Nature vs Nurture

It’s an age-old question: What makes us who we are?  Is it nature or nurture?

For those who haven’t yet encountered this question, it asks whether we’re born the way we are, or whether our life experiences shape us into who we are.  In relation to mental health, the question might be, are some people just ‘born’ anxious, or bipolar, or depressive etc, or is it the result of what happens to them?

The nature/nurture question has been mooted for thousands of years now and nobody has yet come up with a definitive answer.  “Probably a combination of both” seems to be the majority view these days.

I’d like to interject a little story here, a vignette I once read, allegedly a Chinese fable.  I can’t find any version posted online so I’ll work from memory and hope to do it justice:

A student goes to visit his tutor one day.  The student arrives, sits down at the table and the tutor asks him if he would like a cup of tea.  The student says yes.  Soon after, the tutor sets down a cup of tea on the table, and alongside the cup, a large stick.  He announces to the student,

“If you drink the tea, I shall hit you with this stick.  And if you don’t drink the tea, I shall hit you with this stick”.

Initially the student is dismayed, it seems there is no way he can win.  But he thinks for a little while and then – with a flash of inspiration – simply picks up the stick, thus depriving the tutor of the ability to use the stick against him.  The tutor smiles broadly and congratulates the student, “Well done, you have learned well.”

There endeth the lesson. 

You might be wondering, what does this have to do with the nature/nurture question?  The connection in my mind is being presented with a question or conundrum where you are asked to choose between only two possible responses.  A bit like the one that goes, “Would you rather boil to death or freeze to death”, sometimes neither response is particularly appealing. 

I love irony, and there is a particularly beautiful irony in the response I choose to the nature/nurture question:

Q: “What makes us who we are, is it nature or nurture”

A: “Free will.” 

I believe free will plays an important role: and I can demonstrate the power of my free will by saying ‘free will’ in answer to this stupid question.

Yes, stupid sounds pretty harsh.  But it seems to me if you’re struggling to answer a question despite – as in this case – thousands of years of philosophising, theorising and research, surely, sooner or later, you have to consider the possibility that there’s a mistake in the question itself.  Like the one, “Why do men have nipples?” which embodies an assumption that there should be a reason for men to have nipples, when patently, there is no reason. 

Questions presented with only two possible answers should, in my opinion, always be regarded with suspicion.  Nature or nurture, boil or freeze, capitalism or communism…  Even if my answer, free will, is not right as such, maybe by now we could and should be considering that there might be more than just two possible answers. I stand my ground: It’s a stupid question.

Although the question is stupid, attempts to answer it have yielded a fascinating array of theories and studies.  I’ll maybe take a look at some of these in later blogs, but for now search “nature vs nurture” and “free will vs determinism” online if you’re interested.  

What saddens me is that both the nature and nurture standpoints are fairly fatalistic; they both limit, or outright reject, the potential for individuals to be who they choose to be.   We humanistic counsellors are very fond of a thing we call ‘personal agency’; the personal power and autonomy each of us has, which allows us to be in control of what we do and make our own choices.  For many clients, it is this ability, together with awareness of the choices available to them, which allows them to live more happily. 

This is one humanists’ view.  Personal agency can triumph over both nature and nurture. If that were not the case, if we were merely the product of our genes and/or life experiences, counselling could never once make a blind bit of difference to people’s lives. I don’t have a wealth of scientific evidence to point to, but maybe that’s because many researchers and academics don’t pay much attention to free will; they’re too busy trying to answer the stupid question. 

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