For over half a century I've been intrigued by the debate, data, and opinions on whether heredity or environment is basically responsible for the qualities and characteristics of the adult human. Another point of view is that everything is totally and irrevocably preordained. It has been fun observing how characteristics run in families, how separated twins are similar, and how brothers and sisters are frequently dissimilar. It's so easy to find examples of "good" parents: good child; "bad" parents: good child; "good" parents: bad child; or examples of "just like Uncle Joe" or "Aunt Ellen."
Recently, as a result of a conversation, the issue was forever altered for me. I was suddenly aware that we have been debating the wrong question. Whether it is heredity or environment, by its wording presupposes it is either one or the other. Years of school and general reading had me narrowly confining this issue. Other years of study in the areas of philosophy and religion gave me a strong belief in karma and the continuing balance between causes and effects. Mental laziness must have caused the failure to observe the fallacy in the two-factor debate.
Belief in a continuing evolution of the soul, which experiences repeated incarnations in a vast variety of circumstances, and that this soul will in any single lifetime meet some of the consequences of the present life plus those from portions of many previous lives, requires one to add a third factor — spirit. Just as there is a genetic factor shaping our physical form and many of our other characteristics, and an environmental factor likewise helping to shape and mold, so is there a spiritual factor involved.
It may well be that this spiritual impetus overrides the others. Could it not be the spiritual factor that leads the soul to the couple who will be its parents and thereby selects genetic opportunities, even influencing the particular selection of genes from the massive gene pool? By choosing the time, the parents, and the circumstance into which the new child is to be born, has not the spirit picked both the heredity and the environment?
Thus the issue is not simply one of heredity or environment. These are minor compared to the spiritual decision that prompts the soul to experience, to grow, and to meet and handle its own earned effects of past actions, matched with the opportunity to initiate new actions with their resultant effects.
It grants an added measure of nobility to a person to realize that he is unique as a consequence of his own past or present thoughts and actions, that his circumstances were selected by the soul, and that the responsibility for those circumstances and their ongoing effects is ultimately the product of the spiritual direction of each human being.
The relative impact of heredity and environment on any single individual is certainly a debatable issue for him. Their significance in any particular case, however, becomes less important when viewed from the position that what the person receives and experiences is what his soul sought. That seeking is the molder, the stage setter, and the guide.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1986/January 1987; copyright © 1986 Theosophical University Press)