Our 7-year-old son, Marcos, threw a question at me in the car the other day that I didn’t quite know how to answer.
“Mom, do I like black beans and rice and my dad’s music because I’m half Cuban or is it just because he has all of that in the house?”
This was a second grader’s simplified argument for nature versus nurture, as he begins to consider his place in the world. In response, I set out to do a bit of research on his behalf, but to also quell my own curiosity.
In a recent exchange with an editor at NPR, he told me Marcos touched on an incredibly complex and politically polarizing frontier of science at the moment.
With various angles, I found a piece on PBS.org, called “Are We Still Evolving?” which pulls arguments from evolutionary psychologists and behavior geneticists over the role of genes and their involvement in our psychological traits.
For a quick brush-up course (because I needed it, too), chromosomes containing DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, sit in the nucleus of a cell. Inside the DNA are genes, which are pliable segments that determine our development. These self-regulating genes that give organisms choices, based on the variables surrounding them, set up camp for our personalities and preferences.
A lot of the PBS conversation surrounds biological evolution, which, depending on who you decide to listen to, may or may not have stopped 40,000 or 50,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens took the place of Neanderthals in Europe. Archeological records show that at that time we made a huge leap in our species, no longer relying on natural selection, as we began creating art and infinitely better tools. Instead of growing more hair, we made clothes; instead of becoming stronger, we invented weapons; language created a new way to pass down behavior, instead of having to discover it alone, and so on. A number of scientists make the case that any evolution since then is purely cultural.
There are those, of course, who disagree emphatically. They say while genes evolve very slowly, it is impossible that we have not progressed, biologically speaking, at all.
What is known for sure is this: Purdue University’s psychology teachings show that humans around the world share more similarities than differences in terms of language capacity, genetics and biological needs. Unquestionably, humans from all backgrounds have the same chromosomes, organs and body functions while genetics are responsible for the color of our eyes and skin, whether our hair is straight or curly and the passing of certain diseases. On the fringe of that are height, weight, male hair thinning and life expectancy, among other things, all of which are strongly linked to family lines. IQ, personality and temperament are deemed hereditary.
Most behavior geneticists agree that parenting does have an effect on biologically related and unrelated children, influencing ideas on strongholds like faith and politics, but not on everything.
Enter culture, an rapidly evolving group of behavior norms, or set of socially accepted rules quietly – or perhaps, not so quietly – encoded in us since birth. In much of the Middle East, for example, male friends hold hands, but not in the U.S. In parts of Asia, personal space is a non-concept. You may find yourself taking a step back only to have someone take a step closer. A New York Times piece that defines proxemics as the study of personal space and people’s perception of it, notes that Americans like a good 2 to 4 feet in distance from one other.
Ben Franklin coined the phrase, “Time is money,” and clock-bound Americans often don’t understand Latin America’s casual take on punctuality. Having spent extended periods of time in Cuba and Spain, I learned that, “I’m on my way,” really means, “I’ll be there in the next few hours.” I found this exasperating at first, but eventually learned to go with it for the most part, as I was on vacation, after all.
In our one, Georgia-bound household alone, mere microcosms of the explosive cultural growth that has occurred across the globe over the last 40 years, we’re raising three unique individuals who absorb our blended environment in their own particular ways. Marcos is our sweet-toothed Southerner who physically looks like a cross between Luis and my father and understands, but rarely speaks Spanish. The kid who raps his best Eminem and Iggy Azalea in car rides home from school has learned to appreciate his Papi’s black beans and rice, but prefers his mom’s grilled chicken and rice, dark chocolate chip pancakes and peanut butter banana boats. Though, as he gets older and bonds with his father and brother in his big boy way, I see that side of influence take hold more firmly. Connecting with them through crazy fits of wrestling play and lots of laughter, drowned only by the heavy Latin beats of Gente de Zona, there’s also a lot of importance given to nature and organizational skills. For a boys night out he dabs himself with Adidas Sport cologne and throws a little hair gel on and in the kitchen, with a stool pulled up, he smashes garlic and a pinch of salt in the mortar and pestle to add to whatever Luis is cooking that night.
Our 2-year-old, Ana, came into the world as a petite reflection of her father and his mother, showing a particular zest for life that is often associated with Cubans, chats often in Spanish and lights up at the sight of frijoles negros, as well as the rich, smoky flavors of lamb pops, yuca and smelly cheeses that her momma can’t even get near. You can see glimpses of me in her gaze and her slightly parted two front teeth when she smiles, and she also has a thing for nut butters and chocolate, but I’m not sure at this point where else I reside in her. Though, her take-the-world-on walk is probably a by-product of two very strong-willed family lines.
The appearance of different influences in Luisito, our 16-year-old who split the first 11 years of his life between Cuba and Guatemala, then moved to Houston and finally here to Savannah 3 years ago, is distinct. He’s Latin through and through, but is also incredibly open to all things new. He loves his dad’s food and emulates that similar Simón resourcefulness and strength while curbing Cuban humor and cheek kiss greetings to fit American standards. I’ve watched not only his everyday teenager language evolve, conducting much of it in English, but also the way he thinks and speaks about his future. Just a year-and-a-half shy of college, his options are wide open and his ideas about what he can do reflect that.
Whatever the science is, nature or nurture or a muddled version of both, Luis and I work hard to give options to the kids and it’s fascinating to watch all three of them discover life through their varied points of view.
As always, I welcome all thoughts!