‘Nature versus Nurture’ is so passé

I can’t help myself. Each time I observe my kids (yes, I love watching them when they’re not aware of it, and no, that’s not creepy…) I see parts of myself and parts of my wife combined. But to be honest, also parts of their grandparents that somehow had to be dormant in my wife’s and my own genes. Still, I know better. It’s not all about genes. Kids observe, kids imitate. So what part of all that is learned? And how much is innate? And yes, here we are, right in the middle of the Nature versus Nurture debate.

Nature versus Nurture: How Much do we Owe to our Genes (Nature) and How Much to our Education (Nurture)?

There is a raging debate about what aspects of our behavior are influenced by our genes and what parts we acquire from our environment. The former part is called ‘nature’- our behavior is pre-wired in us, influenced as it is by our genes and other biological inputs. ‘Nurture’, on the other hand, is the influence of external factors like experience, learning and exposure.

It is well-known that some physical characteristics are determined biologically like straight or curly hair, color of the skin, color of the eyes, height and even some diseases (Huntington’s disease). This has led some scientists to speculate whether psychological attributes like personality, mental ability, and behavioral tendencies are also influenced by our genetics.

Nativists Vs Empiricists: Finding a common ground

In fact, there is even a name for such people (those who believe that hereditary has a strong effect on our psychological tendencies). They are called nativists. The basic assumption here is, human beings received their characteristics through evolution and individual differences are the result of each person’s unique genes. A classic example for this is the change our body undergoes during puberty.

At the other end, you have the empiricists or environmentalists. They believe that at the time of birth, our mind is like a blank slate or tabula rasa. This slate is filled by our experiences as we grow older. This school believes that our behavioral differences and psychological characteristics emerge through learning. So basically, how you are brought up determines your psychology and behavior. There are many examples for this.

Take an infant forming an attachment with its mother. This attachment is basically a response to the attention and love it receives. Another example is, language. People learn language by imitating how others speak. Cognitive development is the third example. Cognitive development is the result of how much stimulation exists is in the environment and also the environment or community where the child is reared.

The middle path between nature and nurture

Note that both of these are extreme positions. There is just too much information on both sides, to take an ‘all or nothing’ point of view. We must go beyond the question of whether our personality and behavior are influenced by Nature or Nurture to the question of how much each factor accounts for. There is another way to look at it. Suppose both our genes and our environment influence who we become. Which of these plays a more important role? This is not a new question.

In the late 19th century, Sir Francis Galton, who was actually a relative of Charles Darwin, believed that intellectual ability was inherited. But he went further. He said, genius inherits in some families because of the natural superiority of that line.

The debate rages (and spills over into other domains)

This line of thought has followed us to the present day. In fact, a lot of research has been conducted to prove or disprove this hypothesis. One example is the research done by Arthur Jenson, an American psychologist. He found that black Americans had a lower average IQ score, compared to whites. He attributed it to genetic factors, even to the extent of suggesting that intelligence was 80% inherited.

Naturally, there was a controversy around this claim. However, it was not so much because about the empirical weakness of the claim as it was about the political and social implications of the claim.

After all, Sir Francis Galton himself did not suggest that we can improve human society through ‘better breeding’. Did not the American Eugenics Society campaign in the 1920s that men and women in psychiatric hospitals should be sterilized? Did not the Nazis propagate the view that the Germans were the Herrenvolk (master race) and everyone else was inferior? We have examples of this even today.

Many in Britain believe the nation’s immigration policies are designed to deter immigration by the Asians and Africans. The debate has reached such a crescendo, it has spilled over into the psychology of gender and sex- like the proper roles for men and women.

What we know today

The Nature versus Nurture debate is a flawed one. This classical view of things is to think about both as being opposed to each other, like two people pulling a rope in a different direction. The truth is, there has never been an opposition between both, rather a collaboration, a subtle interaction which reinforces our uniqueness. How it works is as follows: We come to earth with our unique set of DNA, with our gene pool filled with potentialities. From there onward, and based on the environment we’re in, some of our genes will get activated, and some won’t. This has two major implications.

The first one is that you can’t ask a fish to climb trees. Meaning, we can’t activate genes that aren’t present in our gene pool. We have to accept that some things are just not for us. Regardless of what personal development guru’s try to sell us, we are not limitless. No human being will ever stay 30 minutes under water, or be able to fly without outside help. It’s just not written in our DNA.

The second one is that those first years, months, weeks, even days, are vital. When we see those little babies, it’s hard to believe that those very first life impressions they’re getting overwhelmed with will play such an important part in who they will become as an individual. Still, the abundance of studies within the Attachment Theory leaves no room for doubt: At age 3,5 scientists can predict with a 77% accuracy how well an individual will do later in life, based solely on the quality of the care the toddler has received. This goes from dropping out of high school, to romantic relationships, self confidence levels and social competencies…

I know, this is kinda worrying, knowing that who we are is basically determined by all these factors outside of our own control. One part genes, and one part the people who cared for us when we were little kids. One last important point I need to make here, a very important one, is that nothing is set in stone. Yes, we can follow our lives accepting what has become of us and just go with the flow. However, this is not a fatality. It should be choice. If we’re happy with whom we’ve become, fine, let it be that way. However if we’re not happy with it, evolution has given us a second chance. There is something called Epigenetics, where it is our environment, our life, our life experiences, which end up changing our genes, and not the other way round. This, together with Neuroplasticity, or the ability to change how our brain is wired, are powerful tools to influence and mold our lives to our own liking.


So when it comes to Nature versus Nurture, there is no opposition. They both influence each other strongly. And even for those who believe in determinism and see all this as more proof that we are mere puppets in the theater that is called life, I say no: Burn the script, turn on the lights. Take back what is rightfully yours: A life where every choice we make becomes a conscious one, where our actions define who we are and not the contrary. That’s when nature and nurture together are merely setting the stage for ourselves, empowered individuals, to write our part and live it joyfully.

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