Nature vs Nurture in 21st century

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The nature versus nurture debate has arguably been one of the hottest and longest running contests in science, spanning from approximately the 13th century to present time.  For thousands of years, philosophers, intellectualists, researchers, and scientists have debated whether heredity or environment ultimately determines who or what a person will become.  The terms “nature” and “nurture” derived from Sir Francis Galton’s publication in 1874, “English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture.”  In this publication, Galton was on the side of “nature”, as he defended the stance that intellect and personality traits come from hereditary dynamics.  This publication was in direct opposition to philosopher John Locke, who was on the side of “nurture.”  Locke postulated that humans were born a “blank slate”, only to be colored, molded, and sculpted by their environment and learning experiences.  Individuals who adhere to an extreme nature position are termed nativists, while those who adopt an extreme nurture position are known as empiricists. 

For the majority of the 20th century, the scales tipped towards “nurture” as the school of behaviorism and psychoanalysis believed that the environment was key in determining the trajectory of a person’s development.  Towards the end of the 20th century, the scales shifted slightly back towards “nature”, especially in response to the debut of the Human Genome Project.  Individuals once again considered the impact that genetics and heredity could have on a person’s cognition, emotions, and actions.  During this time, research powered forward and twin studies emerged to test various nature versus nurture theories.  Results from the majority of these studies did not land staunchly on one side, but rather, split themselves amongst both.

At present time, we find ourselves in the 21st century, but where are we in terms of the nature versus nurture debate?  Have we made any forward movement into finally settling the score?  Today, there are virtually no nativists or empiricists in existence.  Science appears to have reluctantly acknowledged a stalemate, a tie of sorts, without a clear winner on either side.  Research has produced enough results and supporting evidence for both sides, obliterating the possibility of a single victor.  The majority of scientists concur that nature and nurture are inextricably laced together, with neither able to completely exist by itself.  Nature comes into play in the form of heredity and genetics, which clearly have an impact on an individual’s personality, intellect, and development.  Nurture, on the other hand, comes into play as environments, learning, and culture also have the propensity to shape and mold a person into who they become. 

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Thus, in the 21st century, the nature versus nurture debate has been slightly reworked.  Researchers are no longer studying if, but rather how nature and nurture work together to impact traits and development.  Science now acknowledges that genetics and environmental factors are both important, but has shifted to understand how and how much they work in tandem together.

Behavioral genetics is an up and coming field that has developed from 21st century thought that nature and nurture are intertwined.  Behavioral genetics is the formal study of how heredity and environment both influence behavior.  In addition, the field attempts to quantify the actual amount that nature versus nurture play in regards to certain traits.  Behavioral geneticists study how the environment changes the way that genes are expressed and show that the environment has the ability to physically change the way that the brain functions.

Despite the fact that nobody has officially proclaimed the nature versus nurture debate over, it is fairly safe to call it a tie.  I imagine that even Sir Francis Galton and John Locke would be satisfied with those results.

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.