Acquired traits are those characteristics or attributes that organisms do not inherit genetically from their parents but rather develop due to certain experiences or environmental influences during their lifetime (Stansfield, 2011).
These traits can either be physical, such as muscle development from exercise, or behavioral, like language proficiency from regular practice.
Changes that occur during an organism’s life are generally not considered inheritable (Stansfield, 2011).
For instance, if a person learns to play the piano (a behavioural change), their offspring will not genetically inherit this ability; they will need to learn and practise the skill [Liu, & Chen, 2018].
Acquired Traits vs Inherited Traits
Inherited traits are the genetic attributes passed down from parents to their offspring, deeply embedded in an organism’s DNA (Stansfield, 2011).
These traits, which include elements like eye color, hair type, and certain diseases, are determined by an individual’s genetic makeup and are present at birth.
For example, if both parents have blue eyes, the child is likely to inherit this trait (Berent, 2020).
These inherited traits form part of the genetic blueprint of an organism and contribute to its fundamental physiology and function.
Contrastingly, acquired traits are characteristics that organisms develop during their lifetimes, influenced by environmental factors, experiences or their own behavior.
These traits, such as muscle development through exercise or learned skills like speaking a foreign language, are not present at birth but evolve as individuals interact with their environment and accumulate various experiences (Stansfield, 2011).
Traditional understanding posits that these acquired traits cannot be passed on genetically to the next generation. However, recent study into epigenetics suggests this might not always be the case. The topic remains a subject of ongoing scientific debate (Cabej, 2012).
|Feature||Acquired Traits||Inherited Traits|
|Definition||Traits developed during an individual’s lifetime due to environmental factors, experiences, or learned behaviors.||Traits passed from one generation to the next through genes.|
|Origin||Result from an individual’s experiences and environment.||Result from genetic information passed down by parents.|
|Examples||Learning a language, acquiring a skill like playing an instrument, or getting a scar from an injury.||Eye color, hair texture, certain genetic diseases, height (though environment can play a role too). See more: 50 inherited traits examples.|
|Transmission to Offspring||Not passed down to offspring through genes.||Passed down to offspring through genes.|
|Duration||Can change over an individual’s lifetime.||Typically remain constant over an individual’s lifetime, though some may only manifest at certain ages.|
|Impact of Environment||Directly influenced by the environment, experiences, and learning.||Largely unaffected by individual experiences, but the expression can sometimes be influenced by the environment (e.g., nutrition affecting height).|
Acquired Traits Examples
- Reading skills
- Riding a bicycle
- Speaking a second language
- Playing a musical instrument
- Knowledge of math
- Cooking skills
- Bodybuilding results
- Knowledge of history
- Ability to code in a programming language
- Scars from injuries
- Tanned skin from sun exposure
- Knowledge of a particular sport
- Surgical alterations, like a nose job
- Learned fears or phobias
- Acquired tastes, like for spicy food
- Calluses from physical work or playing instruments
- Driving skills
- Dancing ability
- Painting or drawing skills
- Writing skills
- Knowledge about a specific subject, like astronomy
- Meditation practices
- Yoga skills
- Swimming ability
- Skills in a specific sport, like basketball
- Knowledge of poetry
- Hair dyed a certain color
- Memories of personal experiences
- Knowledge of geography
- Ability to solve puzzles
- Skills in photography
- Gardening skills
- Experience in public speaking
- Ability to operate specific machinery
- Skills in a specific craft, like knitting
- Knowledge of philosophy
- Habits, good or bad
- A trained voice for singing
- Mastery in martial arts
- Knowledge of various movies or books
- Baking skills
- Skills in certain video games
- Experiences from travel
- Hiking abilities
- Acquired immunity from vaccinations or diseases
- Hairstyling skills
- Fashion sense or style
- Skills in magic tricks
- The ability to juggle
- Knowledge of world events
- The ability to write poetry or stories
- Bird-watching skills
- Skills in digital design or graphic design
- Carpentry skills
- Knowledge about cars or mechanics
- Fishing skills
- Climbing skills
- Knowledge about plants or botany
- The ability to play chess or other board games
- Insights from personal relationships
- The ability to perform certain lab experiments
- Experience in theater or acting
- Skills in a specific dance form, like ballet or salsa
- Appreciation for certain music genres
- Religious beliefs or practices
- Ethical or moral beliefs
- Political beliefs or affiliations
- A trained palate for food critique
- Experience or skills in mountaineering
- Skills in archery or shooting
- The ability to whistle
- Handwriting style
- The ability to mime
- Skills in pottery or sculpting
- Experience in journalism or reporting
- Knowledge of various cultures or traditions
- Navigation skills, terrestrial or aquatic
- Training in first aid or medical procedures
- The ability to DJ or produce music
- Acquired fears from past traumatic events
- The ability to build things, like furniture or electronics
- Experience in diving or snorkeling
- Knowledge of astronomy or stargazing
- Lock picking skills
- Skills in different types of workouts, like pilates or aerobics
- Financial management or budgeting skills
- Experience in sailing or boating
- Insights or skills from parenting
- The ability to tell stories or anecdotes
- Experience in farming or agriculture
- Experience or knowledge in beekeeping
- The ability to solve Rubik’s cubes or other puzzles
- Skills in mixology or creating drinks
- Experience or knowledge in animal training
- Knowledge or experience in photography editing
- Skills in horseback riding.
