By Robert Weissberg

The nature vs. nurture debate is not inherently ideological. It is, or at least should be, a matter of clear-eyed scientific inquiry. Nevertheless, in today’s political landscape liberals generally favor nurture while conservatives are inclined toward nature. This ideological alignment is predictable: explaining tribulations as environmentally determined invariably leads to expanding state authority while favoring intractable human nature suggests small government.

This debate’s non-scientific ideological baggage is most apparent in explaining racial inequality. For liberals, black shortcomings in education, employment, crime, family instability, substance abuse and all the rest are best remediated by the state fixing faulty environments. Conservatives, by contrast, argue (though currently usually in private) that biology ("human nature") limits government remediation and that while environmental tinkering can sometimes help, unequal inherited traits ultimately doom leveling.

In principle this debate should be wholly scientific. But quarrels typically gravitate toward moral imperatives, good vs. evil. Liberals insist that biological explanations, especially when they involve group comparisons, are not only factually incorrect, but that, worse, such "bad" thinking undermines a free democratic society. Biology means Hitler and eugenics and we all know what happened in Germany. Biology will also needlessly exacerbate racial tensions. To clinch the argument, any scientific research that might uncover inherited biological factors might justify prejudice and discrimination—even the Mother of all Sins, “hate”.

Conservatives do not reject this "nurture good/nature bad" moral cosmology. They tacitly accept the bad guy role. But they usually try to escape the onus with something akin to "as unpleasant as it is, we cannot ignore harsh reality." Without debate, liberals gain the high moral ground—the environmentalist explanation is the moral basis of a kind, free, democratic society,

But this reasoning has it backwards. A free society is better served by a frank admission that some group-related traits are biologically hard-wired and beyond remediation.

That does not mean that all race-related traits are biologically determined and that environmental tinkering is pointless; rather, the acceptance of biological limits thwarts creeping statism and, that understood, biological explanations befriend liberty. Put another way, treating a race-related biological difference as readily amenable to state intercession virtually guarantees expanding oppressive (if well-intentioned) state power.

Consider, for example, America’s half-century long unsuccessful effort to close race-related gaps in educational attainment. The progression from gentle admonitions to more draconian interventions is indisputable. It began with the Supreme Court banning state-mandated racial segregation, evolved into prohibiting all racial segregation regardless of reasons and then moved on to elaborate court-ordered bussing schemes and, eventually, into federally micro-managed schools, including forcing local school districts to raise taxes to fund palatial buildings and hire teachers solely according to race.

Today even school disciplinary policy and textbook illustrations reflect this leveling quest. Worse, Washington has become deeply involved in local school politics, a breach of the principle of federalism that would shock those who wrote the Constitution.

All these increasingly draconian measures failed to close the academic gap. But fans of environmental determinism were hardly deterred. Just the opposite! Repeated failure evolved into a public policy version of the gamblers fallacy in which the loser mistakenly believes that given endless past failures, he is "due" for a success and this will wipe out all previous losses. Obama’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative reflects this fantasy.

Going from mild measures to more invasive policies has become addictive. Desperate gap-closers currently speak of government telling black parents how raise their children—a remediation strategy totally antithetical to limited government.

As Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard put it:

"There’s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten…"


"…we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have. Those include conversations about early childhood parenting practices." [Proficiency of Black Students Is Found to Be Far Lower Than Expected, By Trip Gabriel, NYT, November 9, 2010]

State-funded experts would now monitor how parents interact with their two-, three- and four-year-olds, how they talk to them, how discipline is enforced, how parents encourage their children to think and develop a sense of autonomy. This is a far cry from government-subsidized, totally voluntary Sesame Street programming through which under-stimulated black children were supposed to absorb richer "middle class" vocabularies.

Ferguson’s ideas may come to naught. But other forceful state interventions are hardly unthinkable as more gentle measures fail. Conceivably, black toddlers will undergo mandatory mental testing and if they show signs of cognitive "impairment", then it’s off to a state-administered pre-Head Start enrichment program!—while parents will be required to use big words and complex sentences when speaking to junior.

And, since inadequate nutrition may also hinder learning, mandatory nutrition counseling will be added. Even the legal definition of "child abuse" may be expanded to help under-stimulated black toddlers catch up to their white age mates.

Even more draconian measures may be necessary to eliminate racial differences in health (see here). For example, blacks have shorter life spans, are disproportionally prone to stroke, hypertension, diabetes, HIV infections, higher levels of infant mortality and certain forms of cancer, and are more likely to be obese while black newborns have a lower birth weight. For the believers in the power of the environment, these statistics are marching orders for meddling on a grand scale. And, rest assured, early small interventions will probably fail—and thus bring yet more intrusive policies.

Forceful intrusions are especially likely if some hazy “racism” is deemed the culprit. Just imagine the effort necessary to reduce hypertension among blacks by curing whites of unconscious discrimination? Indeed, if, as some allege, race-related differences in poverty drive black illness, only totally re-making society will suffice.

These examples can be multiplied, but the message should be clear: embracing nurture when science points to nature as the cause simply guarantees escalating budget-breaking state intervention. The loss of freedom from the misdirected meddling far exceeds the squandered billions.

Abandoning the ideal of amelioration is not the issue: This is about misdiagnosing the problem’s source and an inability to learn from repeated failure.

Still not convinced the cost of a misdiagnosis? Visit public housing to see how improved physical surroundings have, supposedly, cured under-class troubles.

It is professionally and personally risky in today’s egalitarian political climate to explain group-related differences in accomplishment by pointing to biology. Even sticking just to the scientific facts offers no escape from the accusation of "Bad Think".

My view: it’s better to confront the moral element directly—to argue that treating nature as if it were nurture begins the march toward state power that is antithetical to the principles of limited government. To “totalitarian creep”, so to speak.

This is not an abstract debate. It is about applying the appropriate remedy to cure ills and avoiding dangerous, liberty-killing side-effects.

So, before billions are wasted and government becomes even more invasive, the scientific evidence on nurture should be absolutely convincing. The financial and political costs of misreading biology are just too great.

If there is any doubt, better to err on the side of nature—given what happens when government tries to square circles.

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, University of Illinois, Urbana and currently Adjunct Professor of Politics (Graduate), New York University.