A debate in psychology, linguistics, and other social sciences about whether human behavior (and for that matter, animal behavior and all other kinds of behavior) is determined by genetic or environmental factors. Or, a debate about what determines a very specific piece of behavior.

The debate is probably an ultimately fruitless one because it is impossible to operationalize either point of view, and thus both points of view are not even wrong. The interaction of genetics and environment is ridiculously complex from a very early stage; genetics determine, for instance, what sorts of chemicals are released into the womb during gestation - so do we call those chemicals innate factors or environmental factors? Eventually the entire argument reduces to semantics, in the worst sense of the word. Similarly, how one looks (arguably genetic) influences how one is treated (arguably environmental), which in turn influences a number of other factors, some of which eventually affect how you look.

I have always been depressed by the view of the pure, or maybe vulgar materialists, who say that all that we are is a puppet of the environment--the ultimate statement of this position is the anti-theory theory of B.F. Skinner: S-R Theory. A stimulus in the environment draws forth a response not mediated by anything "inside".

I have been, well, not depressed, but not convinced by the opposite pure, or vulgar view that there is some sort of spirit inside that acts on the environment--that this is our nauture. I think one has to believe in God to accept this view.

I am happier with an intermediate position: It seems incontrovertible to me that there is some structure--us, brain, hands, stuff that happens betweens us and the emvironment. We create things, technology, words, forms, music, dance, ideas, both directly, and in interaction with things and other people.

I like the view I think some call critical realism: it isn't inside us; it isn't outside us--its inbetween us.

More mundanely, I agree with what Cermain says above.

My father is my hero. If I, at any point in my life, am able to feel like half the man my father is, I will consider my life a success. Everything I value in myself I learned from dad, and everything I strive to be is for my dad. I don't know what or where I would be if it had not been for his example.

I give the military, and GI's in general a lot of grief, but I know in my heart that the army saved me from a life of white trash hell. My dad grew up in tiny, back-woods Tennessee towns. He has more brothers and sisters than I can name. And the life he comes from is one of desperation and poverty. He met my mother somehow, I never did understand how they met and they got married. Dad joined the army to get out of the trap all of his siblings were falling into.

Drugs, alcoholism, abuse, crime, these are the words that personify my family's name. When I was born, dad dedicated his life to insuring that I would never be defined by my name. As I grew older I came to understand that my life was vastly different from that of my extended family. Eventually I came to understand that this was because dad made sure I would have more than he did. He gave everything to his family. He was the best father a man could have been.

As a child I very seldom got to see my father on the job. But on those few occasions that I was able to see him at work, I loved it. He was the embodiment of discipline, authority, self control, pride, and all of the buzz words you hear on the "Be All You Can Be" campaigns. From some horrid hour before I woke up, until whenever he came home he was Sgt. Norman. But once he came home, and the uniform came off, he was dad. Playing with me in the living room floor. Being my role model.

I would practice looking like dad. Walking like him. Talking like him. I wanted to be like that. Head up, eyes forward and focused. Firm, condfident. Kind and utterly unstoppable. To this day, when in a job interview, or in any situation where I find myself doubting my worth. Any time I find myself scared or nervous, I slip into that role. I am somehow able to wrap all of my doubts into the security of the fact that I am my father's son. If I don't know how to deal with a situation, I find confidence that my father's blood flows in me, and that will give me the ability to succeed.

I am, by education an conditioning, swayed toward the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture argument. I believe that people are generally a product of their respective environments. Children growing up among criminals generally become criminals, and so forth. But dad sort of throws a little chaos into that theory. How did dad grow up in an environment that is so chaotic and wind up with such compassion and genuine concern?

I am the first male with my last name to even have graduated high school. Dad dropped out to help support his family, and got his GED when he went into the army. I graduated high school in 95, college in 2000 and I will be starting a master's degree in December of 2001. I'm doing it because dad taught me the importance of education. He put his hopes in me, and I could not bear to let him down.

I consider my father and I to be a new, green branch in my family tree. Shooting from the trunk toward the sky, with all of the potential in the world. But that leads to one sobering realization. I'm his only son.

How in the hell am I going to find a way to do what he did? I can't fathom raising a child. I see guys my age having kids without a second thought. They have a baby and think nothing of it. But to me, having a child is a step I am scared to take. Scared to be put in the role of nurturer. I'm still learning from dad. How can I be expected to take on his role? I don't feel like I'll ever be prepared for that.

I know that once I do have a child, it is up to me to give that child every ounce of my father's love and dedication. I will have to set an example of honesty, integrity and intelligence. I will have to build a world of support. Show the child how to look at an ugly world and find beauty. Teach the child everything I know. Give it a platform, higher than the platform raised by my father from which to start. That is more pressure than I can bear to imagine. Maybe its that fear that forces me to withdraw from any meaningful relationships I might stumble my way into.

