Nature vs. Nurture in Brain Science

Thoughts about the capacity for meanness often bifurcate into nature vs nurture.

Posted Nov 10, 2016

Lisa Langhammer used with permission
Source: Lisa Langhammer used with permission

The field of genetics assures us we are all one species. Even though I have white skin, my remote, dark-skinned ancestors may well have tracked wildebeests on an African plain. Still, a central debate rages about who we are and how much we can and should change—nature vs. nurture is the Ali vs. Frazier of developmental psychology; competition vs. cooperation is the Lakers vs. the Celtics of complex systems theory. If you believe people are “hard-wired to connect” and culture trains us to be selfish, you can find plenty of evidence in hard science to support your point of view. However, if you believe our deepest desires are selfish and that we are “hard-wired” to compete and that society’s role is to tame our more primitive instincts, you can also find research and real life examples to support your argument. The problem with bifurcating this essential question is it limits you from seeing human beings in their full complexity. A more accurate and integrative way to conceptualize the human nervous system is that it is “hard-wired to adapt.” 

Clearly, humans have the capacity for incredible self-serving sadism particularly when exposed to brutality in early childhood relationships.  Look at Hitler, Pol Pot, and Saddam Hussein. But it is not only individual dictators or tyrants who have exerted cruel power over others.  How do we explain the history of race relations in America, from the kidnapping of human beings in Africa to fuel our slave trade to the lynching of African-Americans in the south, without some belief in the human capacity to exert destructive power over dynamics to large groups of people? It has happened too often in human history to dismiss it with a Pollyannaish denial of reality. At the same time, the world has also witnessed unbelievable acts of compassion, caring, respect and generosity from both individuals and groups of people. Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and the overwhelming response of groups and individuals to the 9/11 terrorist attacks come to mind.  Most of us live somewhere in between these two extremes – trying to make a life of meaning out of our daily, personal experience of cruelty and kindness.

One Thanksgiving I spent treasured time with my sister-in-law at a Comfort Inn and Suites—what better place to have a heated debate about a child’s innate ability to be mean. Despite enjoying the free breakfast buffet, I felt uncomfortable with Gretchen’s statement that children are mean. In truth, I’m not even sure I heard her correctly because what I heard produced a strong reaction in me. My left-sided, logical brain tried desperately to stay online as my right-sided, feeling brain was dragging my whole body into a reactive, defensive rant. Her statement sounded a lot like the psychological drive theories I learned in my psychiatry residency years ago and that have dominated mental health for the last 100 years. 

Drive theorists believe that a human being’s deepest desires are selfish—primarily focused on getting individual needs met. In this view of human development, relationship is a means to the end rather than the end itself. Aggressive and sexual drives dominate the theory and frankly, it is predictably male biased.  Drive theory is often used as “scientific” proof that learning to separate from and compete against others is central to a civilized society.  My logical tells me that Drive Theory in action is undermining our physiological capacity to connect with others. It also tells me that Gretchen is older and wiser by two decades and has successfully raised three children to be contributing members of society while I have twins who just turned thirteen. As I consider this, my right brain sends me an intrusive message—a 13-year-old must have created drive theory.  My left-brain encourages me to make a quick phone call to see how my 13-year-olds are doing alone in the hotel room.

Our discussion about the inherent capacity for meanness quickly bifurcates into the usual nature vs. nurture debate. Are children inherently mean spirited, acting out the unique human capacity to judge and stratify based on their own selfish needs or are they hard-wired to connect with every cell in their body craving human connection and comfort?   By the end of the conversation, Gretchen and I reach a compromise. Children have both capacities and what is most “hard-wired” is their ability to adapt and find a way to survive in both mean and kind environments. When we agree that the most fundamental capacity of the human nervous system is to adapt to the environment then it is easier to see that, as pack animals or relational beings, we function much better in healthy connection than in isolation or chronic disconnection.This is not simply an intellectual debate between two mental health professionals: Neuroplasticity (the new science of brain change) tells us that believing one version over the other radically changes not only how we individually think and feel, but also how we construct the cultures we live in.