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Nature versus Nurture

By Debbie Cluff

The nature vs. nurture debate is one of the biggest debated issues in the child development theory. Which has more bearing on a child's development, environment or genetics? This debate is "of the degree to which environment and heredity influences behavior (Feldman, 2003) and whether "a child's development is governed by a pattern built in at birth", which is Nature, or whether it is shaped by experiences after birth", defined as Nurture (Bee, 2000). No theorist has quite yet determined which of the two define a person's actual behavior style, their have been many disputes whether one theory has the most influence, but no actual determination of the best theory. The Nature vs. Nurture debate has brought most theorists, researchers and teachers, to ask, "Why are people the way they are?" We wonder: Were we born that way? Were we injured by someone or something? Is it cultural? Did our parents raise us that way? (Thurber, 2003).

Nurture theorist feel that children learn as they grow and develop their personalities based on what they have learned throughout their life or the environment that they were raised in. It is impossible for one to grow up and not be influenced by their environment. "Recent behavioral genetic research has shown that genetic propensities are associated with individual differences in experiences and thus, what may appear to be environmental effects can reflect genetic influence (Gilger, 2001). Advocates of the Nurture theory feel that learning is a step by step process that is acquired though out a child's life. Psychologist Robert Feldman (2000) explains, "Environmental factors play a critical role in enabling people to reach the potential capabilities that their genetic background makes possible. Had Albert Einstein received no intellectual stimulation as a child and not been sent to school. It is unlikely that he would have reached his genetic potential (Feldman, 2000). Nurture is the basis for figuring out the question of why we become who we are.

The importance of one's environment is recognized as early as the gestational stages of life. Pregnant women are advised to use caution while they are expecting because of the idea that the intrauterine environment can affect the unborn child positively or adversely. Pregnant woman have to make sure they receive proper nutrition, exercise carefully, and not smoke or use drugs. These are precautions that are taken in order to control the environmental impact on the fetus. Environment affects our behavior even in the early stages of our lives (Feldman, 2000).

While many parents would like to believe that the type of environment that they create for their children will determine what type of person their child will grow up to be, many behavior psychologists would disagree. Since the late 1800's scientists have been perplexed by this issue and have conducted studies on siblings, identical twins and fraternal twins in efforts to determine which factor has the most bearing on the molding of a child's brain. Studies have consistently shown that as much as 50 percent of all temperamental and behavioral tendencies are determined by genetics (Glass, 1999). These traits include extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness and openness to experience. IQ studies show the most genetic influence of 80 percent (Glass, 1999).

Studies of twins separated at birth and raised in different environments show that the twins still end up more alike than many would predict supporting the argument that genetics play a large role in personality development (Glass, 1999). Most behavioral scientists will admit that all behavioral traits are partly heritable (Pinker, 2003). Twin studies have also revealed differences in twins reared in the same environment. One twin may be shy, while the other is extroverted. This finding shows that genes are not everything and that there are other factors that determine one's personality that can not be explained by family environment (Pinker, 2003). Some scientists feel that the other factor that influences a child's behavior is the unique environment that children create for themselves (McEluwe, 2003). The unique environment includes the peer groups that children seek out. For example, smart children will seek out the brainy group while aggressive children will seek out the punks. However, some scientists will say that the decisions a child makes in determining their unique environment are also determined by their genetic makeup, strengthening the argument of Nature being the prevailing influence on personality makeup (McEluwe, 2003).

Although behavioral scientists have determined that genetics play a large role in personality development, they have yet to determine how genes interact to determine a particular personality trait. What scientists have found is that there does not appear to be a single gene for a particular trait, but that genes show their effects by working together in complex combinations (Pinker, 2003). For example, there is no single gene for musical talent. Whether a child will be musically inclined will be determined by the way that child's genes interact with one another. Some parents would like to believe that by creating an environment rich in music while the child is young will develop the child's talent towards music. However, despite assumptions like this, there is no evidence that shows long term effects of growing up in a particular environment (Pinker, 2003).

Whichever side of the nature vs. nurture debate one favors, one can not entirely exclude one side over the other. Research has shown evidence that both a child's genetics and environment will have some influence on that child's personality development. This debate is not new. Philosophers have explored both sides of the debate for centuries. Recent studies show that many traits are heritable, however the question of whether genetics or environment have the most bearing on a child's development still perplexes theorists. There is also the question of how many heritable traits remain dormant due to a child's environment. Although there are convincing arguments for the importance of each factor, it must be recognized that both environment and genetics will ultimately have some bearing on a child's development. As adults responsible for our youth we must take whatever measures we can to ensure that our children are given the best possible environment to cultivate their young minds to their highest potential.


Bee, H. (2000). Child and Adolescent Development (9th ed.) [e-text]. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Feldmen, R. (2000). Essentials of Understanding Psychology (4th ed.). Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts.

Glass, J. (1999, December). Nature vs. Nurture. Parenting, 13, 156.

Gilger, J. (2001, November/December). Genotype Environment Correlations for Language-Related Abilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34 (6), 492.

Pinker, S. (2003, January 20). Are your genes to blame? Time, 161, 198.

McEluwe, C. (2003, December 30). Nature-Nurture debate; Slate asserts personality decided by inherited traits. The Charleston Gazette. Pp. 5A.

Thurber, C. (2003, January/February). Nature and Nurture: Human Behavior. Camping Magazine, 76 (1), 32.

About The Author
Debbie Cluff is the founder and owner of Links for Learning, an online tutoring and instant homework help site for students in Reading, Writing, and Math. Debbie is the mother of 2, with one on the way, and has been married for 5 years. She has her BA in Liberal Studies, her Master's in Education, and is currently in the 1st grade classroom. She can be reached at

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