The nature vs. nurture debate is the long-standing argument over whether heredity (nature) or environment (nurture) plays a greater role in developing human characteristics and behaviors.
Nature refers to the biological characteristics we are born with, including genetic predispositions toward certain traits. In contrast, nurture includes external influences that shape us, such as culture, relationships, and everyday experiences.
For example, when it comes to personality development, some people believe that genetics play a stronger role than environmental factors; this would be considered a nature-focused perspective.
Others may view the environment as more important. In this case, a nurturing upbringing could help individuals develop their personalities. Therefore, both sides can have valid arguments for their respective positions in the debate.
The Nature Perspective
In the context of the nature vs. nurture debate, nature refers to biological heredity and genetic predispositions inherited by individuals from their parents at birth.
Buheji (2018) states that:
“in the “nature vs. nurture” debate, nature refers to an individual’s innate qualities (nativism)” (p. 221).
This includes physical characteristics such as eye color, facial features, personality traits, and behavioral tendencies.
Genes determine the unique physical characteristics of each individual while also influencing psychological and social behavior.
Some research implies that roughly 50% of an individual’s personality and disposition are pre-determined by genetics (Bouchard & Loehlin, 2001).
However, Krueger and colleagues (2008) state that the interplay between gene-environment interactions has a consequential effect on one’s character traits. Hence, the heritability of personality isn’t always precisely 50%.
So, nature is the hereditary and genetic characteristics pre-determined at birth and influence a person’s behavior.
The Nurture Perspective
Nurture, in the context of the nature vs. nurture debate, is used to describe environmental factors that influence an individual’s development.
According to Coon and Mitterer (2014), nurture:
“…refers to the sum of all external conditions that affect a person” (p. 100).
This includes a variety of influences such as parenting style, educational experiences, cultural background, and exposure to different environmental conditions over time.
While “nurture” may naturally invoke ideas of childhood and parental care, environmental components and life experience can shape human mental, emotional, and physical health throughout their lives (Harsha et al., 2020).
For example, lifestyle choices have been found to impact a person’s risk for developing certain diseases and their level of immunity against illness.
Furthermore, addiction susceptibility can be impacted by environmental factors such as peer group that has been observed throughout an individual’s life (Ducci & Goldman, 2012).
Simply, nurture is an umbrella term for any environmental influences that shape the development of a person’s mental, physical, and emotional health.
Examples of Nature vs Nurture
- Eye color: A person’s eye color is determined by their genetic makeup and inherited from their parents.
- Height: As with eye color, height is a physical trait that is determined by a person’s genes and largely determines an individual’s adult height.
- Risk of Diseases: A person’s risk for developing certain diseases can be partially attributed to their genetic predisposition for that illness and influenced by lifestyle factors and personal environment.
- Immune System Functionality: Genetic predisposition plays an important role in determining an individual’s resistance to disease through the strength of their immune system. However, lifestyle choices can also influence this trait over time (e.g., diet and exercise).
- Hair Color: Hair color is determined by genetic factors. Recessive genes, like the red hair gene, generally have to be present in both parents for the recessive gene to become dominant.
- Balding: Going bald is an inherited trait. Some groups – such as male British Anglo-Saxons – are more likely to go bald in their 30s than the average.
- Adrenaline response: An individual’s ability to react quickly in dangerous situations—their “fight or flight” response—tends to be innate in all of us.
- Ethics and Parenting style: An individual’s upbringing and the parenting style they are exposed to can shape their behavior, emotional reactions, and psychological outlook throughout life.
- Linguistic Determinism Theory: In this theory, the language we are taught as a child will determine the ways we think and interact with the world. It goes some way to explaining how people of differing language groups may have differing values and belief systems.
- Values and Cultural background: Depending on their cultural background, different individuals may be exposed to different values and belief systems, which can impact their attitudes toward certain issues or topics/ideas/beliefs.
- Anxiety and Exposure to Trauma: Experiences with violence or traumatic events can have long-term effects on an individual’s psychology which could manifest outwardly as symptoms of anxiety or difficulty coping under pressure in later stages of life.
- Positivity and Social Environment: The people an individual interacts with can either positively or negatively affect their development. Individuals need to surround themselves with positive influences while avoiding those that might lead them down the wrong path in life.
- Relationship Experiences and Sense of Security: Positive relationships throughout a person’s life will tend to improve outlook and well-being. In contrast, unhealthy relationships could leave long-term psychological damage that might need professional help before it can be addressed adequately by an individual suffering firsthand.
Nature and Nurture Examples
- Personality traits: The role of genetics (nature) in determining personality traits, such as extraversion or conscientiousness is balanced against the influence of upbringing and life experiences (nurture).
- Aggression: There is debate over whether aggressive behavior is primarily influenced by genetic factors (nature) or by environmental factors, such as upbringing, social learning, and exposure to violence (nurture).
- Athletic ability: The role of genetics (nature) determines a lot of our natural talent in sports but the importance of training, motivation, and exposure to physical activity (nurture) takes us the rest of the way.
