The Nature vs. Nurture debate is the scientific, cultural, and philosophical debate about whether human culture, behavior, and personality are caused primarily by nature or nurture. Nature is often defined in this debate as genetic or hormone-based behaviors, while nurture is most commonly defined as environment and experience.
The nature versus nurture debate is an ongoing one. The modern debate often centers around the effect genes have as opposed to the influence early environment and development have on human personalities. As cultural mores have changed, so have popular understandings of this debate. In the 1960s, for example, psychologists—and pop culture in general—were heavily influenced by the theories of behaviorism. This led to a widespread belief that human personality is primarily influenced by experience and training. Researcher John Money attempted to demonstrate that gender is a product of early conditioning by experimenting with raising a boy, whose circumcision was botched, as a girl. The experiment seemed successful in the beginning, but ultimately was a failure.
In recent years, the nature side of the debate has gained more attention, with popular headlines trumpeting newly-discovered genes for virtually every behavior. Evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are two branches of science that attempt to demonstrate the evolutionary roots of human behavior. Books authored by scientists in these fields are extremely popular. However, critics still emphasize the important role of early childhood environment, development, and cultural influences, and have argued that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are deterministic pseudosciences.
Many scientists eschew the debate by emphasizing “nature x nurture.” In this schema, nature and nurture are inseparable. Some genes, for example, cannot be activated without certain environmental inputs. The development of vision is a prime example of this. People cannot develop normal sight without exposure to visual stimuli. Similarly, some environmental inputs may be undermined by some genes. For example, some lifelong smokers may never experience smoking-related illnesses, and this may be due at least in part to their genes. Environmental toxins may alter the expression of some genes, and genes for many behaviors presumed to have a genetic basis have not been discovered. Developmental systems theory, among other theories, presents an alternative to this debate that does not require scientists to advocate either for nature or nurture.
Last updated: 07-15-2013