Is it nature or nurture that determines development? Psychologists have known for some time now that this question is too binary and simplistic. The effects of genetic inheritance and environment are complex and interrelated. One can affect the other, and set off a chain of effects. In this Wall Street Journal column, Alison Gopnik looks at what is known as epigenetics. What causes certain genes to be expressed or turned off, and what affects the way genetic endowment is expressed? She cites recent human and animal research that demonstrates just how complex human behavior and functioning really are.
The first time I came across the term epigenetics was in Erik Erikson’s 1968 bookIdentity: Youth and Crisis. He thought that psychosocial development proceeded according to what he called epigenetic principal, in which biology, environment, and culture interact. Erikson noted that the children either thrived or failed to do so as they moved through different stages of development. Progress was determined at least in part by the person’s success or lack of success in the previous stages.
Rich Environments Increase IQ
In this piece, two findings that are not commonly known stand out. One is that average IQ scores in the recent past have been increasing at the fairly dramatic rate of 3 points per decade! She notes that this change is keeping test designers busy, since harder questions must be added to keep average IQ at 100. To be valid, these tests must cover the full range of intelligence which necessitates some questions that would stump the vast majority of us.
Her explanation for this rise makes sense. We live in an information age in which a huge amount of interesting (and to be honest, sometimes really boring) information is at our fingertips. Those with curiosity can learn so much more in a day or year than was possible one hundred years ago. After all, our forebears did not have any book at easy access, much less the Internet, newspapers, e-readers, and smart phones. Computers put the answer to many questions we formerly had to “look up at our fingertips. We really can Google almost anything!
Now in all fairness, it needs to be noted that intelligence scores and sensibility are two different things. We know any awful lot today, but may think less deeply than our forebears did. Too many distractions. Most people have a lot less reflective and contemplative time. There are so many distractions: celebrity gossip! sports trivia! bad plastic surgery! The list goes on.
Poor Environments Decrease IQ
The other extremely interesting finding concerns the difference between rich and poor environments. Genetics were far more predictive of intellectual functioning in poor environments; in rich ones, children were able to make gains regardless of the kind of parent (attentive or inattentive) they were born to. This tells us that environment matters a great deal. While children are not all “created equalgenetically, enriched environments tend to benefit all, and average environments give people a fighting chance. A poor one makes improving one’s functioning hard, indeed. This tells us that decent levels of education, nutrition, and opportunity during childhood can have real effects.
Gopnik discusses how epigenetic effects involve nurture reshaping nature. What about the effects in which nature reshapes nurture? It works both ways. For example, the temperament and emotional functioning of a parent can affect the way he or she nurtures. We know that depression in a parent can depress functioning in a child, and that the younger the child the stronger the impact, since the parent constitutes such a large part of the small child’s environment.
We need to address biological (i.e. nature) problems when they arise and treat them; we also need to support (and therefore nurture) parents in their demanding job. We need adequate healthcare for everyone and stronger support networks around families. And the more people who love a child, the better. We make up for one another’s lacks and glitches. It really does take a village to raise a child to full health and well-being.
The child’s temperament and emotional functioning also affect the parent’s well-being, and in turn the quality of the parent’s nurturing behavior. So the chain goes on and on. In fortunate situations, the loop improves and both parent and child have potential to thrive. In “the average expectable environment, both can do well. But in poor and multi-problem environments, there is potential for deterioration. Many chronic social problems get their beginning in just these situations.
Laissez-faire social policy makes sense if most homes, schools, and neighborhoods for children are average or above. But it is a prescription for disaster in deprived and troubled situations. Kids’ whole lives can be ruined from very young ages if nothing in a compromised setting changes. But it’s not only the child who is affected. Our society as a whole pays, also, for the effects of job, marital, family, substance, medical and psychological problems. These findings can prompt our governments, towns, and churches devise plans of action to raise all boats.
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