Are humans born as homunculi, containing within themselves the seeds of all their adult traits? What role does genetic transmission play in the formation of character? Is ‘conscience’ innate or learned? These are all hard-fought battlegrounds, and my own ponderings over the sources of personal value-systems are far from conclusive.
First, it must be the case that physical inheritance determines many aspects of the individual – certainly where tendencies to a particular disease runs in families. But whether such influences determine all aspects of character is a more open question.
Few now hold that the infant is born a tabula rasa – a blank page upon which anything can be written by early contacts and influences. It is more likely that each newborn baby has some inherited predispositions and tendencies. Experience, however, is crucial. An easy birth, followed by gentle, loving nurturing is more favourable to the development of a placid, trusting nature than an angry, tense one. Even in a loving family, however, stressful adult situations can have a negative effect by inducing tensions in a child, as happened in my own case.
Education – in the widest sense – plays a primary role. Our nationality, our family history and traditions, our early awareness of social, cultural, and religious influences regarded as ‘normal’ by our parents and grandparents, all shape our childish assumptions.
In adolescence and early adulthood, the influence of good – and bad – teachers can be critical in forming an intelligent and enquiring approach to knowledge, while poor teaching can permanently turn a child off from the wish to learn. I was exceptionally fortunate in this respect, both at school and at university, and owe a lifelong debt to half a dozen or so dedicated and inspiring teachers who spared no pains to encourage and enthuse me.
Peer group influence is more problematic – more so nowadays than when I was young. Children are great imitators, and “keeping up with the Jones’s” whether in bad, anti-social and self-damaging habits such as drug taking, extravagant expenditure, or even worse in gang warfare and violence, are hazards never far from the minds of today’s responsible parents. The benign side of the coin, fortunately, is the formation of lifelong friendships which are a great comfort and support to many in times of crisis as well as in happier days.
So while some of the sources of our values are clearly discernible, others are part mystery and part lottery. Those of us who have had at least some good luck in the draw should acknowledge how fortunate we are, and be as charitable as we can in judging those who have fared worse than we did.