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Powers ’15: Nature matters

Opinions Columnist
Sunday, February 2, 2014

In his 2013 inaugural address, President Obama reiterated an idea central to American political thought: “The most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still.” Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the notion that “all men are created equal” has shaped and pervaded every aspect of our culture.

But the accuracy of this popular claim is a matter of science, not politics. What are the respective and relative effects of genetics and environment upon an individual’s ability to succeed? The phrase “nature vs. nurture” represents an underlying constituent of most national debate, but rarely do politicians engage in discussion of this topic, despite its bearing on economic and social justice issues.

Modern society is increasingly intolerant of all forms of inequality. In particular, political correctness is taken to factually unjustified extents. Phrases such as “differently-abled” illustrate our aversion to acknowledging disparate evaluations of life. That’s not to say that such a characterization is always inaccurate — autism is a paradigmatic example of different ability — but it would be inaccurate to indiscriminately apply it to all individuals.

It would be an uncharitable straw-man to characterize those who support a “nature” view as categorically rejecting the influences of environmental factors. Brief introspection demonstrates the benefit living in the developed world has had in shaping our lives. It would also be unfair to say that those who support a “nurture” view believe we are all created identical to one another. The theory of evolution guarantees that, to some infinitesimal degree, certain individuals will have higher abilities than others.

Though there is a spectrum of positions on this issue, people can be demarcated into two distinct camps: those who believe genetics plays a measurable role in success and those who believe it does not. While different beliefs can run the gamut of options, it seems to me that this delimitation provides the best account of the ongoing disagreement.

The claim that we are all created — at least approximately — equal is excessive, and compelling counterexamples demonstrate that it is not consistent with empirical observation.

Imagine a child born with a genetic terminal illness that drastically reduces his life expectancy and quality of life. It’s infeasible that he could be as successful as a healthy child by any reasonable measure of success. And it’s obvious that this result is due almost completely to nature, rather than environmental effects.

Of course, genetic effects are not always detrimental. Most humans have two copies of the MSTN gene, which is responsible for the production of the protein myostatin. Myostatin inhibits muscle growth and leads to higher body fat. As a matter of energy conservation, superfluous muscle growth would have been disadvantageous throughout most of our evolutionary history, but it is irrelevant given a sufficient food supply. Individuals who have mutations in one or both copies of the MSTN gene are endowed with increased muscle mass and lower body fat. In athletic competition, such individuals have a significant genetic advantage irrespective of the effects of coaching, performance-enhancing drugs or other environmental factors.

Genetic variation can lead to tragedy, excellence or anything in between. Many Brown students are willing to accept that sexual orientation, and even gender identity, exist on a genetic spectrum. So too do intelligence, athleticism, attractiveness and other characteristics that can contribute to one’s success. The proposition that some individuals are born with innate advantages or disadvantages is not a prescriptive moral one, but rather a descriptive scientific one. Inadequacy in one form or another does not prohibit success but assuredly inhibits it. Appeals to political tradition, national culture or emotional necessity have no bearing upon this sobering biological reality.

One might believe that everyone should be equal under the law, but this is clearly not the case even in current practice. There exists an increasing demand in our society to level the playing field with measures like the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those who suffer from genetic mental disability are not afforded the same rights or responsibilities as healthy individuals, and laws such as the ADA provide provisions specifically for those affected by genetic physical inequality.

The causal root of these individuals’ suffering is their genes. A business’s lack of handicapped parking isn’t “discrimination” against the disabled, but a refusal to help a victim of the genetic lottery. The business’s passive existence does not make the individual worse off. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t legally mandate assistance for these members of our society while simultaneously denying their inequality.

It’s one thing to say everyone deserves to succeed. It’s quite another thing to say everyone is equally equipped to do so. We certainly do not need to condemn victims of genetic misfortune, but we should acknowledge their disabilities for what they are — inherent inequalities. This is particularly true for those who would like society to compensate for such differences through legislation.

Both genetics and environment affect the courses of our lives, and it’s distressing that one of these factors is almost entirely beyond our control. Perhaps in the future this will no longer be the case. But striving to expose, understand and affirm truths that make us uncomfortable is a part of intellectual growth. We are not all created equal, and intentional ignorance of this fact is not a mature response with which we should be satisfied.


Andrew Powers ’15 believes that nature accounts for anywhere between 10-20 percent of an individual’s overall success. He can be reached at

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  1. And who are you to sit in judgment of these others and declare that they do not pass?

  2. “The claim that we are all created — at least approximately — equal is excessive”

    Maybe–and I know this may sound insane to you–maybe you’re not actually smarter than everyone who says and believes and is inspired by things like this. Maybe you just don’t understand what “equal” means.

    This is pretty appalling all around.

    • asdfadsafsd says:

      i feel like he got it
      e·qual [ee-kwuhl] Show IPA
      as great as; the same as (often followed by to or with ): The velocity of sound is not equal to that oflight.
      like or alike in quantity, degree, value, etc.; of the same rank, ability, merit, etc.: two students ofequal brilliance.
      evenly proportioned or balanced: an equal contest.
      uniform in operation or effect: equal laws.
      adequate or sufficient in quantity or degree: The supply is equal to the demand.

  3. '`*-.,_,-*'`*~-.,.~*'*~ (2014) says:

    holy crap seriously? people are different? enlightening!!

  4. Buttz Henderson says:

    equal in what, you incredible turd? writing skill? coherency? are we all supposed to know that equality is measured by our ability to accomplish physical tasks and achieve career-goals? or are you just spinelessly hedging, too gutless to come out and say—without making some high school pseudo-philosophical justification—that you want to be rich, and powerful, and feel superior to other people?

    oh right. stick to jacking it while you think about The Tipping Point. leave writing to someone whose emotional register has a setting other than “self important”

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