The nature vs. nurture


In psychology, the doctrine of determinism stems from the assumption that every event has an origin (Roeckelein, 2006). This concept implies a chain of events culminating in a certain outcome. The nature-nurture debate is one example of such determinism (Hayes, 2000). Francis Galton coined the phrase “nature versus nurture” in 1869 hence the nature-nurture debate is one of the oldest logical arguments in psychology (“Nature vs Nurture,” 2011). The concept encompasses a pair of conflicting perspectives on what causes something to develop. The case for nature lays emphasis to heredity whereas the nurture side of the argument postulates that the environment influences development (Ciccarelli & White, 2012). In the past, different scholars have come up with various theories to support either side of the nature-nurture argument. Galton, Kant, and Plato, for instance, favored nature over nurture, whereas Locke and Rousseau believed in an environmental effect (“Nature vs Nurture,” 2011).

The enigma is, therefore, persistent bringing rise to the question, “Between hereditary elements and the environment, which one has a greater dominance on the human developmental factors such as personality and behavior?” However, the present day nature-nurture debate has taken a new shape. Though some individuals still pick one side over the other, thorough inquiry has proven that both heredity and the environment play a vital role in development (Cherry, 2016; Kim-Cohen, Moffitt, Taylor, Pawlby & Caspi, 2005; “Nature vs. Nurture Debate”, 2015; Owen, 2006; Polderman et al., 2015). As such, this essay takes a stance that both the environment and hereditary factors have a complementary role in development.


According to Cherry (2016), nature denotes the genetic and hereditary factors that influence a person’s character and personality. The nature part of the “nature-nurture” argument endorses the presumption that a person’s character, intellectual growth, social interactions and physical growth depend on inherited genes (Ciccarelli & White, 2012). Per se, these influences are inborn, and the individual has no control over them. According to this argument, bad traits in children are not as a result of poor parenting but are as a result of genetic influences predetermined at birth (“Nature vs Nurture,” 2011). A subsequent inference from this assumption, therefore, suggest that people such as Hitler or Jack the Reaper were born that way and their narcissistic and homicidal tendencies were beyond their control since they were determined at birth.

Some early scholars such as Galton, Plato, Descartes, and Kant were nativists who favored nature over nurture. Plato and Descartes, for instance, believed knowledge in human beings is inborn (Cherry, 2016). As well, Galton believed that intelligence was a hereditary factor (“Nature vs Nurture,” 2011). For this reason, he advocated that intelligent, talented and morally upright people should be encouraged to reproduce while people with less superior genes were discouraged to replicate (Phy-Olsen, 2010). The philosopher acquired a loyal following to the extent that in the 20th century, 32 states established laws encouraging the sterilization of people believed to have defective genes. The American Eugenics Society, correspondingly, electioneered the sterilization of psychiatric patients. Likewise, Emmanuel Kant believed that the mind has to have an initial structure that allows it to make sense of experiences (“Nature vs Nurture,” 2011). This conjecture suggests that people with ‘better’ brains are better positioned to analyze situations. More recent philosophers who have further propagated the naturist outlook include Arthur Jenson who believed that intelligence is 80% inherited.

The nativist argument cannot get overlooked since science has proven the relationship between genetics and specific human characteristics. Certain traits such as hair, skin and eye color, height and disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia attach to particular genes (“Nature vs. Nurture Debate”, 2015). An individual’s genetic make-up also influences other factors such as life expectancy, weight and hair loss. According to McLeod (2007), nativists argue that the same factors in a person’s genetic make-up that influence the physical traits could also affect behavioral and mental abilities. The argument for nature over nurture presumes that characteristics and behavior tendencies that have not manifested at birth emerge later in life when a person matures. These qualities do not develop due to environmental influences but rather, are pre-programmed at birth due to a person’s genetic make-up.

The argument further affirms that an individual’s language acquisition capability, as well as their cognitive development, are also hereditary. Noam Chomsky, one of the early twentieth century philosophers, came up with the theory of psycholinguistics which believes language develops in a similar manner to other body organs (Roeckelein 2006). According to Chomsky, at birth, the brain is programmed with a language acquisition device that determines an individual’s language acquisition. In line with this argument, research done on fraternal twins raised in different environments reveals that their behaviors are strikingly similar suggesting that behavioral tendencies could be inborn and not influenced by the environment (“Nature vs. Nurture Debate”, 2015).


Contrariwise, enthusiasts of the nurture side of the argument, otherwise known as empiricists or environmentalists, believe that the environment defines aspects of human development (Cherry, 2016). According to Ciccarelli and White (2012), nurture refers to the environmental influence on a person’s personality, social interactions, and physical growth. Unlike nature, environmental impacts can be controlled and include factors such as the physical surroundings, methods of parenting, and economic factors, among others.

Empiricists argue that individual behavior and character results from learning. Philosophers such as J. B Watson, Julien de LaMettrie, and Descartes are examples of empiricists. These scholars advocated for behaviorism, a philosophy which postulates that all individual behavior results from training (Roeckelein, 2006). Per se, anyone can do anything they are trained to so regardless of their genetic make-up. In line with this argument, bad behavior in children would, therefore be blamed on poor parenting and not on genetic predisposition (“Nature vs Nurture,” 2011). By implication, therefore, aggressive people were not born that way but rather developed aggressive tendencies either from observation or through reinforcement.

