My Favorite Things: Nurturing Your Nature

Posted inCreative Voices

“Nature” has seen to it that practically all human newborns arrive with a set of standard equipment.

That equipment has evolved over millions of years to enable the infant to succeed at the first of its two lifelong “jobs”: survival. From moment one, humans are equipped to survive. We’re also “proto-equipped” to fulfill the second of those jobs, reproduction, later in life.

Every part of the newborn’s body is the result of the natural selection process that made its species dominant on earth. When an infant arrives in Torino, Toronto, or Timbuktu, it shares with its fellow Homo sapiens an underlying double helix-shaped genetic code. That code guided the newborn’s nine-month gestation into an organism with a brain, limbs, ears, eyes, legs, kidneys, fingers, and toes from raw materials (nutrients) provided by its mother’s body. (It’s worth taking a second to reflect on this miracle. It is ubiquitous and invisible to us most of the time.)

For the vast majority of the history of life on Earth this most fundamental of human truths was explained by stories of invisible spirits molding creatures in their likenesses. Humans were products of gods. Gradually, agriculture and animal husbandry provided alternative answers.

We (well, Aristotle!) noted that the process by which organisms produce offspring that resemble themselves is not unique to our species: “humans beget humans, horses beget horses,” he said. It didn’t take long for our ancestors to notice that the offspring begotten by a species were not only of the same species, but that they also shared many of the characteristics of their parents. Short humans begat short humans; fast horses made for fast foals. Unsurprisingly, our predecessors used these observations in service of Job One: survival. “Plant the grasses that produce the grasses that yield the most grain.”

Our species’ curiosity (one of its core qualities) led us to look to these other species to learn which aspects of their offspring are a function of parental similarities and which vary depending upon the conditions into which they are born and raised.

It took a couple of thousand years to figure out the mechanics of begetting. Thanks to the brilliance and diligence of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin and those who followed them, we now know that all life on earth utilizes genetic blueprints to produce new members of its species.

For humans, as with grasses and horses, the question of what else came along with toes, fingers, and kidneys couldn’t be ignored.

Had parents begetting infants in their image resulted in humans who arrive with other characteristics…like musicality, athleticism, or wit? Or did they arrive as bodies ready to be shaped into whatever the world of Timbuktu, Toronto, or Torino would make of them?

For thousands of years we’ve grappled with this question: are humans the product of innate genetics or of the social context into which we are born?

Nature or Nurture?

There’ve been no shortage of answers to that question.

In the 17th century, philosopher John Locke established a position that was later taken up and refined by 20th century psychologists, the foremost being John B. Watson. Locke’s idea was that human infants are born a “tabula rasa,” or blank slate. This simply means that newborns arrive with no innate characteristics and are totally formed by the effects of the conditions into which it is born. Nurture is all.

Watson clarified this belief with this famous challenge:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

John B. Watson

What about those grasses that produced more grain? The horses that had the fastest foals? They were grown and tended in the same manner as the ones that were slower and less productive.

And…maybe most confusingly…what about the phenomenology (i.e., lived experience) of having our own offspring that significantly differ from one another from birth? Anyone with more than one child wonders about that!

And, how about talents, like musicality?

Johann Sebastian Bach provides striking clues of something going on beyond a blank slate. Here’s a chart showing a portion of his family tree:

Johann Sebastian Bach's family tree

Over the centuries, researchers have confirmed that musicality clearly runs in families. But, weren’t Bach’s all raised in musically rich environments? Why should we presume that Nature has anything to do with their talent and not their style of Nurture?

Modern genetic researchers have been searching for precise answers to those questions. Genome mapping identified specific gene locations of particular chromosomes that cause specific disorders, like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, or Huntington disease. Skills, abilities, and characteristics, like musicality or athleticism, are much more complex. There is clearly no single “music gene” responsible for the Bach family’s proficiency.

But, we can say this: when it comes to musicality, genetics may not be everything, but it’s not nothing.

We’ve been using the metaphor of The Elephant and The Rider to depict those aspects of our lived experience that operate quickly and automatically (Kahneman’s System One) and those that demand our attention to resolve (System Two).

That means that when a newborn infant’s “Elephant” comes into the world it is not a totally blank slate but an individual equipped with a set of pre-dispositions toward certain ways of being-in-the-world. These are not pre-determined ways of living, but tendencies.

By now we are pretty comfortable talking about the heritability of many characteristics, like eye color, hair color, or dimples. It’s when we get into “non-physical” characteristics that we start to get a bit uneasy.

A half-century of research into the Big Five Personality Traits has established that some portion of the variance in an offspring’s personality characteristics will be the result of genetics. Openness to Experience, and Neuroticism are two traits showing “significant and substantial heritability” Of course, intelligence has been the most fraught area of debate.

What does all this mean for My Favorite Things?

For me, it means that The Elephant arrives in the world equipped for the jobs of survival and reproduction with more than just fingers and toes. Our Elephant is fully-equipped to live in the world with a repertoire of skills, abilities, and characteristics that will enable it to succeed in life. Sometimes that repertoire will include musicality, like Bach’s. Sometimes the athleticism of the James’s. Sometimes your funny neighbor’s hilarious daughter. All in the service of broad definitions of “survival” and “reproduction.”

Paying attention to the things we are naturally drawn to…the things your Elephant is good at and seems cut out for…is a strong clue about how your Elephant has been “equipped” to succeed in life.

That’s the Nature part.

The Nurture part?

That’s what we get to work on for our whole lives.

Which may be why “know thyself” was the first of the Delphic oracle’s maxims.

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Banner image courtesy of the author: MidJourney of Mother Elephant With Newborn