Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Comment censorship and comment policies IVc: Excursion on “nature vs. nurture” and related issues

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During the discussionse that spawned this part IV, a side-discussion seemed to branch out into a formal debate on nature vs. nurture (or, possibly, epistemology…), but ran out in the sand as the nurture (or, possibly, post-modernist…) participant backed out. It resulted, however, in some private correspondence on my opinions in the area. A summary of these opinions based on the correspondence is provided below:

  1. More or less all characteristics are influenced by both “nature” and “nurture” (and often from the subset “society”).

  2. To say that the one is more important than the other is only possibly within limits. In particular, there are many characteristics that are strongly “nature” (e.g. to have two legs), but can be changed by external influences (e.g. by stepping on a land-mine). This need not be true for all characteristics, however. (Cf. the case of David Reimer on http://www.slate.com/id/2101678e and David_Reimerw.)

    In addition, circumstances can affect the relative strength of different factors. A good example is IQ, which can depend strongly on access to and quality of food in a country with nutritional problems, but will be largely determined by inheritance in e.g. Germany.

  3. I have very strong objections to “Gender as social construct”, as this idea is refuted by scientific studies with a high degree of probability. (With some reservations for the exact definition used, and for the possibility that border-line cases could be moved with ease in different directions.)

  4. This does not mean, however, that society has no influence on “gender-roles”, behaviour, and similar. Based on my own (subjective) observations and basic considerations, it seems plausible to me that the more basic a particular characteristic is, the stronger is “nature” and the harder it is to affect it through “nurture”. Conversely, characteristics are the easier to change, the less basic they are—in particular, when they can be seen as conscious or unconscious choices based on more basic characteristics. (That women wear high-heels is hardly caused by genetics; but the wish to be attractive, which is the cause of the wish to wear high-heels, is a different matter.)

  5. An important, but originally left-out issue: Even, absolutely speaking, small differences can have a very major impact in a narrow context. Men and women pose excellent examples of this, with differences that are far smaller than between humans and mushrooms, spiders, dogs, or even chimpanzees. Yet, these difference have a great impact within the context of human behaviour.

    To take an extreme example, a difference in 100m-time of 0.10 s (a nothing in most contexts) can make the difference between a world champion and an also-ran (as in 1991w).

    The differences between men and women are small, but the context is sufficiently narrow that these differences have a great impact—and, ironically, by narrowing the context further by blurring the roles of men and women, these differences could conceivably grow even more important. (Consider the career of Usain Bolt if he was forced to run long distance or Haile Gebrselassie as a forced sprinter.)

I also discussed a few aspects of the alternate topic that both illustrate common problems with feminist (or e.g. Creationist) reasoning: The claims that we cannot know anything for sure and that it is unfair to give greater weight to non-feminist authorities than to the feminist:

  1. Even in science, it is impossible to reach perfect certainty. It is still possible, however, to make some statements with near certainty or with a high probability. Other cases include “we do not know for sure, but a lot speaks for X”. It is important to not hide ones head in the sand, when confronted with such statements—and a lack of perfect certainty is something very different from a question of faith (“Glaubensfrage”, as was claimed by feminists)—the latter implying holding on to a belief despite a lack of proof, or even a preponderance of negative proof.

  2. Authorities should not be believed because they are authorities, but because (respectively, if) they bring good arguments and facts. If one adheres to this, the question of what authorities to believe is a non-issue (and it is clear why feminist authorities tend to have a hard-time with critical thinkers).

Those who speak German may also be interested in an informal debate on nature vs. nurturee that did take place, without my participation, as an off-shot of a blog entry by the nature proponent dealing with why the formal debate did not take place.

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Written by michaeleriksson

August 11, 2010 at 2:32 am

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