Where Would We Be without Nature Vs. Nurture?


If asked whether a particular behavior or trait is best explained by nature or nurture, University of Iowa researchers are likely to say, “Neither.” In fact, they would toss out the age-old nature-versus-nurture debate altogether. Acknowledging that the dichotomy affects “the framework of research in child development, biology, neuroscience, personality and dozens of other fields,” UI psychologist John Spencer prefers to use an approach called “developmental systems theory.” Heredity is not simply a matter of genes, or DNA, being passed along. Rather, genetic inheritance is itself the result of constant interaction between genes and numerous environmental factors, from proteins to socioeconomic status, occurring at every stage in development.

The nature-nurture debate also plays a role in helping deal with complex diseases such as psychiatric disorders and cancer. New research in the field of “disease risk” is pointing to what is called epigenetics: temporary changes in gene function that are brought on by environmental factors. For example, public health efforts to reduce the genetic risk of disease for newborns may take into consideration the diets of pregnant mothers, which may cause epigenetic changes in their offspring. Recent research in biology also has found this phenomenon of epigenetic inheritance, or non-DNA variation—meaning that organisms may pass on traits acquired during their lifetime. Thus, the variation in later generations is based not on DNA—that is, genetics as normally understood—or on direct environmental causes. According to the editor of Genetics, “nature and nurture are more closely related than we had imagined.”

The nature-nurture debate is as ancient as Aristotle, and won’t be going away any time soon. Most scientists are invested in one camp or the other. While we should avoid simplistic or misleading explanations and should recognize elegant and complex interactions of heredity and environment, MIT professor Steven Pinker argues there is still a place for making clear distinctions between nature and nurture.

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