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Who Knows?

September 13, 1985

Not long ago it was considered socially and intellectually reprehensible to suggest that people's traits, skills and behavior were genetically influenced, much less determined. The nature-vs.-nurture debate was all on the side of nurture. In particular, the causes of crime were believed to be poverty, the criminal-justice system, racism and the like.

Now comes a new book from a distinguished criminologist and a distinguished psychologist who claim that there is more to it than that. In "Crime and Human Nature" (Simon & Schuster), James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein contend that biology also plays a role in causing crime. This view is certain to touch off a furor, and there will be contradictory studies and statistics on both sides. In short, the usual.

The truth, if there is a truth, appears to be that it's not nature or nurture that determines human behavior, but some complex interaction of the two. The genes may provide a pre-disposition, but social factors can determine the outcome. As with many debates, people choose one side or the other for their own reasons (both rational and irrational), and then pick and choose among the available data to support what they believe. There's always enough data to go around.

There is a Zen principle saying that there are small truths and Great Truths. One can always tell small truths because their denial is clearly false. But the denial of a Great Truth is also true. Questions about the origins of things tend to yield Great Truths. Where does the universe come from? Where does intelligence come from? Where does crime come from?

We don't know.

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