Could Nurture Trump Nature?

The debate over whether nature trumps nurture has been an ongoing debate in the scientific and philosophical communities for years, if not centuries.

Humans, but only humans, have been the subject and focus of this debate, and with good reason. It is our species alone that possess the intellectual capacity for abstract thought, conceptual language, and the written word. These are all essential tools and factors that are necessary to alter the nature of, that is, to nurture, another human being’s thought process with the intent of changing their behavior.

What if there was another “platform”, another subject, a non human subject, to test this theory? Recent advances in paleontology, genetics, and neurobiology may provide us with such an opportunity.

Science has learned that the human brain is not as “hardwired” as once thought. The plasticity of our brains, that is that ability for the neurons and synapses to grow, change, and even heal, is proving to us that certain unique capabilities for learning (e.g. language acquisition and socialization skills) that are so easily displayed by the very young are not “locked down” when we reach adulthood, but actually can be extended into old age.

Is this capability limited to humans? There are few animals with similar body-to-brain mass ratios as humans that also possess sufficient brain mass (and hence neuron count) to imply the ability of the complex neurological dance that we call consciousness. Dolphins are closest, but the vast differences in anatomy and living environment present too many barriers to studying their intellectual growth and capabilities in a manner similar to studying human development. Great apes possess the anatomy, but not the required brain mass. We have no equal as a comparison.

However, that was not always the case.

Forty thousand years ago, our biological cousins, the Neanderthals, lived side by side with us. Paleontological evidence and research has suggested that Neanderthal’s brain mass was equivalent, and perhaps larger, than humans. Recent advances in genomic research, along with the complete sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, have given as the ability to create that “platform” for truly testing whether nature indeed trumps nurture.

Cloning a Neanderthal is within the realm of possibility. Humanely studying the growth and development of one or more would provide insight into brain development, intellectual capacity, language acquisition, and many other aspects of intellect far beyond what we can do today with humans as our only point of reference. Could brain plasticity extend to other species? Is there only one way to find out?

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