WASHINGTON -- Science is reshaping the argument about whether nature or nurture is decisive in determining human destinies, and about what the answer means for social policy. Consider a fascinating new report arguing the scientific evidence for the importance of ``authoritative communities'' -- groups, religious or secular, devoted to transmitting a model of the moral life.
The report is from the 33 research scientists, children's doctors and mental health and youth services professionals comprising a commission jointly sponsored by the Dartmouth Medical School, the Institute for American Values and the YMCA of the USA. The report's conclusion is in its title: human beings are ``Hardwired to Connect.''
In an era of increasing prosperity, the evidence of children's failures to thrive -- depression, anxiety, substance abuse, conduct disorders -- is also increasing. Pharmacological and psychotherapeutic responses to such deteriorating mental and social health are necessary but insufficient. Also needed is recognition of how environmental conditions -- the social environment -- contribute to childhood suffering.
The problem is a deficit of connectedness. The deficit is the difference between what the biological makeup of human beings demands and what many children's social situations supply in the way of connections to other people, and to institutions that satisfy the natural need for moral and spiritual meaning.
The need expresses itself in religious cravings -- the search for moral meaning and an openness to the possibility of a transcendent reality. The need is natural in that it arises from ``our basic biology and how our brains develop.'' The report draws upon the science of infant attachment, and of brain development, particularly during adolescence, when the brain changes significantly.
The report argues that our understanding of children's difficulties is thwarted by the assumption that each child's problems are exclusively personal and individual, thereby ignoring social and communal factors. In fact the report argues that we are ``biologically primed'' for finding meaning through attachments to others.
The need for meaning is increasingly discernible in the basic structure of the brain. ``The idea,'' says Allan N. Schore of the UCLA School of Medicine, ``is that we are born to form attachments, that our brains are physically wired to develop in tandem with another's, through emotional communication, beginning before words are spoken.''