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There has been a hotly debated subject over the course of history that implied to important elements: nature and nurture. People have been trying to determine which one of them is most important in influencing one’s actions and behavior. The first person to coin this phrase was an English polymath called Francis Galton and this happened in 1869. Even so, people have been debating this for centuries or even thousands of years before this happened.
There are three main categories of people who debate over this aspect: the ones that believe nature is the most influential element over human’s behavior, the ones that believe nurture is the main character of this play and the ones that believe the result is a combination of both nature and nurture and that both of them have contributed to some extent to the actions and behavior of the individual.
The nature sided people are of the opinion that one’s traits and personality are determined by their DNA, while the nurture sided group thinks that people are born with some sort of a “blank slate” and that it’s the experiences and interactions that an individual has over the course of life that shape their personality and help them acquire different attributes.
This age-old debate between the two concepts will never cease to exist, or at least not in the near future. What’s different now than it was several decades ago for instance, is that people today have a much clearer and better understanding as far as genomes and genes are concerned, and this has paved the way towards exploring new territories of this archaic topic.
Regardless of the side people opt for, it’s generally agreed that both nurture and nature have contributed a lot to the whole picture of humanity and of the traits that best define humans. The purpose of this essay is to go more into details with respect to both nature and nurture and to offer a “middle of the road” interpretation (if possible) regarding this eternal debate, including some modern perspectives on this as well.
The first time this debate between nature and nurture was brought into the light happened in ancient Greek, when philosophers of those times spent a great deal of time examining how nurture and nature develop in children and influence them. The moment this debate was raised again, this time much closer to our era, developmental researchers became highly interested into exploring these elements even further. The difference now was that they had the possibility to use empirical research, which offered them context through the application of theories. It was that moment when they started to test various hypotheses and to choose one side over the other. Thus, some of them turned to the nature side and were called Nativists, while some turned to the nurture side and were called Empiricists. Nativists are convinced that one’s personality and intelligence are determined by that individual’s origins and genetic make-up, whereas, on the other hand, Empiricists believe that these aspects of human development are acquired as the individual advances through life.
Probably the most popular Empiricist of all times is John Lock, who made “tabula rasa” one of the most popular Latin phrases. In translation, this means “black slate” and it expresses the idea that the mind of a new-born is similar to a blank slate and that the interactions and experiences that child faces throughout time are the ones that form their personality.
When they examine the development process of a child, Empiricists focus on learning more about the environment in which that child grew up, the types of people they interacted with, as well as whether or not they experienced any traumatic events. The researchers’ conclusions in this case are based on the past of that child.
Nativists however, have proved their beliefs are relevant in many situations until now and one very good example they referred to is the Language Acquisition Device stated by Chomsky in 1965. Chomsky was of the opinion that people have the innate ability and skills to both reproduce and understand a language thanks to the mental capacity that each and one of us possess and to the specific vocal mechanisms. Furthermore, some common human personality aspects, as it is the case of fight, anger or even language, are interpreted by Nativists as developments that are nature-driven. Chomsky, as well as others who shared his opinions, provided numerous strong evidences over the years to support their theories related to the influence that genes have over the behavior of individuals as they develop.
If we are to examine this archaic debate from the nature perspective, it can be stated that language is the best example that can drive people towards taking this side over the other. Chomsky was of the opinion that all individuals are gifted with the ability to develop language from before they are born and he shared this opinion many times. It’s true that nurture has its implications and roles in language acquisition in children, through the fact that they are able to form and imitate habits, what makes researchers lean more towards choosing the nature-sided perspective is that children are predisposed to acquiring speech in language and competencies. Chomsky states that children are capable of mapping language and that human languages are based on a set of grammatical and phonological rules.
Even though modern technology has taken down several times the nativist perspective, new research into the field of genetics has influenced many people to change sides once again and to return to the nature perspective of the topic. In the past few years, genetics researchers have tried to understand the way in which a criminal mind works and what exactly lies at the root of mental illness. Thus, experts started to associate nature with the concept of inheritance – the fact that individuals inherit various predispositions from their parents, which can influence their behavior and the way they develop. People can inherit aggressiveness, depression, alcoholic or drug addiction and so on. There are even studies that show that some genetic effects can overlap entirely. People assessed in these studies for their behavior proved that their problems can be associated with the problems their parents or grandparents had and related back to genetic predisposition.
