Perhaps the current debate surrounding the importance of genetics and upbringing on behavior is not as “current” as many are apt to believe. Though our society has developed specific jargon to discuss more scientifically the abstract concepts of “genetic predisposition” and “cultural reinforcement,” the same notions and ideas perplexed ancient scholars and writers who did not have the convenience of genetics or neurobiology. In Herodotus's Histories and Xuanzang's Si-Yu-Ki, the authors' early conceptions of hereditary and social influences (i.e. ‘nature' vs. ‘nurture') on a person's development inform the accounts and narratives that constitute their otherwise historical, geographic, and ethnographic works. In analyzing the texts for these conceptions, we find that the authors do not agree on the issue. Herodotus' historical narratives, royal genealogies, and geographies reveal his stance in favor of societal and environmental determinism, while those of Xuanzang imply the dominance of heredity and innate traits.
[...] More and more prominently, his bias toward heredity begins to figure into his accounts. Elsewhere he writes, is thus that men differ in their superior or inferior abilities. Some rise, others live in obscurity” (Xuanzang 117). Does this sort of elitism fit in with the philosophy of a Mahayana Buddhist scholar preaching fairness and empathy? Is this an isolated occurrence, an aberration from Xuanzang's typical philosophy? Indeed not, as we ascertain from other examples of broad uncomplimentary claims: “With respect to the common people, although they are naturally light-minded, they are upright and honourable” (Xuanzang 83, emphasis mine). [...]
[...] For instance, he finds it plausible that Persian skulls are more brittle than Egyptian skulls due to varying exposure to sunlight (Herodotus 3.12 In addition, the closing chapter in the Histories expresses an intensely environmentally deterministic view: “Soft lands tend to breed soft men It is impossible for one and the same country to produce remarkable crops and good fighting ( 9.122 This thought must be central to Herodotus' ideology if it merits the status of closing monologue. Xuanzang, though far less explicit in this regard, surprisingly does not completely avoid environment-population metaphors. [...]
[...] It is important to remember the broader context of Herodotus' work; he seems to prove Otane's point through his account of the defeat of Persian monarchy at the hands of Athenian democracy and Spartan oligarchy. While the Persian compatriots of Otanes in the account are not convinced by his reasoning, Herodotus supports it as he describes the excesses of monarchs like Cambyses and Cyrus. Another way to understand their notions of heredity is to follow the genealogical trajectories that Herodotus and Xuanzang map out in their volumes. [...]
[...] On the contrary, by nature Xerxes is reluctant to go to battle (Herodotus 7.5 Herodotus implies that his immersion in the Persian nomos of conquest overcomes his reluctance and thereby defies the notion that bloodlines transmit belligerence. The history in Si-Yu-Ki is arranged in a much less chronological fashion, thus following a family through generations proves to be a greater challenge than in the Histories. Still the tale of the Sâkya and the Nâga maiden contains information about traits following bloodlines: the maiden declares to her husband upon having her dragon-crest sliced away, “This will bring no good hereafter to your posterity your children and grandchildren will all suffer from pains in the head.” Xuanzang adds (his own assessment), so the royal line of this country is ever afflicted with that malady (132). [...]
[...] The Histories. trans. Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press, New York 1998. Xuanzang. Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World. trans. Samuel Beal. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi 2001. Take the history of Sâkya Buddha as a case in point: “Having been born in this country a thousand times as king (Xuanzang 110) That is, the same Rishi who wrote the grammar [...]
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