Summary: The main idea in this essay is that a person’s nature is like a car’s engine and their environment (nurture) is like the car’s fuel- the one cannot operate without the other. Pavlov’s dog- four main ways behaviour is taught. Human ability to speak is natural- learning a specific language is environmental. How nature and nurture can affect each other. How to tell if a trait is natural or environmental. Nature nurture debate and political views. Obesity and same sex attraction discussed. Twin Studies.
The Debate about Nature and Nurture
What makes people the way we are? Is it the way we are born? Or is it the things that happen to us in life? These questions make up the nature -nurture debate.
In the nature versus nurture debate, the term “nature” refers to the genetic make up common to all human beings (developed through evolution) as well as our individual genes which we inherit from our parents. “Nurture” refers to the way that we are brought up by our parents. But it is also often taken to include the way we learn to participate in society by influences outside our immediate family.
There is no doubt that things like hair, skin and eye colour are determined by nature- that is, by our genes. But there is still argument over how much peoples’ personalities are also determined by genes and how much the way people develop results form the way they are nurtured.
The Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov (1849 –1936) conducted experiments which showed that some behaviour in animals occurs naturally while other behaviour is nurtured or learned.
Pavlov noticed that dogs automatically produce saliva when they see food. They do not need to be taught to do this. It just occurs naturally. But Pavlov also noticed that if he rang a bell just before giving a dog food eventually the dog would begin salivating as soon as it heard the bell and even before it could see, or smell, any food. The dog had learned that the sound of the bell meant that food would soon arrive and so the dog would begin to produce saliva. This behaviour of salivating upon hearing the bell was a learned, conditioned, or nurtured response.
There are four main ways in which behaviour can be conditioned or taught. These are:
- giving rewards for what is considered to be good behaviour,
- removing rewards for what is considered to be bad behaviour,
- punishing bad behaviour;
- removing punishment for good behaviour.
Jensen v Flynn
Nowadays there is broad agreement that both nature and nurture influence the way human beings behave. Very few experts would claim that everything about a person results from his or her genes. And very few would claim everything depends on how a person is brought up. But there is still strong disagreement on how important either nature or nurture is.
One area of strong disagreement has been the extent to which intelligence results from nature or nurture. Psychology professor Arthur Jensen has claimed that intelligence is largely inherited from genes and that while ability to learn simple facts and skills is equally distributed among races, conceptual learning, or problem solving type intelligence is not.
Against this Professor James Flynn argues that there has been a gradual increase in ability to perform IQ tests in each decade over the last 100 years or so. This cannot be the result of evolution as the period is too short.
Flynn argues that while the structure of the human brain has not changed since 1900, due to environmental factors, people today are generally better at conceptualizing than people in 1900 were. This is simply because people in modern society are more likely to be educated, and to be required, especially in their work, to engage in abstract thinking.
Nature is like a car’s engine, Nurture is like its fuel
But arguing over whether nature and nurture is more important in influencing human behaviour may be like arguing over whether a car’s engine or fuel for the engine is more important in allowing a car to run. Obviously both are needed.
We can think of the genes a person is born with as being like the car’s engine. The environment can be thought of as being like the fuel. Just like a car needs both an engine and fuel to run, a human being needs both genes and an environment. Like the engine, the genes cannot run by themselves. There has to be an environment in which the person lives. Genes can never do more that give the person a general tendency to respond in a certain way to whatever environmental experiences that person is exposed to.
But the assertion that genes and environment are both important influences on human behaviour is not quite the same thing as saying that every part of human behaviour is a mixture of both nature and nurture. Remember that Pavlov’s dog experiments show that some behaviour results completely from nature and other behaviour is completely learned.
An example of natural behaviour in human beings is language, or the ability to speak. Apart from a small percentage of human beings who are born with severe disabilities, all human beings are born with a natural, genetically acquired, ability to learn a language and to speak. Again we can think of this ability as being like an engine. Most of our hominid ancestors did not have this ability. But at some point in evolution we gained the biological ability to speak. Today we regard the ability to speak as an essential human characteristic. Our ability to learn to speak is like a car’s engine and does not depend on our environment.
But the opportunity to learn a particular language, such as English or French is the result of our environment. The learning of a particular language is like the car’s fuel. Whether a person speaks English or French, or both, depends on what they have the opportunity to learn from their environment. It does not depend upon nature. Nobody is born with a genetic ability to speak a particular language such as English or French. For example, a young child born in England with English parents, who goes to live in France at an early age, will quickly learn French. But this same child will probably also learn English if that is the language spoken with the child’s parents in the home. The general ability to learn a language is natural. But the opportunity to learn a particular language depends on nurture, on environment, on learning and education.
How Nature and Nurture can affect each other
It also seems that nature and nurture can have an effect on each other. In an experiment a group of employers was asked to consider hiring job applicants who had been ranked by whether they were considered to be good looking. When the employer only saw the written applications of the candidates their looks had no effect on hiring decisions. The looks could not affect the employers’ decisions because they could not see the applicants. But when telephone interviews were included people regarded as good looking received more job offers even when the employers had not seen them. Those conducting the experiments concluded that the applicants who were regarded as good looking had experienced during their life, which led them to higher degrees of confidence in their phone voices resulting in a higher level of job offers.
