Friday, April 13, 2007

Innate or acquired?

The debate over "nature vs. nurture" rages on anew among sociologists, psychologists and philosophers, often couched in the strict polarities of genetic or environmental determinism. The following essay—actually some long excerpts from a French blog—suggests that the controversy has long been settled in the U.S. in favor of a strong and highly judgmental religious sensibility: humans are born with innate tendencies toward good and evil, within which freedom of choice can only play a minor role. In fact, this freedom of choice is just enough to create personal responsibility for our bad decisions, bringing with it shame and punishment.

The essay, from a philosophical blog linked to Paris Libération, will probably raise three instant objections: it's rather long, it's rather dry, and it was written by a French observer who has lived in the U.S. for several years. But, living as we do in a narcissistic culture, it's always worthwhile to seek out other perspectives. [Besides, some of the themes came up in a posting on March 31st.] Entitled "Innate and acquired seen from the U.S." (No. 198) and written by Corinne Narassiguin, the essay was posted on April 12th from New York (my translation from the French): the U.S., the idea of a genetic predisposition to certain social behaviors is very widespread. For decades American scientists have sought to identify a gene for violence. The fatalistic attitude of the average American toward criminality in society allows us to identify how this ideology became established in this country. The fervor of the ultraconservative Christian movement has surely contributed to the acceptance of the idea that some are born good, others evil...

[I]n reality, no serious American scientist denies the importance of the environment and nurture in the development of individual personalities. The majority of American sociologists, psychologists and politicians don't believe that everything is fixed from the cradle onwards. Even if they think that most of our behavior is the result of genetic predispositions, they continue to insist that the environment can counterbalance those predispositions. If the average American is ready to believe that some are born under the sign of divine grace, others under the mark of the devil, they believe nonetheless that most of us can exercise our freedom to choose between Good and Evil, either in spite of or because of our genetic heritage.

It should still be noted that theories about a gene for addiction, obesity, homosexuality, violence and mental illness find a resonance in the general population. In the U.S., as in France, in these uncertain times, people are seeking certainties.

How does this philosophy, which privileges genetic determinism over educational, social, and environmental factors, translate politically in the U.S. in terms of the treatment of criminals?

Politically and socially, the predominance of genetic determinism as a philosophy translates itself into a certain fatalism concerning criminality. [The fundamental idea] is that there are genetic predispositions to criminal behavior, that the role of education and society is to neutralize those predispositions by blocking their expression. Unfortunately, they think, when proper conditions don't develop early enough, and the evil gene has therefore profited from fertile ground to assert itself, it is very difficult to go back.

This is the source of a justice that privileges punishment and almost completely ignores the necessity of rehabilitation. Of a population which has never learned to see the difference between justice and vengeance. Of a country which doesn't openly question itself over capital punishment unless there's some risk of judicial error, but rarely concerning any ethical issue. The American prison: a place for punishment, where you deserve everything that happens to you, because you made the bad choice to give in to your criminal leanings. Rehabilitation is reserved as a last chance for those who haven't yet taken the plunge into serious criminality.

Prison as a school for crime? Rape, rackets, gangs in prison? In the the media, TV serials and political campaigns they speak of such things as an established fact. They rarely speak of them as a source of shame for the country, as a problem to remedy. Because, in the end, what do you expect to happen in a prison—a place full of criminals and deviants? Good people can do nothing about it, except perhaps to find alternatives to prison for delinquents who are not yet seen as incurable criminals, and who are still judged capable (by what criteria?) of being saved from that school of vice...

Work in prison is seen first as a supplemental way for criminals to pay their debt to society, to earn the food and care to which they have a right while there.

Prison is only seen secondarily as a way of reintegrating [into society]. Otherwise, for those guilty of serious crimes, the only acceptable form of rehabilitation for the majority of Americans is the (re)discovery of religious faith—the Born Again, the converted, who repent and place themselves, body and soul, before the destiny that God has decided for them. Because only divine grace can, in the eyes of the majority of Americans, deliver a criminal from his innate Evil and give him a second chance*.

I can't speak about American prisons without mentioning the overrepresentation of blacks. This tragic situation is certainly the direct result of a long history of discrimination, which largely continues today (in education, housing, hiring, professional advancement). But in the southern states in particular, where the memory of segregation remains strong, painfully for some and nostalgically for others, this overrepresentation of blacks in prison is associated with a possible genetic determinism that can only reinforce racial prejudices...

It is evident that in the U.S., as in Europe, genetic determinism as an intellectual position on the human condition is more dominant on the right than the left. One finds that Democrats have a greater will to develop policies of reinsertion, to fight against prison abuses, a greater capacity to believe in rehabilitation—with or without a religious epiphany. But it is interesting to note that, even for the Democrats, the vocabulary of Good and Evil has currency, and that prevention, education and equality of opportunity are seen above all as ways to reduce the effects of a genetic determinism that demands to express itself.
But this worldview isn't unique to the U.S. It has its extreme political expression in France itself, in the form of the current presidential candidacy of Nicolas Sarkozy, from the conservative Union for a Popular Movement. Another French writer and philosopher, Michel Onfray, describes his recent encounter with the candidate (my translation again):
He makes a gesture with a tight fist drawn to the right side of his abdomen and speaks about evil like it's a visible thing in the body, the flesh, even the viscera of one's being. I am led to believe that he thinks evil exists as a separate entity, clear, metaphysical, objectified, like a tumor, without any relation to the social, to society, politics, historical conditions. I questioned him to confirm my intuition: in fact, he thinks that we are born good or evil and that, no matter what happens, no matter what one does, everything is already regulated by nature.
Between the polarities of nature and nurture, there seems to be a highly complex middle ground where some traits and proclivities can be assigned to one's genetic heritage, while others are acquired (or perhaps reinforced) through one's environment.


*As it did for George Bush, whose born-again claims gave him a pass with conservative voters, who then ignored his history of drug/alcohol abuse and the fact that he is the only U.S. president who has been convicted of a crime. [My note, not Narassiguin's.]

[DISCLAIMER: By reproducing parts of Narassiguin's essay, I don't mean to indicate approval or agreement with everything she writes.]

PHOTO: Nicolas Sarkozy with his soulmate George Bush.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Alternatives to Prison"... Hmmm... Check out