Fjordman: Nature or Nurture?

Fjordman’s latest essay has been posted at Dispatch International. Some excerpts are below:

Nature or nurture: The Cases of Magnus Carlsen and Anders Behring Breivik

No single factor, genetic or otherwise, can explain why one young Norwegian becomes world master in chess, whereas another becomes a mass murderer. But perhaps a combination of factors can.

Why are human beings geniuses, while others end up as sadistic murderers? Were they born that way, or were they shaped that way through their social environment and upbringing?

This is the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture. My personal view on this is that biology matters a great deal. People can be born with a specific genetic profile and brain that will make them predisposed towards a certain type of mentality and behavior. However, while you can be born with a certain potential, to what extent that potential is realized depends upon your social environment. There are plenty of people throughout history whose talent was either never recognized or in some ways wasted.

It is instructive to look at this debate of nature vs. nurture through the cases of two young Norwegian men who have both made international headlines in recent years. One is Magnus Carlsen, currently the reigning World Chess Champion. The other is the mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.

Magnus Carlsen became a chess grandmaster at the age of 13, one of the youngest players ever to do so. In November 2013, he beat Viswanathan Anand in India in the World Chess Championship. At the time of writing, Carlsen is the number one ranked chess player in the world, having achieved the highest peak rating in history and beaten the previous record set by the great Russian chess player Garry Kasparov.

His parents are both engineers by profession. At the age of two, Carlsen had already shown an aptitude for jigsaw puzzles and other intellectual challenges. He further displayed a phenomenal memory as a child. His father figured that Magnus might be good at chess and introduced the game to his son, but he never set out to carefully groom him for this.

Magnus Carlsen has been dubbed the “Mozart of chess.” This is partly referring to the fact that he is a genius and a child prodigy, as was the famous composer. However, there are differences between them. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may well have been born with a unique talent, but his father Leopold Mozart also carefully cultivated Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl in various musical disciplines from a very tender age.

Henrik Carlsen warns that “people get this wrong. They think we asked him to play. But we never asked him. It came from inside.” When he was around five, he was trying to teach Magnus chess. He did not seem too interested. His father therefore made no attempt to push his son further in this regard, until Magnus returned to the game on his own a little later. “When he came back to it again, he was around seven and I could see he had a deep passion for it. It had to be that way for him to stay motivated and enjoy it. The chess is his. It is not mine,” says Henrik Carlsen.

Perhaps Magnus Carlsen was literally born with a special talent. Yet at least his supportive parents recognized this talent and helped him cultivate it further. The boy was also fortunate enough to receive competent aid and training between the age of 10 and 19 from people such as grandmaster Simen Agdestein, who was for years Norway’s best chess player. However, Agdestein stresses that although Carlsen received support and encouragement, he eventually managed to move beyond his teachers due to his unique talent.

Magnus Carlsen probably had a positive genetic profile that was cultivated further through a positive upbringing. It is quite possible that Anders Behring Breivik is the exact opposite of this. He had a negative genetic profile that was further cultivated in a negative and in some ways damaging upbringing.

In 2005, the American neuroscientist James Fallon was looking at brain scans of serial killers. As part of a research project, he was sifting through thousands of PET scans to find anatomical patterns in the brain that might correlate with psychopathic tendencies in the real world. By chance, he also had scans from himself and his family lying on his desk. He happened to see this scan of a brain that looked pathological. It showed low activity in certain areas of the frontal and temporal lobes linked to empathy, morality and self-control. When he looked it up, he discovered that this psychopathic brain was his own.

Fallon has gone public with this information and seeks to reconcile how he — a happily married family man — could display the same anatomical patterns that characterize the brains of serial killers. “I’ve never killed anybody, or raped anyone,” he says. Yet when he underwent a series of genetic tests, he got more bad news. His genetic profile showed a high risk of aggression, violence and low empathy.

