We are much more complex than 'nature v. nurture' suggests

Joel Snell, Kirkwood professor
Joel Snell, Kirkwood professor

Syndicated Columnist Walter Williams’ argument, that liberals and progressives want absolute equality, is very dated (“The liberals’ struggle against reality,” Jan. 5). So, too, is his counterargument — that biology absolutely determines our destiny.

Professionals in the social sciences now recognize that both “nature” (biology) and “nurture” (experience) contribute to the human condition. This fact is illustrated in the literature, including books such as Social Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, and Society edited by Russell K. Schutt and others, and published by Harvard University Press.

The authors bring together experts in neurobiology, sociology, psychiatry and psychology to examine the connections between our brains’ biology and social influences. We have so far to go, but this new framework, strategies and more accurate measures, hold much promise for future understanding.

Sociology, among other things, is the study of types of interaction. Psychology is involved in cognitions, attitudes, and affect. Psychiatry is the application of therapeutic approaches and medications. Neurobiology is the study of the nervous system. An interdisciplinary approach can help us better understand why some individuals do poorly in society.

For example, a sociologist might analyze the number of violent or harmful interactions an individual has witnessed or been involved in. A psychologist might analyze the behavior and effect on the conscious and unconscious mind. A psychiatrist would approach the individual with medications and psychotherapy. A neurobiologist may monitor the effect on nerve cells and connections.

These are complex processes that, sooner or later, generate information that usually falls in the middle of the “nature vs. nurture” debate. Then we have Walter, remember him?

• Joel C. Snell is professor emeritus of sociology from Kirkwood College.

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