Nature vs. Nurture

It occurred to me to wonder the other day what Sigmund Freud would have thought of the Richard and Judy book club. It’s the UK’s equivalent of Oprah’s book club, and whilst it must shift a lot of copies of its chosen and highly publicised titles, it also highlights some of the worst traits in the book-buying public: it appeals to people who need some form of celebrity endorsement before risking their time on a work of fiction, and it stands in the way of other book buyers enjoying harmless novels because the involvement of Richard and Judy is anathema to them. I don’t quite know what to make of it, but there must be all kinds of tricky psychology at work. However, as proof that you should never judge a book by the sticker on its cover, I read Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder, a novel that cleverly combines the historical fact of Freud’s trip to America in 1909 and a murder mystery, and found it was an excellent read. Intelligent and gripping with an evocative historical setting, it brilliantly explores the early days of psychoanalysis and even manages to insert a rehash of Freud’s famous ‘Dora’ case into the chase to find a serial killer (well, sort of) with laudable dexterity.

It also stages the battle between Freudian psychoanalysis and neuroscience in a way that I found most intriguing. It is, of course, wonderfully easy to be prescient in a book set a century ago, but even so, I particularly enjoyed this speech by one of Freud’s medical rivals: ‘The problem is this: our knowledge of the human brain is incomplete. We don’t have medicines to change the way people think. To cure their delusions. To relieve their sexual desires while keeping them from overpopulating the world. To make them happy. It is all neurology, you know. It has to be. Psychoanalysis is going to set us back a hundred years. Its licentiousness will appeal to the masses. Its prurience will appeal to young scientific minds and even to some old ones. It will turn the masses into exhibitionists and physicians into mystics. But someday people will wake up to the fact that it is all the emperor’s new clothes. We will discover drugs to change the way people think, sooner or later. To control the way they feel.’ Ah, the harbingers of Prozac and other psychopharmaceuticals! Rubenfeld is clever to choose this moment in history for a return to the roots of the psychoanalytic movement, when neurobiology is in favour and psychoanalysis viewed with suspicion and mistrust. It’s part of the great ongoing debate between nature and nurture that will never reach closure but which raises such fascinating questions about how we want the world to be and what we are prepared to do to improve our fates in life.

I’ve always been a supporter of psychoanalytic literary criticism because it’s such an interesting way to look at narrative, and in consequence I’ve read a great deal of psychoanalytic theory in my working life. (If you’re wondering how this kind of criticism works, well, it’s what I do on this site when I analyse a book. In another post another day I’ll write more about it if you’re interested. Fundamentally this means I’m all for psychoanalysis, and this because it suggests a) we need never be victims of fate but b) such a happy state of affairs is going to require some hard work. What can I say? It appeals to my liberal anti-determinism and my work ethic, all in one neat package that assigns the most devastating power to words. But it is not at all at one with the spirit of the contemporary age, which favours science-based solutions. The psychoanalysis vs. neurobiology debate reminds me a lot of the genetics vs. experience and environment debate that has also been prominent of late. Interestingly enough, the genome project has ended up strengthening the case for nurture as much as for nature, although some argue that this is only because our understanding of DNA is at an early stage and research is already bringing to light a host of related biochemical structures that complicate each individual picture. I don’t pretend to understand the science: there’s an interesting article that favours nurture to be read here, and another that remains, on the whole, in the science camp here. I thought both very good and ultimately most sensible in their recognition that the human being is an entangled mix of nature and nurture. But one paragraph I read from this article interested me most of all:

‘The public view on the nature versus nurture argument tends to sway to both sides. People are ready to accept that it is genes that cause diseases and cancer, even obesity and homosexuality. Of course, this takes the blame off of human lifestyle. If it is written into their genes, there is nothing they can do about it. However, the public tends to favor the nurture side of the argument when it breaches sensitive topics such as aggression or intelligence. If people truly believed that intelligence was totally dependent upon genes, there would be no waiting lists to get into the best private schools, no SAT tutors, and no French lessons for three year olds. When the Columbine school shootings went on, it was the angry music, the video games, and the parents that were blamed. No one even brought up the fact that the two shooters genetic makeup could have had anything to do with it. Eminem and Double Dragon took the rap, and the parents were questioned as why they hadn’t known about it or prevented it.’

