Sunday, 15 April 2012

Collins on nature v nurture

Does there exist in every human being, beneath the outward and visible character which is shaped into form by the social influences surrounding us, an inward, invisible disposition, which is part of ourselves, which education may indirectly modify, but can never hope to change? 

Is the philosophy which denies this and asserts that we are born with dispositions like blank sheets of paper a philosophy which has failed to remark that we are not born with blank faces - a philosophy which has never compared together two infants of a few days old, and has never observed that those infants are not born with blank tempers for mothers and nurses to fill up at will?

Are there, infinitely varying with each individual, inbred forces of Good and Evil in all of us, deep down below the reach of mortal encouragement and mortal repression - hidden Good and hidden Evil, both alike at the mercy of liberating opportunity and the sufficient temptation?

Within these earthly limits, is earthly Circumstance ever the key; and can no human vigilance warn us beforehand of the forces imprisoned in ourselves which that key may unlock?

Wilkie Collins - No Name.


Sam Vega said...

Collins wants to know whether there is something immutable in human nature which trumps our socialisation and cultural influences. Well, sometimes biology beats culture, and sometimes culture beats biology. But neither of these give us the "essence" which Collins seems to want. There is only the present moment, which is shaped and conditioned by biology, culture, and many other things besides. Even the "Good and Evil" that he refers to have changed since he wrote. They are social constructs, and arise based on conditions, just like everything else.

Anonymous said...

As Sam says, a bit of both probably. Part of common parlance is 'bred in the bone', 'bad blood, 'clog to clogs' etc. What intrigues me is why humans have not bred to a pedigree type. The 'good' mate with the 'good' and the result is not 'better' and the other way about. The very rich have to be prepared to bridge a generation occasionally because the brood did not turn out well. Why?

A K Haart said...

Sam - Collins was trying to explain why Magdalen Vanstones, a main character, behaved in an eccentric way which would never have happened, but for a highly unusual family crisis, yet her sister behaved as one would expect.

He is saying that Magdalen's behaviour could never have been predicted from her upbringing or her behaviour before the crisis. This goes against Victorian ideas of "breeding", because by any standards, Magdalen was "well bred".

Roger - "What intrigues me is why humans have not bred to a pedigree type."

Maybe it's just as well. Maybe dynamism is essential to what we are. We'll find out when the EU finally does away with it (: