Nature vs Nurture

This is one of the most often asked questions about human behavior: what part of us is nature and what part nurture? Like every other behavioral question the answer to this one is the same: little bit of both. The natural response at this point is to ask why bother writing about it, answer seems simple enough. To which I say the answer is simple but there is a lot to learn by looking at the various scenarios in which either nature or nurture may dominate. I have also noticed in the past that this topic riles up people no end and that is as good a justification as any for writing about it. 

From a purely physical sciences stand point, we could look at a person as an entity born with certain attributes at time zero and as time goes by the said entity interacts with its environment in a fashion that is also a function of its’ time-zero attributes. These attributes in turn are modified by the environmental interactions. I have not said anything revolutionary here: we are born with certain traits, we are influenced by our surroundings and we grow and change. I am sure however that there are certain traits in all of us that have not changed one bit since we were born. That’s where genetics comes in. As I grow older it is very obvious to me that I really am my parents’ son. I can see for example that my irritation when people waste my time comes from dad and my emotional intuitiveness comes from my mom. We share our DNA with our siblings but more often than not our siblings are completely different people than ourselves (which is all for the best anyway).

We tend to lean on the side of the nature vs nurture question that makes us feel good about ourselves. We like to think that everything that is good in ourselves is something we worked on and everything that is bad we were born with. Incidentally we use the reverse logic when we are talking about other people. Let’s say you are an engineer and try to learn a musical instrument and fail, 9 times out of 10 you will say that you were not born with musical genes i.e you would say nature is the dominating cause of the failure. But if I asked you a similar question about your friend, you will say that your friend did not try hard enough.

We can frame our question in a slightly more specific manner to really get to the answer: is our DNA all there is to us? Hint hint: everybody should be saying no to this question. I guess I am taking nurture’s side after all. We are all born with a certain “potential”. What we end up doing with that potential is very much a factor of the values instilled in us by our parents or other parent like figures in our lives. These “nurturing” individuals in our lives are the ones who taught us empathy, compassion and helped trained our moral compass. Our whole society in fact is based on the assumption that with proper nurture we can make decent human beings out of anyone (excepting certain folk who may literally be born evil). Even from a more selfish standpoint this makes sense. We may never exceed our potential but our nurture will determine how close we get to fulfilling it.



4 comments on “Nature vs Nurture

  1. In response to “youwishyouknewwhoiwas”, it’s possible evolution hasn’t quite caught up with you, so it is not your fault your response is “one-celled” 🙂 Okay, I’m really only kidding…but I, on the other hand, find the topic fascinating. This post makes me giggle as I think of all the times I’ve heard people rationalize their own rotundness as a result of being naturally “big-boned” 🙂 Kapil, there was a segment on NPR last year that delves into this topic as it relates to Neuroscience and psychopaths….in the process of researching the topic, the researcher makes an interesting discovery about himself!

  2. Actually for pianists it is ~50% nurture (practice) and only 7% nature (working memory capacity).

    It was touched upon in a recent NY times aricle -> “Sorry, Strivers – Talent Matters” .

    Also check out the graph in the critique of this article at ‘Study Hacks’

    As you can imagine I am firmly in the nurture camp 😉

  3. Pingback: No Pain, No Gain — Nature and Nurture part II |

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