Personality and Intelligent Design
Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are demystifies human personality by providing an empirical, yet easy-to-read, examination of individual differences and human uniqueness. Written by Daniel Nettle, a widely-published professor of behavioral science in the UK, Personality builds on the work of Galton, Jung, and other theorists to discuss the psychology of personality, enduring personality dispositions, and how these partly predict what each individual will do. Nettles also shows how personality and personality dispositions “stem from the way [peoples’] nervous system is wired” and explain the science behind the study of personality.
An individual’s personality disposition is important to understand their uniqueness and “naturally recurring patterns of thoughts, feeling or behavior.” Maximizing this will help leaders not put round pegs in square holes, but assign people to their area of strength. In contexts such as mine, where political connections and favoritism trump right fit and qualifications, this is such a critical issue. Nettle argues that
there are at least five broad personality dimensions along which we all differ, and which cause us to behave in certain ways rather than other ways. A great deal of what happens in our interests, careers, relationships, romantic lives, and health follows from where we fall along this continua.
The big five, as Nettles refers to them, are the “most comprehensive, reliable and useful framework for discussing human personality” and include wanderers, worriers, controllers, empathizers and poets. What determines one’s place is how the person’s brain is wired, which is informed by genetics and early life experience “over which we have no control and which seem essentially irreversible.”
Personality highlights several important truths for me. First, the beauty of human uniqueness. In addition to our fingerprints, our unique brain wiring demonstrates our inherent uniqueness and ultimately points to the intelligent design behind the amazing creation each individual on earth is. For me, intelligent design is also the explanation behind the difference in people’s interests in food, clothing, romantic attraction, language, culture, architecture, career, and a host of other things. The Creator is displaying His creativity in our diversity; and one reflection of His creativity is in our leitmotif. Nettles seems to lean on the side of evolution, so this is perhaps the only aspect in which I disagree with him. Within my ministry context, human uniqueness could result in a greater level of celebrating individuality within a culture that is very group orientated. Based on Nettle’s ideas, we can celebrate the individual without any fears of diminishing the value of community. This idea of human uniqueness also implies that leadership development within my context should be strengths-based and driven by favoritism.
Second, since early life experiences significantly shape our personality, and are often negative, being fostered by older individuals whose minds are “blinded” by the god of this world, Paul urges followers of Jesus not to conform to popular culture. Instead, he recommends being transformed by the “renewing of your mind.” Perhaps no other spiritual discipline renews the mind better than Biblical meditation. Yet to benefit the most from meditation, one must practically and consistently implement whatever instructions emerge from their meditation. This is where I struggle a lot. I meditate occasionally but do not often conclude with action steps. When I have action steps I struggle with intentionally and regularly implementing these. Nettle’s thoughts about the impact of early life experiences also explain why mental health professionals advise that an important starting point to providing care is knowing the client’s story. A good grasp of the client’s story helps caregivers understand how early life events may have shaped a client’s personality, and how best to assist them in the journey to wholeness and shalom. Overall, Personality will equip me to better understand myself, the people I serve, and ultimately, the Creator, behind us all.
 Nettle, Daniel. Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 17.
 Nettle, Personality, 81.
 Ibid, 8.
 Ibid, 8
 Buckingham, Marcus and Don Clifton. Now, Discover Your Strengths. (New York: Free Press, 2001), 29.
 Nettle, Personality, 234.
 Ibid, 9.
 Ibid, 234.
 2 Corinthians 4:4
 Romans 12:2
 Westman, Lyn, Understanding People, Mental Health and Trauma. (Unpublished manuscript, 2019), xix.
11 responses to “Personality and Intelligent Design”
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Henry: I love when you state that “the Creator is displaying His creativity in our diversity.” I think the more we lean into that truth, the more we see that perhaps it’s part of the enemy’s tactics for conformity and ‘fitting in’ as a means to downplay the created beings we are.
