If you’ve ever thought “I blame the parents,” or “it’s no surprise, considering where they come from,” how right were you? It’s one of the oldest debates in philosophy and psychology, and it’s still causing controversy today. Nature versus nurture has been around as a concept for a long time, and the debate can get quite heated.
But what is nature vs. nurture? Can you really assign responsibility to either a person’s genes or solely to their upbringing?
When people refer to ‘nature’ in this context, they are referring to the hereditary traits and genetics inherited from our parents, and our parents’ parents, and so on. An example of nature in action would be the child of two parents with dark hair being born with dark hair, or two tall parents producing a tall offspring.
Philosophers like Plato and René Descartes had their own takes on this side of the issue. They believed that people are born with certain traits and modes of behavior ingrained in them, and that this happens regardless of what they may experience during the course of their life. This concept is known as nativism.
According to this approach, geniuses were born as geniuses, and criminals are destined to be criminals. If your parent was an artist, then better grab a paintbrush, essentially.
This can be seen in the animal kingdom, with dogs as a good example. Wolves that were more friendly towards humans were nurtured by them, and interbred with other similar wolves, so that their puppies would be more naturally inclined to friendliness. Racehorse breeding is another example, where traits like speed and endurance are valuable, and breeding pairs are selected to increase these traits.
The other side of the debate refers to the concept that nothing about a person is set in stone. that the idea is that we are all a product of our environment and what we have learned.
John Locke was one of the earlier proponents of this concept. He suggested a fairly extreme form, which he termed ‘tabula rasa,’ Latin for ‘blank slate.’ He suggested that every person is born essentially formless, and that who they become is purely the result of their experiences after birth. This approach is known as empiricism, which states that most if not all of a person’s behaviors and characteristics are a result of sensory experience.
Things that would play into this are your upbringing and childhood experiences, your social interactions, and the culture in which you were raised.
Behaviorism is an empiricist theory that suggests that people’s responses, behaviors, and actions are rooted in conditioning. As an example, consider Pavlov’s dogs, who were trained to start salivating when a bell was rung, in anticipation of being fed.
Nature vs. Nurture – FIGHT!
So, which one has more of an influence? Are we just a product of our genes, destined to be what our parents brewed up between them? Or are we liable to be anything at all, just needing a push in the right, or wrong, direction?
The idea has been around for thousands of years, and philosophers have been wrangling over the answer for much of that time. Even today, most researchers tend to fall more firmly on one side or the other.
A behavioral psychologist might study how children can learn aggressive behaviors from observing them in others, such as in Albert Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments. The idea here was to study the effect that violent imagery had on children. The experiments showed that children became more aggressive after witnessing an adult treat a doll aggressively. This supports the nurture side of the debate.
A biologist, meanwhile, could be looking into the genetic heritability of low levels of neurotransmitters, which causes depression in the children of depressed people. The results here support the nature side of things.
However, the generally accepted approach these days, when removed from the biases of various scientific disciplines, is that both nature and nurture have parts to play in who we are and who we become. In other words, they are inextricably linked to one another, and to downplay either reduces the scope for potential understanding.
Nature and Nurture, Sitting in a Tree
There are numerous examples of how nature and nurture interact to form a personality.
Even inherited physical traits get impacted by your environment. Take, for example, a person’s height. While you are certainly more likely to end up being tall if your parents are both beanpoles, it has been established that this is only part of the equation. Without adequate nutrition and exercise, this genetic potential will not be realized, as the child’s body won’t get what it needs to grow tall.
There are also somewhat more contentious aspects of the debate that are disarmed by this more balanced approach. Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution popularized the idea that traits can be inherited, and then his half-cousin, Francis Galton, took it a step further.
Galton invented both the term ‘nature versus nature’, and the concept of eugenics – the idea that the human race can be improved by selectively breeding for desirable traits, like we do with animals. He suggested that intelligent people should be encouraged to have more children, while less intelligent people should be prevented from reproducing.
However, we now have the understanding that genetics only play a part in this, and that environment and upbringing can make all the difference. This means that disallowing a person to have children on the basis of one genetic factor is no guarantee that you will only get the desirable traits being aimed for.
A Little Bit of Both
So, what is nature vs. nurture? It’s a debate about the process that made you the person that you are today.
The modern understanding is that both nurture and nature have their parts to play. Even when one seems to be the main cause of a trait, the other is still an influence. A child will inherit the potential for some traits, but the way they are raised will impact them too. So next time you’re blaming the parents, don’t just focus on nurture or on nature – you can blame them for both!