In Which Our Hero Resolves The Question of Nature vs. Nurture

(x-posted to The Valve, of course)

Nature versus nurture, Lodge. Nature always wins.
–Secretary William Cleary, Wedding Crashers

Jenny Davidson’s new book of cultural criticism, entitled Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century, is one of the strangest and most elliptical works of its kind I’ve ever read. I say this because, unlike traditional works of historicist criticism, Breeding never makes an overt argument about how modern readers should feel about its subject, the nature vs. nurture debates of the 18th Century. It risks seeming purposeless in order to pit Steven Pinker, a contemporary researcher and author on matters of cognition and evolution, against William Godwin, a pedagogue and Romantic who died in 1836. This fundamental comparison seems to be more an effect of the text than something Davidson consciously intended; she spells out her intentions in the Introduction, citing W. G. Sebald and Roland Barthes as inspirations for a text that seeks only to explore the “grid” of an issue and to present its nuances in a tolerant, dispassionate fashion.

In so doing, however, the text is bound to leave us mildly disappointed. It is not that it lacks erudition or insight; in fact, as the great diversity of responses published on the Valve indicates, its plentiful supply of both encourages readers to enter this debate as one might a house preserved from that time, lingering over those artifacts that they, for their own reasons, find most compelling. But I think that, even despite ourselves, we come to a book like Breeding in the hopes that we might end up a little closer to answering those same raw and troubling questions that inspired Locke and Rousseau. That remains, in this case, the road not taken. Still, Davidson’s book suggests, if only by what it chooses to include, some important ways of cutting the Gordian knot of nature and nurture.


Davidson claims that the uncertainty produced by the tension between nature and nurture is morally ideal. She writes in the conclusion to the book that “a hard-core commitment to nature-based explanation, a hard-core advocacy of nurture” are both likely to make us, in Godwin’s words, “the helpless victims of a blind and remorseless destiny” (205). The real problem with having a destiny of this kind is that it enables us to be summed up by the controlling forces of society: if society knows exactly who we are, either because of our inborn nature or because of how it has formed us, than it can legitimately claim the right to act on that knowledge, effectively depriving us of our freedom. To this end, Davidson revisits not only the intertwined histories of racism and eugenics, but also quotes Mary Midgley on the necessary limits of nurture: “If we were genuinely plastic and indeterminate at birth, there could be no reason why society should not stamp us into any shape that might suit it” (7).

Over the course of the book, Davidson presents Godwin as a zealous pedagogue who started out believing entirely in “nurture,” but who eventually had to confront the limits of his own theories:

Yet Political Justice‘s uncompromising position on the natural equality of men would be modified by Godwin in subsequent editions of the book, a retraction that speaks to Godwin’s intellectual honesty in the face of his experience as an educator of real children (as opposed to a pure theorist of education). (174)

Davidson continues, after quoting Godwin at length:

The irony is that Godwin should have been so perfectly positioned to see and to articulate the workings of hereditary causes in spite of–because of?–his early adherence to an extreme Helvetian position. In the end, he argues for balance […] Man “brings a certain character into the world with him,” but not “an immutable character,” although elsewhere in the same collection an older position resurfaces.” (178)

Steven Pinker, by contrast, is the modern academic researcher who never exposes himself to the rough winds of doubt, and who is therefore guilty of resorting to “what seems like intellectual bullying” (40) in support of a heavily deterministic, evolutionary interpretation of human nature and culture, one that even “many of his professional peers are inclined to question” (39). Pinker epitomizes the “hard-core commitment to nature-based explanation” that ultimately puts our personal freedoms in danger.

This is, by now, familiar territory for scholarship in the humanities, as both John Holbo and Miriam Burstein have pointed out. Davidson presents herself as a moderate, championing an ongoing process of inquiry as well as the habit of wary scepticism that sustains it. (Pinker, by contrast, calls himself a moderate but is no such thing.) Such an attitude, her text promises, is both a means of potentially making ourselves better than we currently are, and an antidote to dangerous political enthusiasms.

