The Nature Versus Nurture Debate

Expert Author James Sale

A friend of mine recently had a debate with their partner and discovered they had very different views: one, thinking that all beliefs and values come down to one’s upbringing and surroundings. The other, thinking that whilst ‘upbringing’ is a contributory factor, there were people they knew who’d had a very unhealthy moral upbringing, but seemed to instinctively know right from wrong from an early age. In order to somewhat ‘settle the debate’ between them, they asked my view. A dubious position to be in, I’m sure you can imagine!

This topic is a perennial and favourite discussion: the nature-nurture debate. The importance of this debate is far beyond merely the establishment of scientific fact. In you need any proof of that, let me direct you to a recent study by Nature Genetics: “Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies”, which has evidenced that, in fact, we are influenced by both nature and nurture (to the tune of 49 – 51% each side – you couldn’t get more even). [For the full study see the link at the bottom of the page]. Yet still, it seems, the majority of people are dissatisfied with this idea that it is ‘both’. Still, we must ask the question: are values and morals learned, or do we inherit them? Do we instinctively know right from wrong or is this down to childhood conditioning?

Of course, I am not an expert on this and anyway the research keeps changing. Research itself is becoming increasingly unreliable, as the results are so easily doctored by ‘excluding’ certain results on shaky, nebulous grounds, in order to tailor the percentages and outcome into a significant finding. However, this is a question that is important to think about, and to understand it properly, one needs to consider a number of issues around it. For a start, this isn’t really a scientific question at all – people want to provide evidence largely for a belief they already have; in others words, beliefs drive the answer. The reason for this is that the question touches on the question of what it means to be human.

Put another way: animals always remain in their own state of being; human beings are always in a state of becoming. The most obvious proof of this is: animals can only live in their environment; humans create their environment. In fact, very few humans live in an environment that is as ‘nature’ intended. Moreover, the nature of being human touches on deep philosophical and spiritual questions.

Simplistically, those who believe that human beings are entirely products of nature will tend to be deterministic and fatalistic in outlook – leading to a victim mentality because ‘that’s just the way it is’. On the other hand, those who are think human beings are products of nurture will tend to idolise humanity itself – anything is possible, you can be whatever you want, there are no limits. Put another way, ‘nature’ enthusiasts will tend to be more accepting, passive and conservative, whereas ‘nurture’ believers will stray towards more active, aggressive and liberal positions.

So what we think on this spectrum will start reflecting profounder issues of our nature.

As Chinese philosophy observed long ago: there cannot be yang without yin, and vice versa. So I believe the correct answer is both, but not in equal proportions: we are about 30% the product of our natures and about 70% the product of our nurture or environment. Of course in any given individual this could fluctuate. No study could possibly capture all the nuance and complexity of an individual, studies are holistic by default. But just as human beings can profoundly affect their environment, so they can profoundly affect their internal environment of the self and its body. In one word, the biggest single factor that will impact your being and change it is belief. What we believe we ultimately become, and the reason for this is that the actual foundation of the universe is consciousness itself.

References: Nature Genetics

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