The Nature vs. Nurture Debate - Just a Myth?

The Nature versus Nurture debate is fairly ‘old hat’ yet retains a strong place in our cultural linguistic milieu. Nature encompasses your genetic heritage, the genes that you inherit from your parents that influence who you are, from your physical appearance to your temperament. Nurture refers to the social and environmental influences that act to shape your traits. For example, your ability to express empathy (a psychological trait), is likely to have been influenced by your parents demonstrating or modelled empathy during your, or your capacity for endurance (a physical trait) can be influenced by early environmental influences such as if you played sport during your school years.

We regularly talk about psychological and physical traits as either being inherited or socially produced. This dichotomy is no longer fully supported by current biological and psychological science. The role of environment and genetics are far less dichotomic than believed - genes and environment are very much integrated phenomena in the development of the psychological and physical characteristics of an individual. It is therefore no longer correct to assume that a particular set of characteristics of an individual are either a result of environment or genetics, but rather an expression of the interplay between the two.

There is no Nature versus Nurture, they are complimentary and very integrated processes. One may rather think of how Nurture (social and environmental processes) interact with Nature (our genetic heritage) to form trait expression. Therefore, Nature through Nurture. This interaction is not liner, nor is it cast in stone so as to present a completely deterministic set of outcomes for an individual. It is rather a dynamic process of trait expression, where there are many possible outcomes for an individual. In accepting an innate inherited structure to our bodies and minds, we can no longer accept that to be human is historical or cultural only and that we are when born a blank slate. As Steven Pinker so eloquently expresses (in ‘Why nature & nurture won’t go away’, 2004, pg. 7):

“No one today believes that the mind is a blank slate; to refute such a belief is to tip over a straw man. All behaviour is the product of an inextricable interaction between heredity and environment during development, so the answer to all nature-nurture questions is “some of each.” If people only recognised this truism, the political recriminations could be avoided. Moreover, modern biology has made the very distinction between nature and nurture obsolete. Since a given set of genes can have different effects in different environments, there may always be an environment in which a supposed effect of the genes can be reversed or cancelled; there- fore the genes impose no significant constraints on behaviour. Indeed, genes are expressed in response to environmental signals, so it is meaningless to try to distinguish genes and environments; doing so only gets in the way of productive research”.

People are slowly starting to realise that the argument for Nature versus Nurture is no longer a one-sided debate, with one party arguing that Nature plays the most significant role and the other arguing the latter. There are a number of intertwining processes that exist and interact with each other that act to craft an individual’s traits or characteristics, such as: genetics, epigenetics, history, culture, political landscapes, family circumstances, socio-economic circumstances and school histories to name a few.

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Email: mark.drummond@neuralsense.co.za

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