Nature vs. Nurture – “versus?!”

Many discussions about “nature vs. nurture” err in assuming that this is a dichotomy.  In this view, showing that nurture affects a trait or characteristic implies that genes do not, and vice versa. This is a false dichotomy on several grounds.

First of all, having an environmental influence on a trait does not deny the possibility that genes are important for that trait. The ability of our skin to tan does not negate the importance of our genes in determining our skin color. That some schools may do better in educating children than another does not negate the importance of genetics in intelligence.  Conversely, showing that genes influence a trait does not deny the possiblity that environment is important.  Genes  do affect intelligence, but that does not imply intelligence cannot be improved with education (more on nature/nurture and intelligence in a future blog entry).

Additionally, for this blog and for all those who accept humans have free will, neither environmental nor genetic influences preclude the possibility that our decisions and choices can impact the characteristic (see post “Twin Sons of an Alcholic Father“).

That a genetic influence on a trait does not negate the possibility of an environmental influence is perhaps the most commonly misunderstood point here. For most people, when we say a trait is “genetic” we take that to mean it is unchangeable, and only the traits we call “environmental” do we think are malleable. But a trait can be “genetic” and still changeable.

A good example is the human genetic disease PKU (phenylketonuria). Individuals with this disease cannot make an enzyme that converts one specific amino acid into another. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and are vital to all life. In this disease, the amino acid that unused by the missing enzyme accumulates in the bloodstream. That particular amino acid is called pheynylalaine. Though some of the excess phenylaline is excreted in the urine (thus the name of the disease – pheynylketonuria, meaning phenylaline in the urine), in undiagnosed individuals the excess phenylaline causes permanent and severe brain damage.  The girl at the left in the photo, and her brother at the right, have suffered this brain damage.

So far, this seems a simple case of a genetic disorder in which a defective gene leads unavoidably to permanent brain damage.

But if this disease is diagnosed in infancy, the individual can be placed on a special phenylalanine-restricted diet. By limiting the intake of pheynalaline, it never accumulates to harmful levels, and the brain damage is prevented. Or in other words, this “genetic” disorder is 100% treatable with an environmental change, namely a change in the diet.  The girl in the middle of the photo had her PKU diagnosed, was placed on the special diet, and avoided the harm that befell her siblings.  Today, all 50 states require screening of newborns for PKU.

So what, then, is the best way to think about the cause of brain damage in PKU individuals? It is not quite correct to say it is caused by the defective gene, period, as those with these genes and the special diet do not suffer the brain damage.

Nor is it correct to say that phenylaline in the diet causes brain damage, because for the majority of the population with functioning genes for this enzyme, high amounts of phenylaline in the diet do not accumulate in the bloodstream and do not cause any harm.

In fact, it makes no more sense to ask “Which caused the brain damage of this disease, the defective gene or the phenylalanine in the environment?” than it would to ask “Which causes snow – temperature below 32 Fahrenheit or high humidity?”.  The only answer to either question must be “Both, or more precisely, the interaction between the two”.  Just as snow is caused by an interaction between cold temperature and high humidity, brain damage in PKU is caused by an interaction between the defective gene and the normal, high-phenylalanine diet.

This is another aspect to the error of viewing “nature vs. nurture” as a dichotomy – not only can the answer be “both”, but there can be interactions to consider in addition to the individual genetic and environmental factors.

This blog will often explore these interactions, especially where they are amenable to our influence, as in PKU.

Posted in Nature vs. Nurture | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Two Quarterbacks, Fifty-one Dragons, and One Kind of Magic

One of my favorite short stories of all time is “The 51st Dragon” by Heywood Broun. If you are not familiar with the story, you may want to read it before reading the rest of today’s blog. It is at http://www.bartleby.com/237/33.html.


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Really, go read it now. I’ll wait.
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Sir Gawaine was able to slay 49 dragons with ease, empowered by the magic word given him by his teachers. When he forgot the magic word during his battle with dragon number 50, he survived and slayed the dragon, but only just. Then he was eaten by the 51st dragon. The 51st dragon was no mightier than the previous 50, and surely Sir Gawaine was no less skilled than he had been. Indeed, after 50 dragons he must have become quite skilled in dragon-slaying. But when he lost his magic word, he became dragon-fodder.

But this was just an allegorical short story. This kind of thing can’t happen in real life. Can it?

