Nature vs. Nurture

29 January 2005

Before I start along my next topic, I wanted to share a link for a great article by Olivia Judson. She is an evolutionary biologist who spends a lot of time with sex: everything from gender differences to mating strategies to sperm size and number. She had an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times regarding the Harvard president's statements about women in math and science. Have a look at the article when you get a chance.

Today, though, the Goddess is thinking about this piece of news from the University of Chicago: "In the first-ever study combing the entire human genome for genetic determinants of male sexual orientation, a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher has identified several areas that appear to influence whether a man is heterosexual or gay."

These sorts of studies continue to pick at our common beliefs about what is "natural." Some of this is likely going to be good. Like most people, I have friends and family members who are homosexual---and perhaps having genetic markers to point to (just like sex determination or eye colour) would help stop a good deal of discrimination against these people. I do think that it would be years before this would happen. On the other hand, I remember reading an article in the last year which described a man who was suing a casino for not keeping him out. Apparently, the man had an addiction to gambling and his family and he had set it up with the casino to keep him away. But they didn't. The lawsuit claimed that since the man had a genetic predisposition to addictive behaviour, that he couldn't control himself, and therefore the casino should have. This one makes me raise my eyebrow (the left one). I am sure that as time marches on, we will see even more suits like this.

My own experiences with "nature vs. nurture" have been interesting because I'm an adoptee. I was raised with "nurture" only...no comments about how my nose looked like my dad's or how grandma had the same mannerisms. Nature never mattered while I was growing up. But when I met my birthparents, I was surprised at just how strong Nature can be. Bmom and I both cross-stitch---but we even did the same pattern at the same time during the summer before we met. It is not unusual for us to show up wearing similar outfits or select similar items while shopping. Is there a gene for cross-stitch? Certainly not. For choosing certain clothing on any given day? Nope. But our genes do encode how our brains are laid out, even if our environment influences some of the connections. And half of the information contained in my neurons is hers.

I have had several gay students in my classes over the years. High school is not especially kind to them, but things do seem to be getting a bit better. I am always hopeful that the nurture our society provides them will be more tolerant and welcoming. Maybe if it understands that nature made them as they are, it will be.

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