard-to-measure traits like intellectual ability, psychological makeup (shyness, will, confidence), or temperament may also be.

Most importantly of all, human nature itself seems to be hardwired - an inescapable drive for self-preservation and -protection; the survival of the species through garnered wealth, territory, and influence; and the spread of culture as an influential ancillary.

Does this genetic determinism deny individuality, free choice, and flexibility? To the degree that genetic make-up predisposes one to certain behavior, excellence, or failure, yes; but it is the illusion of free choice that makes us human.  The two have always existed.

Perhaps most importantly genetic predisposition does not obviate anomalous talent.  Anyone from any group can excel in any enterprise.  Predisposition only suggests outcomes.  Assuming otherwise is wrong and dangerous.

Last but not least, the pluralism of American society, and the increasing wealth, mobility, and opportunity of all groups assure that any and all ethnic groups that have existed in the past will soon disappear.  Inter-ethnic marriage will assure a society where the discussion of group characteristics is moot.

It is the denial of genetics which is most problematic.  An understanding of the role of human nature in history can temper futile, idealistic, progressive aspirations to progress.  Competition between people, societies, or countries is not a bad things; and while it may not produce a better world, it is the only proven way to arrange resources.

Recognizing the genetic role in human ability and behavior can encourage excellence.  Why should time, energy, and resources be wasted on insufficient or inadequate talent?  It can also help to understand the nature of such inefficiencies, and help create a more tolerant, just, and promising society.

So there was a point to Tilly's Easter dinners, and everyone around the table realized it, understood it, and accepted it.  Bobby Lucca would only go so far.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.