Thursday, October 4, 2007

Nature vs. Nurture

I wrote a post here on competition in children and the gender differences that I saw in the classroom. In one of the comments Fairlane (I hope you don't mind me reusing your words again here) responded,

I'm not so sure it's simply "social programming." Look at how we lived for 90% of our time on this planet. Males, in general, are physically stronger than women (We know testosterone increases muscle mass), and it was men who did most of the "hunting and warring." (If not all). Women did the "gathering," which is a more social behavior, and is not as competitive. In a hunting or war party, (Although I've never been in either) I imagine you don't speak as much, and it's very competitive... I'm not saying people "have" to be a certain way, but there's little doubt evolution has played a significant part in our "gender roles."

The Gourmet Goddess took exception to what Fairlane had posted and responded on her own blog (after getting her permission I am reprinting this as she said that she did not want to offend anyone),

Um, the "man the hunter" theory has actually been pretty well debunked over time. Men, evidence is finding, were probably the primary hunters (or scavengers) of large game, usually in groups (which seems to me to be a pretty, ahem, social, cooperative activity as is going together as a war band to destroy your rivals). Women were the primary getters of food through gathering, fishing, as well as hunting small game and birds. And this idea that women are not as aggressive as men? Said commenter has obviously never been to an after-Thanksgiving sale at Target or the Filene's Basement bridal event.

These two comments made me think of the nature versus nurture debate that seems to spring eternal in child development. It also can come into play with discussing the sexual preferences of people. Basically this debate is whether we are inborn with certain characteristics that we cannot change such as sexuality, temperament and intelligence (nature) or whether these characteristics are a factor of our upbringing (nurture), yes there is more to this debate than that, but for now this is what is important. So, when I say that the boys in my class tend to be more aggressive in competition, people on the nature side of the debate say that this is merely evolution at work and that it is a genetic trait that causes this aggression and men are predisposed toward more aggressive nature. It is in our DNA. While those who argue for nurture say that it is the way in which children are raised with the violent media and the emphasis on aggression as the tool for boys to use to solve conflict.

I tend to see most human behavior as a combination of both nature and nurture. I see the aggressive behavior that is displayed by the boys and the less confrontational manner of girls to be a combination of these two factors. Part of my thoughts are that children this young do not have a firm grasp on gender roles, yet. This is easily evidenced when I have a little boy say that that he is the mommy or the sister and the little girls who sys that she is the daddy or the brother. Mommies and sisters have to be female and daddies and brothers have to be male. I am not saying a child cannot have two mommies or two daddies, but I am saying that the female cannot be called a daddy and the male cannot be called a mommy. Our language has established the names for the male and female caregivers and we cannot arbitrarily change that. I am not commenting on the connotation of what a mommy or daddy is, just that language has determined these are the words we use for a female caregiver, mommy, and male caregiver, daddy. So when children do not identify the correct gender word with the correct gender child it is a prime example of the fluidity of gender roles for children. There is actually a lot of research that says that children are still defining gender roles at this young age, I do not have in front of my know, but if requested I can find some. So back to the expected gender stereotypical response to conflict, I am not totally sold on the fact that children respond purely based upon nurture, I believe that there must be some nature that affects children's responses to conflict. But on the other hand we are bombarding children constantly with our cultural expectations for each gender, children are certainly assimilating much of this into their psyche and utilizing it whether they realize it or not. There is simply no way of knowing which one, nature or nurture, affects a child more. The only way to really find out would be construct an experiment where a child would receive no human contact at all and then see how they reacted to certain situations after a period of time. Since this is totally unethical, it will never happen and so are basically stuck trying to guess at and use other scientific experiments to determine the affect of nature versus nurture.

The other thought I have is that this seems to be a chicken or the egg situation, which came first the way in which children are nurtured or the way in which nature has designed humans. Did we first notice that males seem to be stronger (I am not arguing that they are or aren't here) and then our culture decided to condition children to this or did we condition males to be stronger living in a patriarchal society and then based upon this we created males that seem to be stronger (again not arguing that they are or aren't stronger here)?

If you agree or disagree, please comment here, as I am constantly struggling with this whole nature versus nurture debate. I know this seems to go without saying, but I wanted to say it anyway.


fairlane said...

