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How Genetics and the Environment Interact in Human Development

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  • 0:01 Genes & Environment
  • 1:39 Nature vs. Nurture
  • 3:18 Nature & Nurture
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Everyone is different. But what makes a person unique? In this lesson, we'll examine the way genes and the environment affect who a person is, including looking at the nature vs. nurture debate and looking at how nature and nurture influence one another.

Genes & Environment

Heather and her friend, Hilary, are like night and day. Hilary likes to play sports, while Heather would rather read a book. Hilary is tall and curvy, while Heather is short and slim. Heather is laid back and easygoing, whereas Hilary is competitive and driven.

How can two people be so different? What could explain the differences between people who live in the same area?

Whether it's differences in people's physical bodies, like the height difference between Hilary and Heather, or in their personalities, like Hilary's competitiveness and Heather's easygoing nature, scientists believe that two things might contribute to making people unique.

The first are genes, which are inherited traits encoded into a person's DNA. For example, perhaps Hilary just inherited the genes that made her tall and curvy, while Heather inherited genes that made her short and slim.

The other possible contributor to differences in humans is environment, or the way the world acts upon a person's development. Take nutrition, for example: Hilary might be taller and curvier because she's had better nutrition, particularly when she was young, while Heather didn't get as well-balanced of a diet, and therefore, her development was stunted.

So, which is correct? Do genes or environment influence how a person will turn out? Or is it down to both? Let's look closer at the way scientists view genes, environment, and the interaction of the two when it comes to human development.

Nature vs. Nurture

For many years, most scientists debated whether genes or environment were more important in a person's development. In psychology and other sciences, this was known as the nature vs. nurture debate, where nature represents genes, and nurture represents environment.

Let's look at an example from Hilary and Heather. Remember that Hilary likes to play sports, but Heather would rather curl up with a good book. To someone who believes that nature (or genes) is most important, this is probably because Hilary inherited a gene that makes her good at sports, while Heather inherited the 'brainy' gene.

On the other hand, someone who believes that nurture (or environment) is most important might point out that Hilary was given special attention by her coaches, which made her better at sports. Heather, meanwhile, was always treated like the smart kid and challenged intellectually by the adults around her, so her environment bred her to be smart.

How do you know which is correct? It's impossible to tell, really. Imagine that Hilary's dad is a famous basketball player. On the surface, it might seem like Hilary is good at sports because it's in her genes.

But wait! From an early age, she was exposed to basketball and other sports because her dad plays and watches them.

So, did Hilary inherit a gene from her father that makes her good at sports, or is she good at sports because she grew up in a house where she was exposed to them from an early age? It's pretty hard to tell.

Nature & Nurture

These days, most psychologists acknowledge that the nature vs. nurture debate is not a good representation of what actually happens to people. Instead, psychologists and other scientists generally understand that there is an interaction of nature and nurture in humans. That is, a person's genes and environment influence each other to make a person who they are.

Let's go back to Heather and Hilary. Heather is really smart and loves to read books. Her dad, too, is very smart: he's a famous college professor. Heather might have inherited a gene from him that helps her pay attention to intellectual stimuli for long periods of time. Because she can pay attention a little longer than most kids, Heather learns more at an early age.

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