In a nutshell, this is why the nature vs. nurture debate fascinates me so much: as an unresolvable conflict it can be argued in any number of ways, all of which tell us more about our culture’s current attitude towards the perfectibility of the human race and our capacity for suffering than it does about the constitution of the individual. Where we stand on the nature/nurture question tells us instantly a great deal, I think, about our private relationship with such potent concepts as identity, change and fate. It says a lot whether we think science will save us, or whether we still believe in the ability of the subject to put some arduous effort into changing the circumstances of his or her life. As I write that sentence it’s easy to see my own view in it. Others would say that it’s unfair to put effort into situations that are dealt out to us at birth and which only the modern miracles of technology can hope to change. At the end of the day, it’s how we live with the hand that we’ve been dealt that makes the difference to our quality of life, and I suppose I would rather trust myself to make changes than trust others to alter me. Now I just need to work out whether that’s a genetic predisposition or the result of my education…

21 thoughts on “Nature vs. Nurture

  1. Litlove, it’s lovely to find you back in blogging action once again! And what a thought-provoking post. I’ve had the Rubenfeld book in my TBR pile for ages and you’ve convinced me to move it closer to the top. I share your fascination with psychoanalytic theory, but not your expertise, and I would love to read a post in which you write more about psychoanalytic literary criticism.

  2. One thing I think people seldom consider when discussing nature vs nurture is what I guess could be called self-nurture. How we choose to spend our time has a strong effect on how we turn out, but are our interests genetically determined, fostered by our families and culture, or both? My brother and I, for example, were brought up by the same parents, in the same time period, in the same culture, at the same schools and in the same neighborhoods. And we share the same genetics. Yet we’re as different as can be. And I think that difference lies in how we each responded to both nature and nurture.

    As far as what you say about people choosing books based on the endorsement of TV show, I’m reminded of something I stumbled upon this morning. I was browsing through a catalogue that sells women’s clothing, jewelry, home furnishings and bed linens. The photos of various tables and shelves kept featuring a small stack of books. And then I came upon a page where that small stack of books was for sale! Six paperback books for $98, chosen to say something to visitors about the person who is presumably reading them. I’m pretty sure I know exactly what owning only six books says about a person. But can you imagine? Buying books that way? For decor reasons? And paying more for them because you don’t have to go to the work of figuring out which books to buy to portray yourself in a certain way?

  3. I bought Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder a few months ago and still haven’t read it – partly, I admit, because it’s a Richard and Judy Bookclub choice. But this book sounded OK and I’m glad you liked it.

    Nature versus nurture is an interesting question. I’m very different from my sister – we even have different memories of our childhood, I just don’t recognise my parents from her recollections. I think you’re right that how we respond to what life throws at us is what makes the difference to our quality of life. My sister and I have had very different lives, having started from the same background.

  4. It’s always fascinated me as a teacher that brothers and sisters from the same family and background can be so different. I’mnotsure where that puts me camp wise. Perhaps some people are born with a genetic predisposition to nurture or not. I enjoyed the Rubenfeld though I was not aware it was a chosen book. That would have put me off once, but now I try to read what seems interesting regardless of accolade or none. Glad to see you back and I hope it’s long term. Best wishes and can we have a post on psycholanalytic theory soon.

  5. I’d love to have the psychoanalytic post too! I think I’m on your side in this debate — I mean, I recognize nature and nurture are both at work in us, but I’m comforted by the idea of nurture because it gives us something to DO. I mean, other than take a pill, which ultimately is kind of boring. Maybe it’s the Puritan work ethic coming out in me, but relying on science to solve one’s problems seems like the easy way out.

