Saturday, August 11, 2012

Nature, Nurture, and More

Trying very hard to be good, one of my teachers in high school said something once about nature and nurture. But when I replied, “Oh, like Tarzan. He was raised by apes, but he still had noble blood in him,” she just stared at me as if I had mispronounced a non sequitur in a dead language she didn’t know. Her virtue only went so far. Sure, my response reeked of complications. Did I really think some socio-economic classes of humans had purer blood than others? Since Tarzan is fictional, can he provide a helpful example at all? But at least I understood her point and cared about it. I think I was the only student who had anything to say, and my comment showed a ready habit to make personal, fresh connections, applications, and extrapolations from material covered in class. So, teacher, whoever you were, thanks for teaching me something interesting about human character, but I wish you hadn’t embarrassed me publicly or disappointed me by proving that reading thoughtfully had no place in a public high school.

Well, these days, I have my vindication. I walk around the town with my nose in a book, and I publish my thoughts about what I read in a blog. (That’ll show her!) And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O’Brian. And, as it happens, this volume in the Aubrey-Maturin series has a lot to say about nature and nurture, or let’s say nature and culture. As represented in these novels (I’m perfectly happy now with drawing examples from fiction), the intrepid adventurers who sailed the seas for England in the early nineteenth century weren’t just sailors and surgeons and marines and diplomats. They were all explorers as well. They were naturalists. They were scientists. While their first mission was to help stop Napoleon, they also appreciated the opportunity to learn about new places, new customs, and new life forms. (Cue Star Trek theme now.)

Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the two main characters of the Master and Commander books, seem to have little in common except a love for music. Stephen can’t move from one craft to another without landing in the ocean. Jack can’t keep his promises to stay in one place long enough for Stephen to explore the wildlife. One tells bad puns, and the other tells jokes in Latin. (I give some examples in my previous post on Nutmeg.)

But they both have a deep interest in nature. Jack looks at the planets and stars for more than navigational guidance. The sailors at that time sometimes had to perform lengthy, difficult calculations on the figures taken in observation of the moons of Jupiter in order to ascertain their longitude. But Jack also sees the beauty and romantic grandeur of the golden king of the stars. Stephen on the other hand, can’t remember the names of the moons of Jupiter and out of embarrassment quietly ignores Jack when he tries to talk about them. Stephen has his own abiding passion for science, as long as it has something to do with living things. And Jack in his turn humors Stephen patronizingly when he mentions an ornithorhynchus anatinus.

In The Nutmeg of Consolation they each get into discussions about what is or isn’t true about particular people according to nature. Stephen, part Irish, finds himself in several uncomfortable discussions about a supposed natural inferiority of the Irish. Jack debates whether an officer has any natural moral authority. They both get interested, though, in the test case offered by two little native girls they pick up from a Pacific island, the only survivors of a small pox epidemic. Since the girls learn English very quickly, with enough understanding even to change their vocabulary and grammar when moving to and from the quarterdeck, they prove intelligence as natural to human beings and show dialects to be mere convention.

O’Brian explores a third explanation, though, for what we see in other people. An observed characteristic may come from nature, and it may come from culture, but it may also arise only as a result of the observer’s interpretation. Thinking that they won’t be able to overcome their “natural” inclination to heat, Stephen wants to put the two girls in an orphanage in tropical Botany Bay rather than take them back to cold, damp England. But the girls escape the institution and make their way back to the ship before it sails, telling Stephen that they don’t want to stay in a place that has black children. He discovers that they have learned the cultural prejudice from some of the sailors before the mast, but can only marvel that the girls would “see” a natural inferiority in other children whose skin is no darker than their own.

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