Nature or Nurture?
- Published: 10 July 2010
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Through the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, arguments for nature or nurture as the primary explanations for human behaviour have swung back and forth like a pendulum. Rosalie Scolari looks at their impact on gender and sexuality.
The ancient debate over the relative contributions of inheritance and experience to the human condition has never been more charged than in the genetic age.
On one side stood those who sought and saw genetic explanations for human psychology; on the other, those who believed it to be moulded by culture. Two key areas in which the nature versus nurture debate continue to play out are around gender and sexuality.
A closer look at gender construction
Biological paradigms for explaining human behaviour go in and out of favour depending on the ideological or political inclinations of an era. The focal points of biological explanations shift too, so where biological arguments once focused on reproductive systems, the emphasis these days in on how the brain functions.
This indicates that culturally these explanations serve to prop up what are largely ideological concepts of masculinity and femininity.
Biological models for understanding human behaviour rely on the idea that innate biological differences between males and females ‘program’ distinct social behaviours for men and women. This is called biological determinism.
Socially based frameworks, such as those coming from the fields of cultural anthropology or sociology, look at variations in behaviours and gender attributes. These approaches highlight the socialisation process that teaches boys and girls to live up the expectations for their respective genders.
Science definitely has its place in helping us to understand our biological selves. But in our culture these days, science puts a seal of approval on issues that often have political components as well as biological ones. We need to remember that science does not equal fact. Science equals fact, plus ideology, plus politics.
Science is often used to explain or justify supposedly inherent trait of masculinity and femininity. We see gender myths wend their way into popular culture and politics specifically when arguments rely on so-called scientific experts to explain questions such as why men rape. Often it reveals more about Western culture than it does about scientific data.
For instance in 2004, Time magazine ran ‘Our Cheating Hearts’ a cover story on infidelity, offering an evolutionary explanation for why men cheat on partners. Muscle and Fitness magazine used a theory of male and female sexual phycology in its 1994 article “Man the Visual Animal” to “prove” that men are born to leer at women.
‘The Biology of Attraction’ featured in Men’s Health magazine, explained to readers in 2005 that alleged primal evolutionary fertility signals gave the green light to men to ogle young women.
We need to remember that these science-based rationalisations ignore other explanations for human behaviour, such as how institutions and social practices create a context that gives men access to women’s sexualised bodies.
In their introduction to Men’s Lives, Michael Kimmel and Michael Messner point out that the transformation from factual information, to ideological story is a sleight of hand where “observed normative differences between women and men that are assumed to be of the biological origin are easily translated into political prescription”.
In other words, “what is normative (i.e. what is prescribed) is translated into what is normal.” This point is important as it has real consequences when science is used to justify what are actually cultural beliefs about gender.
When observed normative differences between men and women are assumed to have biological origins, we end up with arguments that reinforce stereotypes about gender, and ultimately serve as excuses to keep women from achieving equality.
For instance, author George Gilder argues that male sexuality is, by nature, “wild and lusty” – unless women control it. If women don’t control men’s sexuality, Gilder writes, they are abandoning their “natural” function.
According to this line of thought, employment opportunities, sex education, abortion, and birth control all encourage women to turn their backs on their so-called natural roles.
Like Gilder, University of Virginia professor Steven Rhoads argues that gender equality is a pipe dream because men and women are born with different “natures.” Rhoads relies on evolutionary theories to presume that any biological difference necessarily results in prescribed gender roles in the work place, home and family.
Scientists and scholars such as Gilder and Rhoads are engaged in knowledge production. When biased perspectives about gender get picked up as quotes in popular culture outlets, like magazines or the evening news, scientific explorations become conflated with fact and we begin to assume that the suggestions are of the “experts” are the truth.
Underlying bias or ideological assumptions get overlooked and, instead biological arguments for behaviour are commonly accepted as casual explanations.
But the leap from discussions about biological differences, to arguments that women and men should participate in different behaviours is misleading. There is no logical reason to assume biology causes behaviour in a linear fashion.
In 1949, French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote in The Second Sex, “Woman is made, not born.” We can borrow from de Beauvoir to say also that man is made, not born. If we can understand gender as fluid, and if we can see certain outcomes of gender socialisation, then we can change the institutional arrangements that encourage, support and prop up particular behaviours.
