Friday, July 1, 2011

Weed or Fish?

Through my years of study, it seems to me that brain-related science is much better at answering small questions than it is at answering big ones. Although the roots of the discipline involved asking and trying to answer the big questions, we have made much more progress on the smaller ones. The biggest question often encountered is the nature-nurture discussion. 
Lately the pendulum has been swinging in the direction of nurture. For a long time we were studying the function and structure of the brain, we are now finding out more about the plasticity of that structure and function. For example, Dr. Sally Shaywitz suggested that some individuals with reading disorders have something fundamentally wrong with certain structures in their brains. However, these individuals are able to learn to read because their brains will automatically change, recruiting ancillary brain areas to make up for the disfunction. Although this amazing change may result in these individuals never reading quite normally, Shaywitz suggests that this restructuring also has advantages, leading these people to other types of intellectual strengths. Although their nature may be flawed, nurture can allow them to overcome and thrive.
In Matthew 13, Jesus tells two parables that make me think about the nature-nurture debate. The first one concerns weeds in a field. He talks about humans as a growing field, in which the bad weeds will be harvested and thrown away when the time comes. In a second, similar story, he talks about fishing. He says that after the net is brought in, the fisherman will sift through and throw away the bad fish.
Although these parables both seem to be saying the same thing, they are different. Some have suggested the difference had to do with the condition of those elements which were discarded. The weeds mentioned in the first story were fundamentally flawed, born poisonous and always bad, even though they did not always look the part. The word used to describe the bad fish was better translated “rotten,” suggesting that they were once healthy, but became unhealthy. In using both metaphors, it seems that Jesus could in his own way be handling the nature-nurture controversy.
It seems Jesus’ answer is a familiar one to those who ask the nature vs. nurture question: “Yes.” There is fierce enemy whose depraved servants are among us. There is also the chance to become rotten within all of us. However, in both of Jesus’ analogies, there is only one who is charged with the task of choosing who is rotten and who is not. I will give you a hint, it is not me or you.

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