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Nature vs. Nurture? BOTH

Uploaded 4/21/2023, approx. 9 minute read

You've only heard of the debate, Nature versus Nurture.

What is more decisive? Your genes? Your hereditary aspect? Or your family? Your parents? Your upbringing? Your peers? Teachers? Role models? Society? Culture?

Period in history, traumas, global traumas, crises, war, etc., etc.

Are these more decisive than the genetic template you were born with?

Your chromosomes? Or your relatives? Which of them prevail as you evolve from infant to toddler, from toddler to adult and from adult to me?

Old man!

So today we are going to discuss this false dichotomy between nature and nurture.

It is false because genes are natural but they constitute an internal environment and genes are very reactive to the external environment.

The activation of certain genes is passed on through the generations.

Go online and search for epigenetics.

So this artificial distinction between out there and in here, genes and memes, genes and the world, this is totally wrong. It's Cartesian, you should blame René Descartes.

It's the division of the world into observer and observed, we versus that.

And this is simply not true because we are all one. We are all one. It's a unitary system, different parts of course, interacting, affecting each other, creating change, rendering certain outcomes more plausible or less plausible, but still a single unitary machinery in the operation of the world.


My name is Sam Vaknin and I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited and a former visiting professor of psychology.

This is today's topic.

In here, out there, is this distinction false?

Is it the outcome of our consciousness, our introspection, our tendency to confuse psychological boundaries with real ones? Where do we stop and others start? Or more precisely, do we ever stop? Do others ever start? And is there such a thing as another person? Or are we just the sum total of our relations and relationships?

The relational view of psychology reached its epitome in the 1960s in the British, of all places, object relations schools.

So nature versus nurture. I've already said that genes constitute an internal environment which is very responsive to and reactive to the external environment.

Interaction from the external environment affects the expression and activation of certain genes.

And these expressions and activations in turn recreate the internal environment which then interacts with the external environment.

Now we tend to internalize our external environment.

For example, we eat our external environment. We breathe in our external environment.

The alleged border between us and the world is so tenuous as to be non-existent. We assimilate the external environment and render it internal.

And then the internal environment operates on these aspects and elements of the external environment and affects the external environment, sometimes irreversibly.

All these distinctions are nonsense. They're falsedichotomies, and they're part of a larger debate.

Is there such a thing as artificial versus natural? Is there such a thing as internal versus external?

The concept of nature is a romantic invention. It was spanned by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. It was a confabulated utopian contrast to the dystopia of urbanization and Darwinian ruthless materialism. It was an attempt to reject the emerging death cult of ownership, owning things, owning objects as determinants of one's self-identity.

I own this smartphone. I possess this car. Therefore I am Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another idealist and romanticist throughout the 18th and 19th century, tried to provide an alternative.

And the alternative, the idealistic alternative, didn't work so well. And it didn't work so well because the whole thing was fictitious. It was a narrative. It was not only utopian, which is another way of saying daydreaming, but it was also unreal. It was unreal.

And the traces of this dewied conception of the savage, his alleged harmony and resonance with nature, and his unmolested, unadulterated surroundings, can be found in the more malignant forms of fundamentalist environmentalism and in pop culture.

The most recent example, I think, is the propaganda-laden cinematic extravaganza franchise, Avatar.

In the other extreme are religious literalists.

They regard man as the crown of creation with complete dominion over nature and the right to exploit nature's resources unreservedly.

Similar veiled sentiments can be found among scientists.

The anthropic principle, for instance, promoted by many outstanding physicists, claims that the nature of the universe is preordained, almost designed or created to accommodate sentient beings, namely us, we, humans, the whole thing, the whole universe revolves around us. The universe was fine-tuned to yield us, to allow us to emerge.

I can't think of anything more grandiose and more fatuous and inane, to be honest.

Industrialists, politicians and economists have only recently begun paying lip service to sustainable development and to the environmental costs of their own policies.

And so in a way, they bridge the abyss, at least verbally, between these two diametrically opposed forms of fundamentalism, environmentalism versus religion.

Man is the despoiler of creation and man is the crown of creation and the reason for creation.

Similarly, the denizens of the West continue to indulge in rampant consumption, but now it is suffused with environmental guilt rather than driven by unadulterated, joyful hedonism.

So you see, we have a very conflicted relationship with the very concept of nature.


Essential dissimilarities between the schools notwithstanding, the dualism of man versus nature seems to be universally acknowledged, counterfactually.

Modern physics, notably the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, modern physics has abandoned the classic split between typically human observer and usually inanimate observed.

Environmentalists in contrast have embraced this discarded worldview wholeheartedly.

There is mankind and there is nature and mankind abuses more or less nature.

To environmentalists, man is the active agent operating upon a distinct reactive or passive substrate, so-called nature.

But though intuitively compelling, it is a false dichotomy as well.

You see, here's the thing and here's why all these debates should just go away.

Nature versus nurture, artificial versus natural.

These are semantics, not only semantics but four semantics.

Semantics are a little lower. They don't lead to any insight, any enlightenment, any new knowledge.

These debates, these semantic planes.

Man by definition is a part of nature. Man's tools are natural. The laptop I'm using right now is natural. Man's constructions, the built environment, the empire state building, these are all natural artifacts. Man interacts with the other elements of nature. Man modifies nature.

But all other species do this. Every life is part of nature. Life is nature. Nature is life. Nature is in life. Life is in nature.

They're all in the same. All species modify their environment and their ecosystems and so on. It's totally normal behavior. All species build things, construct things. All species we now know use tools, arguably even bacteria and insects exert on nature far more influence with further reaching consequences than man has ever done.

Even an environmentalist like Bill McKibben of End of Nature fame, even he recognized this synergetic conference. Aldo Leopold wrote a book, To Think Like a Mountain. He said that to think like a mountain gradually came to be challenged by to think like a shopping mall, Stephen Vogel.

We should consider the entirety of our surroundings, argues Vogel, and seek to optimize our environment regardless of its origin. Man- made versus natural is a false dichotomy that has pervaded and permeated psychology to the detriment of psychology.

When we separate the internal from the external, the natural from the artificial, the nurture versus nature, when we create this dichotomism, these distinctions, we are doing ourselves a disservice.

It reduces our ability to understand the interlocking mechanisms, the flux of in and out, the information flows that ultimately shape us to be who we are.

If we want to help people, for example, in psychotherapy or whatever, we need to recognize the unitary nature of everything, the totality and the wholeness.

And no, I'm not a dew-eyed mystic. I'm not a believer. I don't have any faith. That's not the issue here.

It's a recognition of the facts. We are one system, not multiple, and to presume and to assume otherwise is to set ourselves up for failure, to self-defeat and possibly to self-extinguish.

[ Pause ].

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