The sexuality debate
In a different vein, nature debates over sexuality centre around a person’s sexual orientation being decided by heredity and genes.
Research suggests that the homosexual orientation is in place very early in the life cycle, possibly even before birth. It is found in about 10% of the population, a figure which is surprisingly constant across cultures, irrespective of the different moral values and standards of a particular culture.
Studies conducted on the subject of homosexuality have focused on a range of possible genetic factors to link biological and hormonal factors to sexual orientation, from the size of one’s finger lengths, to fraternal birth order, to the number of ridges on one’s fingertips, to under-exposure (for gay men) or over-exposure (for lesbians) of prenatal androgens, among many others.
Some of the most cited studies have been conducted on twins – both those that were raised in the same household, and those who were separated at birth and raised in different families.
Among both populations, researchers have found ample evidence to suggest a biological connection to homosexuality, particularly among identical twins separated at birth. In these cases, when one identical twin identified as gay, the other identical twin also identified as gay more than 50% of the time – despite being raised in a completely separate environment.
Nurture proponents, which have typically included populations that view homosexuality as aberrant or sinful (though not always), have rejected any sole biological influence for homosexuality, and suggest that one’s sexual orientation is an individual choice and/or is caused by environmental factors dictated after birth.
Reasons given by nurture proponents for homosexuality have been as varied as estranged relationships between gay children and their parents, to allowing male children to play with dolls, to not forming healthy same-sex bonds with peers as a toddler, to sexual abuse at a young age, to name a few.
Nurture proponents often see sexuality as something that can be changed, altered or suppressed, which has led to a number of gay rehabilitation programs. These programs, mostly run by religious organisations, paint same-sex attractions as unwanted and often suggest that individuals can control their sexuality through prayer or biblical resolution.
Science, to a large extent, has debunked most ex-gay therapy programs and has noted the devastating tolls these programs take on gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer individuals.
Many others believe that homosexuality is caused by a combination of biological, hormonal and environmental factors, merging the nature vs. nurture debate into one argument.
Others believe in a sexuality scale, like the one championed by Alfred Kinsey, that suggest a person’s sexual history or sexual identity may fluctuate along a continuum between exclusively homosexual and exclusively heterosexual, and can be influenced by both environmental and biological factors.
Increasingly, however, the nature side of the debate is winning out in scientific circles.
But as scientific evidence points more and more toward a biological or hormonal cause for homosexuality, concern over efforts to “cure” any biological or hormonal cause of homosexuality have surfaced.
In his article, ‘Sexual Reorientation: The Gay Culture War is About to Turn Chemical’ William Saletan notes that with increasing scientific evidence that sexual orientation develops before birth, many who were once in the nurture camp are condoning efforts to find ways to alter the genetic, hormonal and biological factors that might determine one’s sexuality.
Saletan quotes Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who says, “If a biological basis is found [for homosexuality], and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use.”
Saletan also quotes Rev. Joseph Fessio, editor of Ignatius Press (Pope Benedict XVI’s English publisher), who says that because homosexuality is seen as a disorder within the Catholic Church, the Church would look favourably upon efforts to modify any neurobiological factor that results in homosexuality.
In the short-term, however, increasing scientific evidence supporting a nature argument for homosexuality has helped redirect the debate over whether one’s sexuality is a lifestyle choice or a personal orientation.
This paradigm shift, according to researchers, could have a major impact in combating negative perceptions of homosexuality. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the neurobiological explanations for homosexuality will lead to opponents pushing for ways to use science to overturn one’s sexuality.
For me, critiquing the debates surrounding sexuality and gender, show the sterility of the old nature-nurture debate.
We can see how science and data can be manipulated to serve a particular standpoint, and how science can be shaped by our cultural ideals.
It is my belief that nature works through nurture, and nurture through nature, on an individual level, to shape our personalities, aptitudes, health and behaviour.
For me, the question should therefore not be which is the dominant influence, but how they fit together.
Rosalie Scolari is a 26-year-old queer, residing in Melbourne, Australia. Despite having a deep dislike for assignments and a strong love for wine, friends, art and dancing, Rosalie has degrees in sociology (Hons), community development and education. When she is not pretending to be a dedicated student, she is a nanny for two beautiful boys, involved in various social justice campaigns, or more often than not, has her nose in a book.