Post No.: 0053
The question of ‘nature versus nurture’ is a very common one, but it can be as pointless as asking whether the water or the tea leaves is or are more important in making a cup of tea. The inquiry is only useful when taking into account context i.e. in order to explain the relative differences between people – in a context where everyone has roughly the same genetics (nature), then environmental factors (nurture) will matter more; and in a context where everyone has roughly the same environmental factors (nurture), then genetics (nature) will matter more. So for instance, regarding intelligence between members of different species – if comparing an earthworm to a human then nature matters more; or regarding outcomes between members of the same species – if comparing a poor person with a rich person then nurture matters more.
It’s like what is the most important thing for you to succeed at work tomorrow? The answer should really be something like oxygen for breathing because you wouldn’t last long without it, but since virtually no one struggles for access to oxygen on Earth, we neglect its importance to us and our successes. Access to oxygen is not what typically separates different people and their relative outcomes – but we would all place oxygen high on the list of importance in an environment where access to oxygen is not equal between people. Hence what matters most, and most explains differences in outcomes between individuals, depends on the level of environmental equality.
The overall conclusion to take away is that, in this current world of high environmental inequality, the environment is on average more important in influencing a person’s relative success in life. But if this world were more environmentally equal, then genetics would be on average more important in influencing a person’s relative success in life. Woof.
So we cannot answer the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate without knowing what environmental context we’re talking about (e.g. a place of equal opportunities and support, or not). In this world we live in though – in general, an academically poor person with wealthy and well-connected parents will do just fine, and in most cases more fine than an academically excellent person with no privileged connections. Tough survival conditions, such as in ‘developing’ countries relative to ‘developed’ countries, likely mean that, in general, only the truly genetically tough will survive – yet few people in ‘developing’ countries will have the opportunities or support (e.g. top coaching, cutting-edge technological equipment, quality venues, nutrition) to have careers as e.g. professional tennis players, hence they seldom do have such careers.
A person with genetic gifts for physicality but who lacks the genetic gifts for the mentality to have the self-discipline to train and eat right can be made into a world champion with the right team around to push him/her to train and eat right and give him/her the opportunities, facilities and support. Conversely, if he/she got caught up with the wrong crowd or something else happens like a misfortune at the wrong time, for instance, he/she could have an entirely contrasting life altogether. So environmental influences (which is defined as basically anything that is not genetic here, such as one’s upbringing and upbringing environment, the surrounding culture, present events that one has no control of, etc.) play a key and massive role in the outcomes of all individuals in this world.
Another, probably clearer, analogy is in motorsport – whether the tyres or engines are more important to explain the differences in performance between one car and another depends on how equal they are between the competitors (e.g. if there is only one tyre supplier for all teams then the engines will matter more, and vice-versa). Hence what’s more important to explain the differences between the outcomes of different cars depends on the answer of the level of equality of the different variables (likewise, if the cars as a whole are quite equal then it’ll be more down to the differences between the drivers, and vice-versa, and so on with other variables such as aerodynamics).
Now if all of the variables similarly vary by a lot or similarly vary by not a lot then it can be very difficult to know what’s relatively more important than the rest. But regarding genes versus environment, nature versus nurture – depending on how we count it and according to current consensus, humans are all apparently between 99 to 99.9% genetically identical with each other, yet some people are environmentally born into absolute poverty and some as heirs/heiresses to billions of dollars. Everyone being so closely genetically related with each other yet seeing such vastly variable outcomes suggests again that environmental factors play a major role in everyone’s lives. (Note that epigenetic differences related to genes are typically environmentally caused, although sometimes inherited transgenerationally and may not be able to be changed (back) within one’s own lifetime.) If a 1 to 0.1% genetic difference can make a lot of difference then a 99 to 99.9% genetic similarity will translate to many more times relative similarity than that difference for most people and for most of the important things in life – and moreover, the difference between being born into poverty or wealth is truly considerable because even a little bit of difference in wealth compounds to make a huge difference over time.
This ‘Matthew effect’ (which can be summed up as ‘the rich get richer’ because advantages accumulate) applies to genetic advantages as well as environmental advantages, but any genetic advantages are on average small (only up to 1% difference, even if we count this 1% as entirely contributing to an ‘advantage’, rather than just a mere ‘difference’, between one person and another) compared to environmental advantages that can enter factors of differences in the order of tens, hundreds, thousands, millions or even billions between a person born into extreme poverty and a person born into extreme wealth right from the outset (and I think it’s sensible to assume that every unit of currency more compared to someone else counts as an ‘advantage’, even with a law of diminishing returns), and the relatively vast compounding effects here (for which the financial wealth of one’s parents is just one of many important environmental variables that statistically affect a person’s probabilistic life outcomes as soon as they’re born).
Therefore there is a strong argument that, in this current world at least, and between humans at least – nurture is far more important than nature when it comes to the important outcomes that really matter in life, such as getting a secure job versus living a life of crime, rather than phenotypically-trivial proxies such as a person’s height, desired gender identification, sexuality or skin colour (‘trivial’ as in ‘so what about this aspect about you?’ – you should really deserve neither a medal nor a mauling for it, even though culturally (rather than inherently) some people in some places are discriminated according to these phenotypic traits and this will affect their life prospects. One’s surrounding present culture of broad-mindedness or prejudice is an environmental factor).
You can easily name some rich and famous tall people as well as some rich and famous short people, or rich and famous people of different genders, sexualities and skin colours – but wherever you live or come from in the world, it’s much harder to think of (or at least name) a lot of rich and famous people who come from a poor neighbourhood in a poor country compared to a lot of rich and famous people who come from a rich neighbourhood in a rich country, at least proportionally to their total populations. So a nation’s median level of socio-economic status and opportunities (nurture) matter more than their average genetics (nature) e.g. the case of North Korea compared to South Korea currently (which is an enlightening natural experiment of nature versus nurture). And this applies to within nations between people who come from high versus low SES families/backgrounds too.
Furrywisepuppy believes, like many others, that this level of environmental inequality between the rich and poor in this world is too much. There’ll always be a richest 1% and poorest 1% but the size of the gap between them is the issue. Most people agree that a little bit of inequality is fine and maybe even desirable – but not a world where the richest 1% own ~50% of all capital in the world, and the richest 10% own ~90% of all capital in the world; and yet the gaps are still currently widening further.
Woof. Please share with us through the Twitter comment button below what you think about this current level of capital inequality?