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Hey Bill Nye! Are We More a Product of Our Genes, or of Our Lifestyle?

Why are we the way that we are - is it nature or nurture? This week, Bill Nye answers a question from Evan, who is having a science argument with his mom.

Evan: Hi Bill. My name is Evan. I am 16 years old. Here's my question for you, are physical traits such as height determined mostly by genes or by nutrition and exercise? Give me a percentage number. My mom and I are having an argument over this and I heavily believe that it's more of the genes that contribute to this trait such as height. Thank you.

Bill Nye: Evan, that's a great question. The right answer is clearly both. So, some people are genetically predisposed to be tall as you point out, but I can tell you people in the West, like in our civilization here in the United States and Canada, are getting taller; offspring are growing taller and taller and that is almost certainly do to improved nutrition. And archaeologists who love this stuff go digging up old graves in big cities and they find that people in the 1700s and the 18th century were not as tall as their descendants are today. And this is almost certainly a result of nutrition. So it's both. Furthermore, it's something that just fascinates me. In Africa - all of our ancestors are ultimately from Africa. And Africa you find indigenous people, tribes who have lived there for millennia that are both very tall where food is abundant and there's other tribes that are not especially tall where food is harder to get. And it's fascinating. Right there to this day you can find where the environment, the evolutionary pressure to find nutrition, to find food has affected the success of offspring. If you're too tall and there's not enough food around you can't feed yourself and so you don't have kids. If on the other hand you live where food is abundant, fruit is growing on trees, as the saying goes, you can be taller and be just ultimately a bigger animal in the same forest, in the same jungle and just be more successful. So the answer is both. You've got to eat breakfast. I'll leave you with that. If you don't eat breakfast you're just not going to be as successful in life.

Why are we the way that we are? It’s a question we ask ourselves often, and one we are also asked by others when we do something spectacular, or spectacularly awful – usually the later, expand=1] if we’re being honest.


This week on #TuesdaysWithBill, young Padawan Evan would like to know whether physical traits are determined mostly by genes or mostly by external factors such as nutrition and exercise. And ideally, Evan wants an answer in percentage form. Why? Because he is arguing about this with his mom, and nothing settles a Tuesday afternoon family feud like cold, hard numerals.

Bill Nye chooses the path of diplomacy here, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is currently impossible to determine to what extent our physical characteristics are the result of nature or nurture. Nye cites the example of height, and looks back to the origins of all humans: Africa. In Africa there are tribes that are very short where food is scarce, and conversely those that are very tall where food is abundant. The expression of our genes is this case is certainly very much controlled by external factors, and it’s fascinating. The further back archaeologists dig, they find shorter and shorter skeletons; proof that our increased food supply and nutritional access has given the modern human a real height booster, especially since the industrial revolution.

If you go searching through science journals, you’ll find papers that examine individual traits, and for some the conclusion is nurture, and for others it’s nature, so as a whole the reality probably resides in the middle ground, as a combination of all factors. Some papers even argue that personality and intelligence traits are entirely environmental, but there are contradicting views on this. So make peace with your mother, Evan. You probably got your curious mind from her. Or did you?

Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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No, the Yellowstone supervolcano is not ‘overdue’

Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.

Image: USGS - public domain
Strange Maps
  • The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
  • Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
  • The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
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Spiders lace webs in toxins to paralyze prey

Just what every arachnophobe needed to hear.

Luciano Marra from São Paulo, Brasil - Aranha de Teia (Nephila clavipes), CC BY-SA 2.0
Surprising Science
  • A new study suggests some spiders might lace their webs with neruotoxins similar to the ones in their venom.
  • The toxins were shown to be effective at paralyzing insects injected with them.
  • Previous studies showed that other spiders lace their webs with chemicals that repel large insects.
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