[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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[CBC Radio One]

Science FACTion

Nature vs. Nurture

Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer writes and presents a weekly science column for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.

The columns, which have the umbrella title Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science, are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.

Recorded 10 December 2002

Host: One of the hottest debates in science is the role of nature versus nurture — the question of how much our genes contribute to who we are, as opposed to how much our environment and upbringing do. Here's science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer with a decidedly seasonal take on that age-old question ...

Music: (from Silent Night):

    Silent night, Holy night
    All is calm, all is bright
    'Round yon virgin Mother and Child
    Holy infant so tender and mild

(fades under Rob)

    Sleep in heavenly peace
    Sleep in heavenly peace

Robert J. Sawyer: All over the world, Christians are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus. According to Christian theology, Jesus was the son of God, but raised by an Earthly father named Joseph.

So who had a bigger effect on who Jesus was? His divine father, or the man who brought him up? There's no doubt in Christian belief: it's Jesus' heavenly nature, not the Earthly nurturing he received from Joseph, that made him who he was.

Music: Christian religious music

But Jesus wasn't an only child; the Bible says he had brothers. Those men were also raised by Joseph — and, unlike Jesus, they had Joseph's genes. An ossuary that supposedly belonged to one of them is on view at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum until December 29, 2002; the inscription on this bone box, in Aramaic, reads "James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus."

Well, although James may have been a fine man, he was no one's messiah. Yes, he was raised in the same household as Jesus — but his upbringing wasn't what mattered.

Put in these terms, it's easy to see that nature, not nurture, is overwhelmingly responsible for who we are.

And yet, in general, it's an article of faith with parents that upbringing counts for a great deal, maybe even more than genetics does. After all, we invest decades in raising our children; it's depressing to think that they would turn out pretty much the same regardless of how well or poorly we did our job as parents.

But in fact that is the case: it seems that genes really are the overwhelming determinant of who we are. Steven Pinker, a Canadian evolutionary psychologist who works at MIT, has just released a new book called The Blank Slate, which addresses the question of nature versus nurture.

Pinker really should have called it THE MYTH OF the Blank Slate, because that's the position he, and a growing number, of psychologists are taking.

Sound Effect: Kids playing

Children are not born blank slates, ready for their parents to write on. Rather, from the moment they're conceived, the type of person they'll grow up to be is already written in their genes.

How do we know this? The most compelling evidence comes from looking at identical twins who end up being raised in separate households. Identical twins, of course, have exactly the same DNA, which means they've inherited precisely the same genes from their biological parents.

Scientific studies — such as the University of British Columbia's Twin Project — have shown that such people, even when raised apart under very different circumstances, end up having very similar personalities, aptitudes, habits, and tastes.

Music: Theme from The Patty Duke Show:

    They laugh alike, they walk alike
    At times they even talk alike ...

But don't feel bad that it's mostly genes, not parenting, that make us who we are. Instead, as Christmas rolls around, celebrate the fact that the very best presents you ever gave your children were the good genes you passed on to them.

Music: Silent Night:

    Christ the Savior is born;
    Christ the Savior is born.

[Note: "Is born ..." being the whole thematic point, so end on these words]

I'm Robert J. Sawyer.

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