The Big Debate: Nature Vs. Nurture

Posted on January 8, 2010 in Society

Karuna Ahuja:

The ‘Nature vs Nurture’ conflict has been dominating the fields of psychology, sociology and philosophy since time immemorial. The terms “being yourself” and “being who you are”, though sound similar, have completely different perspective owing to this debate. There has always been a large controversy on whether inherited genes, or the environment influence and affects our personality, development, behavior, intelligence and ability. Different theories and conclusions have been drawn over what exactly shapes us, and what effects us from birth through adulthood. With ‘nature’ being backed by physiological and ‘nurture’ being backed by sociological explanations, many scientists have been struggling for centuries deciding whether our personality is born or made.

The debate can be traced back to way before our times, with philosophers like Plato and Aristotle making efforts to study human behaviour.

Plato believed that behaviour and knowledge were due to innate factors. Plato theorized that all knowledge is present at birth. He also believed that the environment played a part in human processes, but he thought it had a unique role. He believed the environment did not teach people anything new, but its purpose was to remind people of information they already knew. Although Plato’s views are not supported today, he laid the groundwork for other researchers to follow.

On the other hand, Aristotle theorized a different idea about human behaviour. He proposed that humans are born with ‘tabula rasa’ (English translation: blank slate.) According to him, humans were not born with knowledge, they acquire it through experience. Aristotle’s hypothesis is not believed today. Nevertheless, his belief that the environment was a vital factor in behavior, influenced many empiricists throughout history.

In the 18th century, this debate began to heat up among philosophers. G.W. Leibniz, a German philosopher and John Locke, an English physician and philosopher, were supporters of internalist (nature) and empiricists (nurture) views respectively. Leibniz argued that there is no way ideas which come into the mind from outside can be formed into beliefs and judgements without the operation of specific internal mechanisms. Simultaneously, Locke and his associates believed in Aristotle’s theory and the concept of blank slate. They examined different human processes such as logic and reasoning.

The most recent studies that have been done on twins use both identical and fraternal twins. This involves studying of twins that were separated at birth and were raised in separate homes in separate environments. Then their behaviour was observed. Identical twins are 100% genetically similar and offer exact genetic replicas to study, where fraternal twins are the same as any other siblings at 50% similarity. Some of the final results of these studies show astonishing similarities between identical twins, yet others show little evidence of these similarities. With fraternal twins, there are some similarities but none that are complete evident of the nature theory. These studies fuel the pot for both the nature and the nurture ideas.

The nature vs. nurture debate over the last forty years has reached an agreement that they both influence the development of human behaviour. The term “Nature via Nurture” is used to show the co-relation between the two identities. Urie Bronfrenbrenner, who studies genetics, said, “It is not nature vs. nurture, but the interaction of nature and nurture that drives development.” Researchers are finding that the balance between genetic and environmental influences for certain traits change, as people get older. Also, people may react to us in a certain way because of a genetically influenced personality and, we may choose certain experiences because they fit best with our instinctive preferences. This means that our experiences may be influenced by our genetic tendencies.

The nature vs. nurture debate has produced many research advances in the area of human development. Even though evidence proves that there is an interaction between genes and the environment, people will continue to study the effects of each in development. In these future studies, hopefully, more groundbreaking advances will be made to aid humans in better understanding human behavior. In the end, that is what both sides of the nature vs. nurture debate intended to accomplish!

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The writer is a correspondent at Youth Ki Awaaz and also a student at BITS Pilani.

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