I remember learning, way back when, in my Christian protestant upbringing, that we bear the sins of our ancestors. At the time, I thought that this was a Biblical rule handed down by God. What an asshole, I thought.

There are intersections of religion and science, though. Or rather, science has been written into religions across time. And perhaps science is actually the asshole for this one.

We bear not only the “sins” but also the fruits – the cumulative knowledge, the tools, the health, the appearance, the environment, the beliefs – of our ancestors; not because some god ordained it, but because we carry them with us. We are them. And not just metaphorically or philosophically. But physically, genetically, they are a part of us.

I am not religious, but I am also not so naive as to think that there were not brilliant philosophers and psychologists and even scientists who came before me who gleaned an insight into the universe and wrote it into religious doctrine. It’s not all brouhaha. Just sometimes, its meaningfulness is disguised. (Don’t mistake me, though, most of it is bullshit that was just made up to control people).

During my undergrad, when I was writing my senior thesis, I proposed a paper on predestination v. freewill in the Bible (though my advisor, perhaps feeling a little blasé about the overdone topic, wisely steered me another direction). For those of you who are not religious, predestination v. freewill is essentially the same debate as nature v. nurture or genetics v. epigenetics. The religious quandary is that God is all-knowing so he presumably knows all of the decisions we will make, yet we supposedly still have freewill.

While it seemed like such a fascinating debate back then, it seems so tired to me now, perhaps because eventually, it is likely that we will know the answer. Not that it will be either one or the other. But we will know, roughly, what percentage is nature (genetic) and what percentage is nurture (environmental) for various behaviors, diseases, and disorders. 

I’m guessing we’ll be disappointed to see how much of our lives are predestined (or genetic if you prefer). And that’s not even counting the fact that our environment (our nurture) is usually a replication of the environment of our ancestors, and that our nurturing behavior towards our children is typically a replication of the nurturing we received as children (which is also heavily influenced by our genetic code).

Rodent studies have shown that the licking and grooming received by a baby affects how their genes are expressed – meaning that while the genes are the building blocks, it is the experience (in the case of the rodents, the licking and grooming) that takes those genetic building blocks and constructs the building. Everything from learning and memory to fear response and neuroplasticity is affected. 

And in humans, low maternal sensitivity to young children correlates with increased stress response in the children. Don’t pat yourself on the back just yet, though, because too much maternal sensitivity (above the norm) also correlates with increased sensitivity to environmental changes (as in, the kids are more stressed by relatively minor stressors presumably because they never had to cope with anything on their own).

At a panel discussion I attended the other night at Columbia University, a few brilliant minds from academia argued that we get to CHOOSE our environment which then goes on to shape our brains. We choose where to live, who to be friends with, and what to surround ourselves with. And all of these choices literally change our brains, strengthening some synapses and killing off others that aren’t needed. But what they didn’t mention (probably because most of them are psychologists at heart, which requires them to believe in “freewill”) is how vast the limitations are on this supposed choice throughout our lifetimes, especially considering that the groundwork was put in place when we were babies, completely dependent on the nurturing behaviors of our parents.

Maybe that’s why we don’t seem to change much over the course of history. Sure, we’ve evolved substantially over the last 200,000 years of homo sapien existence and advanced quite a bit even in the past couple of centuries. But we’re also, very much the same…. as demonstrated by this lovely, romantic rape scene from The Tale of Genji, widely recognized as the first novel. 

“Quickly and lightly he lifted her down to the gallery and slid the door closed. Her surprise pleased him enormously.

Trembling, she called for help.

‘It will do you no good. I am always allowed my way. Just be quiet, if you will please.”

-The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

(early 11th century, Japan)

Don’t worry – I have much more to say about this quote and it’s relationship to the whole nature vs. nurture thing. Check back later in the week. 🙂