  6. Dear Kate – thank you! It’s lovely to be back! And it takes very little encouragement to get me writing about psychoanalysis, so one post on the topic will soon be forthcoming. Dew – that’s an interesting question about self-nurture. In my family we make our interests into our work and I can’t imagine doing a job just because it pays well, and I think I was just born that way! I am both horrified and fascinated by what you say about the 6-pack of books!!! I’m all for eliminating the gene that makes people think that that could be a good thing! Booksplease – do give the Rubenfeld a go – I found it very enjoyable (though I do love books about Freud anyway). The question of differences between siblings is an intriguing one, isn’t it? My brother and I grew up quite separately (there’s a fairly large age gap between us) and yet it spooks me how alike we are at times. I do wonder whether siblings close in age also react against one another. Bookboxed – how nice to hear from you! And yes, psychoanalysis coming up. Teaching being the ultimate in nurture, I guess we are always bumping up against the constraints of nature in it. I’m conscious how differently my students learn, how they all require the material to be tailored to their individual needs, and I do wonder how teachers facing a class of 30 ever manage. Dorothy – ah, what can I say? We obviously think very much alike here. If there isn’t something I can do, I feel hugely frustrated, and human beings are so complex, physically and mentally, that I don’t have much faith in quick fixes. But I acknowledge that it is just the way I think rather than the answer!

  7. I loved the Rubenfeld book too and luckily in Germany, I am far away from celebrity endorsements. I picked it up because it looked interesting. I dabbled a little with psychoanalytic theory in my third and four years at university, but would love a refresher course, courtesy of a post from you, Litlove. Please don’t hold back …

  8. Great to have you back!

    And my first post on your return is to disagree with you on Rubenfeld’s book. I thought it sadly over written and tried far to hard to be clever. I finished it but found myself skipping huge chunks, probably because my lack of knowledge of Freud et al but I did find all their interaction getting in the way of the story. I just felt, probably wrongly, that the author was determined to show us how clever he was. I had a similar experience with Winnie and Wolf by AN Wilson recently which I was so looking forward to reading and ended up incredibly disappointed. Sad when that happens.

  9. I am glad it’s not just me that is put off by the Richard and Judy label – I don’t mean to be a snob but it really annoys me that someone will only read something because those cretins recommended it. Anyway with that off my chest, I am fascinated by this book and will at some point, seek it out. Do you keep a list of recommended books? I feel much happier reading something that you think is good (as opposed to someone who does a disturbingly accurate Ali G impression).

  10. Please do write that post on psychoanalysis–I am woefully ignorant in this whole area! I know only the very, very basics of these things, so I hope my lack of knowledge won’t get in the way of my appreciation (or understanding) of the Rubenfield book when I do get around to reading it. I hadn’t realized this was a Richard and Judy pick. I know people who do steer clear of these celebrity endorsements and it is a pity really as it could be a very good book. On the flip side I know how they feel and will peel all those stickers off the book when I get it! I’m so glad to see you posting and commenting again–I hope things are better! I always greatly enjoy your posts–I love how you can take a book and place it in the broader scheme of life!

  11. I’m in the nature camp for fundamental trends within a person. Nurture builds on those trends in some fascinating ways. To take one example; Winston Churchill. Born with a chemical imbalance in his brain (possibly genetic as depression can run in families), he was subject to lifelong bouts of depression, his “Black Dog”. How different would he have been without that base? My guess is that he would have been much the same yet life would have been so much more comfortable for him. His need for whisky almost certainly would have been lessened. However these are only my unscientific observations grounded in my experience of the effect of genetically endowed quick or slow reflexes and slow and fast twitch muscles on, not only the sporting interests of an individual, but also the sporting ability of an individual.

    @ Dew, I can remember back in the Ab Fab days of the Eighties when the newly rich attempted to assuage their need to appear as good as “respectable old money” by buying old leather bound volumes, not by title or author, but by shelf feet – or shelf metres – to decorate their unused book cases.

  12. I’m not sure where I stand ‘campwise’ either, but I was interested in the hand of cards image that you used as it is a favourite one of mine as well. I tend to use it in terms of people being prepared to recognise the hand that they’ve been dealt and then playing that to the best of their ability rather than trying to play the hand they wish they’d been dealt. I’ve had to think a lot about this over the past year when my health suddenly gave way completely and I discovered that the hand I thought I had was in fact not there at all. You can waste an awful lot of precious energy if you don’t accept that the cards you hold are the ones you have to play and you’re almost certainly going to lose the game unless you’re a very very lucky bluffer.

