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On “nature and nurture …”

17 October, 2015

Dear Editor,

I cannot remain silent in view of the suggestion in your editorial of 11 October entitled “Need and Greed” that the needy are inherently (at birth) unequal in gifts and talents. The editorial suggests a direct correlation between such inequalities and poverty. In reference to the late Prime Minister Mr. George Price, the editorial described him as always having a real concern for the poor; that in fact it appeared that Mr. Price had become a socialist, meaning Mr. Price believed that the state, the government, should work to ensure that the natural inequalities amongst Belizeans did not become cancerous. Please allow me the following in which I draw from many sources and from my own training and experiences in working with the poor.

Your editorial came down in no uncertain terms on the side of nature in the debate on Nature vs Nurture. It stated that “in any field of endeavor, some humans will surge ahead of others and that is because of intrinsic inequalities in gifts and talents.” Yes, some people do better than others but is, it because of intrinsic inequalities in gifts and talents? In many fields it is widely agreed that nature and nurture constantly influence one another, and in other fields that the dividing line between an inherited and an acquired trait becomes unclear. Hardly anyone today accepts either of the extreme position of nature or nurture, and most scholars of human development regard an all-or-nothing view as outdated.

Researchers are now interested in investigating the ways in which nature and nurture interact. I’d like to point out that these studies are also interested in why our ability to learn new skills changes as we age. Heredity and the environment do not act independently in influencing the person we become; both nature and nurture factors have been found to contribute substantially, often in what is described as an “extricable” manner. I’d like to add that environment includes such factors as nutrition, from conception, and even personal decisions, e.g., Rich Boy may decide he does not need to develop any talent other than riding the coattails of the family name and wealth; likewise Poor Boy, whom teachers have labeled “duncey,” may accept that that’s what he is.

I recall a ruckus in the United States in the Black community around the issue of African Americans scoring significantly much lower than Whites in I.Q. tests. In geneticist circles these scores implied that genetic factors were mainly responsible. In the view of those environmentalists (many Black) rebuffing this theory, the differences in scores were due to built-in biases in the methods of testing, that is, that the methods were geared to “White” points of references, “White” vocabulary, etc. and, more fundamentally, that differences in intellectual ability are a product of social inequalities in access to material resources and opportunities. To put it simply, children brought up in the ghetto tend to score lower on tests because they are denied the same life chances as more privileged members of society.

A simple illustration is taken from an episode of the 1970’s sitcom Good Times, which every Black person, yours truly included, watched every week. A young Michael, always ever so outspoken about racial biases in Chicago where the Evans family lived, had decided not to finish an intelligence test because he did not like the questions. “I walked out,” he told his parents. “That exam was nothing but a white racist test… given by the white people, made up by white people and even graded by white people.” One question, for example, asked which of the following words best matched the word “cup” — “wall,” “saucer,” “table” or “window”? Michael’s friend Eddie, presumably an African-American, chose “table,” because in his house, Michael said, there are no saucers to put under the cups.

A 1995 American Psychological Association’s report “Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns” states “there is no doubt that normal child development requires a certain minimum level of responsible care.” Here, environment is playing a role in what is believed to be fully genetic, intelligence that is, but it was found that severely deprived, neglectful, or abusive environments have highly negative effects on many aspects of children’s intellect development. This may tie in with a later article in Current Directions in Psychological Science which talks about the basis of cognitive plasticity (the capacity to learn and improve cognitive skills such as problem-solving and remembering events) being the cortical modules, vertical columns of interconnected neuronal cells. These networks of neurons develop over time and structural changes generated by development and learning experiences may also contribute to individual differences in intelligence.

Finally, one can be gifted and poor! Scholars, and lay people who care to pay keen attention, agree that intelligence, like many human behaviors, is a complex, many-sided phenomenon which is revealed, or not, in myriad ways. Let’s consider also that society puts different values on the different ways in which intelligence is manifested, values talents differently, and treats individuals accordingly. I point to an example in said October 11 issue of your paper, the article “A stick of weed – the price of a life”, and the accompanying picture of a sculpture of a lion made from zericote wood by an inmate serving time ‘for lee bit a weed!’  Considering the inmate makeup of the prison, presumably the inmate is from the poor side of town, one of the needy, has less than secondary schooling and is untrained in any skill. In another place and time the young artist could rise to the level of a Michelangelo! Some may view that as an exaggeration. I’m making a point. The reality is that nature and environment/culture interact in a host of qualitatively different ways.

The belief in natural inequalities between social groups, even the natural superiority of one race over another, has been put into practice many times throughout history with dire consequences, in recent times most significantly in justifying the trans-Atlantic slave trade (Blacks were seen as inferior intellectually but with physical attributes perfectly suitable for labor) and the atrocities in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. This view very often spawns disputes about distributive and social justice and power in society. Perhaps it is that very belief operating throughout the world that accounts in great part for the reason poverty has not been eliminated.

The poor in Belize, across the planet for that matter, have enough going against them and do not need another label.


Beryl Young

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