Other early supporters of the nurture part of the argument include Bandura and Locke. Bandura’s social cognition theory, for instance, posits that humans learn from observation of the outcomes of other people or events, whereas Locke believed that all knowledge comes from experience (Roeckelein, 2006). Unlike Plato who believed that knowledge in human beings is innate, Locke believed that the mind is blank at birth and gets progressively saturated as the individual encounters new experiences.

The empiricist argument posits that genetics have no part to play in human development (“Nature vs Nurture,” 2011). For this reason, environmentalists, unlike naturists, will, therefore, believe that language acquisition rather than being inborn, is learned through imitating other people. Whereas nativists perceive the mother-infant bond as an essential process that ensures survival, empiricists believe that a child only reciprocates the love it gets (McLeod, 2007). Studies such as Jenson’s testing difference in I.Q. among different races have resolved that genetic factors could be responsible for the disparate results between the various ethnic groups. Empiricists have, however, repudiated such results contending that the discrepancies are due to biased testing methods. Instead, the argument for nurture over nature offers a contrasting elucidation that suggests the differences in I.Q. are as a result of social imbalance especially in access to materials and opportunities (McLeod, 2007). By inference, therefore, a child who grew up in the purlieus will have lower I.Q. scores than a child who grew up in a more privileged echelon of the society regardless of their race. In support of the nurture argument, twin studies conducted on fraternal twins raised in different environments showed significant differences. As a result, the case for nurture cannot go unheeded.

The Interaction between Nature and Nurture

According to Kim-Cohen et al. (2005), ignoring genetic factors overrates the effect of environmental influences. As well, taking an extreme stance on either side of the nature-nurture debate would be imprudent. This is because, greater research into the subject has proven that development cannot be solely influenced by either genetic or environmental factors (Cherry, 2016; Kim-Cohen, Moffitt, Taylor, Pawlby, & Caspi, 2005; “Nature vs. Nurture Debate”, 2015; Owen, 2006; Polderman et al., 2015). Both nature and nurture play a collaborative role in human development. In his review of Rutter’s “Genes and Behaviour,” Owen (2006) concludes that “…genetic influences are pervasive, though not necessarily predominant, across virtually all behaviours” (p. 1). As such, hereditary factors and the environmental play a concerted role in areas such as cognitive development, social interaction and temperamental characteristics among others.

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Nature-nurture debates exist in other fields such as perception, schizophrenia, depression, intelligence, and memory, among others. For instance, there are conflicting viewpoints that schizophrenia may be a genetic disorder or a response to excessive stress whether social or familial. As well, there lies a conflict between personality as an inherited trait or as a reaction to the social environment. According to Mohammad (2016), the Diathesis-Stress Model affirms that different individuals are born with a particular disposition towards certain diseases. This vulnerability, nevertheless, does not mean that they will eventually contract the disease. However, the environment can either decrease or increase the likelihood of such individuals becoming sick. For example, there is a proven linkage between the genetic makeup and the development of mental health conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia (“Nature vs. Nurture Debate”, 2015). However, twin studies have proven that genetics, while important, are not solely to blame for mental health conditions. Where one twin develops a mental condition, there is only a 50% chance that the other twin may get sick (Mohammad, 2016).

According to Owen (2006), it is also possible to have a gene-environment correlation where nature and nurture interact and manifest in different ways. For example, genetic factors have an indirect environmental influence on the development of individual characteristics. For example, a mother with antisocial tendencies can affect antisocial behavior in her children through bad parenting. The mother’s antisocial traits can be genetically habituated, but they pass on to her children through an environmental manner. As well, a person who has schizophrenia may unintentionally evoke risk-imposing behavior among caregivers or family members.

In further agreement, the largest ever published twin study drawn up by Polderman et al. (2015) proves that genetics and environmental influences both have an effect on human development. The study revealed that mental conditions, though mainly genetically-defined, are also influenced by environmental factors. The risk for bipolar, for instance, was 68% genetically-inclined and only 32% environmentally defined. In contrast, the risk for developing eating disorders was 60% environmental and 40% hereditary. On the whole, the study concludes that genetics and the environment play a collaborative role in human development.

Conclusively, the nature-nature debate is an ancient argument dating as far back as the nineteenth century. However, research has proven that both nature and nurture have a collaborative role in human development. As such, the focus of the debate has shifted from determining which one of the two sides of the argument plays a greater role, to analyzing the way genetics interacts with the environment. The extent of genetic or environmental influence varies for different traits. Some conditions like bipolar are more hereditary than environmental. However, others such as anti-social behavior and eating disorders are more environmentally defined. As such, neither nature nor the nurture arguments can be dismissed. The environment and hereditary factors depend on each other for the successful manifestation of a single trait. For instance, whereas a child’s height might depend on their genetic makeup, environmental factors such as inadequate nutrition may act as a hindrance for the child to reach their maximum possible height. As well, people who are predisposed to develop a mental condition such as bipolar and schizophrenia may avert these circumstances if they are brought up in less stressful environments. However, more comprehensive research is still needed so as to answer questions like why the environment affects certain traits more than others. Given that the nature-nature debate is an ancient debate, it is possible that the discussion will continue for more centuries to come.

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