Nature versus nurture

relative importance of an individual's innate qualities ("nature" in the sense of nativism or innatism) as compared to an individual's personal experiences ("nurture" in the sense of empiricism or behaviorism)

Nature versus nurture is a debate concerning the relative importance of an individual's innate qualities ("nature," i.e. nativism, or innatism) versus personal experiences ("nurture," i.e. empiricism or behaviorism) in determining or causing individual differences in physical and behavioral traits.

The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a human is as the kind of situation in which he/ she finds themselves that determines how they will act.
Every human mind you've ever looked at … is a product not just of natural selection but of cultural redesign of enormous proportions.


  • The keystone of the new social structure, the pivotal factor of advancing civilization, the guide of the new religion, is biology; for man is an animal, and his characteristics, his requirements, and his reactions can be recorded and studied quite as carefully and precisely as those of any other animal.
  • Every human mind you've ever looked at … is a product not just of natural selection but of cultural redesign of enormous proportions.
  • Man acquires at birth, through heredity, a biological constitution which we must consider fixed and unalterable, including the natural urges which are characteristic of the human species. In addition, during his lifetime, he acquires a cultural constitution which he adopts from society through communication and through many other types of influences. It is this cultural constitution which, with the passage of time, is subject to change and which determines to a very large extent the relationship between the individual and society.
  • Variations in individual "educational attainment" (essentially, whether students complete high school or college) cannot be attributed to inherited genetic differences. That is the finding of a new study reported in Science magazine (Rietveld et al. 2013). According to this research, fully 98% of all variation in educational attainment is accounted for by factors other than a person’s simple genetic makeup.
  • The appeal of biological determinism is that it offers plausible, scientific explanations for societal contradictions engendered by capitalism. If Type-II diabetes is reduced to the problem of genetics (which it surely is to some degree), then we don’t have to think about the rise of obesity and its underlying causes: the agro-business monopoly, income inequality, and class-based disparities in food quality. Combine this with the prevalence of drug-based solutions to disease pushed by the pharmaceutical industry and it is no surprise that we are left with the impression that complex social phenomena are reducible to simple scientific fact.
  • Biological determinism, to paraphrase the great literary critic Roberto Schwarz, is a socially necessary illusion well-grounded in appearance. Much like art and literature, science "is historically shaped and  …  registers the social process to which it owes its existence." Scientists inherit the prejudices of the societies in which they live and work. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the modern incarnation of biological determinism with its decidedly neoliberal assumptions about humans and societies.
  • The history of biology is littered with horrifying examples of the misuse of genetics (and evolutionary theory) to justify power and inequality: evolutionary justifications for slavery and colonialism, scientific explanations for rape and patriarchy, and genetic explanations for the inherent superiority of the ruling elite.
  • The practical reformer has continually to demand that changes be made in things which are supported by powerful and widely-spread feelings, or to question the apparent necessity and indefeasibleness of established facts; and it is often an indispensable part of his argument to show, how these powerful feelings had their origin, and how those facts came to seem necessary and indefeasible. There is therefore a natural hostility between him and a philosophy which discourages the explanation of feelings and moral facts by circumstances and association, and prefers to treat them as ultimate elements of human nature; a philosophy which is addicted to holding up favorite doctrines as intuitive truths, and deems intuition to be the voice of Nature and of God, speaking with an authority higher than that of our reason. In particular, I have long felt that the prevailing tendency to regard all the marked distinctions of human character as innate, and in the main indelible, and to ignore the irresistible proofs that by far the greater part of those differences, whether between individuals, races, or sexes, are such as not only might but naturally would be produced by differences in circumstances, is one of the chief hindrances to the rational treatment of great social questions, and one of the greatest stumbling blocks to human improvement.
    • John Stuart Mill, Autobiography (1873), Ch. 7: General View of the Remainder of My Life (p. 192)
  • "The difference in natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of...The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education."
    • Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (1776), Book 1. Ch. 2
  • "To the [New York Times] Editor: Re My Genome, Myself: Seeking Clues in DNA (“The DNA Age” series, front page, Nov. 17, 2007): Wanting to know more about ourselves is both a strength and a hazard. The lure of genetic data can be compelling but misleading, for no list of tiny variants in one’s genetic code can reliably predict one’s future regarding cancer, heart attacks or diabetes, let alone I.Q., addiction or gullibility. Amy Harmon’s humorous account of her own genome search may still leave many readers willing to send off a little saliva — and a big check — to a genome company. Those companies are selling only a fragment of your identity. Knowing that you have this or that disease-associated SNP in your genes tells you very little or helps only with rare diseases. What causes the SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) to be expressed, to spring into action or to remain dormant? Why can identical twins, with genomes alike down to the last SNP, develop different diseases? What if you smoke, toil for years in a high-stress job or live in a polluted neighborhood? Predispositions are just the beginning. Your future depends on much more than your genetic code. Ms. Harmon would have done better to spend her money on a good gym, and The Times would serve us better by emphasizing the limits of genetic knowledge.
    • Susan M. Reverby, Ph.D., Jay Kaufman, Ph.D., and H. Jack Geiger, M.D., Getting to Know Your DNA, letter to the editor of the New York Times, November 23, 2007, Cambridge, Mass.

See also