ANYONE that uses Facebook will know that from time to time there are interesting bits of information that break through the often unfiltered cringe-making that is the backbone of social media. And so it was last week, smashing through a sea of humblebragging, narcissism, neediness and sanctimony (and pictures of food) – some likely of my own making – came Helen Keller. Her name is one from days gone by but like most great examples of humanity, Keller’s, I think, is one still generally known.
Helen Keller (1880-1968) was an exceptional person in almost every way. She lost her sight and hearing before the age of two. But with the help of family, good people and skilled clinicians she would live a long life as not just an educator but one of the last century’s leading humanitarians. In fact, she was co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. It was on Facebook where I happened on a short (and rare) video film clip from the 1930s of Keller with her famous teacher, Anne Sullivan demonstrating how Keller learned to understand words, and how she came to find a way to express herself. I was fascinated. The footage got me to thinking of ability, talent and that near age-old argument: nurture versus nature; that is, are our individual behavioural qualities driven by our genes alone or do our personal experiences dictate who and what we are?
Science has studied the idea for almost for- ever; and by that, I mean an awfully long time. The pendulum of thought seems to swing from a place where its thought we’re all set for nurturing, born as “blank slates” (see: philosopher John Locke) – where we are all equally ready to be influenced by experience – to the notion of “nature”. The controversial scientist, Francis Galton (1822-1911), conducted research that led him to conclude that heredity or nature made more of a difference than environment – or nurture. Galton believed you were born with intelligence, outside influence made no difference. Intelligence could just not be trained. It was Galton who is credited with coining the phrase “nurture versus nature”.
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