NATURE VS. NURTURE
MAY 14, 1996
David Gergen, editor-at-large at "U.S. News & World Report," talks with Winifred Gallagher, science writer and author of I.D.: How Heredity and Experience Make You Who You Are.
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Nature versus nurture, that debate has raged over centuries, and as you point out, even in Shakespeare and The Tempest one finds the characters arguing about whether one's basic nature can be changed by childhood or by nurture, and you've just written a book saying that in the last few years we've actually come a long way in our understanding. Help us understand where we are.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER, Author, I.D.: Okay. I think there the important thing to realize is that there have been three basic ways to understand why we are the way we are, and the first is nature. And it's actually the oldest way. People since Hippocrates have understood that babies are born a certain way, and until the turn of the century, the assumption was that they pretty much stayed that way too, and what--how they were treated and what happens to you after your born doesn't make a great deal of difference. That's temperament. That's your biological temperament, which is a basic orientation to the world, how you're going to react to life in a very basic way.
MR. GERGEN: For most of history people believed it was nature that determined--
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: Right.
MR. GERGEN: --your take on life, your emotional take on life.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: Way before--now we know that genes give us a great deal of that basic temperament, but they didn't know it was genes, but they were on the right--right track. Now, around the turn of the century with Freud, we began to learn that what happened to you after you were born was often very important. This is nurture, learning how your parents treated you. And, in fact, what happened then was scientists got carried away with that idea, and sort of forgot about temperament, that the genetic basis that you were born with was also important. So we had these two views that, that were sort of oil and water. The third way of looking at this issue, which is what I've tried to write about, is that we actually--
MR. GERGEN: It's the new one.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: --get a second nature, so that rather than nature and nurture being oil and water, they're like the flour and water that make bread and once, once you have bread, you can't pull apart the flour and the water anymore.
MR. GERGEN: So that, in effect, your born, genetically born with a certain temperament.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: You are born with a certain temperament.
MR. GERGEN: But your experience in your early years, in your childhood, then makes--modifies that temperament. It can change that temperament.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: Not just psychologically in some sort of airy fairy way but in a very real physiological structural way. I'll give you an example. We can't do these kinds of experiments with children for obvious reasons, but if scientists breed very, very highly aggressive or highly anxious monkeys, and give that infant to a very relaxed, competent, experienced mother to raise, that infant will grow up to resemble, not just behaviorally but also neurochemically, an infant who was born with the normal levels of those two traits. Now, that's a very profound finding. This isn't just like some sort of slick gloss on a basic trait. This is a profound change in that trait that's due to experience.
MR. GERGEN: This is what scientists have discovered over the past 20 years in a variety of fields.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: This is going to be the cutting edge. This is going to be the, I believe, the personality, psychology, and the temperament research of the next century.
MR. GERGEN: And you argue that essentially the nature versus nurture debate is over.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: It's over. It's nature and nature, and this third thing that they create between them, which is something quite different.
MR. GERGEN: And the fact that you can create your second nature through your own socialization, through your own childhood, so that the child is born with a temperament that makes that child very bold, assertive, reckless, perhaps even violent, that that, that that disposition can be changed through socialization.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: Let's draw the line at violent. Let's, let's take a little boy who's born very bold and feisty and aggressive. Now that child can end up being the captain of the football team and a Senator or a very successful entrepreneur, or that same child with--for the very same reasons can end up seeking thrills in, in a criminal environment, and that is socialization. That's not genes.
MR. GERGEN: I see. But the research basically says in terms of criminals it's overwhelmingly the socialization rather than genes.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: Overwhelmingly. Most--the scientists that I've talked to who are the most inclined to look for genetic and biological explanations for behavior make a big exception where socialization, which is teaching kids how to obey the laws. This is the overwhelming majority of criminals are criminals because of how they were brought up, not because of their genes.
MR. GERGEN: What practical advice would you give to young parents about raising children that say--a certain disposition on the part of their child, that they find this child is not going to be well adapted to the world for whatever reason that may be in terms of this--what should they do? Where does this lead you?
