Sunday, September 28, 2008

That Good Ol' Nature vs. Nurture Question

I constantly ponder the essential question of "nature or nurture?" especially since it is at the core of critical thought on deviant sexualities and queer theory. Some people believe our gender and sexuality are shaped by genetical make-up and other biological factors. Conversely, some people believe these facets of identity are shaped by culture and social interaction. But matters of the self are not so easily stuffed into black and white test tubes that make it easier for social scientists to wrap their heads around. There are obvious overlaps of this binary categorization. Insert Queer Theory, which arises out of a rejection of this binary.

In my own life, I am aware of both biological and social indicators that have shaped my queerness. I had a great-grandfather who lived alone for over 50 years after being widowed, lovingly making quilts for himself and his extended family...this wasn't necessarily the most traditional thing for a man to do at the turn of the century...was he potentially gay? I also have a nephew whom is now openly gay. So there may be a "gay gene" in my family. On the flip side, I can recognize specific social instances and group settings that helped mould my queer self. Even at an early age, I never felt very aligned with men or boys, I was always more comfortable with my mother and girls, and so my playthings were always girl-oriented. In my formative teens, I found my "community" in riot grrls and other outcast characters on the fringes of my high school social fabric. Essentially, I was "raised" (in punk fashion) by those for whom "normal" society was not enough. It was not until very recently that I have understood this community as profoundly shaping me in queer ways.

But my ultimate decision to "come out" was an incredibly personal decision, and didn't happen exclusively by peer influences. In fact, my "coming out" was marked more by what it was not, than what is was. I did not have emotional break-downs or blubbering confessions to everyone I knew. I did not experience an intense moment of enlightenment. I simply realized that the feelings I had always had for men could be real... and not exist only in my imagination. A quiet humming revolution. A tremor of self-actualization.

And so this notion of binary-rejection is one lens through which I am attempting to understand the world and all its workings. (Yes, I am comfortable riding the fence!) In particular, I am interested in applying the nature vs. nurture perspective to the varied subjects I encounter in my reading and observations of visual culture. I also hope to enhance my own queer theoretical skills by framing my writing within the argument of nature vs. nurture.


Dre said...

Aaron, I love thinking about the "nature vs nurture" question, because it is one argument where black and white just doesn't cut it, and there are no wrong answers in the infinite shades of gray between the two. Each case is as unique as the lives of the people involved. I can't see how nature is not involved in sexuality...I think it plays a much stronger role than nurture does in this particular circumstance. Now the realization of non-conventional sexuality, or the ability to embrace and acknowledge versus repress and deny would be where nurture could have a serious effect. But even then, everyone and every case is unique. People are surprising creatures. Your comment about playing with "girly" things as a youngster made me remember my own childhood of filled with gender-specific toys. I remember getting so annoyed with my little brother because he wanted to play barbies with me...I told him he was supposed to play with his gi-joes! Who told me that? I don't know, but I certainly passed that on to him! I myself enjoyed "boy" things...I spent most of my time outside playing soccer or running around in the woods, not so much time with the easy-bake oven and barbies. I actually looked like a little boy until 6th grade, when someone told me so and really rocked my I grew my hair long. Ain't unspoken social pressures interesting?

King VCU Grad PHTO Research said...

After spending a semester in a psych course called "Nature, Nurture" - here is the quick-answer to the debate, as I see it:

It's nurture via nature. Biological predispositions are birthed into us, life situations can help trigger the biological responses.

(Clearest example is in schizophrenia. If one of your parents exhibits the disease, you have a 48% chance of becoming schizophrenic yourself (genetics). However, not all 48% must become schizophrenic - at last I read, scientists were moving closer to the idea that there is some chromosomal "abnormality" that can either be triggered or not, causing the initial symptoms.)

... Not to say that gender/orientation is ever "disease" - I just find that schizo is often the easiest example of the interaction of nature and nurture. The nurturing couldn't trigger what isn't there naturally, but what is there naturally does not necessarily present itself.

Lisa Swanson said...

Hey Aaron, this is a lovely post :) I like all your "Odd Marks" so far, and I am glad you're where you feel you ought to be (aka, grad school). I hope it's wonderful. I will keep an eye on your writing here, it's really neat.

Thanks for the shout-out as an "outcast character." I think I'm going to be home for about a week around Thanksgiving if you want to hang out--I was about to type my cell number here and then realized that that would be a silly thing to post on the internet, I'll email it to you in case you don't have it.

Congratulations on everything, and I hope you're having a swell Indigenous Peoples Day.



Conceptual Metalsmithing said...


I think you know where I stand on the nature vs. nurture issue. Honestly, the fact that you have 1 queer and another potentially (probably) queer relatives are not conclusive evidence whatsoever of a "gay gene." If the statistic that 10% of the population is gay is accurate, that means that if you have 20 male relatives that 2 are likely to be gay.

I get uncomfortable asserting my opinion that nurture is underrated, especially in this arena. Of course I think gender or sexual preference is not a choice but something hard wired. I feel that nurture can hard wire something.

When did nature get a monopoly on determining non physical attributes?

Anyhow I am fixating on only part of your post. If queer breaks down the binary system, then what is the alternative to nature-nurture? How does queer explain the 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc. paths?


Jon said...

Aaron, Enjoyed your post and the comments of folks. I'm not sure how much new material I have to add to the discussion except to say that I thoroughly support a system of thinking which isn't binary. Good-bad, right-wrong, ourside-their side, these are the very binary thoughts that have been the hallmark of neo-conservative thinking manifested in the Bush administration. It is thinking that lacks sophistication. I would argue (being binary about it) that it is also lazy thinking. Reality is more complicated. There are times when binary thinking has its place, and there are times when nuanced thinking also has its place. Knowing which to use and when is in the nuanced gray area for sure...