The age old debate over the formative influence of nature versus nurture presents itself to me as a question writ large on a giant billboard on the side of the road. Orr, my eighteen year old son recently embarked on his college journey, zooms by on the way to the rest of his life. What part of this wonderful, curious, earnest, effort avoidant and aggressively independent young man is a product of the organic, future positive environment we provided for him to grow up in, and what part is simply his true nature shining through.
The kinetics of bicycle-riding stimulate the memetics of writing. The meme for today day is the nature verses nurture debate which was offered to me by a segment of the Hidden Brain podcast that I’d been listening to on my daily bike ride through the Berkeley hills. My regular morning rides often give me something to think about and Hidden Brain has proven to be a reliable source of food for for my hungry mind. It keeps rising in my estimation among the many available to me. Its host, Shankar Vidantam, is rising along with it as a thoughtful social science storyteller with an incisive mind and matter-of-fact discipline.
Today he discussed sex and gender, presenting arguments for a natural versus cultural basis of identity, personality and ability. He set the frame for a science based discussion with the brouhaha caused recently by a memo written by Google engineer James Damore. Damore’s claim that there aren’t more female engineers at Google because women are less suited to high-status positions, resulted in his firing and becoming a cause celebre for the “nature” crowd. To counter the furore that followed, he took umbrage in the science that shows that women are simply different to men and that it is only by acknowledging those differences that we might find solutions to the technology gap. The “nurture” people weren’t having any of it with science of their own.
What struck me is how directly the design consciousness framework that I’ve been thinking about of late is able to illuminate this generally intractable debate. In a nutshell, design consciousness, as I’ve been writing, is our awareness of ourselves as a prime mover along with the forces of nature, shaping the world we live in so that it is adapted to suit our selves – body, mind and spirit. We acquired this adaptive creative instinct while hunting and gathering with simply tools on the African savanna at the dawn of our being. More recently we have turned it into a disciplined practice by which we design buildings and cities, cars and culture, websites and greeting cards. Once we had established the survival benefits of making better tools we evolved opposable thumbs to gain dexterity for better tool making, and to be better equipped to handle the tools we made. Co-creation between nature and culture is central to our awareness of ourselves as a creator species. If we see that, then we must also see that even our sexual nature is in large part an object of our own creation and constantly in a state of formation and re-formation. Vidantam walked me through the research that confirms that within a strict nature versus nurture frame, the discussion is intractable.