Sunday, August 12, 2007

Nature vs. Nurture Crops Up Again

Our speaker at Eliot this past week, the Rev. Tom Goldsmith of First Unitarian in Salt Lake City, posited, in his final lecture on Friday, that our human social orientation is a genetic condition, that it is inherited, not developed in a family setting. This is apparently borne out by a research study of 8000 people, twins, both fraternal and identical, who were separated at birth. (Some of this I'm trying to reconstruct from notes that began AFTER I started to believe what I was hearing, so I may not have the details quite right.)

As I absorbed what he was saying, my defenses immediately began to rise: what about the research that seems to say that each generation reacts/responds to the generation of its parents? what about teenage rebellion? what about how different I am from my brother and sister? what about...? and then I went back to listening to his words and to try them on for size.

Here are some of my notes: moral grammar is wired into our human mind and body; it generates instant moral judgments and is innate behavior. Religion is not the source of a moral code but it does re-enforce instinctive moral behavior. The innate system that generates moral judgments is immune to religious doctrine. The Golden Rule is pretty universal across human religion. Human beings are wired to make meaning out of life; religion is one way to do that. Human beings have a basic trust that life has meaning and that meaning is found in giving hope to others and thereby oneself. Evil is self-interest without regard for the whole; Good is creating harmony in the world.

I've always leaned more on the "rebellion against parental authority" argument of liberal vs. conservative, when it comes to religion and politics, but Tom's lecture broadened my viewpoint. As I look at my family, where I am clearly the most liberal of the crop of Ketcham kids, raised by a Republican Baptist preacher and mother, I do see myself way out there on the lefthand side of the spectrum and my other family members distributed across the middle to righthand side. Part of my leftishness comes from my having left the PNW at age 23, moving to Colorado where I experienced a whole different kind of life, away from the conservatism of my birthplace.

BUT, and this is a big one, virtually every member of the Ketcham family has a strong, deep streak of obligation to public service. My brother and sister and I are all dedicated to the public good. My brother has demonstrated his dedication through various mission projects to Alaska and South America where he built houses and churches and he is an elected Public Utility Commissioner in his county, working on energy consumption issues; my sister has long been committed to children's welfare problems and is a CASA volunteer, adoption advocate, and educator of hard-to-educate youth and young adults. I have my own dedication to civil rights and other social justice work.

None of the three of us disagrees with each other about the need for work in these areas. We may have differences of opinion about the solutions, but we agree that there are great shortcomings in the fields of conservation, child safety, and civil rights. And we like to hear about each other's work. Our children have inherited much of this sensitivity to the public good: from fostering children to public information to educating about history, our kids seem to want to carry the torch.

Some of this is clearly a product of environment: the three of us watched our parents busy themselves with community organizations like the library association and PTA and temperance work, issues that benefited the community outside the church. Our kids have watched us take up the cudgels in our own areas of interest and have found places where they can be active.

So perhaps there is a deeper wellspring from which an attitude of political/religious openness/caution emerges. I see myself both open and cautious about political and religious issues: I am religiously open to new ideas but I am politically cautious about the issues of human government. I normally vote Democrat because those candidates and the issues and values they support tend to be more left than right in a moral sense. I require integrity in a candidate and do not excuse a leftish candidate for immoral or unethical behavior.

There's a lot to think about here. I'll be cogitating on it for some time to come.

NOTE: please keep my brother in your thoughts and prayers; his health is failing once again and this time it may be for good.


Joel said...

Acfk! I was just casually reading along until that last paragraph! E-mail me with actual information, would you?

LinguistFriend said...

The innateness argument pops up all over the place. It probably started with language-acquisition discussions, where it is about as convincing as the assumption of the innate character of ballet-dancing or computer programming or mathematics. Be careful about this one, I suggest, before you start basing your pastoral work on it.
Good luck with your brother.

ms. kitty said...

Joel, talk with your mom. I phoned her with more information about him this afternoon after talking with his wife.

LF: thanks for the advice. I want to find out more before relying on it much, but it sounds plausible.

hafidha sofia said...

From what I've read it's not really a question of nature vs nurture, but really how much is nature and how much is nurture.

ms. kitty said...

I'm looking for more information about the research I mentioned and will post more when I get it.

It's important to note that the "innate" quality is actually a tendency to social orientation, not a specific talent like ballet dancing. To use the ballet example, a certain musculature and bodily structure are inherited and those physical attributes are necessary to be a successful ballet dancer.

It's more the deep well from which behaviors spring that is inherited, not the specific behaviors. As I mentioned, my siblings and I seem to have inherited a social consciousness which we display in different ways.

Of course, nurture is definitely part of that, as Hafidha mentions.

More later.