Eventually, he decided that he is indeed a psychopath — just a non-violent one, someone who has difficulty feeling true empathy for others but still keeps his behavior roughly within socially acceptable bounds. He’d always been aware that he was someone especially motivated by power and manipulating others, he says. Additionally, his family line included several murderers. Nevertheless, the fact that a person with the genes and brain of a psychopath could end up a stable and successful scientist made Fallon reconsider his ideas.

Read the rest at Dispatch International.

For a complete archive of Fjordman’s writings, see the multi-index listing in the Fjordman Files.

22 thoughts on “Fjordman: Nature or Nurture?

  1. Interdisciplinary neuroscientist what better way to understand and perfect the art of human manipulation. 🙂

  2. There is a neurobiological advantage to psychopathic male behaviour. If it is directed at killing off, neutering and otherwise dominating other men it allows you to dominate reproductively. It’s not an advantage for women in quite the same way though. A man could have a precocial relationship with half a dozen sons (ignoring neglecting) and still win the genetic sweepstakes. A woman would need to coddle and protect a few sons and daughters at the expense of other people’s children.

    However for my money Breivik was acting in a purely political way. He elimatinated the future leadership cadre of a political party he opposed. Psychiatrists in Norway attempted to pigeonhole Vidkun Quisling during his trial to save face about massive Norwegian collaboration with the National Socialists. Quisling was perfectly in control of his impulses when he threw in his lot with the Germans. Breivik isn’t crazy in a clinical sense. That dodges the reason he gives for why he wiped out the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour party.

    • You explained that extremely well and have a great understanding of human nature, what they are calling a physopathic tendency is what many in the military have in spades. Perhaps Colonel Grossmans two books on Killing would give an insight as to why Brievik in my mind is not pyscho at all, he just unleashed a few of those dormant Viking genes on a bunch of communist.

  3. I think a huge element in parenting is the reduction of their children’s complex personalities to stereotypical characters. They handle their family like it’s a boy band: “This is the cute one, this is the clever one, this is the moody one…”

    My experience with this was that I was the “baby,” and thus the coddled one of the bunch. I was “the poetic one,” the “artist.” I could say the smartest thing in the world and they’d chuckle and say, “He has such a wild imagination!” My brother was “the smart one,” so he could say the dumbest thing in the world and they’d all nod and say, “Oh, he has a point there.”

    My brother was coddled in the direction of his much-vaunted “smarts.” He was [redacted to “difficult”] in school, sneering at teachers, kicking and insulting girls, and my parents defended his every action: “Oh, it’s because he’s bored in school! He’s TOO smart!”

    Of course, if he didn’t “get” a subject (poetry, art) it was deemed “useless.”

    The upshot is that he now lives in a trailer with two wives and he’s a Nazi. (Really. A Nazi.) He listens to no one. His wives are “inferior beings.” An idea is correct merely by being in his head.

    I think nurture is just about 99% of the situation. If no one ever says “No” to a child because he’s “golden,” he will become a tyrant. We see this in football players who are deemed experts at a young age. They get handed a car and a pile of money when they should have a paper route to collect comic book money. By the time they’re in college, they’re rapists.

    There is no skill or talent (be it football, the arts, math or nuclear physics) that exempts a person from manners, equality, and simple humanity.

    • What basis do you have for stating that nurture is everything? Twin studies suggest that genetics are enormously powerful determinants.

      You sound like a Lysenkoist. HomoSovieticus, so inappropriate parental praise made your brother into a polygamous Nazi?

      We gotta get beyond Freud here guys, please.

      If your trailer park Nazi-Mormon is real, his failures in life probably led him to his current state. By definition most of us are losers to one degree or another. When we win it’s either fleeting or the result of a patient accumulation of wealth.

      Have you considered the possibility that the brother simply lacks impulse control? Or that he’s just another example of a disillusioned idealist? Does he have a criminal record? If he doesn’t then what he’s doing isn’t hurting anyone else.

      • If you could talk to him for five minutes, you’d walk away shaking your head and saying, “That is the worst narcissist I’ve ever met.” So is narcissism a physiological thing passed down in DNA? I seriously doubt it.

