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Why the Topic of Bioethics in Science Classes?

A New Look at an Old Debate

by Carolyn Csongradi


What Is The Relationship Between "Nature" And "Nurture" In The Acquisition Of Knowledge?


"Nature" is more influential than "nurture":

Knowledge arises from genetic information honed by a process of natural selection. Some portions of this knowledge might be nurtured, but genetically determined forms also may modify how we categorize our experiences.

Evolutionary view:

From an evolutionary point of view, certain things we know about the world are innate, although modifiable by interactions with family, education, religion and society. This knowledge about objects and what is valued is "natural" having been selectively reinforced over time. For instance, pack behavior observed in wolves is a form of collective behavior which supports kinship preferences and caring, while perpetuating a common genetic pool. These core values, associated with social groups, were used long ago by individuals who were successful in their primitive world and had the greatest chance of procreation. Accurately understanding the world enhanced both group and individual survival.

During the 1800's, Charles Darwin speculated that certain rules for conflict arbitration were needed at the point in time when a species evolved a longer memory, a keener imagination and became involved in social contracts.(29) For example, a bird, which could leave an active nest to migrate with her group, choosing that instinct over the one to nurture, would find this choice too difficult with a better memory. He argued that certain instincts, such as caring for young as opposed to making a rapid decision to leave, were preferentially selected in any conflict because those values had longer lasting consequences. (30) A reasonable alternative interpretation might be that those behaviors encouraging the survival of young also perpetuated those genes which might select for altruism at least among relatives. This form of altruism enhances the survival of the genotype of the altruist. Altruism for non-relatives is quite a different story because the personal pay-off or gain is less easily discerned.

Neurological studies:

Oliver Sacks, author and neurologist, has devoted much of his recent book to describing the unique behavior of a group of his patients who are savants.(37) A savant is someone who demonstrates an extraordinary talent in a particular field such as art, music, or mathematics. A large percentage of savants are autistic with limitations in their ability to personally relate to others. Sacks became "friends" with a young boy named Stephen, who was an autistic savant, capable of memorizing complex scenery at a glance and retaining the information for months. When asked he would accurately construct a pen and ink sk etch from what he had observed earlier. He started his pictures at one edge of the paper, working across to the other edge, filling in the framework and all the details without an outline. While drawing, "the house could come down" and Stephen would not notice. He sometimes took artistic license and added features which did not originally exist, but the basics, the original flavor, remained. In a sense, having demonstrated his enormous talent at an early age, he had little need for nurture - from the environment or from other humans.

Philosophical discussion:

In examining the relationship between what was inherited and what was learned from experience, philosophers Hume and Kant were echoed by the behaviorist, Freud, when they spoke of nature's contribution as a force to be reckoned with, educated or subdued. Human nature was always a "fact" to contend with. In a more extreme view from the 1500's, Descartes questioned whether anything existed outside of the mind. He finally conceded that if there were real things instead of only our thoughts about them, God was responsible for the interpretation. Kant, who realized that Descartes' position made all knowledge subjective to each individual, tried to move away from this restrictive view and proposed that the mind was an active participant in knowledge acquisition, constructing certain aspects of an experience. Kant believed we inherited certain categories or concept grids on which experiences could be sorted or organized. (5)

To understand how the mind might "construct" an experience, the following experiment should be helpful. Obtain three bowls each holding about a gallon of liquid. Arrange them so that the first bowl contains hot water; the second, tepid; and the third, very cold water. Simultaneously, place your left hand in the hot water and you right in the cold. Wait one minute and immerse both hands in the tepid water. What has each hand told you about the temperature? Additional examples of the mind's involvement in interpreting experience are seen with optical illusions, the unnoticed retinal "blind spot" and other adaptive behaviors found in the nervous system.

One of the problems with a purely "nature" based argument is how to explain the existence or continuing survival of certain values which may involve actions for which there is no obvious natural selection pressure. For example, why should a choice be made contrary to an individual's stated preferences or which may result in actual punishment? Altruism for non-related individuals, truthfulness and justice as fairness are values difficult to support from an evolutionary view, particularly when some choices cause the death of an individual, effectively removing those genes from the pool. Hypothesizing these as primarily inherited values would generate a requirement for a very complex set of genetic directions having a large common human base of reference. The search for a potential common morality has provoked more debate than agreement among anthropologists, theologians, and philosophers.(33)


Nature and Nurture Continued:

Nurture Contributes More Than Nature


Reasoning Processes


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