Home > Nature vs. nurture > Nature vs. nurture – practice set

Nature vs. nurture – practice set

Goal: provide a backdrop story to introduce the opponents!

Ever since I posted my intention to write about the nature vs. nurture debate two days ago, I’ve been struggling with a choice I’m sure many writers are struggling with, especially when the topic is not common knowledge among the target audience. That is the choice between assuming the audience will already be familiar with the topic or building up that level of knowledge. Thinking about this, I’ve got to admit I appreciated the way the school grade system is organized, so grade 2 can build on the level of knowledge the students acquired in grade 1!

(Let me digress at this point that I have many reasons to think the school systems today are outdated and I fully embrace the mission Sir Ken Robinson is on when he says we must transform education, but I’ll write on that topic, especially the ideas he’s presenting in his book The Element on another occasion.)

Of course, my intention is to have a broader audience, so I will start by explaining some of the background before delving into the system I (and Harris in particular) believe is responsible for how our personality turns out at the end.

To make it easier for the reader  I will try to deliver my thoughts in numbered sets that would build on the previous sets. I will also state the goal of each set at the beginning, so any reader familiar with the topic may choose to skip it and jump to the next set.

In that respect, the goal of the “practice” set you’re reading now is to let my opponents in the match introduce themselves through a little backdrop story I will use to illustrate some key points in this and the future sets to follow.

Nathan and Norton are identical twins born in a small town on the East coast of Canada to a factory worker later retired a floor manager father Nick and a stay-at-home mom later turned mystery novel writer mother Natalie.

Even though identical in many respects, even as early as few months after birth their mom started saying that Nathan is going to be the troublemaker, while Norton will bring his parents pride. Their father would just wave his hand and laugh at his wife’s silliness with a good-natured comment saying that her constant dreaming about writing mystery novels is messing her mind, but she wouldn’t waver.

To their father delight, both Nathan and Norton went through nursery and early school without any major incident and both even brought similar grades home from almost all areas, with two exceptions. Nathan seem to have been doing better at arts and Norton always had the best grade in class in math.

Their mom was still convinced that Nathan will turn into a troublemaker, so often she would scorn him for little mischiefs, even if Norton would be the one getting his brother into trouble, while Norton always got words of support for his “good” behavior.

As it usually happens, when the twins became teenagers, many things changed. Nathan started smoking and managed to hide that from his parents for a long time. He also started missing classes, relying on his brother to cover for him at home. Norton bought the story that Nathan is spending time with a local rock band trying to join them on drums, but no one knew until one tragic day (when Norton almost lost his life) that he’s been smoking pot with two guys that recently came into town and already got into trouble with the police (twice in six months!) for drug possession.

It was early spring, quite warm for that period of the year, one Monday morning when the tragic event happened. As usual, Natalie drove her 15 year old sons to the nearby junior high and watched them as they ran up the stairs towards the main entrance. She even didn’t forget to warn Nathan to listen to his brother and stay out of trouble — a warning that her husband never liked since, as far as he knew, Nathan never had any big trouble at school. Actually, it was Norton who recently started to bring lower grades home. Most disappointing, he got a C last week in his favorite subject math!

Neither Natalie, nor Nick knew that on that day the boys didn’t go into the classroom at all. The Friday before, Norton learned all about his brother and the pot-smoking excursions from school. Before the last class started, not being able to stay calm anymore after what his best friend told him that morning about Nathan, he decided to run from class for the first time in his life. He tried to find his brother and see with his eyes if it was true what he heard before, but unfortunately, after wandering in all places he could think of for almost an hour, he had to run back as their dad was supposed to pick them up at the school gates.

When he got back, Nathan was already there hugging his dad and they both wondered why Norton was late, with Nathan nervously laughing as Norton was coming up with an excuse, afraid that something may have happened in class and his dad will learn he was not there. How stupid of him to show up at the gate without checking in the classroom first!

That night, and the entire weekend, Norton was unusually quiet, but his parents thought he’s worried about his grades and let him spend the days in his room, believing he’s studying. Little did they know that Norton was making plans to spy on his brother once he runs from class on Monday.

After waving goodbye to his mom, the boys went to their lockers to leave their belongings and Norton excused himself to Nathan saying he needs to go to the washroom, secretly planning to hide behind the corner and then sneak behind Nathan as he was walking out from the rear exit over the school football field and right into the little woods at the outskirts of their hometown.

Norton waited 5 minutes hidden behind an old oak tree at the beginning of the woods before getting the courage to enter and start yelling at his brother for lying at him, for destroying his own life by getting hooked on drugs and for embarrassing the family by hanging out with these two scums that will likely lead him into jail instead of playing in a rock band.

As he was approaching the little clearing in the middle, he heard someone yelling and his brother crying. He started running towards them and shouting “Nathan, Nathan, I’m here!” What happened afterwards, he can’t quite remember. He seem to recall a sharp pain in his left shoulder followed with a heavy hit in his head, but he does remember waking up for a very short time in something that looked like the inside of an ambulance with two people above him shouting something he couldn’t quite understand. He also remembers uttering four words before entering the dark again: “Is he all right?”

Norton was lucky that the wound in his shoulder was not closer to his heart and main arteries, so he recovered nicely after a while, except the little handicap in his left hand caused by a broken muscle that didn’t recover, so he couldn’t stretch the hand at its full length anymore. This prevented him to continue playing for the school’s basketball team, but his love was math anyway. The other pain turned out to be from a tree trunk on which he bumped his head when falling down from the bullet — few stitches and painkillers fixed that with no long-term consequences.

