Nature vs. Nurture Debate: History & Examples

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  • 0:02 What Is Nature vs. Nurture
  • 1:03 From Darwin to Behavoritsts
  • 2:17 The Selfish Gene to Now
  • 3:28 Examples of Nature vs. Nurture
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Gorski

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

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

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, while 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

Charles 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. However, 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, such as 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 (or her) 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; our behaviors and appearance are influenced by a combination of genes and environment. Psychologist Donald Hebb metaphorically put it this way: '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 comes in to play vs. nurture, as can be seen with the concepts of phenotypic plasticity and epigenetics.

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