The False Dichotomy of Nature-Nurture

Massimo Pigliucci argues against the simplicities of nature versus nurture as they are manifest in debates over gender and race.


This is my third essay on what has become an informal series on socially relevant false dichotomies (the first one was on “trigger warnings” [1], the second one on Islamophobia [2]). On this occasion I’m going to focus again on nature-nurture [3], perhaps the motherlode of false dichotomies (as well as my area of technical expertise as a practicing biologist [4]).

The occasion is provided by recent controversies concerning the delicate concepts of gender and race, where once again — as in both the cases of trigger warnings and of Islamophobia — I see well intentioned progressives needlessly (in my mind) and harshly attacking fellow progressives, or at the least, people who ought to be their natural political allies. (As in the other two cases, I will ignore contributions from the right and from libertarians, on the ground that I find them both less constructive and less surprising than those from the sources I will be discussing here.)

Let me start with gender. I read with fascination a New York Times op-ed piece by feminist Elinor Burkett entitled “What makes a woman?” [5] explaining why a number of feminists have issues with certain aspects of the transgender movement, and in particular why Burkett had mixed feelings about the very public coming out of Caitlyn Jenner [6].

First, Jenner: Burkett says that of course she supports a member of an often vilified gender minority when that person makes the sort of courageous statement that Jenner did by appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. But, asks Burkett, did Jenner really have to embrace what from a feminist point of view (and yes, I’m perfectly aware that there are different types of feminists, with different points of view) is the stereotype of the babe with big breasts, revealing cleavage, and an unhealthy degree of concern with getting her nails done?

I sympathize with both here. On the one hand, feminists have fought hard to distance themselves from the babe stereotype of women which has characterized (and, frankly, still characterizes) much of popular culture in the US and elsewhere. Then again, plenty of women do enjoy the sort of “persona” that Jenner chose to come out as, so it’s not exactly surprising she did too.

Which brings us to the broader, and far more interesting, point raised by Burkett: she is uncomfortable with the common transgender talk of being “trapped in the wrong body.” Why? Because it hints at some kind of strong biological component to being transgender. (For the purposes of this essay I will not further distinguish “biological” into genetic and developmental / epigenetic components: it is both difficult to do empirically and irrelevant to the point being made.)

Admitting the possibility of a significant role of biology in gender identity (and sexual orientation, while we’re at it) goes contra to the “nurture only” narrative of much feminist literature, so you can see why Burkett isn’t happy. But what other way is there to make sense of the self-reported psychological experiences of so many transgender and gay people? It’s not easy to conjure scenarios where they felt “in the wrong body” (or in the case of gays, attracted to the culturally “wrong” type of sexual partner) because society pushed them in that direction. On the contrary, still today most societies, including Western ones, very much push against such choices.

Burkett further says that she feels more than a bit of discomfort hearing claims by transgender individuals who have recently undergone physical changes, like Jenner, about being full fledged “women.” Here, interestingly, she has a point from a straightforward cultural perspective: being a woman isn’t, I think we will all agree, just a matter of having a certain biology, or a particular type of physical appearance. It is very much also the result of lifelong experiences of discrimination, put downs, harassment, and sometimes aggression. Burkett argues that Jenner may feel and look like a woman, but that she hasn’t had any of those experiences. On the contrary, for much of her life she has been treated as a white male, with all the privilege that this entails in American society.

There is an obvious way of making sense of all this, which however is inaccessible to Burkett qua feminist committed to a strong nurturist position: if gender (and perhaps sexual orientation) is the result of a complex interaction of nature (genes and epigenes) and nurture (mostly, one’s social and cultural environment), then it is perfectly possible for Jenner to feel strongly that she was previously trapped in the wrong body, wanting to be a woman, and yet at the same time finding herself only at the beginning of that process, once her appearance started to expose her to a new set of reactions and treatment by others.

A second recent case pertinent to this discussion of nature-nurture involved the very public resignation of Rachel Dolezal [7] as President of the Spokane (WA) chapter of the NAACP. That, of course, was about the arguably even more sensitive issue of race [8], and made a number of my fellow progressives very uncomfortable indeed.

The issue they faced is this: if race is entirely a social construction, then in what sense should we criticize Dolezal for “deciding” that she is black, ancestry and genetics be damned? But if we allow that sort of facile self-membership, where do we stop: could I suddenly decide that I “am” black too? Conversely, could a black person declare that she is really white?

One elegant way out of the dilemma was offered by my CUNY colleague and former President of the American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division) Linda Alcoff. In a Democracy Now! interview [9] she put forth the eminently reasonable suggestion that race is a social, not an individual, construction. So whether people belong or don’t belong to a particular “race” is not really up to the individuals themselves.