- Musical talent: Musical ability may be affected by genetic predisposition (nature) but also environmental factors, such as exposure to music at a young age, education, and practice (nurture).
- Attachment styles: It is debatable whether a person’s attachment style (secure, anxious, or avoidant) is impacted by genetics (nature) versus the influence of early childhood experiences and caregiver relationships (nurture).
- Empathy and emotional intelligence: The capacity for empathy and emotional intelligence is debatably determined by both genetics (nature) and the result of upbringing, social exposure, and life experiences (nurture).
- Spiritual beliefs: Theological determinism holds that god has pre-selected his chosen people who will be true believers (nature) while others think that belief in god is a choice and we must raise our children to maintain a belief in god (nurture).
- Learning styles: In the 1980s, there was extensive debate over whether preferred learning styles, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, are determined by genetic factors (nature) or influenced by educational experiences and personal development (nurture). Today, most education theorists believe that learning preferences are based on nurture over nature.
- Addiction susceptibility: Scientists have identified genes related to addiction susceptibility, even though this trait is also heavily influenced by the environment (Ducci & Goldman, 2012).
- Intelligence: Education can significantly impact traits such as intelligence levels and knowledge base, with certain experiences inspiring curiosity or creativity in individuals later in life.
Origins of Nature vs. Nurture Debate
The debate surrounding the extent to which human development is influenced by nature (heredity) or nurture (environmental factors) has been around since ancient times.
Plato, the renowned Greek philosopher, argued that beneficial traits in humans were attributable to both nature and nurture. He believed people could adapt to external occurrences throughout their lifetime (Englander, 2010).
However, his mentor Socrates leaned more towards genetics as the primary factor of human development – a notion known as Nativism, which was coined by both philosophers together.
In the late 1800s, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Sir Francis Galton’s article “Hereditary Talent and Character” sparked a resurgence in interest in this topic (Galton, 1865)
So, Galton (1865) suggested hereditary influences to be at least as important as the environment when determining an individual’s outcomes in life.
The debate continued through subsequent decades, with psychologist John B. Watson’s revolutionary suggestion that environment—what he called “nurture”—was more important than hereditary factors or biology (Herrnstein, 1998).
In recent years, researchers have realized that both internal (genetic) and external (environmental) factors play a role in how individuals develop physically and psychologically.
As such, most experts now subscribe to an approach that looks at how both genetic inheritance and environmental influences work together throughout life to shape each person’s unique character traits and behaviors.
The Role of Epigenetics in the Nature vs. Nurture Debate
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression caused by environmental factors, such as diet and exposure to toxins, without altering the underlying sequences of DNA.
It is an emerging field of research that has been gaining prominence in recent years as scientists try to uncover how and to what extent the environment can shape genetic expression (Harvard University, 2019).
Epigenetic influences are now considered a significant factor in the nature vs. nurture debate, particularly in how individuals develop physically and psychologically throughout life.
Evidence suggests that epigenetic mechanisms can be used to modulate gene expression depending on the environment, thus having a direct influence on an individual’s characteristics and behaviors (Harvard University, 2019).
This means that while both genetics and environment may play a role in determining an individual’s outcomes in life, epigenetics provides an additional layer of complexity by allowing environmental factors to interact with gene expression.
Nature vs. nurture is a decades-old debate that continues to be studied in various fields.
Nativists state that genetics play a major role in determining characteristics and behaviors. For example, a person may have inherited certain traits from their family.
However, empiricists suggest that external factors, such as upbringing and lifestyle choices, can also have a significant influence.
From ancient philosophers to modern-day scientists, this debate has gone through various iterations and continues to evolve today with the introduction of epigenetics.
More recently, epigenetics have emerged as a key factor in the debate. Its mechanisms can be used to modulate gene expression depending on the environment, thus having a direct influence on an individual.
So, it appears that both nature and nurture are important factors in determining an individual’s outcomes in life.
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Coon, D., & Mitterer, J. O. (2014). Psychology: A journey. Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.
Ducci, F., & Goldman, D. (2012). The genetic basis of addictive disorders. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 35(2), 495–519. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2012.03.010
Englander, M. (2010). The nature and nurture of learners. AuthorHouse.
Galton, F. (1865). Hereditary talent and character. University of Bristol Library.
Harsha, N., Ziq, L., Lynch, M. A., & Giacaman, R. (2020). Assessment of parental nurturing and associated social, economic, and political factors among children in the West Bank of the occupied Palestinian territory. BMC Pediatrics, 20(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12887-020-02317-0
Harvard University. (2019). What is epigenetics? The answer to the nature vs. nurture debate. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University; Harvard University. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/what-is-epigenetics-and-how-does-it-relate-to-child-development/
Herrnstein, R. J. (1998). Nature as nurture: Behaviorism and the instinct doctrine. Behavior and Philosophy, 26(1/2), 73–107. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27759383
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