        Thinking that nature makes us is the basis for the nonsense of Royalty. I can’t believe that idea ever survived after Henry V was followed by Henry VI. (Or after Frank Sinatra produced all of those totally untalented children.)

  4. I have long strongly suspected that there are a lot of people out there with brain configurations, odd chromosone markers, or whatever who go undetected as “problems” simply because something has happened that channels the “latent problem” in a positive direction. The only reason that such people aren’t discovered is because they’re not in prisons or insane asylums where researchers can cajole them into donating some tissue or whatever.

    One of my big gripes with the Left is they accuse the rest of us of “dehumanizing” opponents, but they’re the ones running around wringing their hands asking “How can a Hitler (or whoever) happen?” For me, as a conservative Christian, I have no problem seeing sin here and divine grace to sinners there.

    BTW, Magnus Carlsen sounds like one remarkable person.

  5. Yes, it’s very hard to separate genetics and environment. Take Breivik, for example. Fjordman states that he had an unstable mother who may have been abusive. The chances are probably pretty good, then, that Breivik inherited the same instabilities from his mother. Perhaps he could have turned out like his father and been detached, but harmless. Environment may have brought out certain tendencies, but genetics probably made sure that they were there.
    Sometimes I wonder how free we really are, or are we merely genetic recombinants of our ancestors? When I look at my own family I see some ominous patterns. I’m just thankful that I couldn’t inherit from my mother-in-law.

  6. I am in a ‘high risk’ category re. cardiac disease etc, given the rather appalling track record of the male members of my family (on both sides.)

    Why would a medical professional tell me that, if genetic traits did not have a significant effect on who we are?

    I know someone who had an MI and when they saw the scan the blockage was in exactly the same place as their father’s was, when they had an MI.

  7. That’s why I think it’s fair to say a guy whose ancestors as early as 150 years ago were cannibalizing their enemies, fighting daily, losing family members left and right, being in uncertainty(it was certainly more safe in a European city, village, or town, pretty sure they didn’t have to worry about a rival tribe raiding them in the middle of the night by the 1800s) and not knowing when or if you were going to die the next day in say, in the Congolese jungle(then only to be oppressed and enslaved by a bunch of colonist Europeans with guns), to be more prone to negative traits such as dominance, lower intelligence(because their ancestors didn’t need it, as hunter gatherers or slaves), lack of empathy, higher testosterone, settling disputes through violence rather than discussion, etc.

    OR a guy whose ancestors were Somali sheep herders as little as.. 20 years ago, in an arid desert, who also had completely different circumstances, would have trouble finding employment, getting an education, and coping with modern, Western city life, because it’s absolutely foreign to what their DNA was expecting, if that makes sense..

    At the same time, it’s stupid to say “all ___ are like this”, like this article shows, because it isn’t only genetics, it’s current environment and up bringing as well.

    People can defy their genes, but that being said, people with the worse genes, with the worse history will overall be more prone to stuff we don’t like, such as poverty, crime, violence, backwards 7th century thinking, etc, and that’s enough for me to not support mass, uncontrolled immigration from the third world who have less than pleasant histories(not that western civilization’s history is perfect, far from it, but I think it’s always been slowly improving on the road to what it is now). ^_^

    Btw, it isn’t only genetics and environment, it’s also nutrition, and climate. Lack of certain vitamins and nutrients, and even protein can really harm not only your health but your brain. On climate, don’t quote me on this lol, but I’ve read theories that the cold is supposed to make you more mellow, while humidity does the opposite. I’m not sure about that one, but it’s certainly plausible.

    Evolution(based on circumstances, climate, environment, experiences, etc) is real, therefore races are real, therefore genetics are real, therefore race does exist, and are different. If you don’t believe races can overall have substantial differences, you dismiss evolution. West Africans dominate sprinting in the Olympics for a reason. We may be all human, but like other species, we have races. It’s a shame our ancestors chose to take advantage and exploit these differences, rather than being content with not living with them, now it’s come to bite us. Oh well.

