Two new books from Robert Plomin and Nicholas Christakis revive the “nature vs. nurture” debate about what makes people different from one another

C. Brandon Ogbunu and C. Malik Boykin in the Boston Review:

In recent years, biology’s “nature vs. nurture” war has reemerged with advanced weapons, although the central questions have not changed: What makes us human? Why are we different from one another? Nonetheless, the methods used to address them have undergone several revolutions. We now benefit from hundreds of twin and adoption studies, which have provided heritability estimates for dozens of characteristics relating to human behavior and wellness. Simultaneously, we are reaping the benefits of technological breakthroughs that have made it possible to screen thousands of individuals to uncover genes associated with particular traits. Thanks to this, we have been able to correlate genetic signatures with a growing list of physical (e.g., height, skin color), physiological (e.g., risk for type-2 diabetes, hypertension), and behavioral (e.g., risk for depression, autism) traits. At the same time, epidemiology, psychology, and sociology continue to demonstrate the pliability of the human experience across populations, and we continue to learn more about the social forces that create vast differences in the human experience.

In combination, work from the natural and social sciences should have fostered a golden age for the study of human behavior. And yet, conversations about how to explain differences between individuals and groups are more controversial than ever—perhaps not surprisingly, given the political implications of any answer. Recent breakthroughs in molecular biology have compounded the stakes.

More here.

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