Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Nurture Trumps Nature, Part I

Written by johnleemk on 8:59:07 am Feb 20, 2007.

This is the first of a two-part series, followed by Part II.

The argument over nature versus nurture is probably as old as nature itself. Since there first existed a man to think a thought, one of the first questions to puzzle over must have been whether a greater part of one's development should be attributed to nature or nuture - whether it is simply our genes who make us who we are, or if it is our environment that plays the deciding role.

It should be quite obvious that both nature and nurture play important and mutually necessary roles in human development. A child with Down's Syndrome is never going to discover the theory of relativity, even if she is exposed to exactly the same things Einstein was. But on the other hand, if Einstein had been born into a family unable to provide for his education, he may very well never have made the discoveries for which he is known today.

The more pertinent question, it should be apparent, is whether nature or nurture has a greater role to play in human development. I have long held that nurture is more important than nature. Perhaps this is just a personal oddity of mine, but I have always felt that just about anything could be accomplished if I tried and practiced hard enough. (Actually going to the effort of trying hard enough was always another matter, however. My parents sunk a lot of money in courses for things like Chinese and music that never went anywhere for me because of my unfortunate laziness.)

From personal experience, I have often found that even if I am naturally terrible at something (e.g. knot-tying - I couldn't even do a reef knot until I was 9), I can improve my level of competence to an area of at least passability. Many a time, I have been afraid of confronting a particular challenge - be it the A Level Statistics syllabus or my university financial aid applications - and yet I have found that after just taking the time to get the fundamentals right, and repeatedly practicing, I was able to gain a substantial amount of confidence in my own abilities. There are even areas where I've known my level of competence to be totally terrible and absolutely atrocious and yet, after a bit of courage and practice, I've managed to become a sort of talent in my own right. (Well, I'm not totally sure about that - I'm referring to dancing here, but about half the people who've seen me dance think I'm entertaining because I can't dance, while the other half think I'm entertaining because I can.)

And for fields that I am supposedly naturally inclined to (i.e. the ones I stand out in)? Well, I don't know what's my niche, to be honest - I've been told that writing and impromptu public speaking are a couple of my talents, so I'll take other people's word for it and assume that I'm good at those. In public speaking, I concede, it's probably just a natural skill. I have never had to resort to books like those of Dale Carnegie's (although I did read them anyway, just for the heck of it), and stagefright has never been a problem for me (I do feel it, of course, but it's easy to ignore). Writing, however, is definitely something I've honed.

Although I've been writing as far back as I can remember (or close to it), I feel my early works were never really that good. It often pains me to look back at the things I wrote, say, five years ago. Things I wrote when I was 12 or 13 that seemed so mature to my young eyes now petrify me. I am not referring to the content of my thoughts, but how I expressed them - it was atrocious. Sometimes, I wonder how a 21-year-old me will look back on the things I write now. I can only hope he will be less displeased with them than I currently am with my writings of five years ago. (As for how I have such an extensive collection of written material, it's thanks to my participation in internet forums, which has been a hobby of mine since I was 9.)

Yet, there's a perceptible trend with the passing of each year - an upward trend. The closer we get to the present, the less immature my ramblings seem, and the more coherent my screeds sound. I attribute this increase in quality simply to repeated practice at writing - again, internet forums were helpful in this regard. There is nothing more conducive to increasing your skill in pouring out your thoughts on paper than, well, pouring out your thoughts on paper (or in my case, computer screen). I may have been terrible, but by sheer force of will, I slowly overcome my poor ability.

Another quality of the trend is that it doesn't seem to be linear. In other words, if I graphed it, it would look like the right half of the curve y = x^2. In non-mathematical terms, with every passing year, it seems that my ability increases even more than it did the previous year. I believe that this is because as my skill increases, so does my ability to notice and correct mistakes I make.

My experience may not be like that of other people, but this has generally coloured my opinion in favour of the view that nurture supersedes nature. After all, it is not natural that I be able to summarise an article that's complete Greek to me in a form acceptable to those with more knowledge of the subject than me. It is my fetish for constant reading, and my habit of writing, that enabled me to churn out a couple of paragraphs of "musical analysis" for several Wikipedia articles on songs by The Beatles without understanding the sources I was referring to. (Ask me what a measure or a bridge is, and I won't be able to tell you - that's how useless my several months of piano training and six years of musical education in primary school have been.) And mind you, these articles all passed the internal Wikipedia review process, with several of them eventually featuring on the main page - and not a single musical expert has ever paused to criticise my writing! (Only in one case was the musical analysis section altered substantially, and that was the article for "A Hard Day's Night", which has a very unique opening chord. Incidentally, I still don't know what a chord is, and my analysis was built on by the experts instead of being discarded.) I honestly don't think I have the natural qualities of a journalist. I do not believe I can inherently bullshit about something I know absolutely nothing about, while sounding like I actually know something.

Still, as I have been saying all this while, this is all from my own experience. I could be a freak of nature/nurture. I could just be naturally inclined to being nurtured. (Does that sound too confusing?) I don't blame you if you're skeptical of my conclusion - I know I would be, since I don't have any hard data to back up my claims. And that's why to corroborate my belief that nurture generally trumps nature, I'll cite the Scientific American, a popular science magazine with almost two centuries of history behind it.

This is the first of a two-part series, followed by Part II.

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