I greatly sympathize with Linda’s take, but I don’t think it goes far enough. It doesn’t acknowledge the “ancestry” component, which of course is biological. I hope it is clear from my other writings on this subject that I don’t think there is any deep genetic identity to races. Rather, in a paper co-authored with Jonathan Kaplan [10] we put forth the suggestion that races tend to be superficially, and inconsistently, identified in popular parlance on the basis of biological markers that have very low relevance, chiefly skin color. These markers tell us nothing about any other characteristic of the alleged races, especially behavioral or cognitive ones. And moreover, “black” populations of humans, for instance, have evolved multiple times in different places on the planet. Nonetheless, when we say that someone is black it is because that person looks black (at the least by comparison with other ethnic groups), which means that biology does play a (again, extremely superficial, literally skin deep) role when people talk about races.

(Here is a trivial example: I’m writing this on a plane. I’m sitting in a row of three people. The guy next to me is black, the other one Hispanic. How can I tell, since they have both been largely asleep since boarding time and I’ve had no interactions with them? Because they look, respectively, black and Hispanic, just like I look Caucasian. Any further inference on our respective characters, behaviors, or cognitive abilities, however, would be wholly unwarranted, and will have to await until such time as they wake up.)

That role, however, is overwhelmed by the effects of social construction, which explains why someone like Dolezal could legitimately “feel” black despite not having the ancestry to back it up. If only we were able to get past the unnecessary false dichotomy of nature-nurture we would be able to make much more sense of these cases, rejecting someone’s self-selected label while at the same time managing to be sympathetic toward their motives.

Let me now zoom out from these two cases and consider the big picture. From my standpoint as a biologist it is hard to conceive of any major aspect of being human that is not the result of nature-nurture interactions (as opposed to straight influences of either nature or nurture), even though these are hopelessly complex to disentangle empirically. We know this to be the case for pretty much every other species on the planet that we have been able to properly study, so why should it be different for Homo sapiens?

The problem with the extreme naturist position, then, is twofold: on the one hand, it is based on often shaky science — consider for instance neuroscientist Cordelia Fine’s masterful debunking of what she calls neurobiological “delusions of gender” [11]. On the other hand, far too many naturists, while claiming the (alleged) objective mantle of science, reveal themselves to be sympathetic to sexist or racist, and certainly politically regressive positions (for instance Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, authors of the infamous The Bell Curve). Even when this is not the case, their research provides easy cover for the most vicious sexist and racist sub-cultures of our society.

Then again, the problem with the extreme nurturist position is that, while its exponents are typically politically well intentioned, it just flies in the face of everything else we know about biology: yes, culture is a potent molder of human affairs, but we are not ethereal creatures entirely detached from our mundane animal nature, and to pretend otherwise is bending reality in the service of an ideology.

Moreover, all of this, it seems to me, is entirely unnecessary: from a philosophical, and particularly an ethical, perspective, the biological bases of human behaviors are irrelevant to how we ought to treat other human beings. Whether women, or gays, or transgenders, statistically adopt certain behaviors because of culture, genes, epigenes or — again, more likely — an inextricably complex interaction among those factors, who cares? As far as I can tell this has no logical pertinence whatsoever on issues like gay marriage or gender equality. Indeed, it is dangerous for some of my fellow progressives to link the debate to (alleged) empirical facts: what if science will eventually show, for instance, that Burkett’s take on what shapes gender identities is incorrect? Should we therefore abrogate laws on, say, equal pay? Similarly, gays say that their sexual orientation is not a choice (thereby, again, implying a strong biological component), but what if it was a choice? Should we thereby forget about marriage equality? I don’t see why, since these laws are about treating our fellow humans equally regardless of their differences, just as, in theory at least, the law treats poor and rich, or sick and healthy, in the same way. Culture (whether one inherited one’s parents wealth or debts) and biology (whether one is genetically predisposed to contract a certain disease or not) simply don’t enter into the equation. Nor should they.

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[1] The false dichotomy of trigger warnings, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 28 May 2015.
[2] The false dichotomy of Islamophobia, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 27 July 2015.
[3] Human nature, a Humean take, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 14 April 2014.
[4] Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture, by M. Pigliucci, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
[5] What Makes a Woman?, by E. Burkett, The New York Times, 6 June 2015.
[6] Caitlyn Jenner, Wiki entry.
[7] Rachel Dolezal Leaves N.A.A.C.P. Post as Past Discrimination Suit Is Revealed, by R. Perez-Pena, The New York Times, 15 June 2015.
[8] On the biology of race, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 29 May 2014.
[9] Linda Martín Alcoff on Rachel Dolezal: Race Not an Individual Construct, Democracy Now!, 17 June 2015.
[10] On the concept of biological race and its applicability to humans, by J. Kaplan and M. Pigliucci, Philosophy of Science 69 (3):S294-S304, 2003.
[11] Cordelia Fine on Delusions of Gender, Rationally Speaking podcast, 13 March 2011.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K. D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His background is in evolutionary biology and the philosophy os science, though he has recently developed a keen interest in Stoicism. His most recent book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. His other writings can be found at Plato's Footnote.