Epigenetics and the Ideology of ‘Nature’ versus ‘Nurture’


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

As discussed in a previous post and in this conference paper on epigenetics and the causal narratives of obesity, there are important congruencies between causal narratives (i.e., stories about why things do or do not happen) and ideology. These congruencies explain why ideological conservatives tend to prefer narratives of individual responsibility while liberals prefer narratives implicating the influence of the environment on human action[1]. According to the paper just mentioned, given the unanticipated ways that epigenetics connects the immediate environment with changes in gene expression, epigenetics blurs the traditional boundaries that have been erected between these two narratives by incorporating elements of both—in addition to introducing unique narrative elements of its own.

This post will begin to show how just as epigenetics complicates the juxtaposition of these conventional narratives, the emergence of epigenetics poses similar complications for the juxtaposition of the conservative and liberal ideologies which are associated with these narratives.

That these underlying ideologies—which for so long have been presumed to be mutually exclusive—can likewise be so complicated by epigenetics is clearly of significant consequence for conventional politics. Given that politics—particularly in America—are largely organized around the supposed opposition of these two ideological orientations, the possibility of such a fundamental ideological reconfiguration poses significant challenges for contemporary politics which extend well beyond the practical policy implications raised in the previous discussions.

Ideologies, narratives and nature versus nurture

One way to begin to highlight these more fundamental implications of epigenetics is through the observation that these conventional narratives of individual responsibility versus environmental influences reflect in many ways the well known dichotomy of ‘nature versus nurture’ which has been a fundamental opposition in Western thought for decades if not centuries[2].

By ‘nature’ is meant the belief that physical and moral characteristics are fixed by nature and therefore not ultimately malleable to external influences; ‘nurture’ is the belief that the substrate of these traits and behaviors are malleable to these outside influences. While the strict dichotomization of nature versus nurture has been largely discredited as too simplistic, too restrictive and therefore not representative of reality[3], the opposition of these two orientations does still play a significant role in many contemporary explanations of human action, as evidenced by the prevalence of the causal narratives discussed before.

As with the ideological differences in narratives described in previous discussions, this ‘nature versus nurture’ dichotomy also has important ideological and political dimensions, particularly via discussions involving genetics[4]. In particular, the point of view that human nature is more or less fixed and therefore not ultimately influenced by external forces is most generally associated with ideological conservatism; conversely, the viewpoint that human nature is malleable to external forces is most often associated with ideological liberalism[5].

Importantly, although the nature-nurture dichotomy plays a role in the competing narratives of individual responsibility versus environmental influences, the nature-nurture dichotomy is also in many ways distinct from these causal narratives such that discussion of one is not the same as discussion of the other. The relationship between these dichotomies is usefully illustrated by mapping them on perpendicular axes:

Figure 1

The more strongly one prefers a particular narrative, the higher or lower he or she will be located on the vertical axis. The more strongly one prefers a particular nature or nurture orientation, the more to the left or the right he or she will be located on the horizontal axis. Arranged in this way, the axes with their opposite poles also allow for the representation of a number of different vectors of preferences or beliefs. This mapping also thus facilitates the mapping of the relationships of each dichotomy with their respective ideologies.

In general, according to the research mentioned before, ideological conservatives will more often than not be located above the horizontal axis (i.e., preferring narratives of individual responsibility) and to the left of the vertical axis (i.e., preferring attributions of nature over nurture), and vice versa for liberals. In other words, the more a person both identifies the individual as the locus of responsibility for his or her own actions, and also believes that human physical and moral attributes are fixed by nature, the more likely this person is to be ideologically conservative (i.e., the top-left quadrant). Conversely, the more a person places the onus for human action on the environment and particularly in ‘nurture’, the more likely that person is to be ideologically liberal (i.e., the bottom-right quadrant):

Nature_Responsibility_Nurture_Environment 2
Figure 2

Admittedly, this diagram as-is is a fairly blunt tool for mapping political ideologies. Many self-identified conservatives and liberals would locate themselves in other quadrants either in general or on specific issues. Also, finer distinctions could be drawn using more nuanced categorizations (e.g., fiscal conservatives might be located at different coordinates than would social conservatives or “crunchy” conservatives, possibly bleeding into the other quadrants). There is an extensive literature in which ideological differences such as these are parsed and elaborated to ever finer degrees, but engaging with this literature is not the purpose of this post. Rather, taken as a whole, Figure 2 is a reasonable illustration of the basic gist of this literature in demonstrating how the particular configurations of preferences represented by these two axes relate to conservatism and liberalism as perhaps the fundamental distinction in contemporary politics.