In terms of your desire to focus more on meditation and the action that comes from it, do you anticipate on that being embedded into your NPO?
Thanks for your kind words Kayli. Yes, teaching meditation will be an important part of my NPO, which is about developing local leaders within low-income communities. This will integrate spiritual formation with vocational training and community development. Teaching meditation will fall under the spiritual formation element.
Henry, thanks for sharing the rich implications from the reading with us. In your second personal application you write about not conforming to popular culture but to renew the mind. In light of that encouragement, how does the church and/or ministry be relevant to culture, but not become conformed to it? Also, what would you say is your greatest trait as defined by Nettle?
Roy, thanks for your kind words and questions. I think the church can be more relevant to culture by engaging in it as long as it does not contradict scripture. I see that as following the model of Jesus in being incarnational. What that might look like in my context would be practicing the local dressing, eating the local food, speaking local languages, participating in local events, making local friends, etc, albeit without compromising scripture. One example that comes to mind is about the cultural practice of male circumcision as a rite to manhood within the Xhosas, the predominant ethnic group in my context. Because this involves ancestral worship/African Traditional Religion, many followers of Jesus reject the practice on the grounds of idolatry. However that offends many of those who value that practice. While rejecting idolatry is right, there still remains a concern for effectively communicating the gospel. Therefore, some followers of Jesus have wisely chosen to continue with the practice, yet exchange any unbiblical rituals with Biblical teaching and practice, resulting in creating understanding understanding and keeping the doors of ministry open. I greatly support this approach. To answer your second question, I think my greatest trait is that of an empathizer.
Henry: Nice analysis of Nettle’s book. I also had to think through his discussion about uniqueness of individuals. He does seem to favor evolution over intelligent design but there is a place in my thinking that allows for the Creator using evolution to being about the design. But that is a subject for another book. Nettle’s material has a lot of insights about why we each have our own quirky personalities and behave the way that we do. Just this achievement alone makes this book helpful for those of us serving in a ministry context, don’t you think?
Troy thanks for your comments. Like you, I greatly appreciate Nettle’s insights on our uniqueness and believe it aligns with Paul’s thoughts on the need to be made all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9). For example, its been said that in some contexts ministry should start with an ice-breaker and in others, it should start with an apology. We also see that Jesus ministered to different people in different ways. So I greatly appreciate Nettle’s insights on our diversity. I’m just uncomfortable on the evolution elements :). But I’ll love to hear your thoughts about how God can use evolution to promote design. Sounds intriguing.
Henry, Thank you for your post and deeply reflective work. I’d love to hear more about your critique of Nettle’s usage of evolutionary biology in personality theory. What are your primary points of disagreement? What, if any, benefits do you see in view personality through this lens?
Much much thanks Michael. I think I differ with Nettle on very subtle things, really. To me, he does not outrightly deny God’s involvement in personality but it simply silent on the subject. For example he attributes the difference to the difference in the beaks of Finches (pp 54-55) to natural selection. I agree with that, but think that’s a subtle way of excluding God from the conversation. Therefore, I feel the need to add that natural selection is made possible by divine programming of genes to adapt to their environment. So very slight, but important, difference.
I think viewing personality through evolutionary biology is important because it helps us acknowledge the roles genetics and environment play in shaping our personality.
Henry, great work. I have two observations about this post, but have been themes throughout the year. First, as I have commented in the past, I love your incorporating Scripture into your response. It is very apparent to me that the lens by which you view the world is through Scripture. Rightly so, in my opinion. Two, I admire your humility and learner-mindset that you demonstrate with the texts, gleaning from the readings points that will help you better understand yourself and better lead. Well done.
Henri thank you for your reflection and biblical connection.
What theological inferences can you make from Nettle’s nurture focus?
Henry, thank you for your insightful post. You mention that in your context people are more group orientated and that you would like to develop a greater view or God given uniqueness. Have you explored ways of doing that without deconstructing the community that exists within the group?