Monday, March 5, 2007

Badly Posed Problems

I have at least another couple of “Fighting City Hall” essays in mind, and the next one ruminates a bit about how the question of “Competition vs Cooperation” is a bad way to think about individuals and groups. But before I do that, I think I’ll do some similar musing about another Badly Posed Problem: Nature vs Nurture.

Badly posed problems, ill-conceived questions, whatever you want to call them are big time intellectual traps, examples of what the I Ching calls “Difficulty at the Beginning.” If you ask the wrong question, you’ll never get the right answer.

When people say, “Nature vs Nurture,” what they are really thinking about is education policy, and, in the extreme (and people tend to get extreme about these things), it devolves into a matter of some people claiming that some other group of people aren’t worth teaching. If you look to the 19th Century racial literature, the case is often made explicitly that “the Negro” should not even be taught to read; it would only serve to confuse and befuddle him and make him surly and unsatisfied with his lot, without truly elevating his intellect, which is far too limited to make proper use of education. And no, I’m not making this up.

But racist pseudoscience aside, the question of education policy is still only a small part of how individuals interact with and are transformed by their environment. Consider, what is “Nature” supposed to mean here?

The popular image of genetics assumes a strong connection between genotype and phenotype, so you get such silliness as newspaper stories about a newly discovered “gene for fill-in-the-blank.” There are supposedly genes for obesity, for sexual infidelity, for I.Q., and for risk taking behavior. All of which is nonsense.

There are a (very) few genes that map directly to a single phenotypical trait, such as eye color. Nevertheless, I knew a girl in high school who had one brown eye and one blue. The blue eye was an acquired trait; she’d injured her eye when she was young, and the pigmentation cells in that iris had died. Eye color, Nature or Nurture?

Most human traits, however, are much more complex than eye color, our genes being what tells our cells first how to develop in the womb, and then how to mature after we are born. Body and brain continue to reshape themselves, responding to both genetic programming and environmental factors, well into adolescence (and beyond), but there’s a huge amount of this that takes place for the first few years after birth.

Before birth? Again, huge developmental issues. I have some friends who have a child with a visible birth defect. There’s no need to describe it, or any of its consequences, although I will say that their child is an excellent human being by any standard that I’d care to name. What I will say is that it was innate (hence “birth defect”) but not genetic. It probably originated from a viral infection that the mother had sometime during a particular period of gestation. Is that Nature or Nurture? See? Wrong question to ask.

Then there are the “heritability” studies so beloved of I.Q. determinists. They’re particularly fond of separated twin studies, and reach conclusions about the “heritability” of I.Q., when actually what the studies are doing is sampling the variance of the environments in which separated twins are placed. Want more variance? Put one of the twins on an early diet that is deficient in critical nutrients. I guarantee that you’ll find I.Q. to be less “heritable.” Alternately, some parents have put their children through a program of early, intensive education toward certain ends, from chess playing to golf, to baseball and tennis. Sure enough, these specialized children grew up to be awfully proficient in their chosen (by their parents) fields, at least those who don’t crack under the strain.

You want an even better example? Height is even more “heritable” than I.Q. in practically every heritability study ever conducted. So what explains this?

Then there’s the crap shoot that constitutes genotype in the first place. Eye color may be from a single allele, but most characteristics are not, and every child is the result of shuffling two decks of cards (to change gambling metaphors in mid-paragraph) after first throwing out half of each deck. On average, children sorta look like a combination of their parents, but sometimes you get a straight flush and an accidental wunderkind. It sounds great, but it can be a little rough on the family. On the other hand, two recessives can add up to sickle cell, or cystic fibrosis, or any number of SOL results, and that’s even rougher on all concerned.

More often, though, you get some phenotypical clusters that would be helpful in some circumstances, e.g. a famine, but which are bad in others, hello Type II diabetes. Nature or Nurture? That’s not the right question.

The “liberal” answer to the matter is to try to assess individuals as individuals, and to provide each of them with the environmental factors that they require to reach their “true potential” (leaving aside for now the question of which of the vast array of “potentials” is to be the target). Interestingly enough, the “liberal” answer is also the same as the “conservative” answer—provided the individual in question has been born into a family with enough money to make it all happen.


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