Unfortunately, the police couldn’t find Nathan anywhere and his dad was heart-broken, while his mom was blaming herself for not warning him enough to stay out of trouble. It didn’t even help when the police got the two drug dealers and charged them for attempted murder over Nathan and another potential murder if Norton was found dead.

The two parents brightened up a little when Norton came home from the hospital and slowly their focus was back on their son, trying to help him to catch up with school. After a while, both them and the police stopped looking for Nathan, assuming he’s long dead.

Life was slowly getting back to normal, though everyone could notice changes. Nathan become very quiet and focused all of his energy on the school. Nick spent long hours at work hiding behind the piles of documents he had to deal with at his new role as a manager. Natalie has thrown herself to writing and initially her novels were about brutish murders, drugs and ruined families, before she managed to get one of her earlier and more traditional mystery works published, which made her throw away her dark novels and lighten up a bit.

Norton graduated from high school with honor and went to a prestige University where he graduated in math and later went back to his hometown to be a math teacher. He never married and looked after his old parents until they died.


Nathan got scared when he saw his brother bleeding and ran out of the woods as fast as he could without looking back until he got so tired he lost his breath. Convinced his brother was dead and burdened with guilty conscience, he jumped on a freight train and didn’t get off until the train’s last station in Vancouver, on the opposite coast from his family. In Vancouver, after wandering the streets for a week and using the little money he got begging to barely survive, he checked into a shelter where he met many other homeless people.

Due to his love for arts, especially music, he stood out from the group — he turned many gloomy dinners at the shelter into little music parties using the cutlery instead of instruments. One of the older women working at the shelter, Jean, took him under her wing and got him a chance to take music lessons, later inviting him to move into her house and take the room of her late son, who died in a car accident at the age of 18, along with her husband, some ten years earlier.

Jean treated him as a son and helped him finish high school at one of the late-night colleges and also sign-up to study jazz at a community music school. She even convinced him to join her church choir and though he didn’t like singing, he was reluctantly playing the organ. During the day, he would usually work at the same shelter where he was found by Jean many years ago as well as doing other jobs to earn some money with a plan to go to a music academy one day.

At the age of 22, Nathan joined a local band who played at local bars in downtown Vancouver. Despite the gratefulness he felt for Jean and his new life, the night life took his toll and he started drinking. This lead into mood swings and brought back memories from the past. One day, he noticed an article in the local newspaper Metro, about a student returning a scholarship award for post-graduate studies in math at the University of Toronto so he can go back to his hometown to take care of his parents. He recognized Norton on the picture and his heart sank.

Still blurry in his head from the last night’s stint with the band and drinking until 5am, without further thinking he jumped on the first train and went to visit his brother. When he arrived in his hometown, the memory of the tragic event and all his life since went through his head as a flash and he started crying. Lacking courage to go to his parents’ home, he went into the first pub, drunk couple of shots and took the next train back to Vancouver.

At the age of 27, Nathan died from drug overdose outside, lying next to a container in a dark alley in Vancouver, alone, with no one around to take him to the emergency room, until some homeless people found him the next day. Jean died from heart-attack in the morgue where the police brought her to identify the body.

What was all that about? For one, I wanted to use a story to illustrate the various influences on a person’s development from young age, through teenage years into adulthood. Second, using an exaggerated (though not unbelievable) story, I hope to make very obvious the two categories of influences that I want to present as my opponents.

The first category, what I refer to as nature, is about the determinism coming from the genes, i.e. the sum of all directly heritable effects of the genes exposed through someone’s personality, along with any indirect effects due to the way other people may interact with the person with certain heritable characteristics. For example, we all know that people treat beautiful people differently from ugly ones. Deny it as you might, this is true about how parents treat their children too. Since the person in question would react differently depending on what people treat him, this means the reaction to the heritable characteristics is a factor in the shaping of one’s personality and can also be attributed to the genes, but in an indirect way.

Therefore, I would use nature as the sum of all directly heritable traits in one’s personality and indirect impact caused as a reaction of other people to those and other (non-personality) heritable traits. This would say that the nature factor is somewhat pre-determined by the genes — though the indirect effect can’t be said to be pre-determined as it may be contextually sensitive, e.g. in a society where women wear veils, the impact of beautiful faces on people’s reaction may be toned down.

The second category is the sum of all influences parents have on their children — commonly called nurture (or shared environment, i.e. the environment siblings would share together). Not so fast!

In The Nurture AssumptionHarris have shown that the nurture impact to ones personality is almost negligible, so the second category cannot be nurture. In No Two Alike, she went on to uncover the perpetrator, but she couldn’t pin it down as it turned out to be random events and interactions in one’s life — not exactly something one can chain and control, is it?

If this is correct, it means that the nature vs. nurture score is fixed. According to the estimates from twin studies, nature scores between 0.4 and 0.5, while nurture < 0.01 — the winner is the random noise, or the non-shared environment, unique experiences that siblings, including identical twins have separately.

Well, Harris did specify a mechanism how could the random noise impact the personality and proposed a brain design that would explain why the nurture effect is nearly zero. And that design and the opportunities I believe it offers to bring back nurture into competition is what I’m interested in discussing in the future sets.

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  1. February 2, 2010 at 1:03 pm

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