Conceptions of Human Nature: Neither the Left nor the Right Get it Right

This is the fifth article of a series on “The New Epigenetics”.  The epigenetic perspective in biology and psychology provides a solution to the clunky, age-old nature-nurture issue.  It says that the old view that pits nature against nurture (genes against environment) as rival explanations for how development happens is flawed.  Genes and environments are partners in development; they can’t work without each other.  This has radical implications for how we understand biology, development, and human nature.  Because different political ideologies are build largely around different conceptions of human nature, it has deep implications for political life as well. 

Our understanding of epigenesis is a game changer in two basic ways. First, it offers the promise of understanding how it is possible to modify environmental conditions to enhance human development.  Second – and perhaps more important — it can change the way we think about what makes us who we are.   Humans neither have a fixed nature nor are they mere products of their environment.  Humans are products of relations between their genes and their environments.  If this is so, we must stop thinking of people as either having an unchangeable nature or as being products of socially construction or conditioning.  We need new conceptions of what it means to be a person.  And to the extent that different political ideologies are based different conceptions of human nature, we will need different ways to think about how to solve social and political problems.

Fostering Human Well-Being

For so long, we have focused on biological health and social wellbeing as separate entities and therefore created or prioritized interventions and programming as such. These studies prove that genes and environment are inseparable, dependent variables that are continuously influencing one another. In fact, epigenetic changes are reversible and possibly preventable and influenced by environmental factors. A longitudinal study conducted by Mehta, et al. (2022) looked at epigenetic markers in paramedic students before and after exposure to trauma while considering risk factors and protective factors. The study found that social support and a sense of belonging minimized epigenetic aging after exposure to traumatic events. They also helped reverse epigenetic markers after the trauma for those that had them. Folate, found in leafy green vegetables or vitamin supplements, can reverse epigenetic methylation and prevent methylation during pregnancy (Lintas, 2019). Love and nurturing of offspring can create more stress receptors in the brain that can suck up cortisol and lead to reduced changes of epigenetic tags (Zhang, et al., 2013). Therapeutics, designed to target the specific deficiency or hyperactivity of genes can be designed to reverse the impact an epigenetic marker has on an individual (Abel & Poplawski, 2022).

The research being conducted in epigenetics should impact how we approach medicine, politics, everyday decision making, and human development as a whole. Future therapies tailored directly to an individual’s epigenetic composition, turning on or off genes without impacting the genetic makeup can change the prognosis for many diseases and diagnoses that are currently distressing to receive. With the evidence we have about what factors cause epigenetic changes, the protective factors to prevent or reverse negative epigenetic changes, and the risk factors making someone more susceptible to epigenetic changes, we can begin to make changes in our society to mitigate these impacts. In addition to monitoring hazardous structural conditions such as lead in water supply, poor environmental factors including pollution or hazardous waste, and high-stress neighborhoods, programs could be implemented to provide support and resources to those communities. A sense of belonging, community, accessible nutrition, and opportunities for fitness and exercise in safe environments can help mitigate epigenetic impacts and even potentially reduce dependence on public medical funding.

Human Nature: Neither the Left nor the Right Get it Right

Conservative thinkers tend to believe in a strong form of human nature.   There is something called “human nature”, and it is relatively fixed.   There is not much one can do to change what genes bestow on the human organism.

Liberals and progressivists tend to think the opposite.  Progressivists tend to believe that humans are malleable creatures who are products of their environments.  The contemporary version of this idea is to state that human behavior and identity are socialized or “socially constructed”. Whatever biology confers on a person, what a person becomes is a product of socialization or culture.

One way to try to resolve this debate is to say, “well, human behavior is both genetic and environmental.”  “It’s a combination of both.” Or “some percentage of behavior is genetic and some percentage is environmental”.  However, none of these statements is correct.

The epigenetic view maintains that genes the environments (including the biological environment) are not independent of each other. They influence each other.  There is no fixed and abstract “human nature” that is independent of physical and social context.  Who we are is dependent on how our genes and environments influence each other over time to produce what we will become.  And what will we become?  Development is both constrained and open-ended. We can’t predict who we will become.

People can change. They cannot change at will, but they can change.  Any act of change will necessarily require effortful action on the part of individual persons and structured assistance from other people and society as a whole.  It requires both individual and societal effort.   And it’s complex. We won’t know what works to foster human flourishing until we try it.  Some efforts will succeed; others will fail.  No matter what we try, the outcomes will not likely result the way we plan.  And so, we have to have an attitude of experimentation and the capacity to turn on a dime.

The prioritization of nature over nurture or nurture over nature is outdated.  And so are the ideologies that perpetuate such thinking.

References

Abel, T., & Poplawski, S. (2022). Epigenetic advances in clinical neuroscience. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience.

Lintas, C. (2019). Linking genetics to epigenetics: The role of folate and folate‐related pathways in neurodevelopmental disorders. Clinical Genetics, 95(2), 241-252.

Zhang, T. Y., Labonté, B., Wen, X. L., Turecki, G., & Meaney, M. J. (2013). Epigenetic mechanisms for the early environmental regulation of hippocampal glucocorticoid receptor gene expression in rodents and humans. Neuropsychopharmacology, 38(1), 111-123.

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