Nature versus Nurture (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Nature and culture are classical opposites, or complements. By nature we are "born that way"; by nurture we learn to become civilized.
In one sense, "nature" refers to everything generated or produced. Etymologically, the Latin natura is the source from which all springs forth. For metaphysical naturalists, perhaps also for methodological scientists, nature is all that there is, without contrast class. Nothing non-natural or supernatural exists. Humans evolved within nature and break no natural laws. Another view holds that a straightforward contrast class for nature is culture, which nurtures humans into an inherited linguistic and symbolic system, a worldview, by which they communicate, perpetuate, and develop knowledge. This cultural genius makes possible the deliberate and cumulative, and therefore the extensive, rebuilding of nature. Humans reshape their environments, rather than being themselves morphologically and genetically reshaped to fit their changing environments. Humans come into the world by nature unfinished and become what they become by nurture.
Etymologically, "culture" is related to "cultivate," while "nurture" is related to "nurse" and "nourish," with overtones of rearing and training. Religious persons find their traditions vital in such nurture, and absent from nature. "Train up a child in the way in which he should go" (Prov. 22:6).
Such cultural education requires second-order intentionality. First-order intentionality is intent to change the behavior of another actor, and this is widespread in the animal world. Second-order intentionality is intent to change the mind (and usually also the behavior) of another animal; this seems absent among animals (or almost so). Although animals are variously socialized, they are not in this sense nurtured. Without some concept of teaching, of ideas moving from mind to mind, from parent to child, from teacher to pupil, a cumulative transmissible culture is impossible. Though language comes naturally to humans, what is learned has been culturally transmitted, using a specific language; the content learned during childhood education is that of an acquired, nongenetic culture.
Religious persons detect a supernature immanent in or transcendent to nature, perhaps even more in human culture. They find that neither nature nor culture is self-explanatory; both point to deeper forces, to a divine presence.
In contemporary biological and human sciences (anthropology, psychology, sociology), as well as in philosophy, there is much effort to naturalize culture, with equal amounts of resistance to such reduction (if that is what it is). Sociobiologists hold that genetic constraints are the principal determinants of culture; only those people and cultures survive that can place genes in the next generation. Evolutionary psychologists discover that humans have an "adapted mind," a modular mind with multiple survival subroutines more or less instinctiven contrast to the highly rational tabula rasa (empty, pliable mind) once favored by humanist philosophers. Philosophical pragmatists may agree that the mind is mostly a survival tool, even in its cultural education.
Culture remains a major determinant, nevertheless. Information in nature travels intergenerationally on genes; information in culture travels neurally as persons are educated into transmissible cultures. The determinants of animal and plant behavior are never anthropological, political, economic, technological, scientific, philosophical, ethical, or religious. Animal imprinting and limited transmitting of acquired information notwithstanding, humans gain a deliberated modification of nature that separates humans in their cultures from nature, increasingly so in high-technology cultures. Since decoding the human genome, completed in 2001, people stand at the threshold of rebuilding even their own genetic nature.
Humans have a dual inheritance system, nature and nurture. The intellectual and social heritage of past generations, lived out in the present, reformed and transmitted to the next generation, is regularly decisive. Cultures, especially modern ones, change rapidly in a few decades; the human genome hardly changes in thousands of years. Slow-paced genes are difficult to couple with fast-paced cultures.
A relatively pliable, educable mind is as great an adaptive advantage as is a mind with instinctive routines. The mind is so complex that the number of neurons and their possible connections (with resulting myriads of cultural options) far exceeds the number of genes coding the neural system; so it is impossible for the genes to specify all these connections. Human genes have generated an organism whose behavior results from an education beyond direct genetic control. As more knowledge is loaded into the tradition (fire building, agriculture, writing, weaponry, industrial processes, ethical codes, electronic technology, legal history) the genome selected will be one maximally instructible by the increasingly knowledgeable tradition. This will require a flexible intellect, able to accommodate continual learning speedily, adopting behaviors that are functional in whatever cultures humans find themselves. This is consistent with the unusually long period of child rearing in nuclear families with unusually large-brained babies, found in human evolutionary history and uncharacteristic of any other species.
Critics complain that nature-culture dualism is an undesirable Cartesian legacy (perhaps also a Christian or Greek one). The "versus" in the title of this entry frames the connections wrongly. Nature is the milieu of culture, and supposing our cultures to be in exodus from nature is at the root of our environmental crisis. Culture remains tethered to the biosystem, and the options within built environments, however expanded, provide no release from nature. An ecology always lies in the background of culture; no nurture is adequate that forgets these connections.
Perhaps cultural nurturing reinforces natural genetic dispositions for some practices (such as incest avoidance), but not for others (learning nuclear physics). Whether adults have enzymes for digesting fresh milk will determine their pastoral practices. But the differences between the Druids of ancient Britain and the Maoists in modern China are nongenetic and to be sought in the radically differentiating historical courses peculiar to these culturesven though Druids and Chinese have a biological nature largely held in common and despite differences in skin color or in blood groups.
Humans are only part of the world in biological, evolutionary, and ecological sensesheir nature; but Homo sapiens is the only part of the world free to orient itself with a view of the whole, to seek wisdom about who they are and where they are, and to develop their lives on Earth by means of culture. Such cumulative, ongoing nurture determines outcomes in the uniquely historical behavior of humans, making the critical difference, while human universals, biological, psychological, or social, which are a legacy of nature, have limited explanatory power.
See also DNA; GENETIC DETERMINISM; GENETICS
Barkow, Jerome H; Cosmides, Leda; and Tooby, John, eds. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Bock, Kenneth. Human Nature and History: A Response to Sociobiology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.
Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi L., and Feldman, Marcus W. Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Durham, William H. Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.
Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Rolston, Holmes, III. "Culture: Genes and the Genesis of Human Culture." In Genes, Genesis and God: Values and their Origins in Natural and Human History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.
HOLMES ROLSTON, III