So something that might start as a purely natural attribute (the way a person looks) might come to affect the person’s behaviour through environmental experiences (the way people are treated and react to others, because of their looks).
How to tell if a trait is Natural or Environmental
The ability to learn speak is not the only trait of human beings that seems to be an essential, or natural, part of being human. There are others. One way of deciding whether or not a trait is natural, or develops from the environment is to study whether or not that trait exists across all human societies or only exists only in particular societies. If it exists in all human societies then there is a good chance that the trait is natural, it does not need to be learned. If the trait only exists in some societies, but not others, then there is a good chance that the behaviour is learned from the particular culture.
Apart from the ability to learn language there are some other traits that appear to exist across all human societies and which are unique or “natural” to human beings but not to all other animals. These traits include the carrying out of rituals including, for example, song and dance, mourning of the dead, and the possession of consciousness- awareness of the self and others.
Of course there is a great deal of variety in the way that different societies or cultures follow, or live out, these traits. Different societies have different rituals, or may mourn their dead in different ways. These differences are learned. But it seems that it is natural for human beings to carry out rituals, or mourn their dead, in one way or another.
However there remain areas where there is a great deal of disagreement over whether certain behaviour is the result of nature and nurture. Some people believe that it is natural for girls to like playing with dolls or to prefer the colour pink and for boys to enjoy playing football or to prefer blue. Others believe this behaviour is learned or conditioned because of what is regarded as “normal” behaviour by traditional society which is to give girls dolls (to train them to accept their eventual role as mothers) and to give boys footballs (to train them to be competitive).
Nature Nurture and Political Views
The view a person takes on the importance of nature or nurture may affect the person’s opinions about history, ethics and politics.
Conservative people mostly think that society can not, or should not, change too much or too fast. Conservatives often view human nature as fairly much fixed. They may believe that God created human beings as sinners. In the 1800’s, in Victorian England, this resulted in the widespread view that children should be seen and not heard and that children had very few, if any, rights. Children were commonly regarded as essentially naughty. The correct approach was thought to be that they needed strict discipline in order for them to avoid becoming bad people as adults. Not all conservatives still think this way. But generally they still tend to the view that government can not really do much to change the essentially selfish nature of people, and that its main role is to create laws and a strong police force to keep order, protect private property and repress or punish evil behaviour.
More modern forms of conservatism may place the role of genes in a similar position to the role older forms of conservatism gave God. Before the scientific discovery of genes, conservatives tended to believe that human nature was more or less fixed because God had made people a particular way. Some conservatives still think this way. But others think that human nature is more or less fixed because of the way genes determine behaviour. In either case, if one takes the view that there is little, or nothing, that can be done to change human behaviour, other than perhaps to punish wrongdoers, it is easy to reach the conclusion that government policy, or the way society operates, will not have much effect on how people turn out. People will be happy or sad, energetic or lazy, strong or weak depending on how God made them or because of their individual genes.
The opposite of conservatives are people who tend to believe in positive change or progress. Depending on the extent of the changes that they support, or how fast they would like to see changes occur, they may be referred to as liberals, social democrats or revolutionaries. Though they will often disagree with each other about many issues, they tend to hold different views from conservatives when it comes to human nature and the role of government. They will generally view human nature as less fixed, or at least think that human beings can change, for the better or for the worse, depending upon how they are treated both within the family and by the broader society. Government and the social environment can therefore have a real impact on how people behave and can influence whether humanity as a whole can improve or whether it is possible for governments to give more people the opportunity to live happier lives.
Reformers will tend to the view that government policies can change the way the broader society operates including the way children are brought up and the experiences that they have in the environment outside the family. Government policies can affect things like education or the way parents are helped with child rearing. They can adopt policies to encourage employment in the knowledge that unemployment can negatively affect how parents interact with their children or the opportunities that they can give them both within and outside the family.
The way that genes and environment interact is often argued about in the context of many social issues. Here we can examine two examples in some more depth- the issue of why there are more people in modern societies who are overweight or obese and the issue of same sex attraction.
The case of more overweight people
It is clear a person’s genes may effect a person’s appetite or how easily a person becomes fat- some people are naturally skinnier than others because that is they way they were born. They have faster or slower metabolisms that burn fat at different rates.
But while there have always been differences between individuals as to how easily they burn fat it is also clear that in modern industrial societies today there are many more overweight people than used to be the case. You only have to look at a photo of a group of people from say the 1920’s and compare it to a photo of a group of people today and you will probably notice a far higher proportion or overweight or obese people in the more recent photo. Why is this?
The way societies operate, or the environment, clearly seems to have been a cause of the increase in the number of people who are overweight. There are now many more jobs that require less physical activity than used to be the case, so many people get less exercise from work than when work required greater physical effort. And there is now much more widespread consumption of processed foods that are high in sugar and fat, including so called “fast food”.
