Does our biology determine us, for better or for worse? Or is it culture and environment that shape us into who we are? The gold standard for solving the nature vs. nurture debate is the twin study: taking two individuals with identical genetics to see how much environment impacts things like health and behavior.
So which is it? It seems pretty clear that neither biology nor environment completely shape us but some combination of the two. What is less clear is the scale of influence nature and nurture each exert on us.
For years, this was how I understood much of the scientific study of humans. More and more, it seems that approach is wrongheaded. Rather, than an undetermined balance between nature and nurture, they seem to be more connected. Experience, social structures, and even beliefs shape us and are intertwined with our human biology. It’s a fusion between nature and nurture; not the sum of our biology and culture.
Culture Changes Our Brains
Did you know that the majority of brain development in humans occurs after we our born? Our brains grow and mature over the first two decades of our lives. They continue to develop and change throughout our lifespan.
What that means is that our brains form in specific environments and cultural contexts that literally shape our neurobiology. In the words of Princeton anthropologist Agustin Fuentes, “Humans are not hardwired with a specific culture. We are ‘wired’ to coacquire and develop such structures across the lifespan” (Why We Believe). Our minds are plastic, ever changing, and they form in a feedback loop with the world that surrounds us.
For humans, the world around us, our human niche, is cultural. Psychologist Michael Tomasello puts it this way, “Fish are born expecting water, and humans are born expecting culture” (from Natural History of Human Thinking). Culture is so powerful that some scientists suggest that, in Homo sapiens, culture is evolving faster than biology. This might explain why the modern world can feel so overwhelming to us.
How does culture actually change us? According to anthropologists Greg Downey and Daniel Lende, “Cultural concepts and meanings become anatomy.” Fuentes explains it thusly, “Our experiences, memories, and thoughts are biochemically embedded in our brains and bodies in a process that reshapes itself across our entire lives. Our development in the human niche is literally coconstitutive with our neural and endocrine systems” (Why We Believe).
Our brains develop and continually change immersed in specific cultures and, as a result, culture literally embeds in our neuroanatomy. We acquire motor and social skills from our culture that impact how we move and think and function.
This is why the nature vs. nurture distinction is problematic: through culture, nurture becomes part of our nature. Culture changes our brains and bodies which in turn contribute to the rapid evolution of culture. For this reason, Fuentes argues that instead of nature vs. nurture, or even nature and nurture, we should speak of “naturenurtural.”
...This installment is indebted to Agustin Fuentes’ 2019 book, Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being, and specifically to chapter 6. Here is a nice overview of some key ideas in the book.
...Fuentes develops that idea of “naturenurtural” on his Psychology Today blog.
...Listen to Fuentes on podcasts with both Krista Tippett and BioLogos.
...An expert in animal behavior considers the idea that cultural evolution is outrunning our brains ability to keep up cognitively and emotionally.
...Part of how culture and belief embed in our biology is the brain’s plasticity, which we covered in a 2019 newsletter.
...Greg introduced the cognitive science of religion and how human evolution gave us the cognitive capacity for religious belief.
The Culture That Forms Christians
You might be thinking at this point, “Drew, this is fascinating, but what does it have to do with the church?” Well, it means that the culture of our church, like any other culture we swim in, for better or for worse, becomes part of us. What we do as the Body of Christ, our behaviors and our beliefs, form our brains and our bodies. Immersion in our church’s culture is quite literally Christian formation influencing how we move and think and function.
Just as human evolution has given us the capacity to love (my topic two weeks ago), it has also endowed us with the capacity to believe. (This is the main argument in Agustin Fuentes’ 2017 Gifford Lectures that became the book, Why We Believe.) What we believe in and the cultural norms and values of our faith communities shape us in every sense of the word.
Intuitively, I think we know this. It is why the church has always valued distinctively Christian formation. To become Christian disciples, we must let the act of following Christ shape us in mind and body as we seek to be more Christlike. Our ritual practices of prayer, singing, and taking the sacrament form our very nature. This is why we begin formation at a young age, before our brains have matured.
It is also why unhealthy Christian cultures are so devastating. Un-Christlike beliefs and behaviors imprint on our neuroanatomy in exactly the same way. The same neural process is how both sin and sanctification shape us.
Our beliefs are incredibly powerful—they shape culture which shapes us and then we can contribute to the reshaping of culture. Moreover, our beliefs can work for good or ill. This is where, for me, Christian language is so powerful. It gives us a vocabulary around sin and redemption and sanctification and what it means to have new life in Christ. This science helps us read Romans 12:2: we seek by God’s grace to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This is a great challenge for the church. We need God’s grace in order to create church cultures that are good and acceptable and perfect in God’s eyes. We need Christ-like beliefs and behaviors to be intrinsic to the culture that becomes our anatomy. Then, and only then, can the church be a place that truly forms disciples of Christ.
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Strengthening the church through engaging with science