New Thinking: Nature and Nurture … And Bootstrapping
A common controversy regarding human development centres around two opposing ideas about what makes people who they are – are we the people that we are due to our inbuilt nature, or is it because of the nurturing we have received? Or some mixture of nature and nurture? Research suggests that it’s more than just that.
Our first position – nature
This question has been in people’s minds for a long time. Historically, it was commonly thought that people were largely the product of their unvarying, inbuilt nature, with our personalities given to us by our genes.
Family members were seen like pots coming off the potter’s wheel – a little bit different perhaps, but all made of the same clay and essentially the same. If you were a significantly different in personality or looks, there were suspicions about your paternity. This view has people as being quite fixed in their personalities, unchanging through time.
Nurture enters the picture
However, with the advent of humanistic thinking, we began to see people as unique, and formed theories about how personalities were strongly influenced by the upbringing given to us by our parents. Some went so far as to say it was the only influence. If there were similarities within family members, it was put down to child-rearing in a family being much the same through the generations – you ultimately mother your children in the same way that your mother mothered you, or so the theory went.
Of course, both of these extreme positions are not realistic. It isn’t really tenable to say that your entire personality is the creation of your parents, as there will be some elements of you which are going to be reminiscent of family traits, despite differences in the way that you were raised. Similarly, it is also unrealistic to say we are totally the product of our genes as we see differences in identical twins raised in different ways.
The theory then evolved into the idea that all of us are some combination of these two elements – some parts of your personality are inherited, some parts are based on upbringing. Although you might have these elements combine in different ways in siblings, you are a combination of only these two things – nature and nurture.
This position makes a sort of intuitive sense – we can see how the boy is like the father in looks and manner, but we can also see how he blossoms when he is treated well, and shrinks when he isn’t. It is also quite a self-correcting theory – when we see something in the behaviour of a child that doesn’t fit with her upbringing, we put it down to genes; when a girl breaks out of the family rut we put it down to her experiences.
… and then there is bootstrapping
However, there is an interesting wrinkle to this as proposed by Gerald Edelman. He proposes that there is a third force at work here, one of ‘bootstrapping’. Bootstrapping is those unique parts of the personality that arise as a result of nature and nurture. He is saying that there is a part of us which is our very own, that grows out of the complex interplay of nature and nurture to create something unpredictable and unique.
This idea is supported by our dawning understanding about the plasticity of the brain. The actual physical structure of the brain is initially set by genetic factors, but then the experiences that we have will cause certain connections to grow and other connections to wither. Our thinking – our own thoughts – will cause our brain to develop in an absolutely unique way.
I find this heartening; we can be more than the product of our ancestors, and more then the effect of our upbringing – we can be, in some ways, the product of ourselves.
– Tim Hill