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Yesterday, I introduced the controversial anthropology of Lady Gaga as found in her hit single, “Born This Way.” In a nutshell, her anthropology (understanding of humanity) is embedded in her title. Whatever I am, I was born this way. My genes explain who I am.
Is this right? Does this make sense? Does it fit with scientific understandings of human nature?
When I was in college, “born this way” was unpopular, to say the least. There was great concern among my fellow students and the professors for the inequalities between men and women. If I had spoken up in class and said, for example, that some personality difference between men and women could be explained on the basis of inborn, genetic differences, I would have been hissed mercilessly. (Hissing was the Harvard equivalent of booing.) In the politically-correct climate of that time and place, it was verboten to suggest that male-female differences, apart from obvious physical ones, had anything to do with how one was born. Socialization was the reason men tended to be what they were and women tended to be what they were. Socialization was to blame for the differences and inequality between the sexes. There was no room for “born this way” explanations. (Photo: Emerson Hall, Harvard University, home of the Philosophy Department.)
At that time, I was a true believer in the power of society to shape human beings. I saw people basically as blank slates. Though I could agree that in our culture women tended to be more nurturing than men, this was not related to anything inborn. It was a matter of how women (and men) were raised. Thus, by implication, we had the power to change society so that men would be just as good at nurturing as women, and women would be just as good at professional success as men. In the nature vs. nurture battle for explaining human behavior, nurture won by a landslide.
There were some exceptions to this rule in my college experience, though not many. In one of my psychology classes, we studied the nature vs. nurture question extensively. We found that the research did not support any simplistic answer to the question. Many human traits appeared to shaped more by nature (for example, one’s basic skin color or physical size), while other traits seemed to be based more on nurture (for example, one’s politeness or lack thereof). Moreover, many behaviors seemed quite clearly to be a result both of genes and environment. A large, well-muscled man might become a professional football player, but only if he had the opportunity to play football while growing up. In some societies, he might have become a successful farmer or soldier instead.
What I learned in my psychology class over thirty years ago seems to be the dominant viewpoint among most natural, behavioral, and social scientists today, as far as I can tell. Yes, there are some who see things as mainly one way or the other. But the most responsible studies of which I am aware view human traits and behavior as a profound and complex combination of genetic and environmental factors. Who I am and how I behave depends on both nature and nurture.
Of course there are many people who prefer a simpler answer. You can see this especially in some debates over homosexuality. Those who believe that homosexual behavior is wrong often insist that homosexual affection is largely a matter of socialization and experience, if not free choice. On the contrary, those who believe that homosexual behavior is right tend to prefer a genetic source for homosexual attraction. (There are exceptions to this rule, however. I know of some gay people who are not at all happy with the genetic theory, for fear that this might lead to an effort to “fix” gay people through scientific means.)
Lady Gaga’s anthropology leans to the nature-genes side of the equation. Perhaps the most controversial stanza in “Born This Way” reads:
Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause baby you were born this way
No matter gay, straight, or bi,
Lesbian, transgendered life
I’m on the right track baby
I was born to survive
No matter black, white or beige
Chola or orient made
I’m on the right track baby
I was born to be brave
If you analyze this, you realize that there is some obvious exaggeration here. If you’re broke, you may not have been born this way. Similarly, many of those with “life’s disabilities” were born whole but were injured in accidents. Transgendered folk seem to fit oddly into the “born this way” mode. I suspect Lady Gaga means that they were born with the sense that their bodies did not reflect their true gender. On a physical level, transgendered people were not “born this way,” of course.
One might be inclined to say that at least some things are clearly a matter of how one is born, like being “black, white, beige, chola.” But, in fact, these categories are not nearly as natural as they might seem. President Obama, for example, is considered to be a black man, even though his mother was white. According to the New York Times, more and more young Americans are rejecting classic color labels, preferring to see themselves as “mixed race.” So, one might very well grow up as a black person and then decide to be a mixed race person. What way was she born? Black? Mixed? Both? Neither? The very categories in which we understand ourselves are culturally determined, and these profoundly shape our sense of self.
Lady Gaga believes that being “born this way” is an encouraging truth. No matter how we were born, we are “perfect,” “beautiful,” and “on the right track.” Apparently, if I am “born this way,” then that way is just fine. This gets us into the moral issues of Lady Gaga’s anthropology, which I’ll address in my next post.