Nature vs. Nurture vs. Divinity

Nature vs. Nurture vs. Divinity



For more than two centuries, professionals in the field of psychology have been interested in human development. They wonder: Do we all develop similarly? Are our personalities predestined, or are they the result of our environment?

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How can we most effectively impact another’s development so as to benefit their lives?

Today, the dilemma is widely known as “nature vs. nurture,” a phrase coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1871. Those on the “nature” side of the debate are more formally said to believe in “biodeterminism” – the idea that an individual’s biology is his preordained and permanent destiny.

The “nurture” supporters, on the other hand, think human behaviors are learned over time. In fact, in arguing for the theory, the philosopher John Locke postulated that the human mind is born as a tabula rasa, or “blank slate,” with no innate knowledge or ideas.

It’s a difficult discussion to wrap one’s mind around, but things get even more interesting. The way I see it, there’s a third possible view on the issue: divinity.

In the very first section of the Torah, we read, “…then the Lord G-d formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (Genesis 2:7).” We see here that it was neither biology nor environment that made Adam a “living being” – rather, he was born with the spirit of G-d inside of him.

But what does that really mean, to be born with the “spirit of G-d inside of us”? Is it that the entirety of our lives is laid out in that single breath of life? Or is it that we are born as G-d-like creatures with the power to do as we please?

And, if in fact we can do as we please, who’s to draw the line between what “we please” and what we do in accordance with our G-d-like nature?

The Talmud weighs in on this dilemma with the following explanation:

The name of the angel who is in charge of conception is ‘Night,’ and he takes up a drop and places it in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, saying, ‘Sovereign of the universe, what shall be the fate of this drop? Shall it produce a strong man or a weak man, a wise man or a fool, a rich man or a poor man?’

Whereas ‘wicked man’ or ‘righteous one’ he does not mention, in agreement with the view of R. Hanina. For R. Hanina stated: Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of G-d, as it is said, And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy G-d require of thee, but to fear (Niddah 16b).

It follows from this passage that there is an interwoven relationship between a predestination and free will: Though G-d makes the detailed decisions regarding a newborn’s innate strength and wisdom, the fate of the child depends on what he eventually chooses to do with his G-d-given qualities.

Thus, we have a new perspective to throw into the “nature vs. nurture” ring. This one doesn’t have anything to do with an intricate concoction of hormones, neurotransmitters and DNA strands that will interact to control the life of the child, nor does it hold that over time the child will learn of his new experience through observation and experimentation.

The supporters of this divinity theory would argue that, though we see a newborn, he is not actually new – rather, he is the product of the all-powerful G-d that chose to bless him with specific traits.

The Complex Gets More Complicated

Indeed, we need look no farther than this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, for more support for the “divinity theory. Here, though, we’re concerned not with a new life but with a new nation.

Once again, G-d asks for a census of the Israelites, and so Moses counts the totals of each of the 12 tribes and also provides the grand total of all the tribes.

Then, G-d says to Moses,

“You shall apportion the Land among these as an inheritance, in accordance with the number of names. To the large tribe, you shall give a larger inheritance, and to a smaller tribe, you shall give a smaller inheritance; each person shall be given an inheritance according to his number.

Only through lot shall the Land be apportioned; they shall inherit it according to the names of their fathers’ tribes. The inheritance shall be apportioned between the numerous and the few, according to lot (Numbers 26:53-56).”

This passage seems to create another three-way conflict – one that mirrors that of “nature vs. nurture vs. divinity” – as the dividing of the land is explained in three different ways: an inheritance, a portion, and a lottery.

The first method, division by inheritance, would imply some sort of hierarchical system in which more important or more holy families are entitled to better land. The second, a portion system, seems much more mathematic and fair: Those tribes with larger populations deserve more land.

But finally, algorithms and systematic division gets tossed to the side, and we see a simple lottery-style division of the Promised Land. The confusion caused by the language, however, is clearly more than a whim of diction or an attempt to employ a variety of words – here, G-d shows us the multifaceted nature of decision-making.

Scientists, in search of why we are the way we are, are deeply invested in the “nature vs. nurture” debate. It’s something that, in a fashion, we all deal with daily; we’re constantly searching and asking questions about our lives.

Why did I not get that promotion? Why do I keep struggling with calculus? Why have things been going wrong?

Though we’d like to find easy answers – simple, one-line causes of even our biggest “why” questions – this week we are reminded that it’s never just one thing.

Within me I have the genes of two parents, the experiences of an 18-year-old American girl, an unwavering love for G-d and a whole series of chance opportunities. I, like the Israelites, was given life through a combination of inheritance, apportion and luck.

And now, I can only think to ask: Why?

Rachel LaVictoire ( is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.


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