Charles Darwin is responsible more than most for the nature versus nurture debate that, even with exponential advances in science, continues to be a defining question for humanity. But was it Darwin's nature, or the nurturing of his environment, that led him to the discoveries that changed the world?
Darwin spent years at serious study and research. But he also was born into a privileged family and had a considerable inheritance from his father. Janet Browne's biography of Darwin refers to an idle son of affluent origins sipping Champagne and eating strawberries on a British lawn, and suddenly realizing there had to be something more to life.
Was it the moment in which he foresaw a life being wasted as a trust fund kid that was most instrumental in leading Darwin down the scientific path? Was it the thousands of hours of study (more on that) in Down House that made the difference? Or was it the DNA-rooted fact that his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a natural philosopher who presaged evolutionary theory in his writings and endowed Charles with the right genetic material to take up these questions?
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Do we have to answer the nature versus nurture question that Darwin posed, when it's posed about Darwin or anyone else?
What we know is that we can ask the question in a variety of new ways, courtesy of the explosion in genetics data (itself reliant on increased computing power), the study of social and physical environment across geographies, and even quantification of individual training regimens.
Take elite athletic performance. That's the topic of the best-selling "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance," by former Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein, now ProPublica investigative journalist.
From Kenyan long-distance runners to Jamaican sprinters and Finnish cross-country skiers, Epstein plumbs the depths of a data-based explanation for how the athletic stars of the world are formed. High-twitch muscle fibers with an explosive property most people don't possess can't fully explain what lets Usain Bolt leave the rest of the field in the dust.
We must consider the history of the particular region of Jamaica in which he grew up, as well as a culture that has come to consider sprinting a national point of pride, selecting for potential stars from an early age—while other cultures have forgotten all about it, dreaming of stardom in the NFL or MLB.
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A famous Kenyan distance runner raised at the elevation considered ideal for the cultivation of long-distance running optimal blood oxygen levels was once asked if her children were good runners. She replied that because of the life of comfort she was able to provide, they took cars to school rather than running at 6,800 feet. As a result, they didn't have the right stuff, even if they did possess the elastic Achilles' tendon of the region's population that affords running advantage, as well as the extremely thin legs that favor long-distance running excellence.
"Your parents matter," is a nurture reference that is repeated in Epstein's book, and it's just as true for the Kenyan kids with a car service as all the Jamaican and Kenyan children who are watched from a young age for the potential to outperform on the track.
Finnish Olympic cross-country great Eero Mantyranta spent years crossing the frozen landscape of his homeland by ski. Did that training trump a rare genetic mutation (his blood didn't know when to stop making red blood cells) when it came to accumulating Olympic medals and record finishes, or was it merely an inevitable function of his genetic good fortune?