“Unique” by David J. Linden: Not Nature Vs. Nurture

Neurobiologist David J. Linden‘s recently published book called Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality is itself unique in that, per my online research, this topic has seldom been addressed. What’s more likely to be found are articles on how to be unique—as though we aren’t already!

As Science Daily stated in 2018, “Like with fingerprints, no two people have the same brain anatomy, a study by researchers of the University of Zurich has shown. This uniqueness is the result of a combination of genetic factors and individual life experiences.”

Unique‘s publisher points out the fallacy of nature versus nurture:

Exploring everything from the roots of sexuality, gender, and intelligence to whether we like bitter beer, Linden shows how our individuality results not from a competition of nature versus nurture, but rather from a mélange of genes continually responding to our experiences in the world, beginning in the womb.

More from Kirkus Reviews:

The author picks apart those aspects that are biologically regulated and those that are the product of social experience—attachment, social warmth, neglect, and bullying—and describes how they affect brain development. There are a variety of sex manifestations that don’t always sort easily into male and female, and gender is even more variable….Ultimately, the author concludes, ‘interacting forces of heredity, experience, plasticity, and development resonate to make us unique.’

Selected Quotes from Linden’s interview with Abigail Fagan, Psychology Today:

The phrase that everyone knows, “nature vs. nurture,” is so awful and so wrong. The “vs.” implies that what you inherit from your parents must be opposed to your experience in the world, which isn’t true.

The word “nurture” makes people think too much about family, how your parents took care of you or failed to take care of you. The experience that informs you as an individual is so much broader than that. It’s things like the food your mother ate when she was carrying you in utero. Or the time of year you were born. Or the ambient temperature in the first year of your life.

[Regarding the role of “pure, random luck”]: Even at birth, identical twins who have the same DNA don’t come out identical. They don’t look identical, they don’t have identical temperaments, and if you put them in medical scanners their organs aren’t identical. Why is that? It’s because the DNA doesn’t specify the way we develop in excruciating detail with every connection between every cell specified. It gives a vague set of instructions that randomness then acts upon. Randomness is the cherry on top of the hereditary-interacts-with-experience equation.

Your birth order is an important determinant of how you behave and interact within your own family, both as a child and an adult. But it’s not as if first children who tend to be the leaders in their family are the leaders on the playground at school or the leaders of corporations. It doesn’t transfer over that way.

The heritability of addiction varies across different populations, and it’s about 40 percent among middle-class people. However, BMI is more heritable than addiction. Yet if most people look at someone who is overweight, they don’t say, “You got dealt a rough genetic hand.” They say, “You eat too much and you don’t exercise enough. It’s your own damn fault.” Understanding the statistics of heritability can alter your compassion for people.

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