It's kind of silly to ask if I mind, after the fact.

But no, not at all.

Maybe at last people will honestly discuss a topic, really discuss it, instead of parroting one another because they're afraid of "offending" someone.

I know, I know, I'm such a hopeless romantic.

GourmetGoddess said...

Listen, I don't like offending anyone (except the horribly orthodox, who are offended by my mere existence) on the blogosphere and especially on my blog, because it is really just a glorified diary and recipe holder and a way to help educate my family a bit. And I don't know anyone. You can't tell sarcasm from writing, always. You don't know people's intentions. And it is far too easy to come off as nasty, even if you had no intention of doing so.

The main thrust of my post, other than its snarky beginning, is that dualism is too simplistic. It's not nature vs nurture, man vs woman, aggressive vs passive. It's more complex than that. It's nature and nurture and class and race and history, ad naseum. I, for one, greatly enjoy picking apart myelf to see which part of my behavior and thinking is most influenced by these different aspects. It's almost better than checkers.

And is there a particular reason why we can't call a man a "mommy"? In the study of theology, which is my field of academia, there is a strong understanding that language creates and controls reality. The divine has word power all on its own, but if enough humans work together, we can claim word power for our own. We create new words all the time. We bring new definitions to words all the time. We reclaim negative words all the time, and make them strong and powerful. What if enough of us decided that a mommy wasn't a female caretaker and a daddy wasn't a male caretaker, but that each of those words could be used to describe individuals that had specific behaviors and no biological component was added in? What would our reality be then?

Comrade Kevin said...

I don't know if we'll ever know for sure. I tend to come down on the side of biology and here's why.

I had a pretty frank discussion with a female-to-male transgender person about three years ago. This person had recently been undergoing hormone therapy and had been receiving weekly injections of testosterone.

Said person remarked that after having received the testosterone shots, the degree of hostility and anger said person felt in social situations was noticeably higher. While said person was riding said person's (I'm no good with alternative pronouns) bike through the city streets, said person developed a much more potent, powerful sense of road rage and an openly aggressive response to the world around said person.

However, I'm sure that nurture does factor in too. I just feel as though the nature element has more of an impact.

Boxer rebel said...

Fairlane- your comment was already on here so I felt Ok using it, but had you asked me not to then I would have deleted this whole post and started anew. I agreed with you and that is why I used your thoughts.

Gourmet-I may not have done a good job here, but that was my intention. That the dualism of nature vs. nurture is too simplistic, but that we must pull from both strains of thought. No, there is no reason a male caregiver cannot be called a mommy, but our language has dualized (is that even a word?) the gender roles and so that is the word that is used. Yes we could change it and we should start using my gender neutral words such as caregiver, but most people would not understand this and the connotations for mommy are so clear that most people would not want to change. Society is like that, it doesn't like change and we are so brainwashed that we do not want to truly look at how our language frames our entire existence.

Kevin- I understand where you are coming from. But I still wonder if that person was not already feeling more "male" and so was ingrained with the male brainwashing that we have.

Again, as I said before I do not know and I think about this regularly in my own life and in the interactions I have with the children and adults I come in contact with.

DCup said...

Interesting post with lots of thought provoking ideas.

I tend to think that both nature and nurture play parts, shifting in primacy.

When I started raising children, I believed in the silly notions of gender neutrality. The females got cars and trucks and Barbies. The Boy was never given a toy weapon.

The result? The Eldest ignored her cars and trucks which The Boy happily usurped when he came along use them to run over the Barbies.

And it didn't take long for him to learn how to use Legos to build a pistol.

At that point, I decided that the best thing I could do was make sure that the females knew how to change tires and oil and the male knew how to cook and bake.

fairlane said...


I was just messing with you. I'm glad you posted it because this is an important issue.

In fact, I think I'm going to post on this issue myself one day this week.

In my opinion, both sides (Liberals and Wingnuts) have an agenda for their so-called "theories," and spin and revise history to suit their needs.

Personally, I think they, for the most part, are full of crap.

GourmetGoddess said...

History is one of those subjects I never studied until grad school, because I had terrible teachers in high school and so I just avoided it. I actually enjoy history in grad school, especially once I came to realize how much of what we think of as "history" is really constructed by the present.