    • Well said. Awareness of such differences does not preclude mutual respect and understanding. Humanity is simply made to develop in a polycentric manner. If you really want to help some people, merely spread ideas and let them simmer in a local culture. Forcing them to change it or conditions that have shaped them, one will just deprive them of advantage they have developed throughout the ages. It is not a painless operation and almost always ends with patients’ death. Then, their former habitat is promptly overtaken by more fitted ones. This is precisely what is done to the Westerners now.

    • How do you know that we haven’t separated into subspecies already?

      Some infertile couplings could be explained by such a thing. I’m not suggesting it has happened but evolution pushes toward such differentiation between organisms.

  8. Wouldn’t the nature aspect of behavior, when attributed to the wiring of the brain, show itself most commonly in general behavior traits? If so, then the nuture aspect would be the trigger, or catalyst, to refine and train the behavior.

    Watching a documentary on John Wayne Gacy the other night, his brain was examined after he was sent to the next level of existence. They say nothing unusual was found. What in the heck can they look at? With some 54 kabillion neurons, and umpty-squat pathways wired in, do they really expect to pull out a part and say ‘look here, the discernment circuit has 2,000 extra neurons and it is wired in parallel vice series.’ I realize that there are general physical aspects of the brain that vary and can be compared, but the complexity of the brain is so great that making a conclusion of specific behavior based upon general characteristics shouldn’t be given too much credibility.

    Maybe those several hundred or thousands of supposedly unused DNA segments do affect our brains wiring? We will eventually learn more and discover the link between behavior and the brain and genetics, but it is going to take breakthroughs in science of several orders of magnitude. Until then, the best that can be done is to make general observations and do just as being done here, speculate.


    • If you want to go there you could look at crime rates in America. Here you have a land of plenty, plenty of space plenty of resources. The resources were more or less virgin too. The Indians didn’t mine or log.

      So, who discovers the place ripe for exploitation? Europeans. Europeans setting off from Islands just off the coast of Africa. Along trade winds known to Arabs and Moors for centuries.

      Once there, no African power thought to colonize or cash in except to sell slaves. They had trade winds that could have carried an armada.

      Once there any intrepid group could have formed up and colonized the interior.

      at that point America can be seen as a petri dish for competing strands of the human DNA tree. A natural experiment if you like.

      • America’s indigenous population was also highly susceptible to European (and African) diseases. And as for the slave population, it was bred for strength and docility, not intelligence.

        As for Africa’s failure to colonize the Americas despite the trade winds and whatnot, my own suspicion is that Europe, with its numerous bays, enclosed seas, peninsulas, islands, and harbors galore, probably invited experiments with navigation that the virtually harborless African coast could not (remember, pre-modern African trade involved moving goods from ship to shore via lighters). By a similar token, China has few harbors between Shandong and the mouth of the Chang Jiang, while south of the Chang Jiang, it’s inlets all the way down to Viet Nam. Add that to an overbearing center of power in northern China, is it any wonder that China’s overseas traders and colonists (not state-sponsored, but colonists just the same) took off from places like Fujian and Guangdong rather than Jiangsu?
        We should consider geographical factors as well.

  9. Is it really that difficult to separate genetics and environment?

    Man moulds his environment according to his genetics. What other explanation can there be?

    Different men react differently to the same set of circumstances; genetics makes the difference.

    The same argument goes for peoples – culture is of the man not the soil.

  10. If you’ve got siblings or multiple offspring, you can probably see pretty clearly how much of our individual differences cannot be explained by nurture, even if you try applying birth-order theories.

    Magnus Carlsen may have received some pretty good training early on, but that was only after he had displayed a remarkable innate ability and (what’s almost as crucial) enthusiasm for chess, which cannot be explained by any effort on his parents’ part to produce a chess champion. (They were more intent on ensuring that he had a balanced upbringing.) Nor can it be explained by wider environmental factors, since Norway is not a place where chess has the same cultural status as in Russia, Ukraine, etc. Carlsen has risen above all the current players who grew up in chess hothouses.

