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Nature vs. Nurture: Can't We All Just Get Along?

by Rob Lightner

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The nature vs. nurture debate, long contested by philosophers and scientists alike, is of special interest to those charged with the responsibility of raising kids in a complicated, ever-changing world. While today's mothers and fathers must navigate the same child-rearing seas as their own parents did, they must also contend with the wide range of conflicting theory and advice recently generated by this volatile issue. Thankfully, in the face of a bewildering array of often-contradictory parental maps, a few solid guideposts stand out above the fray.

The young science of ethnopediatrics is focused on collecting those discordant maps and exploring the differences and similarities between parenting styles of different cultures. Anthropologist Meredith F. Small documents this work in Our Babies, Ourselves, a fascinating, pleasurable book that raises many questions: Is there a "correct" method of parenting? Are some methods more appropriate than others for a given environment? Who gets to ride in front? Small raises the possibility that the "traditional" (actually quite recently developed) American style may not be the best for our children, and shows that some of the behaviors we shy away from--sleeping with infants and breastfeeding on demand, for example--are much-used in other cultures, and our approach may reflect our own needs rather than what's "good for the children."

Broadening the focus a bit, we find that we can learn much about the nature of nurture by studying other species. Science writer Susan Allport takes us out of the maternity ward with A Natural History of Parenting, a wide-ranging journey that often reflects on her own experience as a mother. Such a combination of the personal and the scientific makes for compelling reading, as in the passages detailing her work helping to birth lambs--her frustration and ecstasy, as well as her scientific interest, become our own. Short on practical advice for us humans, Allport has nonetheless written a comforting book. (At least we don't eat our young!)

Taking the fashionable midpoint stance on the nature-nurture spectrum, neurologist Ann B. Barnet and her husband Richard give us a report on the latest scientific beliefs about the early development of children. The Youngest Minds is a surprisingly readable mixture of science review, advice manual, and consciousness- raising book, which should be at the top of every expectant parent's reading list. What's going on in an infant's brain? How does language develop? What can we do to foster emotional attachment? The Barnets answer these questions and many more, being careful to remind us that neither "neuroscience, developmental psychology, nor cultural anthropology tells us that there is only one right way to raise a child."

But no matter what we may try to do while bringing up baby, he or she somehow still has to fit into our genes--right? Absolutely, says geneticist Dean Hamer in Living with Our Genes. He is careful not to say that our personalities are completely determined by our DNA, but he does offer impressive evidence that many traits such as depression, aggression, and sex drive have genetic origins. Does this mean parents should just give up and let nature do its work? Of course not. Hamer writes about the difference between temperament (what we're born with) and character (our flexibility and control over our nature), adding that many undesirable qualities of temperament may be controlled by building character. Hamer asks for a greater awareness of genetic issues in problem behavior and more sensible political approaches to genetic research; given them, he hopes to bring us all greater insight into our inescapable inheritance.

It could be, though, that we've been going about this all wrong. Why did we choose to oppose nature and nurture as though they were the only influences on a child's development? In The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris turns the field upside down by asking the question "Why do we call environmental influences nurture?" The word implies parental influence, but the scientific literature makes clear that our personalities are more a result of genetics and our peer relationships than any social connection we might have had with our parents. Harris is quick to tell us that this does not mean that parents are off the hook. As the final controllers of their childrens' environments, they must make many important decisions, including where to raise them and how to manage their activities to best reach their potential. Love them, guide them, watch them grow. Maybe it is that simple.

Featured Titles

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do
by Judith Rich Harris

Our Babies, Ourselves : How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent
by Meredith F. Small

A Natural History of Parenting : From Emperor Penguins to Reluctant Ewes, a Naturalist Looks at Parenting in the Animal World and Ours
by Susan Allport

The Youngest Minds : Parenting and Genes in the Development of Intellect and Emotion
by Richard J. Barnet, Ann B. Barnet

Living With Our Genes : Why They Matter More Than You Think
by Dean H. Hamer, Peter Copeland

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The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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