So while an individual’s genes might still affect how easily he or she puts on weight, the fact that there are now many more overweight people overall than there used to be suggests that social factors are likely to have contributed to this problem.
The case of Same Sex Attraction
For a long time it was illegal for people of the same sex to have sex with each other. In most modern societies this is no longer illegal though in other societies these sexual relationships are still heavily punished. The main historical reasons for attitudes against same sex relationships are religious teachings in Judaism, Christianity and Islam against sex between people of the same sex.
Even today, many believers in these religions (although not all) are against same sex relationships and against marriage between people of the same sex.
Some argue that whether or not somebody is sexually attracted to another person is purely a matter of choice. Others argue that same sex or opposite sexual attraction are determined by genetic make up. Still others argue that sexual attraction is a result of things that occur during childhood.
For those who have no moral objection to same sex relationships, the cause of same sex attraction may be unimportant. For others, especially those who believe religious teachings that sex between people of the same sex is sinful, the cause of same sex attraction may be seen as important.
If, for example, a person believes that same sex attraction is sinful and is simply a matter of choice, then this could easily lead to the view that the same sex attracted person should simply change the way they behave or, if they find this difficult, to pray to God to ask for help to rid of themselves of same sex attraction.
If however one believes that same sex attraction results from a gene a person is born with, this might lead to the view that such attraction is natural for people with these gene. If a person believes in God and also believes that same sex attraction is determined by a person’s genes, this could lead to the question as to why God would have created same sex attracted people, if God did not intend that they should have sex with each other.
Identical twins have the same genetic makeup. By studying twins who were raised apart and other twins who were raised in the same household, scientists can note the influence of both genetics and environment. Although identical twins brought up apart from each other are far more similar in personality than other people, who do not have identical genes, the twin studies have confirmed that both nature and nurture are important in our development.
Behaviour which can be learned by a person can be positive or negative or sometimes even self destructive behaviour. For example, we now understand that it is often the case that negative, self destructive or other cruel behaviour develops in people who were themselves treated badly in early childhood.
Surprisingly there is still some controversy over the issue of how important positive experiences in the early years of childhood are to the development of intelligence, personality and positive behaviour. Most people believe that these positive experiences are very important.
But the Canadian scientist Stephen Pinkier has a different view. He acknowledges that extreme neglect or abuse in childhood can negatively affect a person throughout their life. And he acknowledges that parents can pass on skills like reading, or playing a musical instrument to their children, and can contribute to their children having a happy childhood. But he says that most studies indicate that whatever experiences brothers and sisters share by growing up in the same home or culture make little or no difference to the kind of people they turn into in terms of intelligence, tastes and personality.
But aren’t the skills a person develops relevant to the opportunity to apply intelligence, the tastes a person develops and to the personalities that they form? If parents teach children things like reading or how to play music, it seems likely that they teach them other things. These things may include how to develop responsibility, whether to enjoy certain types of foods or clothes, certain values- many of things that go to making a person the person that they are.
What about the effect of nature and nurture on people’s attitudes towards poverty and inequality?
It seems clear that for large numbers of the world’s people, getting access to basic rights such as food, decent housing, education and so on has nothing to do with how smart or strong they are, or even how much effort they make. It has nothing to do with nature and much to do with bad luck – the fact that they happened to be born into a poor family in a poor country.
But what if everybody did start out with much the same opportunities? Would it then be fair and just for the children of people whose genes make them smarter, or stronger, or better behaved, to get better food, better houses or better education?
This is a tricky question. Nobody does anything to deserve “good” or “bad” genes. And nobody does much to deserve being born into a family that is rich or poor, or kind or cruel. It is just luck. Even within the same families some children might be born with genes that mean they are born with certain advantages whereas other children might inherit a disability. This luck is sometimes referred to as “the dip into the gene pool”. This means that there is a pool of certain genes that you might inherit from your parents but that the particular mix of genes that you happen to get is luck.
Others argue that a person’s genetic make up forms a very important part of who the person is and that society should reward people for being intelligent or well-behaved even if they did not actually do much to end up that way.
The American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) came up with an interesting theory on how to think about fairness. Rawls thought that in order to think about what sort of society is best we should always imagine that we do not know what sort of position you will have in it- whether you will be rich, poor, able bodied, good looking, ugly, male, female, smart, dumb etc. He thought that from this position all reasonable people would come out in favour of equality, in case they happened to be born into difficult circumstances, or with an unlucky dip into the gene pool. But was Rawls right? Might some people decide that it is better to gamble that, whether due to nature or nurture, they might come out ahead?
In the future the debate about nature and nurture is likely to become even more complicated because of the issue of human genetic engineering. This involves the changing of a child or adult’s genetic makeup. The development of this technology holds the promise of curing terrible genetic diseases. But there are also concerns that the technology could also end up being used to alter appearance, intelligence or other character traits- so-called “designer” babies.