However, another issue is that there are many people with preferences and beliefs which do not fit cleanly within either ideological orientation. These non-dichotomous ideologies can also be incorporated into this mapping. Instead of a strict opposition between quadrants, the ideological distribution can be better mapped as a gradient between these two ideologies. Conservatives will be most highly concentrated towards the top-left corner of this graph, while liberals will be more highly concentrated in the bottom-right corner, but the distribution of preferences of these other possible ideological orientations will then radiate outwards from these respective points of origin towards the intersection of the axes, as illustrated in Figure 3:

Figure 3

Figure 3 better reflects all the possible configurations of preferences along these two dimensions and not just the standard ideological divide between liberals and conservatives, while also showing the relationship with both conservatism and liberalism of these other possible configurations of preferences.

For example, a person who believes that human physical and moral attributes are strongly influenced by the environment, but also that an individual still has a relatively high level of responsibility for their actions and the outcomes of their actions, would be located somewhere in the purplish area of the top-right quadrant. While this pattern of preferences would not be identified as either conventionally conservative or liberal, the relationship of this configuration of preferences to both the conservative and liberal ideologies is thus apparent.

The relevance of this mapping for this project is to demonstrate how practically all sets of politically relevant beliefs along these two dimensions can be related to these two ideological orientations. Once these relationships between narratives, orientations and ideologies are established, it is easy to demonstrate that to the degree that epigenetics complicates these conventional causal narratives and the nature-nurture dichotomy it also complicates the supposed opposition of these underlying ideologies.

Subsequent posts will explore how epigenetics complicates the traditional dichotomization of these conventional ideologies via the ways that epigenetics complicates these two dominant causal narratives and the nature-nurture dichotomy. This will show how aside from the practical effects on policy, which as discussed here can be significant, these more philosophical and metaphysical implications of epigenetics on the foundations of conventional politics suggest the true political impact of epigenetics.

I am curious to hear what you think so far. Leave your comments below and I will respond.

Also, if you find these thoughts I’ve shared interesting and worthwhile, Like this post, Reblog it, or Tweet about it using the buttons below.

[1] Kluegel JR, Smith ER. 1986. Beliefs about Inequality: Americans’ Views of What Is and What Ought to Be. New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter; Sniderman, P. M., Hagen, M. G., Tetlock, P. E., & Brady, H. E. (1986). Reasoning chains: Causal models of policy reasoning in mass publics. British Journal of Political Science, 16, 405–430; Cozzarelli, C., Wilkinson, A. V., & Tagler, M. J. (2001). Attitudes toward the poor and attributions for poverty. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 207–227. 11; Skitka LJ, Mullen E, Griffin T, Hutchinson S, Chamberlin B. 2002. “Dispositions, scripts, or motivated correction? Understanding ideological differences in explanations for social problems.” J Pers Soc Psychol. 83(2):470–487.

[2] Pastore, N. (1949). The nature-nurture controversy. Oxford, UK: King’s Crown Press; Goldhaber, D. (2012). The Nature-nurture Debates: Bridging the Gap. Cambridge University Press; Eagly, A. H., & Wood, W. (2013). The Nature–Nurture Debates 25 Years of Challenges in Understanding the Psychology of Gender. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(3), 340-357.

[3] De Waal, F. B. (1999). The end of nature versus nurture. Scientific American-American Edition, 281, 94-99; Pigliucci, M. (2001). Phenotypic plasticity: beyond nature and nurture. JHU Press; Pogun, S. (2001). Sex differences in brain and behavior: emphasis on nicotine, nitric oxide and place learning. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42(2), 195-208; Coll, C. G., Bearer, E. L., & Lerner, R. M. (Eds.). (2014). Nature and nurture: The complex interplay of genetic and environmental influences on human behavior and development. Psychology Press; Moreno, J. (2014). How We Became Human: A Challenge to Psychoanalysis. Rowman & Littlefield.

[4] Paul, D. B. (1998). The politics of heredity: Essays on eugenics, biomedicine, and the nature-nurture debate. SUNY Press; Hatemi, P. K., Dawes, C. T., Frost-Keller, A., Settle, J. E., & Verhulst, B. (2011). Integrating social science and genetics: News from the political front. Biodemography and social biology, 57(1), 67-87; Smith, K., Alford, J. R., Hatemi, P. K., Eaves, L. J., Funk, C., & Hibbing, J. R. (2012). Biology, ideology, and epistemology: how do we know political attitudes are inherited and why should we care? American journal of political science,56(1), 17-33; Suhay, E., & Jayaratne, T. E. (2012). Does Biology Justify Ideology? The Politics of Genetic Attribution. Public opinion quarterly, 77(2), 497-521.

[5] Lakoff, G. (2010). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. University of Chicago Press.


2 thoughts on “Epigenetics and the Ideology of ‘Nature’ versus ‘Nurture’

  1. […] It was against such politically and ethically charged ideas that Weismann and other Darwinists and neo-Darwinists set themselves. Although much of this debate was couched in scientific language about ostensibly scientific subjects, underneath much of it were competing worldviews as to the proper place of humanity on the earth and in the universe. In other posts, I have likewise written about the significant though largely ignored roles of competing political ideologies in the scientific history of genetics and epigenetics, as well as about the ideological implications of epigenetics. […]


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