The idea that people inherit various aspects of their behavior and personality makes Nativists’ concepts and beliefs more plausible and proves the possibility that some information is pre-determined. Even though genetics cannot be considered responsible for the complete influence over one’s behavior or personality, it is responsible for some of it. One very good example in this sense is schizophrenia. Even though they have performed numerous studies yet, researchers didn’t find an answer for the actual number of genes that one inherits and that determines the development of schizophrenia, but they refer to it as an inherited mental disorder. In most cases of people who suffer from schizophrenia, it was found out that they had another family member that either had it before them or developed it at some point.
The thing about schizophrenia is that it’s not sure when it begins to manifest, as it can happen either very late in life or very early in life. In the case of people who suffer from very late-onset schizophrenia, who are less than 1% of the world’s population, they claimed they experienced both visual and auditory hallucinations. In most cases, the cause for the appearance of this mental disorder was found in the family history. It’s true that a genetic link for people developing this disorder hasn’t yet been established, but studies have shown that those who had this disorder in their family history are more prone to develop it themselves at some point in life compared to those who didn’t have it in their family history and whose chances to develop it are significantly lower. This is why this example is used as a strong argument in the nature perspective.
Saying that schizophrenia can be inherited doesn’t necessarily imply that an individual will also develop this mental disorder as well. Even so, from a genetic perspective, there is a predisposition that influences the brain and that makes it more vulnerable to factors of stress, which can eventually determine the formation of schizophrenia.
The same goes for alcoholism for example. Not every person who had an example of alcoholic relative in their family will turn out to be an alcoholic himself or herself, but the truth is these people are more prone to develop this type of addiction compared to people who didn’t have such examples in their family history. This is in fact what makes some people take the side of the nature perspective.
Continuing the idea started above and referring to schizophrenia, one argument that takes down the nature perspective is related to the environmental stressors, which have a great influence over the development of this mental disorder.
Empiricists are of the opinion that the most crucial role in the developmental process of a child is played by the environment. In the early stages of life, the child experiences a “tabula rasa” (or more commonly known in English as “blank slate”) mentality, which involves the idea that the thought processes of that person weren’t influenced by anything yet. In time, things start to change and the diverse interactions and experiences one faces on a daily basis start to influence that individual’s behavior. Empiricists are convinced that individuals are not endowed with information at birth and that all knowledge comes later on through the five senses, whereas the associations one learns influence the way their brain develops, thus determining the individual’s later behavior and personality.
To support their statements, Empiricists give as an example the case of two siblings that share the same father and mother, but that grow up in completely different households. Both children are prone to suffering from depression due to their genetics, but only one of the two is exposed to verbal and physical abuse. As time goes by, scientists have discovered that only the sibling that was exposed to abuse eventually developed depression, whereas the other who was kept apart from such experiences and was raised in a stable and loving home didn’t suffer from depression, but was happy and active instead. Both of them share a brain vulnerability towards depression, but only one of them develops it and the main cause is the environment in which that child grew up. Thus, Empiricists want to prove that individuals don’t inherit behavior or personality, but develop them instead in accordance to the experiences and interactions he or she is exposed to.
John Watson was one of the strongest proponent as far as environmental learning is concerned. He was of the opinion that infants, whom he chose randomly, could be trained to become any sort of expert in a certain domain. He believed that race or talents of a child had no influence over the development process of a child, because it’s the environment that gets to dictate the way a child develops. Watson claimed that learned associations eventually result in emotional reactions.
Even though Watson might be right to some extent, it’s recommended to take a look into what recent studies and research have proved in the past few decades. Various new theories have emerged and most of them are meant to explain the way humans learn. For instance, there’s a social learning theory that emphasizes that all cognitive, behavioral and environmental influences contribute to the forming of human behavior. Bandura’s work stressed the idea of observing other people’s attitudes, behaviors, as well as emotional reactions and modeling them. Thus, human behavior is mostly based on observing and modeling actions. For instance, one observes the way another person fishes and then is capable of reproducing the same action, even though that person didn’t know how to fish before that.
The foundation of nurture perspective is represented by learned behavior. Parents who teach their children to act in a specific way or to do something, will notice their children acting accordingly later on. One very good example to support this statement can be writing using the right hand. There are children that may be born left-handed, but the moment parents start to teach them to write, they are taught to use only their right hand when writing. As a result, their learned behavior influenced their existing trait (that of writing with the left hand) and replaced it (by learning to write using the right hand). Thus, the right hand becomes now the child’s dominant hand, which will ultimately influence other aspects of his or her life later on. Of course, there are many other examples that support the idea of learned behavior instead of inherited behavior.
