Nature or Nurture: Depends on the Circumstances

If a baby is born with either tremendous talent or some other favorable trait, then maybe nature gets a bit more credit, but if the baby’s early life is extremely bad or extremely good, then nurture is a strong force, possibly undoing all of nature’s gifts or compensating for her mistakes. However, in most cases, nature and nurture are about equal. Locke thought that we came into this life with a blank and that we learned everything, even our personality traits from experience. Nurturing was everything. Darwin believed that nobody could overcome heredity. He believed that we inherit all of our traits and these are helpful or hurtful and could not be changed, though they might be balanced somehow. I believe that in most lives, nature and nurture are about even, but in cases of severe physical problems or a different childhood then nurture can change everything.

John Locke was an empiricist, believing that we get everything from the environment, and Hume, whom Locke influenced wrote that the child comes into this world as a “tabula rasa”, an empty slate, upon which experience will write. He believed that we learn everything. Maybe this is where some of the superstitions about saying, doing, hearing or even smelling, bad things while pregnant will hurt the baby. Pregnant ladies used to have certain kinds of music on all the time to make their child a great musician. They avoided fright or strong emotions so as not to imprint the baby with evil.

Darwin developed his study of genetic inheritance and many of his followers became genetic determinists, claiming that one’s genes decided what kind of person would develop. This has been largely proven wrong by studies of twins separated at birth. These twins were more alike than others siblings, but still different in many ways. “There are two fallacies to be avoided, ‘Dr Venter’s team write in the journal Science. ‘Determinism, the idea that all characteristics of a person are ‘hard-wired’ by the genome; and reductionism, that now the human sequence is completely known, it is just a matter of time before our understanding of gene functions and interactions will provide a complete causal description of human variability.’” (BBC News Online 2001).

B.F. Skinner was the behaviorist who pretty much proved that nurturing was more important than genetics with his studies that used behavior modification. Most people tend to agree because if you ask them about a certain criminal or a particular type of violent crime and what they think causes it, they will mention something about parenting or early childhood. The terrible statistics of child abuse also seem to back this up, since it tends to be repeated by the abused. Of course, some will be quick to point out that alcoholism also runs in families. However, the reaction to alcoholism does not. There are many adopted alcoholics who never drink to excess and even more who discover their inherited condition and simply quit drinking.

The saddest statistic is of very brilliant or talented children who could have become anything they wanted, if only their early lives had been better, but who generally turn to crime. Adolph Hitler is widely believed to have become who he was under a missing father and a bitter and emotionally ill mother. Some statistics show that most violent criminals were cruel to animals during childhood and suffered from childhood abuse. It is assumed that the cruelty to animals was a reaction to the abuse.

There is one woman who has developed a software program that translates what is seen by a videocam to sound representations and she sees with the aid of her laptop. In the experiments with this, only people who lost their sight after early childhood can use this, because others do not have the synaptic patterns to use to translate the patterns heard to vision. I don’t understand completely how this works, but the woman who did it says that her brain and that of others who lost their vision after age two or so have the capacity for the brain to recognize the visual cues by the pattern, while those who were always blind do not, since their visual cortex never developed. This seems to point definitely in the direction of learning as a prime factor in development. Blind people have a visual cortex, but it never develops the ability to translate the patterns of vision into the picture in the brain.

In a way, this idea is very encouraging while it is also very scary. It means that we can overcome our genetic heritage. It also means that we can destroy our children. However, the most encouraging thing is how resilient we are. People who discover that they inherit alcoholism do not have to suffer. They can simply act upon their knowledge and never drink alcohol. People who discover that their actions are the result of early conditioning can change that also with therapy. Not only can nurturing overcome genetics, but treatment can overcome early conditioning. It is all under the control of the mind.

So even though we do not yet know how much influence genetics has, we know it does not have the dominant controlling influence on who we are. We can overcome genetically inherited tendencies by teaching and empowering our children. We can use our minds to change our lives, and we can change the lives of others. To me, it is a wonderful thing to know that there are so many “ifs” behind everything that maybe a smile I give to someone will change their life, and they will go on to change someone else’s life. It’s like that movie Six Degrees of Separation, but on a psychological level. Of course, I can also be a bad influence if I yell at somebody, so I try not to do that. It is widely agreed now that environmental factors are more important in child development, so perhaps we should work harder on improving the environment of all children.


BBC News Online, 2001, Nature or Nurture, Web.

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