[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney.]
The nature/nurture debate is as endless as the determinist/freedom dispute.
The safe position to adopt combines both nature and nurture. Yet that doesn’t end the debate; it simply moves the discussion onto the character of the combination.
Scientific research will not bring a resolution. Not simply because the question is large and complex and the research is narrow and detailed, but because the reason for the debate is the implications of its outcomes.
The ‘nature people’ have a desire to demonstrate that behaviour, especially bad behaviour, is nobody’s fault because it is inbuilt into our very being. Chauvinists use this reasoning to argue for inherited sexual differences that will excuse their behaviour towards women, just as much as homosexuals use it to justify their behaviour towards men.
The ‘nurture people’ are the cultural relativists who desire to demonstrate that all behaviour is culturally determined, nobody is at fault and all are free to change ‘the rules’ as they choose. This reasoning is used by feminists to argue that ‘gender’ and ‘family’ are a cultural constructs deep seated even in our language with words like ‘him/her’, ‘husband/wife’, ‘Mr/Mrs/Miss’.
The nature argument is expressed: “I was born this way”. “This is how God made me.” “I can’t help it; it’s not my fault; it’s in my DNA.” Furthermore, because behaviour stems from our very nature, it cannot be changed or eradicated nor should it be discriminated against. “It’s not my fault that I am left-handed. I shouldn’t be forced to write with my right hand. I shouldn’t be excluded from any aspect of life because of my preference for the left. All public utilities should have provisions for left-handers (e.g. left-handed scissors in infant’s schools, left handed desks in university lecture theatres).” Society’s deep-seated prejudice is expressed linguistically with words like ‘goofy’ or ‘south paws’—why aren’t right-handers called ‘north paws’? This kind of linguistic discrimination implies that lefties are essentially abnormal just because there are fewer of them. “It’s not just that I do things with my left hand; I am left-handed. So to discriminate against my left-handed actions is to discriminate against my very person.”
The nurture argument is expressed: “I am free to do whatever I like, however I like to do it.” “You mustn’t restrict me from, or require me to do, anything because of my race, sex, or biology.” “Biology is not destiny. I am not born a man or a woman—I become a man, I become a woman.” The gender, family, marriage, child raising, work-life issues are all just cultural constructs that need reconstruction to deal with modern life and desires. Polygamy, polyandry, polyamory are equally acceptable family arrangements. “I don’t have to marry at all—hook ups, de facto arrangements, prostitutes—it’s all the same. ‘Adultery’ is just a blame and shame game played by insecure slaves of convention.”
However, the nature and the nurture people have more in common than their disagreement would suggest.
They both refer to research to argue for their prejudice. The eugenic (nature) arguments that came from nineteenth century evolutionary science were replaced with the cultural relativist (nurture) arguments from the same evolutionary science. It’s not science, it’s politics that is driving this debate.
Their common politics is to undermine personal morality. “If all my behaviour is a result of my nature—then I am not to be blamed for what I do. All guilt and shame must be removed. It’s not my fault; I am not guilty. If all my behaviour is a result of my nurture—then there is no morality only conformity and I am free to change that behaviour and do whatever I like. Either way there is no personal morality that I am answerable to, or that would govern my behaviour and life.”
They both offer freedom from morality but deliver slavery to immorality. They offer freedom from blame, shame and guilt—freedom to do whatever you like. Choices that are simply biological or cultural give the ‘moral’ freedom to simply be oneself.
However, the nature arguments remove morality and guilt by claiming “I am not a moral person but simply a victim of biological urges, essentially no different to the other mammals.” Perhaps more intellectually sophisticated but sadly more self-deceived. “Unable to change, I must like my choices or live with self loathing feelings of guilt.”
Similarly, the nurture arguments consign one to being a victim of family and culture. “I am unable to do as I want for fear of ostracism, only able to cast of my shackles, in a culturally determined fashion.” (Why do all rebels wear the same uniform?)
And both theories give parents nightmares. “If I cannot change my children I become the victim of their genes and if I am responsible for all their behaviour, then I am responsible for all their problems.”
The nature/nurture debate is a failed attempt to undermine moral discourse.
Morality is about actions. “My biological or cultural predisposition to act in certain ways makes no difference in evaluating my actions’ morality.” Nobody blames a person for batting left handed because there is no moral code against batting that way. Whether left handed batting is a choice of the individual, culturally determined or biologically based is an irrelevance to its morality. However, murder, cannibalism, polygamy, suttee and paedophilia are immoral whether or not you are biologically predisposed to do them or your culture has taught you do practice them.
The nature/nurture studies have their place. They may explain why I behave as I do, but they do not excuse or justify my immorality. They may give me reasons for feeling the way I do, and explain why morality is such a struggle for me, but they don’t change the verdict of right or wrong. They may increase my sympathy for others who struggle with different issues to me but they do not absolve people of guilt or make allowances for wrongdoing.
The problem is that both my nature and my nurture are contaminated by sin and without God’s regeneration I will always continue sinning—as a sinner.