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: The best advice is to look at who your child is, look at the child's temperament. If you have a very shy child, accept that. This child is never going to be the life the party, but that doesn't mean that this child can't be helped to have some friends. The child may not have a hundred friends, but the child can have three or four friends. And it's really--it's really a very sensitive acceptance and recognition of the child's basic disposition and then helping the child to live comfortably with that disposition.
MR. GERGEN: Mm-hmm. So that how much you can change your personality after adolescence--you say personality doesn't change very much but even in Henry V, and Henry V was very different from Prince Hal.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: Right. Exactly. Well, that's an excellent example. Henry V, when he was Prince Hal was kind of what we would call a juvenile delinquent, who liked to go out and raise cain.
MR. GERGEN: Right.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: When he became King Henry, he invaded France, so he's taking this same basic let's go seek some thrills and get in some fights and mix it up, he's taking that same orientation, but when he's king, he's doing something very different with that orientation. And I think that's true for us.
MR. GERGEN: So that there can be personality changes as you get older.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: You can change your--you can change what you decide to do with your traits definitely.
MR. GERGEN: I see. You wouldn't trade your traits so much as with the focus of your activity and channel--
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: Well, you can do both, and this is--this is going to sound hopelessly retro, but I'm actually a big believer in, in the power of psychotherapy to change the power of insight, to change traits. I don't think we necessarily have to take a drug to change.
MR. GERGEN: Why is that so retro?
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: Uh, I think right now we're living through the health care system is being overhauled and people don't want to pay for psychotherapy. It's much cheaper to take Prozac, but I think in terms of like understanding a certain trait that you have and how maybe to sort of file down the rough edges on it a little bit, live a little more comfortably, experiment with different ways to be, I think that's--I think it's a long process. It's a difficult process and an expensive process, but much more so than when I started out in the book I now think that it also can be a very effective process.
MR. GERGEN: It's interesting. I want to come back to this question that you pose at the end of your book. You said about the American culture, you quoted one source as saying, we probably live in the most civilized time ever in history, look at our children, we have all these kinds of drugs, we have these treatments, we have our psychotherapy, and yet at the same time, you say we're going through an epidemic of depression, that one in ten Americans is depressed, twice as many women as men. What's really going on?
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: Well, it's the best of times and the worst of times. We do have an epidemic of depression, and a lot of people think that that has to do--no one is quite sure how to explain it, but a lot of people think it might have to do with the fact that we have very high expectations and, and no longer the kind of economy that has the terrific booms say that prevailed right after the war, where it seemed like anybody could do anything, so we, we have these very high post war expectations, but we don't have the economy driving it underneath. And that can create a sense of "gee, well, why aren't I rich and famous?" That's, that's putting a very, very superficial spin on it, but I think the risk here is that we raise up certain kinds of personalities and certain types of people as if they were an ideal, and, in fact, the glory of our species and I would argue of our nation is that we have so many different types, and they're all wonderful. We need them all.
MR. GERGEN: But your point also would be that rather than turning to anti-depressant drugs, such as Prozac, that we ought to learn to build more support systems and let people be themselves--you know, not try to change them so dramatically to drugs but allow them to adapt more easily to the environment in which they find themselves.
WINIFRED GALLAGHER: I think we have to be very careful when we talk about anti-depressants because they have been one of the greatest medical boons of the 20th century and certainly someone who's suffering from the illness of depression can--their whole life can be changed by these drugs. On the other hand, sometimes the way the drugs are marketed they seem more like a psychological tonic. I mean, who couldn't be a little more resilient, a little more cheerful, a little more optimistic, worry a little less, and I think sometimes those things, even if they're uncomfortable, they're actually signals that we need to think about something that's going on in our lives. Maybe if, if your job is that stressful, maybe you don't need to take a drug to deal with the stress, maybe you need to have a different job. So I would just argue like let's think about what we're treating when we take a drug, are we treating a trait, or are we treating an illness?
MR. GERGEN: Okay. Fine. Well, thank you very much.