    He has also greatly exceeded the performance of the Polgar sisters, whose parents set out deliberately, systematically, to groom them as chess players. One of them has done pretty well in competition with top male players (who often don’t take it well), but Carlen’s natural talent has taken him higher. There’s a gender issue here, which I don’t mind bringing up since I’m a woman.

    In fact, male-female differences shine a bright light on the nature-vs.-nurture question, as has been discovered even by some “progressive” parents who tried so very hard to raise their children in a gender-neutral way. I think the transgender phenomenon also shows nature being strongly resistant to nurture. Some people will probably protest: “If you’re born looking like a boy, you’re a boy by nature and you shouldn’t try to be something you’re not.” But if one accepts that gender differences are deeply embedded and not just a matter of plumbing, one should also consider that those deep differences might sometimes be discordant with anatomy.

    When a boy who has barely learned the difference between boys and girls adamantly insists on wearing pink, growing long hair, playing with dolls, going by a feminine name, etc., and does so year after year, that’s not an ideological choice to defy gender roles. It’s something in the deep nature — let’s say the chemistry — of the individual that doesn’t correspond to anatomy in the typical way, and trying to compel it to do so results in misery. That doesn’t mean society should tear up any notions of gender differences, because a relatively tiny number of crossed-signal cases don’t override the hugely predominant patterns that arise from nature.

    The actions we take might have a feedback effect on nature over the long term, but what prompts us to take those actions in the first place?

    • Thanks for bringing up the Polgar sisters. Their father was a very good player as well. I find it remarkable that all three daughters went on to successful careers in chess. This example may be both nature and nurture.

      Magnus found the game easy from a very young age. Capablanca was also a child prodigy. The Russians though I think are the product of mostly good training in a certain study. The Soviets for whatever reason saw chess dominance as a top priority.

  11. Mmmmm… This issue undermines orthodoxy’s foundations – hence the massive effort to keep it out of reach behind barbed wire: Nazi, racist, fascist, hater…

  12. After tens of thousands of years those cuckoos still have not become fly-catchers or pipits. Maybe it is something in their genes.

  13. (This is cross posted from your other location):

    Although I cannot prove this, I will postulate that Anders Behring Breivik is probably the exact opposite of Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen was born with a positive genetic profile that was enhanced through his stable upbringing and supportive parents. Breivik was born with a potentially dangerous genetic profile that was made even worse through his unstable upbringing and flawed parents, especially his unstable and abusive mother.

    While this is a fair and pretty well-written piece considering your apparent unfamiliarity with the evidence on the topic, we do have plenty of evidence that can help sort some of this out.

    In particular, the evidence shows that that statement of yours, particularly the part that I have emphasized, is not really the case. We are able to precisely quantify the contribution of “nature” (genes) and “nurture” (everything else) to the variance in behavioral traits. Indeed, we are able to pick apart the contributions of different kinds of environment, particular the shared home family environment from other types of (unique) environment inputs.

    When you do so, the results are startling to people unfamiliar with this: genes account for well over 50% of the variance, the shared environment accounts for 0%, and the “unique environment” (and measurement error) the rest. In short, all human behavioral traits are heritable, and upbringing has no significant effect on those traits. Parenting doesn’t count for much.

    Even in the case of exceptional individuals, such as prodigies or mass killers, it’s unclear you can invoke parents. For every prodigy guided by parents, how much developed their strategies on their own? For every killer from a broken, tortuous homes, how many come from serene and happy childhoods?

    For more, please see:

    All Human Behavioral Traits are Heritable | JayMan’s Blog

    Taming the “Tiger Mom” and Tackling the Parenting Myth « JayMan’s Blog

    Apples, Oranges, and Lesbians: The Nurture Assumption Just Will Not Die | JayMan’s Blog

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