Debunking the nature versus nurture debate

June 11, 2019

When you hear the words “ethical debate,” the first thing that may come to your mind is an ethical question such as “is it ethical to make a human clone”? The answer to this question that you choose is not the ethical debate. The ethical debate is why you chose that answer. What past experiences led you to choose to make a human clone or not to make a human clone? Or were you prone to answer the question the way you did from birth?

This, is nature versus nurture.

“If you think about the ultimate human who reaches the apex of having a talent in one specific subject, they have the gift and they also have the work ethic. But a lot of people who have the natural gift don’t use it because they don’t cultivate it, they don’t let it grow, and vice versa, there are people who work very hard but will never be able to reach certain levels because they don’t have the innate ability to understand certain concepts,” said James Whittaker, a teacher at the NYC iSchool.

What he said was the underlying concept of one of the most sought out and intellectually conflicted debates of mankind: nature versus nurture. Nature versus nurture is one of the most important psychological debates, but with emerging scientific fields, it seems as though it may be outdated. It seems that instead of trying to decipher whether either nature or nurture is the presiding force, it is more important to look at the way they interact with each other.

“I responded more positively to the nurture, I think my brothers did not respond as positively to the nurture, and now we are in very different parts of our lives. I have a little more of a structured, sound job, following through, and communicating with people, and networking. My brothers, who rely a little bit more on their nature, one’s an architect and one works in construction, they work with, ‘Hey, this is what I like to do,’ where I’m doing what I like to do, but also it’s a job, I work for it, I seek out opportunities and stuff like that.” Whittaker went on to say.

The idea that we are controlled by our genetic code is drilled into our minds from the moment that we start learning about genetics and the human body in science classes. Our DNA is specific to us, and it is what makes us different from the next person. We all have our own combination of genes, but if that is what really makes us unique is a question that must be asked, and has had experts and non experts alike questioning human nature for quite a while.

Many experiments have been conducted studies on whether or not our nature, DNA, or our nurture, the environment in which we are placed, is responsible for our identities. The nature versus nurture debate is one that concerns many different fields, uniting linguists, psychologists, childhood development specialists, geneticists, epigeneticists, and many others.

Our genes regulate our ability to function as a human; they allow us to grow a human body and mind. Both physical and personality traits are shaped by our genetics.

DNA was first discovered in 1869, but it’s structure and function in terms of genetic inheritance was not uncovered until 1953. Watson and Crick, the two researchers who had found this information, told the world that they had “‘found the secret of life!’”

At the time, it seemed like they had, in fact, found the secret of life. Up until that point, no one had fully known how inheritance worked or how any life form was able to take after their parents. It was a revolutionary discovery, proving how we become the people we are.

Unbeknownst to Watson and Crick as well as others who study and accept the idea that we are who we are because of the double helix they had discovered, there was a key factor they had overlooked.

That factor is nature.

These two researchers had pioneered the nature side of the debate, finally understanding that there is something guiding us and our life. The research into nurture, however, became recognized slightly after the nature aspect had. Environmental psychology, the field of academics that studies this interplay between people and the places they are exposed to, did not truly become distinguished until 1958. The Proshansky group at City University, New York were the first ones that were recognized to have been doing this work.

By that point, scientists and psychologists knew that DNA were the building blocks of life, but now there was a new element involved: our brain’s development in relation to our experiences.

Mayank Agrawal, a psychology student at Princeton, says, “Let’s say you want to develop something that looks like, that acts like people. You have to understand what people do, like where does that come from. Did that come from what was built into humans or did that come from learning after we were born?”

The nature versus nurture debate is, simply put, studying the nuanced dance that these two elements are constantly engaged in. Sometimes, one is in the spotlight, other times, the other one is. That is how it is addressed, nature versus nurture, but most of the time, however inconvenient to those attempting to study human nature, the two are twirling around each other so fast that to an outside eye it can be indecipherable to see which aspect is in control.

With most debates, there are two clear sides to the argument, and there is no middle ground. This debate, however, is a little different. While some may believe that either nature or nurture has a bigger impact on who someone is later in life, the fact of the matter is that many scientists, psychologists and other specialists believe that for someone to develop the person who they are later in life, there is an essential mixture of both nature and nurture.

