A leading question among wannabe social scientists while I was attending college was which influence was more significant in determining human motivation — heredity or environment. This was four decades ago, the era of the ’60s when concern over social issues spawned the Great Society programs of the Johnson Administration. There was genuine dialog and concern among university students over the condition of Americans from rural Appalachia to inner city Harlem and Watts. The Vietnam War and, more specifically, opposition to it soon, began to over-shadow the discussion and eventually snow-balled into a complete takeover, but that is another column.
I guess we have always been curious as to why people do things and have tried to understand why people act differently from each other and have different motives for their behavior, even members of the same family. Years ago motivation was put into neat little boxes called instincts. The bully down the street was a fighter because he had the instinct of pugnacity. Perhaps it was instincts which led to the investigation of heredity. Who among us has not heard the phrase “the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree?” The analogy is used to explain the similarity in the behavior of children and their parents.
In the human species, each individual starts life as a union of two cells, one from each parent. Inside the cells are structures called chromosomes and they consist of minute particles called genes. It is the genes that are the bearers of heredity.
Interestingly, parents transmit to their offspring only the traits they themselves received by inheritance. And not all of a parent’s cells are alike; their cells represent many assortments from their total ancestry. The likenesses between parents and children are due to complex causes, partly because they share a general stock of cells and partly because of environmental influences. Herein lays the root of the old college debate: which is the more important influence?
The college debate question long dormant surfaced recently in observations I have been making relative to my father and myself. He passed away not long after I finished college, and 40 years after I received the diploma, I find myself approaching the age he was at the time. The closer I get the more similarities I see that we have in common. The physical ones are obvious — loss of hair, fullness of face and the slowing of pace. They are not unique, but universal in the male aging process. The behavioral similarities are more subtle, but they are distinctive.
My father’s range of emotion always seemed to me to be rather substantial. He would laugh at the antics of someone like Red Skelton on television until it brought him to tears. His displeasure over some of the antics of his teenage son could invoke anger that seemed, at least to the son, to reach a level unwarranted by the indiscretion. And often he had difficulty maintaining his composure when expressing his feelings for family and friends publicly.
Over the years, I have watched as my own behavior started to manifest some of the same characteristics. I have to be very guarded when speaking in public and to concentrate on objective topics and generic performance levels. I try not to let myself transition into personal or sentimental areas because I too find it difficult when I am unsuccessful in doing so to maintain my composure.
Someone, and do not recall who, once said my father’s emotional behavior was symptomatic of people who were stroke victims. I do not know if that is accurate or not. However, if the stroke is indeed what led to his emotional behavior, it gives weight to the environmental influence side of the college debate question. He may have inherited genes that made him more susceptible to a blockage of blood to the brain, but it was the effect on the brain that changed the behavior. And it was in that environment where I learned the behavior.
The observations about my father and me this morning are far from scientific and may only be of interest to me, but I find that as fathers the environmental influence we provide our children does, and will continue to have, profound effects on them.
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.