Nurture Versus Nature
The question of what is the greatest factor in the development of
human intelligence, sociability, interpersonal skills, and personality has been
debated as long as modern humanity has had the capacity to wonder about it.
Depending on the intellectual background or mindset of any individual asked,
the answer will vary. Some social scientists and theorists argue in behalf of
the effect of the environment in which a child is raised as the primary
influence. Many of those most thoroughly grounded in medical or physical
science traditions can point to a number of ways, in which one's genetic code
at birth, is the determining factor of how well or how thoroughly ones
intelligence develops. The proliferation of the so-called genius sperm
banks that exist give proof to how seriously that premise is believed by many.
Not surprisingly, the number and type of studies that exist correspond
with the particular belief pattern, or at least is biased, in favor of the thoughts
and belief patterns of the individual researcher. According to Bettelheim
(1998), some researchers are looking for a genetic basis for common,
everyday behaviors, including sexuality, violence, and risk-taking. There is
an ongoing debate, sometimes a heated one, over how much biology controls
what a person does; the flip side of the debate asks whether society relies too
much on science without enough focus on the undeniably important aspects
of the parents' and caregivers' of a child to appropriately nurture his or her
growth. Some feel the importance of social/economic conditions and life in
the home is downplayed far too much. Advocates on the nurture side of the
argument point to the fact that the input of the childs role model is of far
greater importance than any aspect of genetic make up.
Of course, culture serves as yet another point of argument in the debate.
Two sides of the issue exist in terms of cultural expectation for development
of intelligence. First is the idea that an infant, born into a more advanced
culture and presented with a greater number of entrenched cultural
opportunities, is certain to garner a greater level of intelligence. The
opposite, and equal argument, is that innate intelligence is best developed in
the infant born into a culture more holistically and intuitively developed,
perhaps even primitive by some standards. And yet, the issue of culture
ultimately can be reduced to nurture vs nature as well. The cultural
implications and training that surround a childs upbringing are certainly key
components in how that child will be nurtured throughout childhood.
Herbert (1997) points out that in many ways the view of mental illness as
a brain disease has been of vital importance in the work to reduce the stigma
of frightening and misunderstood illnesses such as schizophrenia and
depression. And yet, it still serves as an example of the broad-based efforts to
biologize American culture. For both political and scientific reasons -- and
it is generally difficult to separate the two -- everything from criminal
behavior to substance abuse to sexual orientation is seen today less as a
matter of choice than of genetic destiny. Even basic personality is proving out
to be much more of a genetic inheritance than had ever been previously
assumed. Almost every month, if not more often, there is a report of a new
gene for one trait or another. Such a significant realignment of the cultural
perception has numerous political and personal implications.
At the individual level, according to Herbert (1997), a belief in
the power of genes necessarily diminishes the potency of such personal
qualities as will, capacity to choose, and sense of responsibility for those
choices. The argument proposes that if one's actions are determined by one's
individuals genes, he or she should not be considered accountable
for . . . whatever! It allows the alcoholic, for example, to act as a helpless
victim of biology rather than as a willful agent with independent behavioral
control. Genetic determinism can free victims and their families from
guilt--or lock them in their suffering. Therein lies the root of the nature vs.
nurture merry-go-round. Genetic determinism can have paradoxical
consequences at times, leading to disdain and exclusion for the disadvantaged
rather than sympathy and inclusion. Cultural critics are beginning to sort out
the unpredictable politics of biology, focusing on four traits: violence, mental
illness, alcoholism, and sexual orientation.
Herbert (1997) also adds that whatever is currently going on in the midst
of the bold new genetic discoveries being made, it's clear that a very real
mistrust of genetic power and genetic applications is both misleading and
disconcerting, if not out-and-out frightening for the general public. The
simplistic shorthand used in discussing genetic advances has led to the
widespread misunderstanding of DNA's real powers. In general, the public
must be provided with more easily accessible information instead of moving
toward the trend of dumbing down information for public consumption.
Herbert (1997) gives the example of how geneticists say they've found a gene
for a particular trait, when what they actually mean is that people carrying a
certain "allele"--a variation in a stretch of DNA that normally codes for a
certain protein--will develop the given trait in a standard environment. The
last few words--"in a standard environment"--are very important, because
what scientists are not saying is that a given allele will not necessarily lead to
that trait in every environment. It is neither fair, nor ethical, for the public to
be mislead into thinking that science has found the gene that causes this or
that problem so it can now be fixed.
It's hard to emphasize too much what a radical rethinking of the
nature-nurture debate this represents. When most people think about heredity,
they still think in terms of classic genetics: one gene, one trait. But for most
complex human behaviors, this is far from the reality that recent research is
revealing. A more accurate view very likely involves many different genes,
some of which control other genes, and many of which are controlled by
signals from the environment. Therefore, actual biological/genetic make-up
can be and is influenced by the level of nurturing that trait receives. The
process of nurturing, however, may be environmental, emotional, or
The emerging view of nature--nurture is that many complicated
behaviors probably have some measure of genetic loading that gives some
people a susceptibility -- for schizophrenia, for instance, or for aggression.
But the development of the behavior or pathology requires more-- an
environmental "second hit." This second hit operates, counter-intuitively,
through the genes themselves to "sculpt" the brain. So with depression, for
example, it appears as though a bad experience in the world--for example, a
devastating loss--can actually create chemical changes in the body that affect
certain genes, which in turn affect certain brain proteins that make a person
more susceptible to depression in the future. Nature or nurture? Just as bad
experiences can turn on certain vulnerability genes, rich and challenging
experiences have the power to enhance life, again acting through the genes.
Perhaps certain genetic components are especially receptive to certain
nurturing behaviors. For example, talent and intelligence, both appear
The reason the debate regarding issues of nature opposed to issues of
nurture has remained so controversial and such a hot debate topic is the
simple fact that, with every new day, new information is discovered or
understood. If the mechanical, human-created world of the Internet
supposedly doubles its information every month, why should it be difficult to
expect the collective human consciousness and awareness of genetic
capabilities to follow similarly remarkable patterns of growth and
Bettelheim, Adriel (1998, April 3) Biology and
behavior., CQ Researcher, v8 n13, pp. 291(18).
Gregory, Richard L. (1987) The Oxford Companion to the
Mind (New York, NY; University of Oxford Press), pp. 376.
Herbert, Wray (1997, April 21) Politics of biology: how
the nature vs. nurture debate shapes public policy and our
view of ourselves., U.S. News & World Report,
v122 n15, pp. 72(7).
McGue, Matt (1989, August 17) Nature-nurture and
intelligence., Nature, v340 n6234, pp. 507(2).
Zabludoff, Marc (1997, October) Behaving ourselves.,
Discover, v18, n10, pp.10.