Monday, August 15, 2016

Genes vs. Environment: Anyone for Free Will?

Do genes cause behavior? If they do, one would expect to see evidence of criminality, genius, schizophrenia, homosexuality, and evangelical Christianity in infants. All of these behaviors, plus many others, have been said to be inborn.

To expect an infant to exhibit these traits is absurd. To say that an infant has inherited the potential to become a criminal, or evangelical Christian, says nothing. We are all born with that potential, plus countless other potentialities.

Does environment cause behavior? The trouble with this assertion is that there are always exceptions to the good and bad things environment does to children when they are growing up.

Some children reared in crime-ridden, slum neighborhoods become criminals while others do not, even if they are siblings in the same family. The same can be said for children reared in safe, wealthy suburbs. Others raised in religious families follow their parents and become evangelical Christians, while some rebel and become atheists.

The determinism of the genes/environment axis is a self-contradiction—determinists have to acknowledge that they are determined to believe in determinism. Yet they pretend to be making a logical choice to believe in determinism.

Something other than genes or environment must be operating to cause our behavior.

Here’s a novel idea. How about thought, that processor of genetic inheritance and environment that generates our motivation and directs behavior?

Thought, or more broadly, consciousness, makes errors and has to control itself in order not to make mistakes. Free will is cognitive self-regulation, which means we may choose to focus on the facts or evade them, allowing other factors, such as emotions, presuppositions, or political doctrine, to interfere with correct perception.*

Our guide to the correct perception of reality is the 2500-year-old science of thinking called logic. As the discipline and art that regulates internal thought processes, logic is the quintessential introspective science. The genes/environment axis, however, does not want to admit that logic is introspective, because then they would have to admit that consciousness controls behavior and that introspection is a valid method of science.

Psychologically, this means our personalities are self-created. The cause of behavior is the innumerable conclusions we have drawn—the myriad thoughts, logical or not, we have had—about our genetic inheritance and the environment in which we live, from the time we were able to process words right up to the present.

These innumerable conclusions and myriad thoughts accumulate and become the mental habits by which we live. As habits (or psycho-epistemologies), many have become so automated, buried in our subconscious with their origins largely forgotten, that they feel to us as if we were born that way, or that something external is making us act the way we do.

Lack of introspection, or more specifically, introspective skill, to examine our motivating premises—thoughts, evaluations, emotions—makes it hard to appreciate how much control we in fact have over our lives.

Habits can be good or bad, the good ones leading us to live a happy life, the bad ones not so happy. The examined life, to paraphrase Socrates, is worth living; the unexamined one leads to problems in living.

Mental habits are all learned.** We were not born knowing how to drive a car, for example, but in adulthood, adults can safely drive while carrying on a conversation and listening to music on the radio. All of our actions follow this pattern.

Certain habits, generated from core evaluations and other less fundamental but nevertheless significant evaluations, are usually acquired when very young, from toddlerhood on. We retain these early conclusions about ourselves (our sense of personal identity), the world, and other people and hold them as unquestioned absolutes.***

It is in toddlerhood that we begin to speak, which means we are beginning to think in concepts and words.

Young children do not usually form these important conclusions through explicit reasoning, but through a process of emotional generalization. At the risk of oversimplification, an emotion at this stage in life, if it could be put into words, might say something like, “That made me feel good about myself. I’ll do it again.” Or, “I didn’t like that and I’m not going to feel it again.”

Repeated many times over, the former, if based on a correct perception of reality, can lead to the development of self-esteem, the latter, which most likely includes errors, to repression and subsequent psychological problems.

If taught from an early age to look inward to identify our thoughts, evaluations, and emotions, and to correct errors we have made, we would grow up with healthy psychologies. Most of us, however, have not been taught much of anything about psychology, in childhood or adulthood.

Thus, when the genes/environment axis comes along, it makes perfect sense that our behavior is caused by something we have no control over.

The irony is that genes and environment do have an influence on us, in the sense that genes give us gender and skin color and environment can make life easy or difficult, but we are the ones who develop attitudes—conclusions, evaluations—about gender, skin color, and environment.

To help us correctly perceive and evaluate what genetics has given us and what goes on in our environment, teaching is crucial. Parents and the schools need to instruct children in the skill of applying logic to their own psychologies.

The unfortunate consequence of the genes/environment debate is that the axis devalues the environmental influence of an education in sound psychology. For that is what is required to help us use our free will to assess genetic inheritance and environment and thereby make better choices to live a happier life.


* This is Ayn Rand’s theory of free will as volitional consciousness.
** All habits, at root, are mental. I use “mental” here to emphasize their psychological origin.
*** The concept of core evaluations was identified by psychologist Edith Packer and presented in her lecture “Understanding the Subconscious” in 1984. Lectures on Psychology, chapter 2.


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