Third side to nature vs. nurture debate

Rachel LaVictoire,  is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Eliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a sophomore. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center.

By Rachel LaVictoire

For over two centuries, professionals in the field of psychology have been interested in human development: Do we all develop similarly? Are our personalities predestined or are they the result of our environment? How can we most effectively impact another’s development so as to benefit their lives? Today, this dispute is widely known as the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate, a term coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1871.

Those on the “nature” side of the debate may more formally be said to believe in biodeterminism—the idea that an individual’s biology is his preordained or permanent destiny. The “nurture” supporters, on the other hand, think human behaviors are learned over time. In defense of the “nurture” theories, John Locke postulated that the human mind is born as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, with no innate knowledge or ideas.

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

There is, however, a third side missing from this debate, and that is divinity. In the very first section of the Torah, we read, “then the Lord G-d formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). We see here that it was neither biology nor environment that made Adam a “living being.” Rather, he was born with the spirit of G-d inside of him.

But what does that mean, to be born with the spirit of G-d inside of us? Is it that the entirety of our lives is laid out in that single breath of life? Or is it that we are born as G-d-like creatures with the power to do as we please? But if we can do as we please, who is to draw the line between what “we please” and what we do in accordance with our G-d-like nature?

The Talmud weighs in on this dilemma with the following explanation:


“The name of the angel who is in charge of conception is ‘Night’, and he takes up a drop and places it in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, saying, ‘Sovereign of the universe, what shall be the fate of this drop? Shall it produce a strong man or a weak man, a wise man or a fool, a rich man or a poor man?’ Whereas ‘wicked man’ or ‘righteous one’ he does not mention, in agreement with the view of R. Hanina. For R. Hanina stated: Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of God, as it is said, And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear etc (Niddah 16b).”


From this passage, it shows there is an interwoven relationship between predestination and free will: Though G-d makes the detailed decisions regarding a newborn’s innate strength and wisdom, the fate of the child depends on what he eventually chooses to do with his G-d given qualities.

So, thus far we have three different ways of explaining what is essentially human development: nature, nurture and divinity.

From the nature perspective, a newborn baby holds within him an intricate concoction of hormones, neurotransmitters and DNA strands that will interact to control the life of the child. The nurture-ists, however, see this new life for what it is, entirely new. They believe that over time the child will have new experiences through observation and experimentation. The supporters of this divinity theory would argue that when we see a newborn he is not actually new, but rather the product of the all-powerful G-d that chose to bless him with specific traits.

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we are concerned not with new life, but with a new nation. Once again, G-d asks for a census of the Israelites, and so Moses counts the totals of each of the twelve tribes and provides the grand total of all the tribes.

Then, G-d said to Moses,

“You shall apportion the Land among these as an inheritance, in accordance with the number of names. To the large tribe you shall give a larger inheritance and to a smaller tribe you shall give a smaller inheritance, each person shall be given an inheritance according to his number. Only through lot shall the Land be apportioned; they shall inherit it according to the names of their fathers’ tribes. The inheritance shall be apportioned between the numerous and the few, according to lot” (Numbers 26:53-56).

So, here we have the same dilemma. Throughout the passage, the dividing of the land is explained in three different ways: an inheritance, a portion and a lottery. The first method, division by inheritance, would imply some sort of hierarchical system in which more important or more holy families are entitled to better land. The second, a portion system, seems much more mathematic and fair—those tribes with larger populations deserve more land. Then, finally, algorithms and systematic division gets tossed to the side, and we see a simple lottery-style division of the Promised Land.

The confusion of the language, however, is clearly more than a judgment of diction or an attempt to employ a variety of words. Here, G-d shows us the multifaceted nature of decision-making.

There is never one answer to “why,” though at times it may seem easier to believe so. Scientists have been so invested in this “Nature vs. Nurture” debate, hoping to find their one answer to “why”—why we are the way we are. It’s something we do everyday, maybe even without noticing it. Why did I not get that promotion? Why do I keep struggling with Calculus? Why have things been going wrong? Though we would like to find easier answers, this week we are reminded that it is never just one answer. Within me I have the genes of two parents, the experiences of an eighteen-year-old American girl, the unwavering love for G-d, and a whole series of chance opportunities. I, like the Israelites, was given life through a combination of inheritance, apportion and luck.