Nature or nurture? The debate has raged for centuries, asking whether behavior is determined more by genetic coding or by influences during our formative years.

Back in the day, it was annoying to hear conservative pundits warn that marijuana and LSD “damage chromosomes.” Aside from being an obvious scare tactic to keep young people from experimenting with pot, I wondered how it could be so. Isn’t DNA etched in stone? I’m sure some kind of research or theory of the time, specious that it may have been, supported the claim. But I asked myself how does a natural herb break or damage the links of adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine described by Francis Crick and James Watson? Since then, it’s become obvious that yes, lots of things can alter genes: aging, sunlight, chemicals, mammograms and CT scans, genetic modification — the list is endless. Whether pot is still on that list, I don’t know.

So it begs the question: Is it valid to claim one’s behavior is permanently determined by immutable genes? Certainly it is obvious that various physical characteristics are genetically coded. Think eye color, gender, body type and sadly, some diseases. The bigger question however, is whether we are capable of changing our genetic blueprint or do we claim to be powerless. If many things can change DNA, behavior, if due to genetics, isn’t exactly etched in stone, is it?

Claim or blame Something about the lyrics in Gaga’s “Born this Way,” and in Macklemore and Lewis’ fine work, “Same Love” cause me to cringe. Not because of the message that all persons should be seen as equal. You don’t need a song to realize that. But because of the implied impotence and denial of self-realization the songs defend. Claiming to be “born this way” and therefore implying the inability to do something about it, is less empowering than saying, “I have a right to express love in the manner I choose.”

In “Same Love,” what words could be more depressing than “I can’t change, even if I wanted too”? The intention of the song is commendable but the mixed message of presenting the right to be a certain way measured with some supposed inability to change strikes an imbalance. Though the lyrics of both songs take it much deeper and actually encourage the idea of surmounting apparent obstacles, their veneer is an anthem for validating inability to change. It might be cooler to sing, “I wasn’t born this way. I choose to be this way.” It would certainly be more empowering.

What a horrible doom it would be to be unable to change. Sexual orientation is only one area in the Nature or Nurture debate. Other human activity is often explained away by genetic predetermination. Artistic talent, genius, athleticism, mental illness, disease, homicidal tendencies are others.

The Nurture side of the argument contends the influence of environmental factors during our formative years shapes us. Recently, a drunk driver in Texas claimed the “affluenza defense”. Lawyers argued he came from such a wealthy, privileged background, given so much slack while growing up because of it, that he was not responsible for his actions. He never learned there were consequences. Getting drunk and mowing down a crowd of pedestrians, killing four, resulted in probation. Of course our formative years have impact. But are we powerless to change their result?

With both Nature and Nurture, self-determination gets left out of the loop. What about our ability to change because we decide to? Or our right to be who we are because we want to?

We live in a society that is stealing our self-reliance on a daily basis. We don’t watch the sky to notice an approaching storm. The Weather Channel does that. If they miss the forecast we get Atlanta’s or Katrina’s. We don’t know our bodies. We let lab tests tell us about them. We don’t know our world or ourselves.

Express yourself. Look, reason dictates certain genes will indeed hold sway over our physical experience. And no doubt the influence of circumstance and upbringing can temper our behavior later in life. But to claim or blame either as the sole determining factor denies the power vested in each of us. Science is finding that more important than having the genes that trigger a particular trait, factor, behavior or even disease is whether those genes are switched on or not; whether the gene expresses itself or not. And what we are finding out is that our activities, our diet, our mental state, our stress, our lifestyle can all help determine whether a gene expresses its associated trait or not.

If our life is a continual accretion of bad habits, poor diet, disregard for others and lack of belief in our own power, some genes will probably dominate. What if something as simple as changing one of our behavioral factors has the effect of turning a gene on or off? Research points to that. The study of these more intricate implications of genetics is called epigenics. If pot can change our DNA, so can we.

Be well.

Heartland Healing is a New Age polemic describing alternatives to conventional methods of healing the body, mind and planet. It is provided as information and entertainment, certainly not medical advice. It is not an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or The Reader. Visit for more information.

Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

Leave a comment