Last NFL football season (2010), the Indianapolis Colts finished with a record of 10 wins and 6 losses, best in their division and tied with several other teams for 5th best in the league. This year they lost their star quarterback Peyton Manning to a neck injury, and played the whole season without him. They finished this season with just 2 wins and 14 losses, tied for worst in the league. Now of course Petyon Manning is one of the best players of his generation, and his loss was sure to be felt. But from 10-6 to 2-14? Their offense fell from 1st in passing yards to 27th out of 32, and even their defense fell from 20th to 25th in yards allowed and 23rd to 28th in points allowed. Is it possible they lost more than Petyon Manning the player, but also lost “Petyon Manning” – their magic word?

Meanwhile the Denver Broncos ended 2010 with a record of just 4 wins and 12 losses. They started the season with just one win and 4 losses under quarterback Kyle Orton. Then, as you surely have heard, Tim Tebow became their starting quarterback. In his first start, after a terrible first three quarters, the team came back from 15 points behind in the last 6 minutes of the game to win in overtime 18-15. They won twice more in overtime during the regular season, earning 7 wins and 4 losses under Tim Tebow’s leadership, to end with 8 wins and 8 losses. In the playoffs, they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers (again in overtime!), before losing this week to the Patriots. Veteran Bronco defense players Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey were regularly seen standing one the sideline watching Tebow play, where traditionally defensive players sit and rest, or sit and review tactics, while the offense is on the field.

Is it possible Tim Tebow gave the Broncos not just his own abilities, but also their own magic word – “Tebow Time”?

If so, then what about their playoff loss to the Patriots? To me, that just shows that, self-confidence is magical, but not actually Magic, and “Tebow Time” was not enough to overcome a much superior team. As the headmaster himself said of Gawaine’s magic word: “It wasn’t magic in a literal sense, but it was much more wonderful than that. The word gave you confidence. It took away your fears”.

As Broun’s story is in the public domain, please feel free to use Sir Gawaine’s very own magic word for yourself – it was “Rumplesnitz”.

What dragon in your life needs to be slain today?

Posted in Confidence, Optimism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

What Makes a Great Ride?

In high school I went on a bicycling/camping trip.  We would ride during the day, carrying our tents and cooking gear in packs on our bikes, and camp at night.   We had good weather at the start of the trip as we made our way around the perimeter of Prince Edward Island, Canada.  For the first few days we stayed near the coast, and so the rides were level and easy.  The weather was ideal, sunny but not too hot.

Later, cycling through Nova Scotia, conditions changed.  We had hills.  We had wind.  We had rain.  We had cold rain in the wind.

When we first hit the hills, I thought “this is a nice sunny day.  It’s too bad we have to ride up these hills or this would be a great ride”.  When it was windy, I thought “this is a nice sunny day.  This would be a great ride through the hills, if it weren’t for this terrible wind”.  On the rainy days, I’d think “this wind wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the rain”.  Finally on a cold, rainy day, I found myself saying “I wish it just wasn’t so cold, because really the rain and wind and hills were not so bad when I was warm”.  At that point I recognized the pattern I am now describing.


It is easy to become unhappy.  Focus on the one condition, on the margin, that upsets you most, like my focus on the rain during a rainy, windy, hilly ride.  It is equally easy to make yourself happier.  Focus on the one condition, on the margin, that you can be grateful for, like the absence of a headwind on a hilly ride.  Psychologists call this type of comparison, “contrast”.  It is always our choice whether we contrast “up” and make ourselves feel worse, or contrast “down” and make ourselves feel better.

Choosing the neighborhood where you will live provides an important illustration of this principle.  In real estate there is a common dictum that one should not have the best house on the block, as the price you could sell it for will be brought down by the average value of the homes around you.  While this may be good advice for maximizing the resale value of your home, it is not good advice for maximizing your happiness.

If you want to be happier, you are likely to do better buying the nicest house on the block, in a neighborhood at or just below your means, rather than the smallest in a neighborhood above your means.  If you are a Buick-driver living amongst Chevrolet- and Toyota-drivers, you will likely feel successful and happy with your car and your financial status.  But if you live in a neighborhood of Mercedes- and BMW-drivers, your Buick will suffer by contrast and you may suffer from the comparison.

Today I went on a bike ride. There were strong winds, over 20 miles per hour.  But at least it wasn’t raining.

I had a great ride.

