Nature vs. Nurture in White Teeth
Throughout the semester, our class has discussed the argument of nature versus nurture in works of fiction such as “Little C” by Martha Nussbaum and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Our society struggles with this topic of whether nature or nurture is responsible for each individual’s intellect, talents, and other qualities. Many believe a person’s characteristics and tendencies are the result of the environment’s effect on the individual while the nature supporters favor heredity as the main factor.
In White Teeth by Zadie Smith, this nature vs. nurture argument is represented by two story lines. The first is the evidence provided by the accounts of the Iqbal twins, Magid and Millat. The pair shares the same DNA code yet has obviously grown up as very different individuals in two separate continents. In Bangladesh, Magid developed into a sophisticated, intelligent young man with a talent for language and a passion for law whereas Millat degenerated into a rebellious teenager thought capable of leading his fundamentalist Islamic group while living in England with his family. Therefore, the genetically identical twins violate the nature argument that genetics controls the fate of the individual.
Another related theme to nature vs. nurture is the dichotomy presented by the Chalfen parents, Marcus and Joyce. Marcus is a strict nature supporter, as he has dedicated his life to genetics and science. Marcus’s life work has been to alter the genetics of a mouse such as turning on or off a gene for cancer in order to control its fate. As the narrator says, “Mice and men, genes and germs, that was Marcus’s corner. Seedlings, light sources, growth, nurture, the buried heart of things—that was [Joyce’s]” (269). Joyce Chalfen clearly represents the other side of the nature/nurture argument as a horticulturist and a mother. Joyce believes her son Oscar’s high IQ is due in part to nurturing (269), just like with plants when she was to “be patient, water regularly, and don’t lose your temper when pruning” (268). Joyce proves her point of nurture through Millat as she takes a special interest in him, and he surprises everyone including himself with higher grades then expected on his tests. She also believes the “lack of a male role model” (270) in Millat and Irie’s lives (a nurturing aspect) has contributed to the reason they are in her house (being caught with marijuana).
Clearly, the nature vs. nurture argument hasn’t been settled in this novel nor will it be in our society any time soon. The answer to this discussion isn’t simple or as one sided as Zadie Smith presents it in Marcus and Joyce, but it is interesting to see how the extremes interact in the novel. As science progresses, we will learn more about how and what genes control for physical characteristics and/or behaviors and how nurture/environment help individuals express certain characteristics.