Books by conference participants
Articles about the conference topic

Nobel Conference XXXVIII - Director's Notes

The topic of our Nobel Conference this year concerns the nature/nurture question and its relevance to modern-day parenting. My pleasantly abstract thoughts on this subject were abruptly made concrete last October when my Scottish deerhound, Mossy, delivered a litter of 13 live and active puppies. Although she seemed to have some inkling as to what was about to happen as she carefully excavated a six-foot-deep nest in the yard, like a lot of first-time mom dogs she took no notice of the birth of her first pup (in our bed, of course) until a brisk rubdown by my wife caused it to emit an indignant cry. At that point, Mossy's motherhood switch was thrown. By the third pup she not only didn't need any help, but preferred to do it herself, cleaning the newly-born pups and moving them quite efficiently to feed. How did she know how to do that?

As a person with a Ph.D. in psychology who has studied animal behavior extensively, and has been a breeder of dogs for 25 years, I realized that it would be difficult for Mossy to care for a litter that large, and that a thoughtful intervention would be necessary. So we took all of the appropriate precautions to set up the ideal environment - we prepared several heated nests, prepared to supplement the pups with milk, and created a schedule where squads of three to four pups at a time were placed with her so we could be sure they would all get enough to drink. The consequence was a nearly constant din of complaint from the supposedly well-nourished pups, a mom who fretted about the pups that weren't with her, and three impossible days and sleepless nights. We couldn't tell them apart, let alone figure out who needed to eat. Finally, in desperation, we decided to let nature take its course, placed all the pups in with Mossy at once, and hoped for the best. Within an hour, all of the pups were fat and happy and mom slept contentedly for the first time since we began our well-intentioned intervention. She continued to feed and clean and clean up after these puppies all by herself for the next eight weeks, requiring only breaks for food, water, and a few pats of approval from us. After the rocky start, it was the easiest litter we've ever whelped.

I suspect most of us would attribute Mossy's impressive abilities as a mother to an amazing combination of hormones, reflexes, physiology, or what we might call instincts or species-typical behavior. In dogs, it's pretty easy for us to believe that the major component of her success was due to some genetic or inherited process and that all Mossy really needed to know about motherhood was contained in her genome. In this view biology is destiny, where body and brain develop on cue and respond appropriately to changes in environment as surely and dependably as a train leaving the station and moving down the track. While environment or circumstances may influence how fast or how far you go, it's the genes that mostly dictate the course of development.

But it's much harder to think this way about our own children. Yes, we acknowledge that eye color, height, and other structural traits have a hereditary basis, and if something goes wrong we blame it on our spouse's side of the family; but when it comes to the really important human traits like our character, our intelligence, our talents, or our beliefs and what they mean in determining our future, we're very reluctant to attribute much to genetics at all. In fact, scientists who took this position, beginning with the father of the eugenics movement, Sir Francis Galton, have generated some of the most overheated rhetoric in the history of academic journals and run the risk of being labeled fascist or racist. The problem is that once something is labeled as genetic it suggests that it cannot be changed much by circumstances. Humans become the prisoners of their genetic endowments and even prevented from achieving parity in the financial rewards of society if decisions about jobs or schooling are based on measures that are related to our genetic makeup.

I propose to show . . . that a man's natural abilities are derived by inheritance, under exactly the same limitations as are the form and physical features of the whole organic world. Consequently, as it is easy, notwithstanding those limitations, to obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running, or of doing anything else, so it would be quite practicable to produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.

Sir Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry Into Its Laws and Consequences (London: MacMillan and Co., 1869).

As a counter to this position, in the activist '60s and '70s it became far more common to assume that supremely human traits are due almost exclusively to upbringing, circumstances, and the pervading effect of the culture we live in. In this view, a child who has been raised in an enriched and stimulating environment will prosper, as will any child if given the opportunity to experience this upbringing, regardless of genetic endowment. Taken to extremes, in this view anything is possible and, in fact, with careful planning any child could achieve any heights.

