Mon, Jan 28, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Reframing the ongoing discussion of nature-versus-nurture

By Robert Skidelsky

The editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has written a book about how he decided to practice the piano for 20 minutes a day. Eighteen months later, he played Chopin’s fearsomely difficult Ballade No. 1 in G minor to an admiring audience. Could anyone have done this? Or did it require special talent?

The nature-versus-nurture debate has been around for a long time. It is unresolved because the scientific question has always been entangled with politics. Broadly speaking, those stressing inborn capacity have been political conservatives; those emphasizing nurture have been political radicals.

The 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill was of the “anyone can do it” school. He was convinced that his achievements were in no way due to superior heredity: Anyone of “normal intelligence and health,” subjected to his father’s educational system — which included learning Greek at the age of three — could have become John Stuart Mill.

Mill was part of his century’s liberal attack on aristocratic privilege: Achievement was the result of opportunity, not birth. The practice of the faculties (education) unleashes potential that would otherwise remain dormant.

Charles Darwin seemingly overturned this optimistic view of the potential beneficial effects of nurture.

Species evolve, Darwin said, through “natural selection” — the random selection, through competition, of biological traits favorable to survival in a world of scarce resources.

Herbert Spencer used the phrase “survival of the fittest” to explain how societies evolve.

Social Darwinists interpreted natural selection to mean that any humanitarian effort to improve the condition of the poor would impede the progress of the human race by burdening it with an excess of drones. Society would be spending scarce resources on losers rather than winners. This fit the ideology of a brand of capitalism that was “red in tooth and claw.”

Indeed, social Darwinism provided a pseudo-scientific justification for the American belief in laissez-faire (with the successful businessman epitomizing the survival of the fittest); for eugenics (the deliberate attempt to breed superior individuals, on the model of horse breeding, and prevent the “over-breeding” of the unfit); and for the eugenic-cum-racial theories of Nazism.

In reaction to social Darwinism’s murderous tendencies, Mill’s view became dominant after World War II in the form of social democracy. State action to improve diet, education, health and housing would enable the poor to realize their potential. Competition as a social principle was downgraded in favor of cooperation.

Differences in innate ability were not denied (at least by the sensible). However, it was rightly felt that there was a huge amount of work to be done to raise average levels of achievement before one needed to start worrying that one’s policies were promoting the survival of the unfit.

Then the mood began to shift again. Social democracy was attacked for penalizing the successful and rewarding the unsuccessful.

In 1976, the biologist Richard Dawkins identified the unit of Darwinian selection as the “selfish gene.” The evolutionary story was now recast as a battle of genes to secure their survival over time by means of mutations, which create individuals (phenotypes) best adapted to pass on their genes. In the course of evolution, the inferior phenotypes disappear.

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