I’ve been amused for years by society’s attempts to blame culture for things that are obviously biological. This is the old nature vs. nurture debate. Naturally, I could never prove that nature was primarily responsible by coherent debate alone, although it was always fun trying. I suspect that those who blame nurture and culture do so because that promises feasible ways to fix problems. They believe that once they educate the misguided, everyone will be able to live happily ever after. On the other hand, if nature is responsible, then we are out of the loop and seemingly left helpless at the whim of Mother Nature (1).
It cheers me up whenever scientific research digs up evidence that helps settle the issue. The Science News article, Female chimps play with dolls, pushes back on blaming a supposedly male chauvinist culture for gender inequality. Here is an excerpt:
“Although play choices of young chimps showed no evidence of being directly influenced by older chimps, young females tended to carry sticks in a manner suggestive of doll use and play-mothering,” Wrangham says. (Child-bearing females never played with sticks and thus didn’t model such behavior for younger chimps.)
“These new data suggest that sex differences in how children play may go way back in our evolutionary lineage and predate socialization in human cultures,”
Certainly, culture plays a role. The style of the dolls girls play with will vary from culture to culture. Even so, the bottom line is nature. Our primal genetic makeup lays the foundation — the mold — upon which cultural idiosyncrasies form. The emergent property idea is a useful way to picture this natural process expressed in culture. (See Tao as Emergent Property.)
A person born 15,000 years ago with the genetic ‘balls’ to head toward the rising Sun could have been the first to discover America. A person with the same genetic makeup, a clone if you will, born today could become the first to land on Mars. Culture determines the ‘look’ (the body) of one’s actions; natural genetics determines the ‘feel’ (the spirit) of one’s actions. One caveat: Stressful nurturing during childhood can affect emotional development negatively. For example, an aboriginal kid with the same genetic makeup as an urban street thug, or a Jared Loughner, yet spared the chaos and disconnection of a modern cultural environment growing up, would naturally turn out strikingly different.
(1) The wish to avoid feeling helpless is probably one major reason that belief in free will is so irresistible. I was only able to accept the likely absence of free will as I became more comfortable with feeling helpless. I imagine embracing Buddha’s Noble Truths played a role too.