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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 one?s

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 child?s 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 child?s 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

individual?s 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

biological itself.

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

extraordinarily malleable.

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.

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