- Mastery in a specific type of dance, like tap dancing.
- Knowledge or experience in falconry.
- The ability to perform stand-up comedy.
- Culinary skills from specific cuisines, like Japanese or French.
Types of Acquired Traits
Physical and mental are two broad categories under which acquired traits can be classified.
Physical traits refer to those observable changes in an organism’s anatomy or function, while mental traits pertain to changes in behavior, habits, or skills shaped by experiences and learning through a lifetime.
Physical acquired traits are easy to spot. For example, developing muscles through physical training is considered a physical acquired trait (Stansfield, 2011).
While some people may be able to gain muscle faster than others due to genetic factors, no one inherits a well-built body and toned muscles from their ancestors. It is the result of individual effort, diet, and regimen.
Also important are changes in skin pigmentation due to exposure to sunlight. When individuals spend long periods in sunny conditions, the skin produces more melanin, the pigment responsible for skin color, to protect itself.
The eventual effect is skin darkening or tanning, a physical trait not present at birth but acquired over time.
Mental acquired traits encompass all behavioral changes induced by experiences and learning.
For instance, learning a language, a musical instrument, or developing a hobby are all examples of mental acquired traits (Berent, 2020). You don’t hear doctors telling new parents that their child has inherited the French language or proficiency in playing the violin.
Further to this, our attitudes, preferences, personality traits, and even certain emotional responses can be classified as mental acquired traits (Berent, 2020).
For example, developing a fear of spiders after a traumatic experience is a mental acquired trait. The individual didn’t inherit this fear; they acquired it through a specific experience.
Both of these categories highlight how organisms adapt to their environment and experiences, shaping their individual characteristics beyond their genetic blueprint.
Acquired Traits and Epigenetics
An interesting shift in the understanding of this concept has emerged with the advance of the field of epigenetic principles of evolution.
Cabej (2012) provides evidence on how environmental factors can influence gene expression without changing the genetic code.
These epigenetic changes can sometimes be passed on to the next generation, introducing a new perspective to the concept of acquired traits.
For example, research on the expression of “happiness” and “violence” genes found that certain emotional experiences can potentially influence the expression of these genes (Malmir, Farhud, & Khan Ahmadi, 2016).
This doesn’t alter the genetic code itself but changes its expression, essentially a shift in our understanding of acquired traits.
While substantive research has been conducted on whether acquired traits can be inherited, the scientific community is yet to reach a definitive consensus. Many researchers argue that while epigenetic changes occur, they don’t necessarily translate into changes in inherited traits across generations (Liu, & Chen, 2018).
The interaction between genetics and environmental influence is a complex process. It is the foundational element of evolutionary theory and reasoning, which helps us better understand human nature and behaviour (Berent, 2020).
Acquired traits are characteristics that organisms develop during their lifetime due to environmental influences and experiences. While traditionally these traits were considered non-heritable, ongoing research in epigenetics opens up new possibilities about the transmission and inheritance of such traits (Cabej, 2012; Liu, & Chen, 2018; Malmir, Farhud, & Khan Ahmadi, 2016; Stansfield, 2011). However, the definitive statement on whether and how acquired traits can be inherited is yet to be made. The intricate relationship between genetics and external influences is a crucial aspect of our understanding of evolution and human nature (Berent, 2020; Jantsch, 2019).
Berent, I. (2020). The blind storyteller: How we reason about human nature. Oxford University Press.
Cabej, N. (2012). Epigenetic principles of evolution. London: Elsevier.
Jantsch, E. (2019). Unifying principles of evolution. In The evolutionary vision (pp. 83-115). Routledge.
Liu, Y., & Chen, Q. (2018). 150 years of Darwin’s theory of intercellular flow of hereditary information. Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, 19(12), 749-750.
Malmir, M., Farhud, D., & Khan Ahmadi, M. (2016). . Inheritance of Acquired Traits: Expression of Happiness and Violence Genes. Laboratory & Diagnosis, 7(30), 27-34.
Stansfield, W. D. (2011). Acquired traits revisited. The American Biology Teacher, 73(2), 86-89.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]