People often use the phrase "Be a man". But very few people know what this means. I know what it means. And it has nothing to do with fearlessness. It has nothing to do with pain threshold, or physical prowess. It has nothing to do with sexuality. Being a man means being responsible. Taking care of yourself and family. Being respectable.

I still feel like a kid, standing in my father's huge shoes, not knowing how anyone's feet could be that big. Every time I think of him I wonder, if I get my strength from him, where does his strength come from?

Behaviour – Nature or Nurture?

The basis of the debate

Since antiquity, philosophers and scientists have been fascinated by the development of living creatures. What began as a philosophical debate over the roles of innate versus environmental contributions to the final behaviour of the organism has become an increasingly active area of scientific study. The nature/nurture controversy is a debate about whether human behaviour is determined primarily by genetic or environmental factors, which touches on psychology, linguistics, and other social sciences.

Instinctive versus innate contributions

Most behaviour has elements of both inheritance and training, yet each must make a distinct contribution and separating these is often difficult. Vision is case a case in point, since although an animal is born with eyes, it must mature in the use of them and learn to see. This case is one, however, in which the distinction between the iinstinctive and learnt components has been examined intensely. In 1925, Robert Matthey severed the optic nerve of an adult newt, which managed to recover its vision within thirty days. This incredible result, that the animal had re-established the complex network of nerve-fibres between the eye and the brain, was confirmed by later experimentalists. However, this result also poses an interesting question: whether the newt relearns how to see, or whether its heredity, forming and organising the regenerating nerve fibres according to a genetic pattern, automatically restores orderly vision. By rotating the eyes of frogs through angles between 0° and 360°, experimenters determined that the animal always regenerated an organised pattern of vision although the visual field as a whole might be turned upside down, or inverted on some other axis, or indeed displaced from the left to the right side. The conclusions drawn from these results were that, in the lower invertebrates at least, many features of visual perception are built into the organism and do not have to be learnt.

Instinctive behaviour in animals

Dragonfly nymphs also instinctively ‘know’ how to fly; even though they have spent their entire lives underwater and have never previously used wings. In spite of this, the action of flying is carried out with perfection the very first time it is attempted. This is an example of innate behaviour, ‘a pattern of inherited, pre-set behaviour that does not require learning or practice’, which lends credence to the view that nature is important in determining behaviour. Instinctive behavioural patterns have developed under the influence of natural selection and hence alleles that produce behaviour conferring a selective advantage have become more common among animal populations.


It is certainly true that, since all of the components of the brain are coded for by cellular DNA, genetics does have a strong influence on behaviour. However, it is not easy to be absolutely sure that a particular pattern of behaviour is entirely innate. Much of animal behaviour is the result of interactions between the animal’s genes and its environment and since the discovery by researchers on the Human Genome Project that humans have only 30,000 genes, about ten times fewer than was expected, it seems likely that environmental influences play a greater role in our development than was previously acknowledged. Dr. Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics stated in 2001 that “we simply do not have enough genes for this idea of biological determinism to be right.” and it is clear that understanding how a relatively small number of genes translate into the incredible complexity of a human being will be one of the challenges of future geneticists.

Virgil - transfer between sensory systems

In his book An Anthropologist on Mars, Dr. Oliver Sacks drew attention to the case of a man named Virgil who had been blind since childhood as a result of ocular cataracts. When these were removed, the sudden restoration of sight overwhelmed his visual cortex which responded by suddenly shutting down.

In the end, although the physical appearance of his retinas remained the same, Virgil's visual perception deteriorated and he became as blind as he had been before his operations, although he experienced rare moments when he could see something accurately. This ultimate loss of vision related to excess sensory stimulation makes it clear that nurture plays a major role in our ability to make sense of visual stimuli and that even if an alternative tactile mode of object identifications is developed, conceptual information does not appear to transfer readily between the two sensory systems.


Some animal behaviour consists of a basic pattern, which is innate but can be modified by experience. Examples of such behaviour include the tendency for crocodiles to incubate their eggs at the temperature at which they had experience in their own egg or of ichneumon flies to lay eggs in the caterpillars from which they themselves had developed. Such behaviour combines the advantages of rapid, automatic behaviour with the flexibility which is born of experience. Associative learning also involves the superposition of innate and learnt behaviour, as shown in Skinner’s investigation into operant conditioning.In this experiment, an animal’s instinctive desire for a reward is attached to the performance of a certain action through association in the animal’s brain.

