Sunday, December 13, 2015

My Personal Take On The Nature Versus Nurture Debate

Do we become who we are because we are genetically programmed to do so or are we all products of our environments? That's the question at the core of a long running philosophical debate among psychologists. Academically speaking, those who believe in the genetics argument are called nativists while those who subscribe to the environmental theory are called empiricists. See below for more background per an article on

"...Those who adopt an extreme hereditary position are known as nativists. Their basic assumption is that the characteristics of the human species as a whole are a product of evolution and that individual differences are due to each person’s unique genetic code. In general, the earlier a particular ability appears, the more likely it is to be under the influence of genetic factors. Characteristics and differences that are not observable at birth, but which emerge later in life, are regarded as the product of maturation. That is to say we all have an inner “biological clock” which switches on (or off) types of behavior in a pre programmed way. The classic example of the way this affects our physical development are the bodily changes that occur in early adolescence at puberty. However nativists also argue that maturation governs the emergence of attachment in infancy, language acquisition and even cognitive development as a whole. 

At the other end of the spectrum are the environmentalists – also known as empiricists (not to be confused with the other empirical / scientific approach). Their basic assumption is that at birth the human mind is a tabula rasa (a blank slate) and that this is gradually “filled” as a result of experience (e.g. behaviorism). From this point of view psychological characteristics and behavioral differences that emerge through infancy and childhood are the result of learning. It is how you are brought up (nurture) that governs the psychologically significant aspects of child development and the concept of maturation applies only to the biological. For example, when an infant forms an attachment it is responding to the love and attention it has received, language comes from imitating the speech of others and cognitive development depends on the degree of stimulation in the environment and, more broadly, on the civilization within which the child is reared...." 

With that as background, allow me to go back a few years - thirty six and a half to be exact- to the summer of 1978.   That puts me at a point in time when, having been alive less than a decade, my mental slate, while not blank, didn't have much of any real consequence on it yet. It was at that time that my mother took a job at what was then called Murray Biscuit Company as a production line worker.  For the next ten years, while I still lived at home, I could set my watch by her schedule.

She worked second shift, which started at 2 PM.   At somewhere around noon she would shower. When she got out she would make sure both televisions were tuned to channel 6 (ABC) and blast them while she moved through the house further prepping for work.  At 12:30 PM one of the soaps that she watched, Ryan's Hope, would come on.  If I walked down the hallway by her room, I could hear her mumbling about something on the TV and I could also hear the spitting sound the iron made while she pressed her work uniform.  At 1:00, her favorite soap, All My Children came on and she watched it as she continued to prepare for work.  At about 1:15 the smell of her perfume filled the house.  Then at 1:30 PM, always during the half hour commercial break, she would walk out of the house and get into her silver Volkswagen Beetle and drive to work.  At about 11:15 that night the familiar hum of "the bug", as we called it, could be heard pulling up under the car port.   The schedule never varied from the time I first discerned it until the time I moved out for college.  And it stayed pretty much the same for another 26 years after that as far as I can tell. But it finally came to an end on Saturday, December 13th at 2:30 PM when my mom retired from what is now (after several acquisitions) Kellog's Snack Company.

Here are a few interesting facts about my mother:

 - She had her first child, my older brother, when she was 17 and still in high school.
 - She did manage to graduate high school.
 - She had three other children.
 - She bought all the groceries, clothing, and Christmas gifts for all four of her children, with very       little spousal help (and no government help).
- When she started working in 1978 she earned $5.43/hr when the minimum wage was $2.65.
 - When she retired a day ago, she was making $19.15 against a minimum wage of $7.25.  (What's particularly interesting about that fact is this one - her $5.43, adjusted for inflation, is the equivalent of $20.53 today.)
 - She never called in sick (or tired) even though she was both at times.
 - She wanted us to do well in school and learn things that she never had the chance to. (We all did)
 - She said "no" to us sometimes for our own good and sometimes because she didn't have the money that would need to accompany a "yes".
-  She made tremendous sacrifices to see that we had the basics and even a few of the non essentials.
-  Her knees and back now show the effects of almost four decades of walking a factory floor.

Now, back to the debate.  Nature or Nurture?

Well, I watched my mom willingly and without fail live up to (and surpass really) the responsibilities she had accepted for herself.  I think the example stuck with me and became the basis for my own work ethic.  She taught me how to work hard by showing me how it was done. So, it's nurture for me, all the way.  And I feel quite comfortable declaring my three siblings empiricists as well.

One more fact about my mother - she stands about 5'5" tall.  At 6'6", I am more than a foot taller.

Still, I look up to her.


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