Posted in Optimism | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Do you think like a Victim or a Creator?

A college class was told they would need their textbook in class. Their college bookstore hadn’t ordered enough copies of the book and ran out. Two students were unable to get their text before the first day of class. The instructor asked them to get the text by the 2nd week of class. When the class next met, the instructor asked them if they had the text.

The first said “No, I do not have the textbook. I was not able to get it because the bookstore didn’t have any more. They said they ran out. It was their fault, not mine”.

The second student had the text. The instructor asked if she’d gotten it from the bookstore. She said:

“No, they ran out”

“Well, then where did you get it?” the instructor asked.

“I called a nearby college bookstore” she replied.

“Oh, so that’s where you got it” the instructor said.

“No, they didn’t have it either” she said.

“Then where did you get it?!” the instructor asked.

“I next called several other college bookstores in our region, ones farther away from our campus. But none of them carried this book. So finally I went online and found used copies available for much less. I used the savings to pay for 2-day air shipping, and got the used book by 2nd day air, for about the price the new book was at our bookstore” she concluded.

What the first student had said – “it wasn’t my fault, it was the bookstore’s fault” – was, indeed, true. However, it was not helpful to her cause. At the end of the day, she did not achieve her goal (obtaining the book). The second student did not ask “Whose fault is it I don’t have the book?” but instead asked “What can I do to get the text I need?”. When her first answer did not lead her to her goal, she asked the question again, and again, until she finally achieved her goal.


Skip Downing, author of On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life, calls the first student’s response a Victim response. A Victim response seeks to find blame for a negative situation. A Victim response is generally unhelpful to reaching one’s goals.

Dr. Downing calls the second student’s response a Creator response. The Creator asks “What can I do to achieve my goal?” or “What can I do to make this situation better?”, rather than seeking to lay blame for how the situation came to be. Those who think like a Creator are more likely to reach their goals and be successful in life.


As we enter a new year, consider making a resolution to stop using Victim language, and to think like a Creator instead. Resolve to ask “What can I do to make this better?” instead of “Whose fault is this?”. Resolve to ask “How can I reach my goal despite this situation or obstacle?” instead of complaining about the situation.

Rather than continuing as a Victim, resolve to become a Creator.

For further information on this topic:

This true story above was shared with me by Jonathan Brennan, facilitator of the On Course for Student Success workshop. I highly recommend this program to educators, who may find further information at http://www.oncourseworkshop.com/. The program is aimed at college educators, but I believe it would be equally applicable to High School teachers.

Students may be interested in Skip Downing’s book, On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life, or in taking any study skills course at their school that uses his text and program.

Posted in For Students, Goals, Victim vs. Creator | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Twin Sons of an Alcoholic Father

This was related to me as a true story, though to be honest I have never tracked it down to verify it so.  It works as a parable just as well as if true.

Scientists study identical twins to learn about the influence of genes on our characteristics.  In a study on alcoholism, the scientists were particularly interested in a pair of identical twin sons with an alcoholic father, where one of the twins was an alcoholic and the other twin was not.  They interviewed them both, hoping for insight as to why they ended up so different, despite their identical genes and their presumably similar environments.

The alcoholic son told them “Well, I grew up with an alcoholic father, as you know.  Alcohol was in the house all the time. I saw my dad drinking.  So I guess it was natural enough that I became an alcoholic, too”.

The son who was not an alcoholic said “Well, I grew up with an alcoholic father, as you know.   Alcohol was in the house all the time.  I saw my dad drinking, and I saw what it did to him and to my family.  So I guess it was natural enough that I swore I would never be like that, and so I don’t drink!”.

Most studies of nature vs. nurture consider our genes, as nature, and our external environment, particularly that of our childhood and upbringing, as nurture.  While genes and outside environment may be enough to explain the characteristics and behavior of fruit flies, it is not enough to explain the characteristics and behaviors of man.

Though it is not common for scientists to discuss it, humans have free will.  This does not negate the fact that our genes and our environment both can influence who we are and how we behave.  But they do not determine who we are and how we behave.  We direct our own environment to a greater degree than do other living things.  We choose what to focus on and we make decisions that effect the trajectory of our lives.

Who will you be – someone who follows the trajectory seemingly laid out by your surroundings, or someone who focuses on what you desire and chooses to make your own path accordingly?

Posted in Nature vs. Nurture | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments