Nature versus Nurture: How do we build a better continent?

2016-07-29 16:43

It was the morning of yesterday and I decided to have breakfast at a restaurant. As I entered, I noticed that the usually-warm waitress was a little pensive and borderline unhappy. I tried to cheer her up, asking her what the problem was. Before she could answer, her identical twin sister passed bye, making me wonder if I was talking to the right person. I have always loved twins. My family is full of them – my father is a twin, I have siblings who are twins, my father’s twin sister has twins, my father’s elder brother had twins, I could go on. So I chatted with these adorable twins and took a picture with them.

I have always loved twins, but my fascination with them stems more from my work in science. Research designs like clinical trials and impact evaluations are rigorous scientific tools used to test whether a new drug (or any kind of intervention for that matter) can live up to its promise. At the heart these trials is a concept called ‘counterfactual’. Philosophers, lawyers, psychologists and other professionals use the same concept in their work too. In brief, counterfactual is the philosophical thinking of what would have been if circumstances were different or reversed. “If we did not give the patient a particular treatment, what would have been the outcome?” “If John had not married Mary, would he have been rich?” We may never know since one person cannot exist at the same time in two different contexts.

Therefore, scientists, in testing interventions, try to create two ‘identical’ groups of people, of which one gets the intervention and the other doesn’t. These groups act as counterfactuals to each other – telling us what would have been without the intervention. This is because without a comparison, attribution which is the central theme in all experiments, is difficult to make.

Identical twins are the best counterfactuals because they are like one person occurring at the same time in two different places. They are identical in every known way – every cell in their different bodies carrying exactly the same DNA, the genetic code. Take for example the story of James Arthur Springer and James Edward Lewis, identical twins reunited at age 39 years after being separated at birth. Upon being reunited, remarkable discoveries were made about them:

“Both had childhood dogs they named Toy.

Both were married twice — first to women named Linda, and then to women named Betty.

Both had children — including sons named James Allen.

Both lived in the only house on their block.

Both were chain-smokers, enjoyed beer, had woodworking shops in their garages

Both drove Chevrolets and served as sheriffs in separate Ohio counties.”

Such similarities make identical twins the best specimens for studying the age-long debate of what makes a person successful – nature (the individual) or nurture (their context). However, despite many of such remarkable stories highlighting the similarities between identical twins, there are amazing differences between them as well, especially when they live in different contexts. In fact, empirical data show that the stark similarities between James Arthur Springer and James Edward Lewis were outliers, that context is extremely important in determining who we become. It is estimated that when grown apart, identical twins would have no more than 50% similarity. This is what makes them extremely valuable for human behaviour and development studies. They have shown us that environment matters as much as genes.

Take the case of two sets of identical twins swopped in error at birth, in Columbia. According to a New York Times article, when they were reunited last year, one set of mixed twins who lived in the city had professional jobs with university degrees while the other set of mixed twins who grew up in the village worked in the butchery without higher education. Although the looks and personality of the mixed twins were different, their outcomes were more or less the same. On the contrary, their outcomes were very different from their identical twins who grew up in a different context. Indeed, environment matters in who we become.

Bill Gates would not have been the person we know today had he not gone to Lakeside High School at the time he went in the 1960s. He later said of the school in 2005, “Lakeside was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Of course, computers were totally new to everyone here — faculty as well as students. In one early development, one of the teachers burned up 200 dollars of computer time in a few minutes by accidentally running an infinite loop. That made computers seem pretty scary to some people here—especially when 13-year-old kids were eager to try their luck next. The school could have shut down the terminal, or they could have tightly regulated who got to use it. Instead, they opened it up. One reason I'm so grateful to Lakeside is that I can directly trace the founding of Microsoft back to my earliest days here.”

Now assume that Bill Gates had an identical twin who grew up somewhere in Africa in a context where he did not have the opportunity of going to school, talk less of having access to a computer at the time that many universities did not have one. That twin would be Bill Gates counterfactual, showing us the importance of growing up in a good setting.

There is a concept psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. It is “the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics of the agent (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining another person's behaviour in a given situation.” Many of us often make this error. We almost always think that someone is not successful because they didn’t try enough, not knowing the context surrounding that person. We think that a driver skipped a traffic light because they are reckless, without knowing if that person was rushing to get a sick person to the hospital. The Fundamental Attribution Error is not an attempt to excuse poor outcomes; rather, it seeks to help us understand how changing environment can modify outcomes.

Some of the people that make this error the most are motivational speakers and pastors who understandably teach that a strong will can achieve anything even in the desert. While it is absolutely important to have a strong will and do your best, scientific evidence has shown that the outcomes of your effort also depends on the context of his existence. Even identical twins when reared in different contexts often have different outcomes. The best evidence from the study of twins over 50 years show that genetics contribute more or less 50% to who we become. You probably would not have been a graduate if there were no primary and secondary schools in your city or state. This for me is where African leaders have missed it. We have not built an enabling environment for Africans to flourish. We have not eliminated hunger and wars, neither have we provided the environment for productivity and innovations.

I once told a friend that despite being a motivational speaker who inspires people to give their all and do their best, I also fight for social justice and development of our educational system and economy because I understand that motivation alone is not enough; when we look at the overall data, motivation only explains half of many success stories. There are many hard working and motivated people in penury in Africa because the odds against them are so much. I am convinced that ONE good leader would improve Nigeria faster than 5,000 preachers. In the same way that many churches can do little to douse lies, corruption, stealing and other economic sins if there is hardship due to corruption and ineptitude leadership.

As a Nigerian, let me give a Nigerian example here. Nigeria is where it is today because it has undermined the power of context. Time and again, we hear of Nigerians doing amazing things all over the world, while those same Nigerians left in Nigeria would most likely not have done as much, highlighting the power of context. Nigerians have over the years built their spirit and willpower but without going beyond individualism, and the selfishness that sometimes goes with it, Nigeria will not see the light of day. Until we understand the power of context and herd immunity, and stop amassing personal wealth at the expense of community development, Nigeria may not know growth and lasting development. Ditto for South Africa and many African countries. Bill Gates said of Lakeside that they could “have shut down the terminal, or they could have tightly regulated who got to use it. Instead, they opened it up.” For many Africans, the reality is that the terminal has been shut down for many years, some from birth, by poor leadership and defective social norms.

The critical question then is: how do we change the perspective of African leaders to see the value of context; to understand that a man working eight hours in a Scandinavian country will most likely have a better quality of life than one working 16 hours under the tough African Sun. How do we help people to understand the message of Jesus that we should love our neighbours as ourselves? How do we make selfish leaders see that building better roads, quality schools and other infrastructure will be better and safer for them and their children in the long run? How do we inspire ourselves to contribute to a collective vision and give our best at work? And how do we select the best people with these perspectives into power for a better continent?

As ordinary citizens, often, the best we can do to contribute to building a better context is to do our job well. If every politician avoids corruption and show contentment for the reward of their sweat, we would build a better continent. If every teacher, policeman doctor and all government workers show up at work and do their work diligently, we will build an inspiring context. And soon, we will have the best people in leadership to build better systems.

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