Western Governors University
September 21, 2014
The Nature Nurture Debate
Why do we act the way we act? What determines who we are and what we will become? Are we born or do we become a certain way? Do our genes determine our intelligence, personality and moral code or are these traits created by the environment in which we live? These questions have consumed philosophers, scholars and statesmen alike since the dawn of time and will likely never be answered. The quest to determine the respective role genetics and individual environment play in human behavior, however have led to an interesting debate neatly coined by the phrase “nature versus nurture.”
In psychology, proponents of genetics or nature being the controlling force behind an individual’s behavior are called nativists. Nativists suggest that all individual characteristics are simply the result of genetic differences and that we are who we are by being born different (McLeod, 2007). Thus, an individual is either born smart, healthy, clean and hardworking or he is not. By its very nature, then this theory discounts self-awareness, personal growth and improvement through learned behavior. Essentially, a person is genetically fated to be whom he is at the moment of conception and any individual success is based almost entirely on heredity and not personal achievement, parenting or education. Taken to its logical extreme, then, nativism not only supports but implores the imposition of eugenics---controlled human breeding so that only good genes are passed on to future generations.
The moral implications of nativism have perhaps helped popularize the other end of the spectrum in the nature versus nurture debate: empiricism. Empiricists believe that individuals are born with a clean slate and that personal traits and characteristics are formed through experiences or to put it another way, nurtured by the environment (Cherry, n.d.). Thus, according empiricists, how a person behaves is the direct result of parenting, childhood observations and other environmental factors and not biology. A person is aggressive because he has learned to be aggressive, the bond a child has for his mother is the result of good parenting and even an individual’s intellect is the result of environmental stimulation as a child (McLeod, 2007). Because empiricism suggests that all human behavior and traits are acquired through learned behavior, it logically dictates that to promote a happy and healthy individual, society should control every person’s environment. Therefore, taken to its extreme, not unlike nativism, empiricism requires the direct intervention and control of the individual.
Over the years scientists have attempted to demonstrate through the study of twins the theories underlying the nature versus nurture debate. Two such studies were conducted by the University of Minnesota in 1990 and 2002 respectively. In 1990, Bouchard and McGue studied identical and fraternal twins raised separately, with the specific goal to understand how environmental factors affect adult personality (Bouchard, 1990, p.266). The participants in this study consisted of 45 sets of identical twins and 26 sets of fraternal twins (Bouchard, 1990, p.263). All twins had been separated early in life, raised in separate homes and with the exception of three sets of twins, were of the same sex (Bouchard, 1990, p.266). Over a one week span, the twins were medically and psychologically assessed for approximately 50 hours using the California Psychological Inventory (CPI) and Family Environmental Scale (FES), each designed to score behavioral and socio-environmental traits (Bouchard, 1990, p.265-266). Specifically, the CPI scored the twins on five personality traits: extraversion, emotional stability, flexibility, consensuality, and femininity (Bouchard, 1990, p.273). While the FES scored the twins on three family environment factors: cohesion versus conflict, positive