An article from Psychology Today explains that, “From about the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, a noticeable shift occurred as direct knowledge of the brain and genetics started to swing the pendulum back to an increased appreciation of nature as a critical influence on a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990 and the entire decade was designated as the ‘Decade of the Brain.’ Neuroscience research exploded and many new psychiatric medications emerged and were used much more commonly than ever before.”

As time goes on, more and more people are believing that instead of there being one predominant factor in to who someone is later in life, there is more a belief that both nature and nurture are almost working together to shape a person. This may sound rash, but in reality, it may not be far from the truth at all.

The debate of nature versus nurture is anything but new. The nature versus nurture debate was started initially by psychologist Sir Francis Galton in 1869. Although Galton was considered to coin the phrase “nature versus nurture,” many other philosophers and psychologists had similar ideas. One of the most famous examples being John Locke. Locke had the idea of natural law and natural rights, which meant that everyone had the same rights to life, health, liberty and possessions.

Experimental Origin explains, “Those who agree with the nature side argue that the DNA and genotype that we are born with determine who we are and what personality and traits we will have. On the other hand, those who agree with the nurture side of the debate argue that we are born with our minds as a ‘blank state’. Through learning experiences and interactions with the world around us, we begin to gain an understanding of life and acquire different attributes. Some people believe in both sides of the argument, saying that although we can learn and acquire traits from our surroundings, we are also born with unique abilities.”

The nature versus nurture debate is not only one of the oldest debates, but also one of the most important. The debate really tries to answer one question: why is a person who they are? What causes someone to do the things they do? Is it because of their genes or their environment? In reality, no one knows the answer. Maybe that’s why the question is so popular. Or maybe because they isn’t just one possible answer to the question, as in nature and nurture have impacts on who a person is later in life, or even gene expression and genes changing due to the environment.

Brittany Klimowicz, NYC iSchool science teacher, explains how “The question then becomes, with human behavior, how much is the environment then impacting those things? With certain diseases we know for sure that the environment has a bigger influence on the expression of that disease than genes do.

“For example, lung cancer is much more influenced by the environment than your genes, but then you have other things like muscular dystrophy or sickle cell anemia that we know are very clearly heritable.

“Another thing that comes up when I think about nature vs. nurture is just evolution in general and natural selection, the idea that there is this relationship between what happens in the environment and what genes get selected for or what genes end up getting expressed. The field of epigenetics is relatively new, we’re starting to look at how the foods that we eat influence what genes get turned on and what genes get turned off. And it’s not necessarily going to be as drastic as your hair color changing but there’s probably some underlying things that are influencing how our metabolism works, or how hormones and neurotransmitters are produced in the body. So there’s a lot that’s going on and a lot we don’t really understand.”

The debate is also very popular within the educational system. Since we were little, the nature versus nurture debate has been engraved in our brains, even if we didn’t know it.

Take a teacher talking about Adolf Hitler as an example. Hitler’s father died at an early age, and he struggled in school tremendously. He was always described as a “rebel,” because he didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps as a civil leader. Now, this is no excuse for killing 17 million people, however, you have to wonder is his troubling upbringing lead to Hitler doing this. Or on the other hand, was Hitler bound to do this because of his genetics. This, in a nutshell, is the nature versus nurture debate. The same goes for many other dictators, and whether their harsh upbringing lead to what they did.

The nature versus nurture debate can sometimes be a tough one to talk about, from an emotional standpoint. If someone is genetically predisposed to drug and/or alcohol abuse, does it mean that it is almost certain they’ll be an addict when they’re older? Or does it all have to do with them? And like I said before, no one really has the answer.

Coined in 1942 by Conrad H. Waddington and Ernst Hadorn, epigenetics is the field that is the epitome of what the nature versus nurture debate is all about. The field of epigenetics, which gained traction in the 1990s, is the study of the relationship between genetics and our environments and how their relationship shape human behavior.

This entire scientific field rests on the idea that it is not just nature or just nurture; that is impossible. It is all about how each affects us in different ways and how we are able to become who we end up becoming. Before epigenetic research began to become large scale, “if something is genetic, [people would] think of it as unchangeable, as having some predetermined unchangeable status, but we know that’s not true,” says Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck.

Syzf tells us that “epigenetics really provides link, a physical link, between nurture and nature. The nurture works  through epigenetics mechanisms to essentially write apps on our DNA. So nurture looks kind of distant, and inexplicable in scientific language, where nature is all explained by natural phenomena. So epigenetics serves as a mediator between the world of social behavior and the world of hard DNA.”