I hope that I will not give offense by describing such an approach, with its focus on self-improvement and gradualism, as comfortably bourgeois, in the same sense in which we might usefully apply the term to both Barthes and Sebald. (After all, Sebald, in the indictment of a very poor meal that Davidson quotes, is not only preparing the way for his description of starving refugee children; he is also railing against frozen seafood and mass-produced tartar sauce.) In writing about our determination to be “better than we once were” (201, quoting John Passmore), Davidson calls New Year’s resolutions to mind, as well our desire to exercise more, to criticize the action rather than the person, to take piano lessons, and to finally itemize our household expenses. (In the context, one wants to ask: do not even the publicans the same?) It is closer than necessary to the slippery pseudo-critiques of American society in Malcolm Gladwell and Freakonomics, many of which reduce down to new versions of old self-help truisms. Politically, it is once again the French Revolution as seen from the perspective of English aristocrats who felt the Terror, and the Napoleonic threat, rather more keenly than the horrors of monarchy or empire.

At the same time, Davidson’s book is potentially much better than its excessively determined beginning and end. In her illuminating discussions of Shakespeare, Defoe, Rousseau, and others, she paves the way for a transformation of the debate over nature and nurture into a conversation about the role of art and imagination in the constitution of the individual, and the importance of defending an imaginative, singular Gestalt against the totalizing claims of reason. Davidson spends considerable time on the popular belief that what women imagined during conception and pregnancy influenced the appearance and nature of the child. She mentions twice that women could bear a child who resembled their husband if they pictured the husband while committing adultery. This led to the unintentionally hilarious theory that “resemblance might be brought about because the mother, lying her lover’s arms, feared discovery by her real husband” (23) and therefore practiced a kind of exculpatory visualization exercise.

This seems like a fairly obvious case of reversal, especially considering how that paradigm has evolved up to the present: the real fear is not that the woman will be thinking of her husband while making it with the matador, but rather that she will be thinking of another man while having sex with her husband. Out of this comes all the scenes in modern comedies and soap operas where a lover shouts out the wrong name in the heat of passion, or somebody confesses to “Thinking of you / in the final throes,” as Amy Winehouse puts it. What is terrifying is that the sexual act, which is supposed to produce a merging of subjectivities, cannot banish the stubbornly personal and solitary nature of the imagination. Furthermore, it is the imagination that makes sense of the present through reference to the past, literally putting its “stamp” on an individual’s perceptions in the same way that the parent’s visage stamps the child. The concept of the association of ideas, which was so central to both Locke and Godwin, leads us to analyze the synthetic processes at work in such phenomena as dreams — it leads us, in other words, toward a Freudian understanding of individuality.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we see imagination and reason divided along gendered lines, with the personal accidents of the feminine imagination always figured as a threat to or disfigurement of the perfect, rational male mind, and the correspondingly perfect body. It is especially noteworthy that desire and trauma, which so heavily determine the gap between ourselves and others, are always the points of reference for inherited characteristics. In addition to the anxieties about adultery, “a desire for strawberries might produce a strawberry birthmark” (21), and “the sight of a mutilated beggar [might produce] a child with missing limbs.” The list of traumas expands to include a child whose ear bears the mark of her father’s dueling injury, and a lamb with wool affected by its mother’s once-broken leg.

What may appear to be unscientific fairy stories touch unexpectedly on truths: children are very much subject to the traumas their parents have experienced, both as individual people and as a couple, and they are also subject to the fantasies, superstitions, and other constructs upon which the adults nearest to them depend. This remains a source of great anxiety, as we see in a story like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, about the suffocating hold of a governess’s imagination over her two charges. On a larger scale, in both The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, we see Dostoevsky driven to distraction by the persistence of superstitions and cults that almost sanction insanity, and which are passed down from one generation to the next. But mixed in with this reasonable complaint, one senses, in this contempt for the impressionable and disordered female mind, an intolerant attitude towards the contingent elements in sensibility and subjective perceptions, because these contingencies produce heterogeneous, ungovernable subjects.