The truth is there isn’t enough evidence to support the idea that hereditary elements have no impact over an individual’s development process. It’s hard to say that the environment solely can have any influence over the human development, because there aren’t enough studies to support this. This is the reason why the latest research combines the two elements, nurture and nature and finds both of them influential in the human development.
There is one essential study that proves the theory that both nature and nurture have their influence over the human development and that study is called the “Twin Study” and it was developed over the course of five decades. It was published in May 2015 in one very popular journal called “Nature Genetics” and comprises over 2,700 studies that were conduced within the past five decades. Also, it researched more than 14 million sets of twins, focusing especially on their personality traits. The results of this study were more than remarkable. It was found out that almost 50% of the human development is influenced by heritability. This means that the rest of it up to 100% is represented by nurture. Even so, it’s worth mentioning that not all cases were 50/50. In the case of those suffering from bipolar disorder for example, the percentage was 70% for nature and only 30% for nurture.
Nevertheless, this study has emphasized the murky line that lies between the two elements – nature and nurture. The one-sided explanation eventually turns into a much more complex and multifaceted process of development structure and exploration causes. It appears that both genetics and the environment work together in the process of human development and this actually makes sense taking into account the spectrum that can be observed in all of life. This is the reason why people need a mixture of influential factors in order to develop normally.
Epigenetics suggests that factors such as the environment impact the phenotypes and changes them, while the genotypes remain the same. One very good example in this case is people from the US who suffer from obesity. This disease increases chances for those people to eventually develop certain cancers. Obesity can also lead to diabetes and in such cases, even those people who didn’t have cases of diabetes in their family history are starting to see occurrence of it and eventually it will become part of the family history.
Diabetes and obesity are two of the most important topics of interests when it comes to epigenetics. Some studies claim that certain aspects of nutrition have an important role in the development of diabetes, which automatically affect the genes, which ultimately lead to predisposition development.
Both the environment and the genes can affect gene expression. With the aid of environmental feedback, gene expression is in fact the regulated interface of the epigenome. Thus, to put it simply, most changes occur the moment specific directions that are present in the blueprints are unable to execute accordingly due to certain components that are missing, as it is the case of carbohydrates for instance, proteins or any other similar components. In such situations, the environment has the power to affect the individual’s genes and development process and it is then reflected in that person’s immune system.
Worth mentioning is that the appearance of new and more complex viruses and pathogens, the individual’s immune system is continuously shifting. One very good example to illustrate this aspect is the moment Europeans arrived in America. They were then exposed to a series of various pathogens the moment they made their first step in America. The natives on the other hand, were not, at least not until that moment, which was the main reason why so many native Americans end up dead due to this exposure. This is a great example that illustrates how nurture and nature go together.
Epigenetics is a new area of study, but it begins to provide answers to many questions that had no answer until now. It is believed that in the near future it will provide a much better understanding of the two most influential elements in relation to human development – nurture and nature.
In the end, it can be said that the debate between nature and nurture with respect to which one of the two has the most impact over human development is deeply rooted din ancient Greek culture. Philosophers of those times, as well as scientists from nowadays, are still trying to reach a conclusion to this never-ending debate, but there are still many questions that need an answer until the final idea will be formulated.
Ancient Greek philosophers were merely preoccupied to learn the development process in children and understand better what are the factors that make a child to act and behave in a specific way. This study was carried on for centuries, and many scientists and philosophers along contributed to it, including people like Chomsky or Watson, each of them choosing the side they resonated the most with.
According to the Nativist perspective, potentiality and knowledge are innate aspects of every human being. According to some studies, this is true to a certain extent, in the sense that it was proven than people are brought to this world carrying certain predispositions, such as mental disorders, or addiction to alcohol, drugs and so on.
The empiricist perspective on the other hand, claims that the environment is the main influential factor in human development. The best example that supports this idea is the case of the twins who grew up in different environments and were exposed to different lifestyle choices.
Even so, neither nature, nor nurture are capable of explaining the reality of the individual’s development process as it was seen in the Twin Study which lasted no less than five decades. The most plausible theory of this debate is that both nature and nurture have a 50% contribution each to human development, especially when seeing this through the study of epigenetics. It’s still too early to state whether or not epigenetics will provide us the most awaited answer of all times with respect to human development, but up until the present day, it has helped scientists a lot in understanding how important genes are in development, as well as how the environment can influence human development. There is still much more to discover in this direction and probably, it will take a bit more time before we have a clear and relevant answer to this age old question.