Many epigeneticists and people familiar with the debate in general believe that the relationship between the two elements are very equal.

Kate Coleridge, a math teacher at the NYC iSchool, believes that they affect people “50/50. I think there is no way for one to exist without the other.”

Similarly, Robert Plomin says for an interview with Quartz, “‘I would say, on average, it’s about half of the differences between us in personality, in psychopathology (mental health and illness), and also in mental abilities and disabilities.’”

“A really easy way to think about this is if you go outside in the summertime and you don’t wear sunscreen, your skin will get darker because it’s interacting with UV rays. So that’s an example of how the environment, in this case UV rays, are impacting gene expression, so impacting the gene for the protein melanin that makes our skin different colors. So we know that that’s a direct impact,” says Klimowicz.

In terms of heritability, there are many traits that we know are going to be affected by our DNA. For example, height is very determinable. Again, according to Plomin, “‘height is 90% heritable. What does that mean? It means, of the individual differences between people [when it comes to] height, 90% of the differences are due to inherited genetic differences, on average, in the populations we studied.’”

But there are cases where genes like height, that are usually predictable by DNA, can be altered and expressed differently when put into different situations. Sometimes there are serious health risks due to certain environments.

“We are only afraid of toxins and chemicals, because they are real, but what about toxic work environments, or toxic families? Do they have the same impact on our health, do they cause diseases, like real toxins do?” asks epigeneticist Moshe Szyf.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is a pediatrician and the Surgeon General of California who studies the effects of adversity on a child’s health and how it affects their health later in life. During her appearance on the TED Radio Hour, she says, “I literally, last week, had a follow up appointment with a patient, who is a young girl who had experienced 7 out of the 10 adverse childhood experiences. And this child had stopped growing, she had a diagnosis of a failure to thrive, and we implemented some of the things that we know to be best practices,…but a big part of it was just educating mom about how the child’s exposure to adversity was affecting her health. And I will tell you, she’s back on the growth curve, this family’s doing amazing.’”

Epigenetics is the key to the nature versus nurture debate. It acknowledges that there cannot be a fully formed human as we know it without both the influence of genes as well as our environments, accepting that it can never truly be one factor that dictates our lives.

As with most questions, the nature versus nurture debate also brings up something very important, and highly contested: are people inherently evil? ̈ ̈Whether humans are born good or evil has been debated by philosophers for centuries. Aristotle argued that morality is learned, and that we’re born as ‘amoral creatures,’ while Sigmund Freud considered newborns a moral blank slate.” says BBC Earth. The debate isn’t young, either.

IAI News talks about two philosophers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, by explaining, “In 1651, Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that life in the state of nature – that is, our natural condition outside the authority of a political state – is ‘solitary, poore, nasty brutish, and short.’ Just over a century later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau countered that human nature is essentially good, and that we could have lived peaceful and happy lives well before the development of anything like the modern state. At first glance, then, Hobbes and Rousseau represent opposing poles in answer to one of the age-old questions of human nature: are we naturally good or evil?” The article tells us how old this debate is, and how philosophers from 1651 we’re debating the same questions that we are today.

While talking about the nature versus nurture debate, many of the personal accounts being represented are people who have had good upbringings (or good nurture), and how because of this, they have a good job, a family, and happiness. One of the aspects that is not talked about as much in the nature versus nurture debate would be the other side of this, meaning people who maybe didn’t come from such a good background and didn’t lead successful lives. This, in essence, is the concept of if people are inherently evil.

A recent CNN article explains, “We are hard-wired for goodness. It’s easier to recognize this fact when you think of children. Without mitigating factors, their innate goodness would not erode with age. But goodness is not the sole virtue of the young. The vast majority of people, when faced with simple, clear ethical choices, choose good over bad and even good over neutral.Imagine a stranger’s baby is about to fall off a chair next to you. You would try to catch it, right?”

To add on, a recent New York Times article states, ¨The neighborhood in which you grow up is a major determinant of your economic success as an adult. That’s been known for a while, but new research suggests that the effects may be much larger than social scientists previously understood … The new insight is that much of our best evidence about the effects of growing up in a bad neighborhood comes from examining children whose parents work particularly hard to protect them from the dangers around them. The negative effects of a bad neighborhood may be much larger for low-income families with less motivated parents.”