I should like to go one step further . . . and say, "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select - a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and yes, even into beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors." I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for thousands of years.

John Broadus Watson, "What the Nursery Has to Say About Instincts" in Psychologies of 1925, ed. C. Murchison (Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1926).

Recently, research has shown that this polarized view of the contributions of nature and nurture is simply na�ve and mostly wrong. Is a person's gender a matter of biological destiny or merely a social construct? A vivid example of the complexity of this issue is the case of a twin boy who, as the result of a surgical accident in 1963, was raised as a girl. The early reports in the '70s enthusiastically suggested that with appropriate hormone treatment he was, in fact, developing as a healthy, happy, and seemingly normal young lady. More recently, Dr. Milton Diamond ("New Study Reveals Sexual Identity Is Innate Characteristic," The New York Times, March 14, 1997) followed up on the case and discovered that at age 14, after being told what happened, the child bitterly denounced his femininity and following additional surgery has lived his life as a man, has married, and has two adopted children. Does this prove that gender is biologically determined? Not exactly, but it does suggest that there are limits to which human interventions can counteract biological tendencies.

But we all want the best for our children and modern society is rife with examples of just how far parents will go to assure success for their children. The current crop of college students has probably had more attention given to their nurture and education than any in history. Think about the time we've spent worrying about what the effect placing our kids in day care will have on their development, or whether they are being adequately stimulated in their classes, or whether their chances of success will be forever compromised if they aren't admitted to the right schools. Just how far will parents go to assure success for their children?

If newspaper accounts of ads placed in Ivy League college newspapers seeking egg donors who are tall and have high SAT scores are any indication, it would seem that some parents are willing to go well beyond mere nurture and once again consider improving on nature through genetic manipulations. This is eugenics all over again. In the old days, psychologists who wanted to create a strain of rats that learned mazes really fast had to do it through a selective breeding program. Now, with advances in molecular genetics, all you need to do is create mice with extra copies of the genes that produce more NMDA receptors in the brain. The result is Joe Tsien's Doogie mice that remember objects for up to five times longer than normal mice and learn mazes significantly faster.

No one is seriously suggesting that we try this with our children. But since humans possess the same receptors and genes, is it possible that the memory of a person suffering from Alzheimer's disease may be improved by drugs acting on these receptors? Recent research in the neurosciences has created some mind-boggling speculation about how our brains develop normally and how impoverished or damaged brains might be restored. We also used to think that we were born with all the brain cells we'd ever get. Not so, says research by Fred Gage and others, who found evidence that the human brain does indeed convert stem cells into new neurons in the hippocampus, one of the same areas so important for learning and memory. Thus, we now know that, far from being a static process, development of mind and body is a never-ending saga of crucial interactions between genes and environment.

What we hope to present at this Nobel Conference is a thoughtful reevaluation of this ancient question of nature and nurture in light of current evidence. We've assembled a brilliant panel of psychologists, neuroscientists who can reflect on current research and discoveries - from temperaments, to intelligence, to social deviancy, to the effect of parenting. Our neuroscientists will talk about issues in the developing human brain under normal and not so normal conditions. To what extent can we enhance our children's chances for success and what will be the result of inadequate parenting? But, finally, we'll also ponder the larger question of what this all means in contemporary society and what it will mean to the parents of children in the coming years.

It's interesting to reflect once again about Mossy as I see her now in the yard with her three remaining pups, acknowledging their kisses of greeting and tolerantly allowing them to nuzzle her nipples once again even though they are now nine months old and nearly as big as she. In one sense I'm jealous of how efficiently and easily and even joyfully she managed the difficult task of parenthood. Now that my youngest child has graduated from college, I can think back to my child-rearing days as a time of great happiness, but also a time of great worry and even confusion about whether I did the right thing. Considering the failure of my interventions with Mossy's litter, it's perhaps a miracle that my children seem to be doing as well as they are. Maybe that's because part of good parenting at times consists of simply knowing when to let nature take its own course.

          Timothy C. Robinson
          Director, Nobel Conference