  13. I absolutely love to discuss the whole nature v. nurture debate. Let’s get together and stay up all night pondering its many dimensions (or maybe not, since I’m so happy to have you back and well and wouldn’t want to risk your getting sick again). I agree with Archie: an important genetic base combined with nurture, but that still raises many, many questions. For instance, why is it that some children raised in abusive families go on to beat their own children while others don’t? I’ve been wanting to read this book, but right now I’ve too much other stuff to read. Another book you might enjoy that isn’t exactly about Freud, but in which he and Jung fictionally wander about its pages (and has his famous visit to NYC)is Kevin Baker’s Dreamland. It’s a bit brutal at times, but fascinating and ripe for psychoanalytic literary criticism.

  14. Charlotte – so glad you liked the book and I will most certainly post on psychoanalysis very soon! Elaine – isn’t it a shame when a book you’ve been looking forward to doesn’t come up to expectations? I guess it just wasn’t your thing. Kate – I laughed out loud when you mentioned Ali G! One of these fine days I’ll put together a ‘my best books of all time’ list, which would be a great pleasure to do. Danielle – I certainly missed you when I was away! And yes, I peel off all stickers immediately too – keeps the book nice and innocent. Archie – isn’t it interesting to note the camp into which one falls? I hardly dare mention this, but in a rapid straw poll of people to whom I’ve put the question, men clearly favour nature and women nurture. That’s interesting too! Ann – ah such wise words and so very true. Not at all surprisingly I’ve been thinking about the exact same things and recognising I must stick with the cards I’ve got. I’m far too tempted to fetch aces out of my sleeves! Emily – I can see we would have a fascinating discussion together (even if not one that goes through the night). Thank you so much for that book recommendation – I will certainly be looking into it!

  15. A little late to the party. I know what you mean about books recommended by TV personalities. I cringe over Oprah books, but the books aren’t necessarily bad, I just don’t want someone to think I’m reading it because of Oprah.

    As to nature/nuture, I suspect there is an intricate interplay between the two, each influencing the other. And I too would love to have a lesson in psychoanalysis.

  16. Hey Litlove — I have an off-topic comment, sorry! Do you want to nominate someone to choose the next Slaves of Golconda book? I’m not sure if you knew the person who chose the book last gets to choose the new chooser. Thanks!

  17. To weigh in on the nature/nuture topic, most of my “genetic” disorders (like depression and social anxiety) are usually set off by events that occur in my environment. So I had to learn ways to cope with the stress of the worst events to fight the reaction I am predispositioned toward. Just another interesting interplay between the two. It’s always interesting to find literature that covers that topic. There is a medieval, French play “Silence” that gives an early view on the debate. It adds another aspect to the history of the topic.

  18. What an insightful post, litlove. I find this nature/nurture debate fascinating as well, although I haven’t done nearly as much study into as you have. I also like the explanation behind your unabashed preference for psychoanalysis – well said. Have you read Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker? I suspect you would like it – wonderful fiction that addresses many of these similar questions.

  19. Stefanie – yes, I guess that’s it: I like to be thought independent minded in my book choices! I think you’re right about nature and nurture too. How we agree! Dorothy – thank you for the very timely reminder. I have issued an invitation and will let you and the slaves know the outcome forthwith. Katie – what an interesting comment – thank you! I know so very little about the medieval period in literature and it’s intriguing to think this should be a subject for discussion, even back in the 12th century! Verbivore – that sounds like another excellent recommendation – I don’t know the book at all, but am now off to amazon, to do something about that….

  20. “…it stands in the way of other book buyers enjoying harmless novels because the involvement of Richard and Judy is anathema to them…” This is just another example, Litlove, if we need one, of the way you’re always looking out for us. It made me think how well the rest of us might be served if Oprah or Richard and Judy would please consent to ban some books for their fans, the better to guide us to the most subversive and thought-provoking titles. I imagine authors would be just as happy to be “stickered” either way!

  21. Pingback: 7 x 7 Award | Tales from the Reading Room

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