Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Nature vs. Nurture

This past week has been one filled with middle-of-the-night wake-ups, piles of snotty tissues, lots of coughing, many bottles of Pedialite and an unpleasant diagnosis of influenza for Grey (he was the only one in the family who didn't get a flu shot). The only highlight was hearing that the ear tubes were doing their jobs and ear infections have been avoided.

Due to all the sickness, I've had an unusual amount of time to linger on grading this week. This quarter, I am teaching a genetics course to non-science majors, focusing on topics like GMOs, genetic testing and genetic determinism. Unlike the courses I've taught in the past, this course is meant to explore specific examples, providing my students with basic information necessary to make informed arguments about the ethics behind these issues. So far, we've had a very lively debate as well as a couple of interesting discussions focusing solely on GMOs. But this last week we've shifted our focus to genetics and health. And to prepare them for the topics ahead, I assigned them to watch "GATTACA" and answer a set of homework questions.

For the past two days, I've been slowly grading these questions. Though normally I read through every assignment, I usually get on a roll with grading and don't have much time to truly reflect on what my students are saying. But this time around, particularly with the nature of the assignment and the my foggy thinking, I finding my thoughts are lingering as they are tackling questions about genetic determinism and societal expectations.

If one is to do a Google search for "Nature vs. Nurture," you'll quickly find yourself inundated with various articles exploring genetics vs environment. A nice thought piece from NPR in 2007 explores this a bit, recounting a story of identical twin sisters who were separated at birth and reunited years later. Overall, the data is incredibly clear that who our genetics plays a big role in determining our make-up, our environment plays an equally large role shaping not only who we are, but the potential for what we can become.

All of this has been swirling through my head as the latest round of "mommy war" attacks and arguments have been circulating. Last year the stir was a study that came out showing the long-term benefits of breastfeeding had been drastically overstated. Most recently has been the discussions about extended breastfeeding and how society views it. Later on, a woman finds herself entrenched in arguments about introducing solid, sleep, transportation (stroller vs. baby wearing) and finally, the mother of all arguments, staying at home vs. working. In every single case, there are advocates on either side, with strong opinions for why their choices and views are correct and should be embraced. All while the other side is not only dead wrong, but is *gasp* harming their child(ren).

The universal thing missing from these arguments is the same acknowledgement that researchers tackling the "nature vs. nurture" question failed to address and finally had to acknowledge: for each issue and topic, there's more to the equation than initially considered. For example, with heritable diseases, geneticists point to examples like Cystic Fibrosis or Sickle Cell anemia for how single mutations can drastically alter protein function and cause disease. Based on these examples, it is easy to assume that genetics is the end all be all of causing disease. Yet we know that simple heritable diseases are rare, with most diseases being influenced by both genetics as well as environmental impacts. Example, we know there's a strong link between cancer survival and socioeconomic status, suggested links between neurodegenerative diseases and ethnicity and even a link between one's mental health and their waistline. Equally talked about is the impact of stress, familial, work and even financial on one's lifespan and mental health. In short, there's a lot more at play with human development and homeostasis and a lot of these issues are one's that reach up to a cultural and global mindset.

So why is it, then, that given all this complexity, we still apply simple arguments to the "mommy wars?" Why is it assumed that because something worked for one family in one situation (remember, each child is different), that it would somehow be universally true? Why is it that these debates continue to rage, with people on both sides belittling the other side instead of agreeing to acknowledge that it just might be possible to do things differently without drastic consequence? Yes, there are some things that are crystal clear for causing harm (abuse, neglect, starvation and incest/rape hit this list), but for other things, is it really worth the fight.

One question I asked my students has given me a lot of insight into how drastically different people view the world: " One of the chief arguments of GATTACA is that genetics determines everything about you. In the movie the main character’s family is mostly pictured as holding him back. In this situation how would you, as a parent try to balance between encouraging your child, and giving them a realistic set of expectations?" The answers have ranged and I'm certain would cause some bristling. But given that my students come from diverse backgrounds, with some being first generation students, to older students, to having veteran status to various cultural backgrounds, these answers have been windows into their upbringing and daily challenges. Given that, it's made me reflect more on why I made the decisions for how we brought the Beats into the world, how Grey and I have cared for them and the values we are teaching them. And it's helped affirm that there will never be a "right" answer for any of this as a society, just a "right" answer for our family. 


  1. How I wish I could take that class from you. Sounds so interesting!

    " is it really worth the fight." -- Great question. I wonder what people get out of fighting. Just feeling right? I do know first hand the lengths I'll sometimes go to be right (I often have to remember to choose whether I'd rather be right or happy).

  2. I love this Cristy!

    As an adoptive mom, you can only imagine how often the nature vs. nurture idea is raised in our life. Some things are so much a result of nature it seems to me, but my daughter's birth mom argues that they our daughter's behaviours and temperament are clearly a result of nurture.

    I do have to lean towards socioeconomic factors playing a huge role in how a person's life will play out... but that's a post for another day.

    Coming back to what I think your point was - every kid is so 100% different and things like co-sleeping or baby-wearing may be necessary for one child but not for another, based on all sorts of nurture and nature factors. Our parenting styles are shaped by our kids' needs I think ... a combo of how they inherently are and their environment.

  3. When I went to our parent/teacher conference this morning, I was reminded about exactly this: how much our children have similar tendencies (both genetic, I suspect, and also having to do with the environment in which we raise them), and how they have such different personalities that respond so differently to different kinds of learning. We would do best to treat them like our Montessori teachers do: as little people who are all going to grow up to be different big people; to do so, we need to learn to read our children. Thanks for this!


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