Born or Raised, Nature or Nurture?

Published 1-16-2017

For centuries there has been a robust discussion concerning the relative importance of nature and nurture with respect to the traits humans develop. Are human traits inherent and innate or are they environmentally and culturally determined? Stated differently, are we born with our human traits, or do they manifest themselves as we are raised by parents and shaped by our environment—relatives, teachers, and society? To answer this complex question, we recognize several stages of historical focus on these questions. John Locke in 1690 promoted the “blank slate” idea. Locke saw the human as being totally produced by factors in his environment.

In the intervening centuries, philosophers such as Rene Descartes speculated on innatism, the concept that man possesses significant knowledge inherently and innately. Not all knowledge is gained from experience according to that belief. Since Charles Darwin’s time, behavioral scientists have fluctuated between the relative importance of our innate characteristics and the nurture acquired by our environment in the shaping of our total humanity.

In the past few decades our knowledge has been fueled by a significant advance in knowledge of genetics and the influence of environmental factors. The modern view does not tilt heavily toward either nature or nurture to the exclusion of the other. Instead, each complements the other. For discussion purposes, we term this dualism the genetic-environmental interaction. Philosophers, theologians, and scientists continue to be occupied by the discussion. As we study the subject of giftedness and prodigies our attention often shifts to fascinating causes and effects.

The “nature or nurture” dualism enters the discussion. Lately we have been treated to televised confirmation hearings of cabinet nominees in the administration of our newly elected American president. Gifted and talented candidates appeared before U. S. Senate committees to explain their background and qualifications for various important governmental posts. On Thursday, January 11, 2017 Dr. Ben Carson, formerly a candidate for the nation’s highest office, appeared as a candidate for Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The brilliant neurosurgeon recounted his fascinating background as he prepared for his life’s work as a young person. Dr. Carson serves as a case study in the nature vs nurture discussion.

The child of divorced parents, Carson characterized himself as a “terrible” student. His mother refused to accept assistance from social welfare agencies. She insisted on a schedule for the young Carson to discover the value of reading and move upon his own motivation to travel his road of life from bottom to top. The now familiar story of Ben Carson’s success includes earning a scholarship to Yale and eventually becoming a famous pediatric neurosurgeon, performing “breathtaking life-changing surgeries.” No one is qualified to tell the story of the human brain better than Dr. Carson.

Human achievement of people of ordinary intelligence and achievement, to less common gifted individuals, to the true prodigies perhaps numbering less than one individual in a million or less, comprises the total spectrum of humanity. Scientific knowledge reveals that total physiological function, human consciousness, and ultimately all human achievement springs from brain activity. Dr. Carson’s testimony last week before the senate committee inspires renewed awe for the processes of the human brain. “We have to develop all of our talent….” Speaking of one’s profession, the doctor stated, “There’s an assumption that you can do only one thing—that we have these limited brains and that we are incapable or learning anything else.”

One of Dr. Carson’s most startling statements in his 15-minute opening statement consisted of his brief synopsis of the functioning brain. He stated, “I find it humorous, particularly knowing what the brain is capable of—billions of neurons, hundreds of billions of interconnections, can process more than 2 million bits of information in one second…any brain can do that. You can’t overload it.”

Is Dr. Carson a prodigy? According to the research on prodigies who manifest their unique talents before the age of 10, he is not a prodigy in the classic sense. He is superbly gifted, however, with diverse talents evolving as he developed into adulthood. The interplay of nature and nurture find unique fulfillment in the life of Dr. Benjamin Solomon Carson.

If Dr. Carson’s statement, “Any brain can do that” is correct, how do we account for the difference between average intelligence, giftedness, and the unique achievements of true prodigies? Were we to actually view the buzz of trillions of electrical messages pulsing through billions of neurons each moment of our lives, would neuroscientists be able to explain the existence of human consciousness and productivity? This post does not pretend to answer that question. Neither does Psalm 139:14: “We are fearfully and wonderfully made,” does not answer the question of “How?” The psalmist’s exultation serves to inspire and strengthen personal devotion and love for the omnipotent and omniscient Creator of human life.

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