Nature, Nurture, and Free Will: Which One Rules Our Choices?

Posted on December 2, 2013


A neuroscientist with a normal, loving life discovers that medically, he is a psychopath.  Now what?

What drives our actions?  Are our choices really a product of exercising our free will, or are we just genetically programmed bio-automatons?

Because of my own background, I ponder these questions more than most folks, perhaps.  Adopted as an infant, I grew up knowing that I was not the biological child of my parents.  Of course I learned a lot from them (nurture), as well as from teachers, neighbors, peers.  But I always felt like myself, my own person, in control of my own will and choices.

Then, in my twenties, I met my biological family.  What an eye-opener that was!  I am not at all like one side of the family, except for some physical traits.  My personality seems 100% from the other side of the family.  Everything.  Not just my brash, loud nature… and some traits that I have tried (with varying success) to quash… but even my likes, desires, heck – my opinions are all there in full bloom, staring back at me in these relatives who I did not know for my first two decades.  My habitual gestures, the tilt of my head, the way I stand – all come from these relatives who I never saw, never observed in my youth.

I.  Am. So.  Programmed.  At the genetic level.  This is certainly not the kind of behavioral “programming” one receives from the teachings of one’s parents, or by endless hours of observing how Mommy and Daddy do things.  This goes so much deeper, one begins to wonder just how “free” one’s will really is.  Is nature transcendent over nurture?

I take heart from the story of Dr. James Fallon, a neuroscientist studying psychopaths who discovered – imagine the shock – that he is one himself.  Not only did a PET scan of his brain show the characteristic anomalies of a psychopath, that test was later supported by genetic testing.

It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Dr. Fallon has these genetic and physiological signs of psychopathy:  he is related to at least seven suspected murderers, including the infamous Lizzie Borden.  So how is it that he is a married father, a successful professional, and has never murdered anyone?

Dr. Fallon believes that the genetic and physiological markers of psychopathy are not enough, by themselves, to make a psychopath; there is a third ingredient, and that, he believes, is an abusive or violent childhood.  He attributes his own outcome to a loving family and wonderful childhood.  Nurture trumped nature, or at least, greatly mitigated it.

Then again, Dr. Fallon admits that in various small ways, he does show a certain lack of empathy.  He says that he is motivated by power, he is manipulative, he is “obnoxiously competitive.”  He does things just to “piss people off.”  In short, he is an ass and he knows it.  “But while I’m aggressive, my aggression is sublimated. I’d rather beat someone in an argument than beat them up,” he says.

Nature and nurture are tremendous influences in determining what kind of people we become, but in the end, our behavior really is our choice.  We really do have the power to decide that we will or won’t do a particular thing.  As Dr. Fallon tells Smithsonian Magazine, “Since finding all this out and looking into it, I’ve made an effort to try to change my behavior.  I’ve more consciously been doing things that are considered ‘the right thing to do,’ and thinking more about other people’s feelings…. At the same time, I’m not doing this because I’m suddenly nice, I’m doing it because of pride—because I want to show everyone and myself that I can pull it off.”

Motivation aside, the key here is that no matter our genetic predispositions for behavior, our cravings, our aversions – we can direct our own thoughts and choices.  It may be harder for some than for others, but we really do have free will.