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Nature and Nurture
“Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh — it will become a snake.” (7:9)
One of the hottest debates within psychology is nature vs. nurture: To what extent are the various aspects of our behavior a product of inherited (i.e. genetic) or acquired (i.e. learned) characteristics?
It has long been known that certain physical characteristics are biologically determined by genetic inheritance. Color of eyes, straight or curly hair, pigmentation of the skin and certain diseases (such as Huntingdon’s chorea, G-dforbid) are all a function of the genes we inherit. Other physical characteristics, if not exactly totally determined, appear to be at least strongly influenced by the genetic make-up of our biological parents.
These facts have led many to speculate as to whether psychological characteristics such as behavioral tendencies, personality attributes, and mental abilities are also “wired in” before we are even born.
Those who adopt an extreme hereditary position are known as nativists. Their basic assumption is that the characteristics of the human species as a whole are a product of evolution, and that individual differences are due to each person’s unique genetic code.
At the other end of the spectrum are the environmentalists — also known as empiricists (not to be confused with the other empirical/scientific approach). Their basic assumption is that at birth the human mind is a tabula rasa (a blank slate), and that this is gradually “filled” as a result of experience (e.g., behaviorism). From this point of view, psychological characteristics and behavioral differences that emerge through infancy and childhood are the results of learning. It is how you are brought up (nurture) that governs the psychologically significant aspects of child development, and the concept of maturation applies only to the biological aspects.
It is widely accepted now that heredity and the environment do not act independently. Both nature and nurture are essential for any behavior, and it cannot be said that a particular behavior is genetic and another is environmental. It is impossible to separate the two influences, as well as illogical, as nature and nurture do not operate in a separate way, but interact in a complex manner.
Judaism’s view has always been that the human being is a complex mix of both forces.
Our Sages teach that a Jew possesses the hereditary characteristics of modesty, mercy and kindness. So much so that a Jew who does not exhibit these qualities is of questionable lineage.
In this week’s Torah portion we see an allusion to the influence of nurture. Engraved on the staff that Aharon cast in front of Pharaoh was the Ineffable Divine Name of YKVK. It was this same “staff of G-d” that was used to perform the signs and wonders in the deliverance from Egypt. Nevertheless, when it came “in front of Pharaoh” it turned into a poisonous snake — the embodiment of evil. The lowly spiritual level of the Jewish People was only a result of their environment, and when removed from the miasma of Egypt they would return to their lofty stature, just as when the snake was returned to Moshe’s hand it became once again “the staff of G-d”.
The Jewish People would revert to their original nurture.
- Sources: Rabbi Meir Shapiro in Mayana Shel Torah; McLeod, S. A. (2015). Nature vs nurture in psychology. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/naturevsnurture.html