Now obviously not everyone who grows up in a ¨bad¨ area is doomed, but research suggests that people who do are much more susceptible to drugs, violence, etc.

The debate of nature versus nurture revolves almost entirely around humans. Considering that we have created a world where each society is so incredibly different from each other, it is easy for humans to be different from each other in a way that goes beyond just inheritable traits.

So in a debate regarding human nature it is important to study the things that are unique to humans. One of those things is language. Language is unique to humans, at least in the way that we experience it. Attempting to decipher what explains our ability to communicate in the extremely sophisticated way that we are able to is critical in the field of psychology as well as science.

If the truth of this question was unearthed, we would be able to understand how brains develop, critical childhood development periods, and if we are shaped by our environment as much as some believe we are.

On the surface level, it makes sense to believe that our linguistic skills are impacted entirely by our environment. We need to be taught words in order to speak a language. If you delve deeper into the human brain and language, you can see much more than that though. Of course you need to learn words if you want to speak a language, but where does the ability to learn those words and formulate them into sentences come from? Is it something we are born with or is it something that is necessary to learn over time.

Of course, as with most topics involved in this debate, it is naive to assume that it will only be either only nature or only nurture. Here, it is also important to understand the difference between the ability to learn words and the ability to understand and utilize grammar.

Grammar is the ability to both form and comprehend sentences that are made of combinations of words that you have never heard used in that order before. It is hard to explain how we can do that; how we automatically can put words in the right order to make an understandable sentence without having to think about it. There are many theories that attempt to explain this uniquely human phenomenon.

The theories regarding linguistic development are extremely varied, many exploring whether or not grammar is something we or born with or if it is something that we develop the ability to understand and use.

Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar provides an interesting outlook on how we are able to use language in the way that we do. Considered to be one of the most important linguistic theories, Chomsky proposed that “language learning is facilitated by a predisposition that our brains have for certain structures of language.”

Chomsky is saying that our understanding of grammar is due to the fact that we are equipped with set abilities where we are able to decipher the intricacies of language. Small children are able to form sentences that they have never heard before with little to no difficulty.

According to McGill University, “researchers found that babies only a few days old could distinguish the phonemes of any language and seemed to have an innate mechanism for processing the sounds of the human voice.”

On top of this, natural selection would have played a large role in our predisposed grammar skills, favoring those who are able to communicate more efficiently.

While Chomsky is a very highly acclaimed linguist, there are many people who oppose his theory. Some critics believe that instead of natural selection favoring those with an innate ability to communicate, “our ancestors invented modes of communication that were compatible with the brain’s natural abilities.” This is an important distinction, where the ability to interact productively either developed because we already had them in our genes, or whether it developed as a result of humans understanding the skill set they were given by their DNA and as a result creating an efficient mode of communication.

This debate of linguistic development has been important for a very long time, and in some ways it is equally as important that the lines are not so clear as to what is genetic based and what is a result of our previous interactions. It proves that there cannot be just nature or just nurture, especially regarding such a complicated topic.

It is essential to understand that part of the reason why it is so difficult to do research on this topic is because of the moral implications that are related to the experiments that would need to be done. In order to fully understand the formation of language skills and whether or not we are born with them, you would need to completely isolate a child. Ethically, carrying out an experiment like this would be horrible, but there have been few select cases in history where this has happened as a result of true parent neglect leading to isolation of a child.

In 1970, a 13 year old child was discovered by a social worker in Los Angeles. The girl, nicknamed “Genie,” had been locked in a room for most of her life by her father, Clark Wiley. She was one of his only children who had survived, all of them suffering severe neglect. By the time she had been discovered, she had very limited physical abilities, she was still wearing diapers, stooped over, had trouble walking, and had no language skills. Genie was known to not have any learning disabilities or issues in mental development that were unrelated to the abuse she had suffered.

After a while, she gained the ability to talk. She never truly learned how to form full sentences. She would say words, and those who worked with her could understand the message she was trying to send, but she was never really able to use grammar in the way that Chomsky had predicted. According to Psychology Today, she would say things like this:

“‘Father hit arm. Big wood. Genie cry … Not spit. Father. Hit face — spit … Father hit big stick. Father angry. Father hit Genie big stick. Father take piece wood hit. Cry. Me cry.’”

This case in itself disproves the theory of universal grammar. If humans are born with the ability to use grammar, it would make sense for Genie to be able to form full sentences using the vocabulary she had been taught.

