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What is Nature Versus Nurture?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “nature versus nurture” is used to refer to a long-running scientific debate. The source of debate is the question of which has a greater influence on development: someone's innate characteristics provided by genetics, or someone's environment. In fact, the debate has been largely termed obsolete by many researchers, because both innate characteristics and environment play a huge role in development, and they often intersect.

Does the child of actors become an actor because of genetics, or because he or she is raised in a household where acting is encouraged? Late 20th century studies on the nature versus nature debate seemed to suggest that it's a bit of both. Historically, though, some people believed that innate nature played a critical role in development. People were born to be poor, athletic, or any number of other things, and nothing could change this eventual fate.

Other people believed that the way in which someone was raised was the critical factor, and that people raised to be politicians, for example, would become politicians. People who believed that nurture was the primary influence were sometimes referred to as proponents of the “tabula rasa” or “blank slate,” referencing the idea that they thought everyone had the same potential at birth.

This black and white view of human development was termed the “nature versus nurture debate” to differentiate between the two sides of the argument. Well into the 20th century, researchers performed studies looking into the issue, and argued heatedly on both sides. Twin and sibling studies proved especially valuable, because researchers could use people with similar genetic material (nature) to see how their environment (nurture) influenced them.

Some things are obviously nature. Blue eyes, for example, are genetic, and eye color cannot be influenced by environment, although people could use colored contacts to change their eye color. On the other hand, language is a matter of nurture, determined by where someone is born. Something like height, however, is a cross between the two. Someone could be born with a tall gene, but be malnourished in childhood, resulting in stunted growth and a failure to develop as expected.

Most biologists today agree that the nature versus nurture debate is too simplistic. Heredity and environment both play a critical role in development, making both important considerations. One might as well ask about what's more important to the area of a rectangle, the width or the length, as psychologist Donald Hebb once did when questioned about the nature versus nurture debate.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon125535 — On Nov 09, 2010

Karma is the only logical answer. Soul chooses before it is born the experiences it needs to have. Soul chooses its parents, sex, etc. Karma determines the good as well as the bad experiences based on past life actions.

By Charitable — On Sep 16, 2010

@klorine - I too think that this debate is not perfectly black and white. But I tend to lean the other way. Think about this: statistics and simple observation show that children tend to imitate their parents behaviors. A child that grows up with parents who smoke cigarettes is more likely to fall into the habit themselves. Numbers haven't lied on this fact, read any study on it. It makes sense too, in my opinion. If a child grows up seeing his parents smoke, the belief that the activity is normal will become ingrained in the child's head. This is true for eating habits as well, especially since parents do much of the cooking for the children until they reach adulthood.

By klorine — On Sep 16, 2010

I agree that this particular debate is a bit too black and white, but I don't think it's an even shade of grey either. I know plenty of people who grew up in broken households but have grown up to be as stable and settled as most "normal" people. At the same time, I know people from loving households that have grown up to be completely messed up. I believe that nature is much more responsible for a person's ultimate "fate" than environments. Humans are as dominant as they are because of their ability to adapt to harsh situations. This has come to apply to both survival and modern societal and emotional situations. Some people are just born with certain types of cognitive behaviors.

By anon108996 — On Sep 05, 2010

this article is amazing. it truly helped me to understand the debate for some work i had to do. excellent work!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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