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The Controversy of Nature and Nurture


Kirsten Siebach

Are we the way we are because of our genes? How much of our personality and characteristics are because of the way we were brought up, and our experiences, and how much is because of the way we were wired when we were born? The argument of nature, our genetics, and nurture, our upbringing, has been going on for years, and scientists are still struggling to find out why we are who we are.

If you asked 100 randomly selected genetic scientists their view on the controversy of nature vs. nurture, you would get 100 entirely different answers, and almost every one would make perfect sense with the evidence that supports it. As Kenneth Rothman said, "It is easy to show that 100 percent of any disease is environmentally caused, and 100 percent is inherited as well." Thus, it is a heated debate that has been going on for decades, one that may never stop. (N vs. N; an Unnecessary Debate)

In February 1999, we completed the Human Genome project. Since then, scientists have been looking for new clues in our DNA, trying to find hints of certain genes and what they mean, and what that means for human society.

Most scientists base their conclusions about nature and nurture by studying identical twins that were separated at birth. These twin sets tell us many things about nature vs. nurture. We can compare how they acted in different environments, see how many things they did that were surprisingly alike, how they score on IQ tests, if they answer many of the questions the same way, and how similar their health records are. (Farber, 4)

One living example of the idea that your genes say much about who you are the Lewis and Springer Twins. When they were born, they were both adopted into different families. They first met when they were forty years old, and they then found that the similarities between them were extraordinary. Both were named Jim, both got dogs and named them "Toy," they had the same hobbies, jobs, handwriting, weight, appearance, and test results. Because of this, and other similar cases, some scientists believe that genes are the dominant force in creating who we are. (Farber, 33)

Some scientists however, think that our genes have very little to do with the specific things that we do. Scientists started thinking this more when we first finished the human genome and discovered that we only had 30,000 genes. Until we finished the genome, we thought there could be genes for nearly all of our characteristics, but when we learned we only had 30,000 genes we decided that was not enough genes to have that many different genetic characteristics. (Clark, 102)

One of the main questions that has been asked is, "Does Genetics influence intelligence?" Could social Darwinism, the belief that some people are farther along in evolution than others and thus have social advantages, be alive in our society today? Some scientists say yes, while others say no way.

Francis Galton says, "Men who are gifted with high abilities... easily rise through all the obstacles caused by inferiority of social rank." He believes that genetics has a great deal to do with intelligence. He argues that social advantages are not enough to make an average man great; however, social inferiorities are not enough to make a smart man "average."(Roleff, 25)

Walter Lippman said, "Children of favored classes test higher on the whole than other children." He argues that a child of a prominent person has a 1 out of 4 chance of becoming just as prominent, while an ordinary child has a 1 in 4,000 chance at becoming just as distinguished.(Roleff, 49)

The controversy between nature and nurture could affect each of us in many ways. One of the main ways it could change our lives would be if scientists found what triggers diseases like cancer. They could find cures easier if they knew exactly what caused illnesses. Also, from what scientists know now, we can say that many diseases like cancer are a mix of nature and nurture, and that if while we were still infants, we could take out the "nurture," then we would no longer be affected by those diseases. Such research could potentially have an incredibly large impact on our health and lifespan. (Clark, 35)

I became interested in this subject last year when my class watched some videos on genetics and one of them mentioned this controversy. I chose it because it is a controversy that will rage on, and which we will no doubt continue to investigate.


Clark, William R. and Michael Grunstein. Are we Hardwired?. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Farber, Susan. Identical Twins Reared Apart. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1981

"Nature vs. Nurture: An Unnecessary Debate." A Public Health Perspective. ;July. 2000. 20 Nov. 2001. http://www.cdc.gov/genetics/info/files/text/nvsn.pdf

Roleff, Tamara L. Genetics and Intelligence. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc, 1996