Her case also tells experts a lot about critical development periods. The critical theory hypothesis is the idea that in order to be able to accurately acquire language and grammar abilities, you must learn those skills between the age of two and the start of puberty. Dweck explains that “the brain dedicates itself to certain functions at certain times. If you miss that window, it’s hard, or in some cases, not possible to recover.”

It became quite obvious that the critical periods are not entirely accurate, considering that after having practically no ability to speak in any advanced way, Genie could still form words that were able to be deciphered and meaning could be drawn out from them. She could still nonverbally communicate and tell stories in a way that shows us the intricacies of human expression.

However, as Dweck shows us, “her critical period of language acquisition, syntactic structure, had ended, and that was that. Again, she could communicate beautifully, she could say what she meant, but she couldn’t really learn the grammatical rules.” She was only able to learn up to a certain capacity.

While language skills may not be written in our DNA, Genie proves to us that through both nonverbal communication as well as limited verbal communication, it is plausible that our communication skills may be.

Esteemed linguist Susan Curtiss states that “the brain and the mind [have] special mechanisms for developing grammar.” This corroborates the idea that natural selection chose those with the ability to form communicative skills in order to be able to function as an individual as a group.

Genie could still connect with those around her, and in that sense she does prove that there is some element of language in her brain, whether it is or is not grammar.

There is one element of universality throughout this entire linguistic debate; “neither the empiricist who believes…all language the result of ‘experience,’ nor the rationalist who supports the…position of a complex, highly specific, innate language mechanism denies that certain environmental conditions are necessary for the acquisition of language.” There is no way for language to exist without outside influence.

There are important ways that our genes affect our linguistic development, but as we can tell in Genie’s case that environmental aspects are extremely important in conjunction with the expression of those genes.

There is overwhelming evidence that it is impossible for there to be just genetics or just environmental aspects at play in terms of our behavior. Of course, scientists have not come to a conclusion on the exact relationship between what exactly influences what exact behavioral trait, but the idea that genes are the only thing that determines who we are as people has, according to  Quartz, “led humanity down some dark paths.”

It is important to note that the environment plays a large part in who we are. The entire debate of nature versus nurture is outdated, based in a time when there was less information available that is available now. Everything we do is influenced both by our genes and our environment.

Morten Christiansen, a psychology professor at Cornell, explains that “In the last couple of decades that idea has kind of disappeared, but it has gone much more to the background, because we know have a much better idea of what’s going on in language acquisition. So part of the debate goes back to a time when people didn’t know a lot about what babies can or cannot do, and also people didn’t know a lot about what kind of information is available in the input to children, and people didn’t know a lot about the kind of learning mechanisms, or what they can do.” The foundations of this debate are set in a time with less knowledge regarding how we develop and how our genes change and express themselves.

“It’s never nature or nurture, they work together,” says Dweck.

The influence of environmental aspects is prevalent in ways that are sometimes relatively easy to pinpoint. The way that nature and nurture work together is outlined in Julieta Lozano’s personal story.

¨I grew up in Mexico City, I was born there. I was born in a middle class family, my parents were accountants. I think that I had to recognize that I was very lucky because I grew up in a family that we were middle class in a country where there was a high rate of illiteracy and poverty. My father left his library in the house that my parents bought. Because of this, I was very lucky to have a lot of books. In that sense, I think we were very fortunate. I remember once I told my father we needed a new encyclopedia, and one week later, we had it. For me, those things were great because my father and I like to read, and to this day, I still like to read, said Lozano, a Spanish teacher at the NYC iSchool. That’s just one example of how where someone grows up affects their personality, or who they are later in life.

Everyone that was interviewed throughout this process had the same to say about the nature versus nurture debate: it was a mixture of both. They work with each other. There isn’t one that is overarching, or that overpowers the other. Even the most educated scientists would have to agree with this. It may feel weird to think that this much contested debate doesn’t really have an answer. Or that the answer is both choices.

The mindset of our behavior being explained only by nature was very prevalent until recently. Szyf, someone who studies how nurture impacts nature, says “We didn’t believe, before that, that nurture had any impact on nature. We didn’t see a way by which it could work on nature. We ignored nurture. By bringing nurture and nature together in the same language, the same biochemical language, you understand that nurture is as part of nature as anything else.”

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