'Nature vs. Nurture' & Personal Responsibility
  • Mon, 01/04/2016
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During a debate between two eminent Andalusian scholars, Abū al-Walīd al-Bājī said to Ibn Hazm: “I am more seriously committed than you in the pursuit of knowledge. You had all the support you needed, studying at night under the illumination of a golden lamp. I had to study under the lamp of the market’s guards.

Ibn Hazm replied: “Your words betray you and make my case for me. You studied hoping to improve your material state. As for me, since I was already affluent, I studied solely for the sake of knowledge to elevate my spiritual status in this world and the next.”

Ibn Hazm won that argument.

It is generally understood that people are influenced by two sets of factors. The first are biological, hereditary factors. Genetics determines many traits, like height, the colour of the skin, eyes, and hair, and numerous other physical traits. It is estimated that between forty to fifty percent of human intelligence is genetically determined, and it genetics certainly has some impact on personality and behaviour.

Children inherit various traits from their mothers and fathers, and therefore get a combination of traits from both their parents. In this way, children are unique individuals, but also derivative of their parents at the same time. Allah says: “[It is] the work of Allah, who perfected all things.” [Sūrah al-Naml: 88]

The question remains about the genetic makeup of the first human being. Was he free of any pre-existing genetic heritage?

Some people look at the genetic information inherited from the parents to be an inevitable and unavoidable result, and they use it as an excuse for their faults and bad character traits. This is blind, ignorant fatalism. It is lazy and self-indulgent to blame your mistakes on your genes and hormones.

Even more sweeping are Freud’s theories of the Oedipus complex and the irrational sexual impulse that were so prevalent in the discourses of the mid-twentieth century. These ideas fell out of favour as the century progressed, and the behaviours that people justified on their basis were revealed to be more likely the result of an inferiority complex.

The environment and society contribute the second set of factors that influence human behaviour. Family, friends, schools, the media, and communication channels all have their effect. Psychologists, sociologists, and educators agree that these factors have a tremendous impact on people, whether through conformity to societal norms or rebellion against them.

They also agree that it is notoriously difficult to determine the relative contributions of genetic and social factors to a particular behavioural trait, since the two sets of factors are complexly intertwined and virtually impossible to untangle. It is unknown whether nature or nurture has the greatest influence. What can be said is that a successful crop yield requires both good seed and good soil.

The scientific community does not give sufficient attention to a third factor: the influence that an individual has on his or her self. A human being is a rational entity. From infancy, a person learns to say “I” and understands that they are distinct from their parents and siblings. This sets us apart from animals that do not have such self-awareness.

This self-awareness allows people to reflect upon themselves, examine their motives, and look critically at their shortcomings. We can rise beyond self-deception and look at ourselves candidly so we can better ourselves. Allah says: “Oh, but the human being is a telling witness against himself, though he puts forth his excuses.” [Sūrah al-Qiyāmah: 14-15]

Sa`īd b. Jubayr commented on this verse saying: “He will be a witness against himself, whatever excuses he might make.”

This awareness extends to knowing the genetic shortcomings inherited from one’s parents and those which are a composite of genetic and societal factors, or due to our upbringing and education.

Does our education contribute to our self-knowledge?

Yes it does. A good education encourages us to know ourselves better, to dig deeply into our minds and come to terms with our most hidden inner secrets in order to fortify our personalities and become better people.

We can distinguish ourselves by adopting the idea of self-reform, however we came upon it, and making it a personal habit that we practice all the time, not just to change our outward behaviours, but also to improve our emotional responses and way of thinking. We can take control of our hearts and minds to a degree, and indeed we have a responsibility to do so.

If you practice this consistently in your life, you can become the greatest influence on your own behaviour and personality. Your inner being will submit to you in many things, though it will certainly continue to contest you in others. There will be shortcomings you will find it difficult to overcome. You must change what you can of the qualities you dislike about yourself. You must keep trying to change the qualities you are unhappy with, and if that fails, you must find ways to compensate for them.

When you succeed, you should recognise those who helped to get you to where you are, like your parents, spouse, relatives and friends, however many they may be, whose good qualities helped in shaping yours. This is a way to prevail over your own ego and give credit where it is due. Even your opponents have helped you in shaping your successes, though sometimes in ways you would never suspect.

This is why Allah speaks disapprovingly of Qārūn who said: “I have only achieved this due to knowledge that I possess.” [Sūrah al-Qasas: 78]

It is unjust to credit all of your successes to your own resourcefulness and only invoke society and your environment to explain your failures and the difficulties that you have had to face.

The difference between those who have foresight and those who lag behind is that those who have foresight know that success is not an inherent trait. The person who succeeded in building the Suez Canal failed in his attempt to build the Panama Canal. There is success even in how we handle failure. This is how we acquire experience, learn patience, become more persistent, and make the changes needed to succeed on the next attempt.

Success is not a character trait. It is a consequence. Therefore, we need to learn how to handle failure and disappointment as deftly as we handle success. Past failures can be the source of future successes, and past successes can lead to future failures.

Success stems in a good part from being vigilant, alert, and aware of our potential. This applies to marriage, friendships, business, artistic endeavours, and other life concerns. We need to believe we can make a change. Allah says: “you are not held responsible except for yourself.” [Sūrah al-Nisā’: 84]

The environment and society are the cradle of our success, the source which first compelled us to go forward, either in a positive, nurturing way, or in a negative way by spurring us to use our ingenuity to prevail over the challenges that it presents to us.