It is unfortunate that a book that deals so freely with the “erotic investments” of Rousseau and the sexual anxieties of Swift, Godwin, Malthus and others should dismiss Freud in a single paragraph:

Rousseau’s discussion would find a famous sequel in Freud’s contention “that what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions.” But all such arguments hinge on a foundational act of self-deception or self-contradiction in which the writer only pretends to abnegate a culture on which he depends, however much he may deplore it. (120)

This reading of Rousseau and Civilization and Its Discontents reduces all people to helplessness in the face of whatever happens to be their inherited culture and circumstances. It is anti-literary and perhaps even anti-intellectual in its implications. It is difficult to see why Rousseau’s noble savage should be denied the tolerant attitude Davidson adopts towards Jonathan Swift’s fantastical backdrops for social criticism. The very act of going back to the eighteenth century, and imagining oneself to be observing the impact of dealing with unruly children on William Godwin, is an enabling fiction for historical scholarship. Furthermore, any act of repentance is necessarily an act of self-contradiction, which is why Friedrich Nietzsche opposed such attitudes on logical grounds — to strive for perfection, as Davidson wishes us to do, is to stand in contradiction to one’s own history and past choices. Rousseau and Freud are neither more nor less “counterfactual” than she herself wishes to be.

Rather than dismissing a “return to the state of Nature” as a mere impossibility, it seems to me that we can usefully read Rousseau as advocating encounters with Nature in a manner that must, now as then, be deliberately arranged. If we want to have an experience of wildness, we have to arrange time off from work, and we usually have to drive or fly quite a distance, almost as though there were indeed a “deficiency [of Nature’s reach or presence] that cannot by definition be anything but an accident and a deviation from Nature” (115, quoting Derrida). Derrida’s attempts to “disprove” the loss of the natural environment lead to what is, I would argue, a very serious misreading of Rousseau’s passage on men “accustomed from childhood to the inclemencies of the weather, and the rigor of the seasons, hardened to fatigue, and forced to defend naked and unarmed their life and their Prey […] [who thereby] develop a robust and almost unalterable temperament” that their children come to share. Davidson describes this as the judicious strengthening of “a constitution or temperament […] by culture” (117), which is simply too reductive. If it is part of one’s culture to consume large amounts of green tea, it is nonetheless not the culture that actually reduces the propensity of one’s cells to form cancerous tumors. It is still the compounds in the tea. I say this because of the inclination to discredit everything Rousseau is saying about Nature by linking it to matters of preference and habit that apply equally to other ideologies, as though the content of the encounter itself was therefore rendered irrelevant.

If we think of Freud and Rousseau as proposing encounters of a certain salutary kind — with the traumatic past and with the bracing impersonality and grandeur of Nature, respectively — then it is not so hard to see them as akin to us in their pursuit of perfection, or rather, to see their stamp upon our own endeavors. In all cases it falls to the individual to bring into harmony that which is contradictory and unresolved in her own experience: the country and the city, the past and the present, theory and practice. We do not know what combination of bitter experience and inbred melancholy produces a Swift, but both are encompassed and transcended by the creative triumph of his work, which he leaves behind as his legacy. (Nor do we know the proportions of myopia and gentleness in the visions of Monet.) Because we have Swift, and Sylvia Plath, and the Sex Pistols, and de Sade, and the rest, we can say, like Fuckhead in Jesus’ Son, “All these…weirdos, and me…getting a little better every day. I had never known…I had never imagined even for a heartbeat that…there might be a place in the world for people like us.” But the search for that place, or rather the heterotopia of many such places, still puts us violently at odds with the general drift of the society, still strands us in the hope that such personal visions, sealed up inside of art, can be awoken into a real and common life.

Good Paulina, lead us from hence,
Where we may leisurely
Each one demand and answer to his part
Performed in this wide gap of time since first
We were dissevered. Hastily lead away.

–William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale