Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Gaps: Between Nature and Nurture

Tsing's discussion of the productivity of gaps reminded me of the classic debate about the origin of physical and behavioral traits: nature vs. nurture. In some ways, this rigid dichotomy is a translation of Tsing's idea of nature vs. society in the destruction of rainforests--something must fall within the asocial, biological, almost primeval space of the forest, or within the realm of society and its assault on the natural. Tsing describes the social-natural spaces in which human communities live within forests: the productive "gap" that cannot be captured by essentialist and antithetical notions of "social" and "natural." However, I think Tsing notion of the productivity of gaps also applies to the tension between "natural" or biological and social forces as they are played out not in forests, but in the human body. When psychologists and human biologists try to pinpoint the sources of the human difference, they generally phrase the influences as nature (genetics), nurture (environment), or some combination of the two. The space in between these two categories, however, rarely enters the discourses of science and pop culture. In fact, the gap between genetics and environmental influences is a hugely productive space, one that is only starting to be studied by scientists but may be crucial to our formation as individuals. This is the study of epigenetics--of nongenetic factors that affect phenotype, or how our genes are expressed. The epigenome can contain changes that are spurred by our environments that do not change our underlying DNA sequence, but nonetheless affect the expression of our genetic material. Further, these changes can last an entire lifetime, and can be passed to successive generations. This field begins to explain such phenomena as how identical twins raised in the same environment may develop drastically different personalities. However, although epigenetics offers an example of a productive gap, the fact that it has become a term in itself, and is a field of growing popularity, raises the question again: what is being left out? What new gap has formed with the creation of this new field of study, and what are the productive possibilities of this gap?

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