Nature vs. Nurture Debate: History & Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Gorski

Steph has a PhD in Entomology and teaches college biology and ecology.

In this lesson, we will discuss how the nature versus nurture debate changed throughout the 19th and 20th century. We will then discuss examples of change affected by nature or nurture, such as phenotypic plasticity, epigenetics, and sexual orientation.

What is Nature vs Nurture?

Are you who you are because of genetics or because of how you grew up? This old question of how much of a trait is genetically determined versus environmentally determined is referred to as the nature versus nurture debate. Nature generally refers to genes, nurture refers to environment.

This is an old debate. The dichotomy of nature and nurture is referenced in ancient Greek texts, and the English-language comparison of 'nature' and 'nurture' is a turn of phrase you can find in the works of Shakespeare.

Because of his 1690 work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the philosopher John Locke is generally regarded as the founder of the modern idea that we are a 'blank slate' on which our environment 'writes' our personality.

Locke's ideas were controversial even in his own time, but garnered occasional support throughout the centuries.

From Darwin to Behaviorists

Darwin's theory of natural selection swung the pendulum towards 'nature' in the late 1800s after his famous work Origin of Species described natural selection. He used the word 'gemmules' as a sort of space-filler to describe the units of inheritance, which we would later discover to be genes, further backing up the nature side of things. Darwin didn't quite have it all correct though, Darwin thought that traits pass on included acquired traits during an organism's lifetime. This last bit was later rejected, at least in the way he was thinking of it, as traits acquired during one's lifetime (like a scar from an injury or gained intelligence) are not passed down biologically.

Behaviorists in the mid 20th century revived 'nurture' and claimed that all human behaviors were acquired through conditioning. It was an important school of thought in psychology because it placed emphasis on factors that could be measured (like your actions, unlike, say, your mind, mood, or free will).

Behaviorism founder John Watson in 1930 put it this way: 'Give me a dozen healthy infants...and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist....'

This idea has since been criticized for ignoring important genetic factors entirely, as well as things like your mood and mental state (which are certainly real, even if you can't measure them).

The Selfish Gene to Now

Altruism was long thought to be unexplained by biology and therefore evidence for 'nurture'. However, in the 1970s Richard Dawkins popularized gene-centered evolution with his book The Selfish Gene, which proposed that genes could explain altruism. Geneticists worked out mathematically that altruism could be explained by its degree of relatedness to the beneficiary. In other words, you're more likely to rescue your brother than a second cousin, and more likely to rescue a cousin than a stranger. The model had a good deal of explanatory power and is still in use today.

After that, genes ('nature') became so entrenched in our thinking that some scholars argued that we were unable to see past it. By the 2000s, most scholars agreed that the simplistic form of the 'nature versus nurture' debate is outdated; that our behaviors and appearance are influenced by a combination of genes and environment. Psychologist Donald Hebb said, 'Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?'

Examples of Nature vs Nurture

Okay, so they are both factors. There are a lot of mysteries left though in teasing out where nature come in to play vs nurture.

Phenotypic Plasticity

Some well documented examples of nurture at work is shown in phenotypic plasticity, when our phenotype, or traits, can change depending on the environment.

  • Some rabbits can change their color depending on whether it is winter or summer.
  • The sex of alligators is determined by the temperature of the environment in which they develop.
  • Locusts are really just quiet, solitary grasshoppers who turn into darker, stronger, destructive swarms from environmental triggers.


Epigenetics is the relatively new study of traits that are inherited, but not because of genes. In other words, the traits that genes express change even though the DNA instructions are still the same. For example, in methylation as it relates to epigenetics, a single carbon is added to the outside of a strand of DNA, which does not change the genetic information within the DNA but has the effect of 'turning off' a gene, preventing it from being expressed.

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