The Lottery Of Life

Thirteenth instalment - Born Under A Bad Sign 3

I’ve stolen this from the New Scientist web site:

The phrase “nature versus nurture” refers to a long-standing debate in human biology: to what extent is our behaviour shaped by our genes (nature) or by the environment in which we grow up and live (nurture)? The short answer is that it is a bit of both.
       Many pre-scientific thinkers argued that the human brain was a blank slate or tabula rasa. In other words, they believed that babies were born without any pre-existing knowledge, habits or skills and had to learn everything through experience. This idea can be found in the writings of the philosophers Aristotle and Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna) and more recently in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke. Believers in the blank slate model also emphasised the role of nurture in shaping human behaviour.
       The opposing viewpoint emphasising the role of nature is called innatism. With this perspective, babies are thought to be born with certain built-in knowledge and ideas. This view was held by Plato and later by René Descartes. The strongest versions of this pro-nature viewpoint hold that experience doesn’t create new knowledge, but merely helps us unearth knowledge that our brains already contain.
       The truth seems to be a complicated mish-mash of both ideas. We are shaped by both our genes and by our experiences, and the two interact in complex ways: it isn’t so much “nature versus nurture” as “nature with nurture”.

Psychology Today helpfully adds this:

The words “nature” and “nurture” themselves can be misleading. Today, “genetics” and “environment” are frequently used in their place.

Once an individual has been born all of the nature or genetics elements are in place. From this point on it’s all nurture and environment. (Although, as the New Scientist points out, genetics and environment interact in complex ways.)

For the purposes of the argument I’m attempting to make in this blog, it matters not whether the factors that influence an individual’s life circumstance are genetic or environmental. Both types of factor can favour an individual with good luck or lumber him or her with bad.

It does seem to me, though, that there must be a correlation between earliness and influence: the earlier in an individual’s development a factor occurs, the greater the effect. I don’t see how it can be otherwise. Factors decided at or even before conception – physical appearance, mental ability, large chunks of personality, heritable diseases and conditions – these are fundamental features of the person-to-be and are pretty much immutable. They are the core, the essence of the person. Events that occur during gestation and at birth will have effects that vary from the mild to the catastrophic, but those effects will be altering a physical and mental structure that has already been built. To use an arboreal analogy: a tree, a sapling – its species, variety, and general health – is growing and will grow according to a pre-ordained plan; it may have its roots fertilised, its branches sympathetically pruned or ruthlessly hacked, it may suffer due to disease or frost or insects, but it will never become another sort of tree. It will be, generally speaking, either a lucky or an unlucky specimen of that species of tree.

It follows – and we’re back to humans now, not trees – that genetics must usually have more effect than environment. ‘Usually’ because there are always exceptions: it’s possible to imagine situations in which a person’s upbringing, for example, is so extremely favourable or unfavourable that its influence overcomes at least part of the genetic blueprint. It seems to me, though, that usually the opposite is the case: there are many instances of individuals whose lucky genetic inheritance is more than enough to overwhelm an unlucky upbringing or other adverse environment.

All of the foregoing – and I apologise for the verbosity thereof – is the background reasoning that leads me to this conclusion: as regards factors that may constitute good or bad luck, from birth onwards there are diminishing returns. Once one is born, it is only environmental factors (and their interplay with already-set genetics) that matter when it comes to good and bad luck; and as one ages, and one becomes ever more set in one’s ways, environmental factors shrink their power to dispense luck of either sort.

(Chance events, of course, can throw a spanner into the works at any time: a road accident, a bereavement, finding a suitcase full of banknotes. But, as you know, I differentiate between luck and chance. And even the chance events that happen in a person’s life are experienced and reacted to in the light of the good and bad luck factors that have shaped that person.)

I now find that I have written sufficient text for this instalment and I have yet to address its subject. And in truth although I regard environmental factors as of diminishing significance they are so many and varied that I think I will find myself discussing them over several instalments.

I will therefore draw this instalment to a close by drawing attention to those environmental factors that are the most important to a person’s later circumstances in life: the conditions that a new-born baby encounters  immediately on emerging into the world.

In the first place, it matters where the baby has been born. The difference between being born in, say, the UK and, say, South Sudan is not just a matter of survival: a baby born into a society that is equipped with a modern health-care system, neo-natal medical technology, and highly trained nurses and doctors will be spared the worst effects – perhaps all effects – of many of the weaknesses, ailments and conditions that can affect the new arrival.

It also matters when a baby is born, even in a wealthy society with a national health service. As I’ve mentioned before, a genetic condition that I have is mild hip dysplasia. Had I been born just a few years later this condition would have been screened for soon after my birth and corrected. Such is the effectiveness of modern healthcare. As it is the condition remained undiagnosed until recently – too late for correction.

On a considerably more serious note, the World Health Organisation states that:

An estimated 15 million newborns are born preterm and more than 20 million are born low birth weight each year. Preterm and LBW infants have a higher risk of developmental disabilities including cerebral palsy and retinopathy of prematurity. The consequences of prematurity and low birth weight may continue into adulthood, increasing the risk of adult-onset chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

If you’re one of those many millions of preterm babies, you’d better be born in a hospital; better still, a hospital with a neo-natal intensive care unit, temperature-controlled baby beds, and the requisite nutrition available through an intravenous drip. The better the medical facilities and expertise, the better your chances of surviving – and of developing with less risk of disabilities.

I’m aware I am making the same point repeatedly, but I think it bears repeating as those of us with the good luck to have been born into a modern, wealthy society often forget that those born in most of the rest of the world are much less lucky.

Right. That’s enough about being born. In the next instalment I’ll start to look at the environmental factors that endow good or bad luck on the growing infant.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.