Arguments from extremes

Obviously if two animals from different species, human and chimpanzee for example, are both nurtured under identical environmental conditions then the child’s behaviour will be radically different from that of the chimpanzee and this difference will be almost entirely caused by genetic discrepancies between the two organisms. Arguing from this extreme, the proponents of the Nature side of the argument would have us believe that intraspecific differences in behaviour are comparable to these interspecific differences in behaviour, which are caused entirely by genetic inheritance, except to a lesser degree. Similarly, if genetically identical twins, are brought up under divergent conditions then the behavioural differences between them will be profound, and caused totally by environmental disparities. Arguing from this extreme, the proponents of the Nurture side of the debate would have us believe that differences in human or animal behaviour stem wholly from environmental factors in the same way as the differences in the twins’ behaviour. In this way, it can be seen that situations can be devised that will demonstrate that either nature or nurture are predominant in certain circumstances. The most obvious conclusion to draw from this data is that both nature and nurture are important in the development of a human being.

Nativism versus empiricism

In the seventeenth century, the French philosopher René Descartes argued that people possess certain inborn ideas that enduringly underpin people's approach to the world. The British philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, on the other hand, took a more empirical approach, emphasising the role of experience in the formation of future behaviour.


In recent years, controlled experimentation and the observation of natural processes, in both human and animal subjects, have led away from both nativist philosophical views, which stressed heredity over environment, and empirical views, which stressed environment over heredity. Modern geneticists' theories tend to view the development of behaviour as a synthesis of both components, each indispensable to the attainment of normal patterns of behaviour.In the end, the question of whether nature or nurture is more important is unlikely to be answered positively one way or the other since such effects cannot be quantitatively measured. Behaviour is dependent on complex interactions between genetic and phenotypic characteristics and environmental factors. As a result of this, it is impossible to say that either nature or nurture is more important in determining behaviour.


Mammalian Physiology and Behaviour – Jones & Jones
The Five Kingdoms & Behaviour – Avery, Cuthill, Miller & Rowland
An Anthropologist on Mars – Oliver Sacks
The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins

The Bell Curve and Nature vs. Nurture

There is a new book out stirring up the old Nature vs. Nurture controversy called "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker. The book supports that idea that there is a genetic basis for behavior and intelligence, an idea opposed by adherents to the "Blank Slate" philosophy in which a newborn mind is a blank slate and intelligence and behavior are primarily determined by environment. The "Blank Slate" argument is propounded by (among others) Richard Lewontin in books like "Biology As Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA", which seeks to find accord between biology and liberal politics by denying "genetic determinism", "behavioral genetics", and "reductionist science". Lewontin's book in turn was a response to books by Richard Dawkins and Edward O. Wilson. As the debate raged over the years, enough straw-man arguments have been angrily burnt in effigy to rival the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert.

What the Lewontin camp seems to fear most is that acceptance of a genetic basis for IQ and behavior will lead to the acceptance of ideologies like those expressed by "The Bell Curve", by Herrnstein and Murray. As I understand it, the thesis of the Bell-Curve is this: If one's abilities are largely determined by genetic endowment, then expensive social programs which try and elevate those that fall on the lower reaches of the "bell curve" are doomed to failure.(1) The "Blank Slate-ists" try to refute the Bell-Curve argument by attacking the science that supports the relationship between genetics and a person's abilities.

Steven Pinker's book offers the idea that scientific theories about the heritability of behavior and intelligence are not a threat to ideals of political equality. This gets to the heart of what I see as wrong with the whole nature vs. nurture debate, and what is equally wrong with the Lewontin brew of leftist biology and the Bell-Curve's scientific rationalizations.

What I object to is the politicization of science. One side claims, "My right-wing political beliefs are supported by science" and the other retorts that, "Your science must be wrong, because it conflicts with my leftist ideology."(2) Both parties are egregiously guilty of confusing science with politics and vice-versa. What both side fail to realize is that societal and political questions are best addressed using ethics, and that science should be at most a bit player in this process.

According to the scientific method, all science is provisional. Any theory may need to be amended, or thrown out entirely, at any time, with the discovery of a counter-example. So, a scientific theory is a poor choice for a foundation on which to rest an ethical argument. If you believe you are correct because you are supported by "science", you can never be completely certain and are forever in danger of being overturned. It is fine to be informed by science when making ethical decisions, but using science to reason about ethics is like using mathematics to reason about poetry. You may have an extremely powerful tool, but its not the right tool for the job.

The Lewontin camp claims that the Bell-Curve idea is wrong because their science is bad. This is an incredibly weak argument. A much stronger argument is that the Bell-Curve idea is wrong, regardless of their science, because their ethics are bad.

Individualism is a core principle of Judeo-Christian ethics. If I commit a crime, does my whole family go to jail? Of course not. I am responsible, so I go to jail. If I perform a demanding job, does the company make out a check to "pay to the order of White People"? They better not. If I have lived a wicked and dissolute life, does God send everyone from my neighborhood to hell? No, just me. We judge individuals by their own merit, not the merit of others.

