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.

Zac Ramsey

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~ by zacr12 on April 12, 2008.

2 Responses to “Nature vs. Nurture in White Teeth”

  1. I definitely agree that nature vs. nurture is a theme presented by the Chalfen parents, but interestingly enough I read somewhat the opposite. I believe that although Marcus’s research in its focus on “determining the future of a cancer, or a reproductive cycle, or the capacity to age” insinuates his support of nature, his personal interaction with Magid and Millat suggests his personal conviction of nurture’s stronger role. Marcus conveys this in his letter to Magid, in which he states, “Never in my life have I come across a couple of twins who prove more decidedly the argument against genetic determinism than Millat and yourself”(305). Marcus more explicitly states his dissent from present arguments in favor of nature when he thinks, “It was incredible and sublime, even to him, that a boy should walk out of that tunnel with precisely the same genetic code as a boy he already knew, and yet in every conceivable way be different”(349). These thoughts support the argument of nurture. Despite Magid and Millat possessing “precisely the same genetic code,” their characteristics and tendencies are different. Therefore suggesting that some other force, nurture, causes this result.

    Contrary to Marcus’s support for nurture, I believe that Joyce represents a fusing of nature and nurture. Although she explicitly states her support for nurture’s importance, implicitly stated within most of her nurture arguments is an argument for nature. For example, during the first dinner conversation between the Chalfens, Millat, and Irie, Joyce first states Oscar’s genius, “Oscar’s got an IQ of 178”(269). Following this statement she says,

    He’s had everything, and so much of it is nurture, isn’t it? I really believe that. We’ve just been lucky enough to give him so much and with a daddy like Marcus… He’s so fortunate to have that. Well, they all are. Now, you may think this sounds strange, but it was always my aim to marry a man cleverer than me. (269)

    Although Joyce claims her firm belief of nurture’s role, her following focus on Marcus advocates nurture and nature, more so emphasizing the later. The nurture Marcus’s intellect provides the Chalfins expresses itself through the children’s intimate exposure to Marcus’s research and thought process while simultaneously providing economic stability. Even though this argument would support nurture, Marcus’s own intelligence implicitly argues that Oscar’s high IQ was on some level passed down from Marcus. Therefore arguing in favor of nature. Joyce’s continued reference to Marcus and her “aim to marry a man cleverer” than herself further supports nature. Thus, Joyce’s argument in favor of nurture equivocally supports nature.

    The ambiguity within Joyce’s support and my different interpretation of Marcus’s role in total draws attention to this topic’s complexity and lack of resolution as expressed within your blog. As science progresses, I believe we may learn more about “how and what genes control for physical characteristic and/or behaviors and how nurture/environment help individuals express certain characteristics,” or we may just learn how much more complex this topic is than we currently imagine it to be; thereby making it impossible to ever settle the argument of nature vs. nurture.

    Nicole Shen

  2. Great post and response.

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