So, is it ethical to send a kid to an inferior school because his family, race, or neighbors have not been "high achievers" (whatever that may be)? Is it acceptable to reason that the kid in this case probably would not benefit from a higher quality school, so let's not waste valuable resources on him? This clearly would violate the principle of individualism. There are innumerable examples of those who have risen from humble backgrounds to great achievements, and also of those from illustrious backgrounds with little to show for it. This is why it is better to judge an individual on his or her own merit, and this principle is all that is necessary to fully refute the Bell-Curve argument, without any reference to the unfinished scientific endeavor to understand the human mind.

The nature vs. nurture debate may rage on, but to me the answer -- as plain as day -- is "both". As in, both nature and environment determine one's abilities as an adult (however you choose to define "abilities"). The duality here is entirely false. Furthermore, as to the mechanisms by which genes manifest themselves in behavior or intelligence (or even a solid understanding of what intelligence is), the science is very incomplete and seems likely to remain so for decades. So any attempt to base social policy on this science is, at best, premature. Even in the event of a comprehensive theory of the mind, is there any doubt that social problems will remain as difficult as ever? We should let science, free of ideological burdens, address the questions of how things work. What to do about it will remain the province of ethics, wisdom, and judgement.


1 I should take care not to imply that Steven Pinker's books support right-wing political ideas. It seems to me, they do not.

2 Probably, all parties to which I have referred would object to my characterization of their arguments. It is difficult to summarize a complex argument in a sentence without distortion.

Are we products of our environment? Is there freedom in what we choose, think and feel, or is this our genesis? Our entire society is based upon the principle of free will. It's a fundamental question, but does anyone really want to answer it?

According to Kabbalah, there are four phases of which an organism consists. These phases control us. However, they are also the key to exercising free will. The phases are called:

1. The bed;
2. The static attributes of the bed;
3. Attributes that change the organism through external forces;
4. and changes in the external environment.

Allow Kabbalah to explain the above four concepts.

The bed
The bed is the name of the unchanging essence within the organism. These are factors that affect the organism despite its external environment. Think of it as our ability to be sitting in a corner crying, at a birthday party.

The best way to examine this these phases are through a study of the vegetative state. It is a phase of creation in which we are not subjectively involved - hence, it is ripe for study.

Consider a stalk of wheat. When a wheat seed rots, it entirely loses its form. But this "form", the outer clothing, is the only thing lost. The force within the wheat remains and creates a new stalk of wheat. The bed of wheat remains the same, its essence or "force" is always the same despite the transitory change in form.

The static attributes of the bed
We have established that within nature, no wheat seed may produce a plant other than a wheat stalk. Not only that, but the way in which a stalk develops from its seed is also unchanging. All phases that a stalk of wheat must encounter within itself, from creation to destruction, are identical for all stalks of wheat. Of course, quality and quantity may change, but the underlying structure of the wheat remains the same.

The same can be said about living organisms as well. For instance, humans have the same growth cycle - from infanthood, to childhood, puberty, and adulthood (in fact, the word "hood" is a good reminder of the "clothing" an organism must take throughout its lifetime).

Attributes that change the organism through external forces
Depending on the amount of nutrition a stalk of wheat receives during its life (such as sunlight, rain, soil etc), its appearance or "clothing" may change. Poor quality wheat is in fact, still wheat. In a human organism, its moods and perceptions can change as a result of its external environment. When we submit to a certain environment for too long, it can change not only our mood but our character. This is not because the bed is changing. It is because these qualities are already present within the bed, but the organism chooses to nourish specific qualities or attributes through its choice of environment. For an understanding of the great scope for variation that environment provides, see ("Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network", http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/337/dec04_2/a2338).

Changes in the external environment
Of course, the environment chosen by the organism is itself affected by factors. Things such as climate and human traffic will greatly affect the environment of our little stalk of wheat. In the case of wheat, farmers take great care in providing the best environment for it to grow. Similarly, humans must submit to their environment - in the case of laws, elected officials, fashion, and so on.

So, nature or nurture?
From the above it can be seen that the humans must submit to their environment. Like a stalk of wheat, the environment they choose will greatly influence the quality and quantity of their existence. It follows that the only freedom of choice an organism has, is the choice of its environment. Depending on where it chooses to situate itself, the organism will naturally respond to that environment and will be subject to its control. The "nature vs nurture" argument is at best, misguided. The two forces are complimentary and are not mutually exclusive.

Wait a minute! You didn't answer the question!
For a technical explanation, see http://www.kabbalah.info/eng/content/view/full/4218 - The Science of Kabbalah, available for free download.

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