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The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

Genetic and Environmental Influences and How They Interact

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

nature vs nurture philosophy essay

Verywell / Joshua Seong

  • Definitions
  • Interaction
  • Contemporary Views

Nature refers to how genetics influence an individual's personality, whereas nurture refers to how their environment (including relationships and experiences) impacts their development. Whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role in personality and development is one of the oldest philosophical debates within the field of psychology .

Learn how each is defined, along with why the issue of nature vs. nurture continues to arise. We also share a few examples of when arguments on this topic typically occur, how the two factors interact with each other, and contemporary views that exist in the debate of nature vs. nurture as it stands today.

Nature and Nurture Defined

To better understand the nature vs. nurture argument, it helps to know what each of these terms means.

  • Nature refers largely to our genetics . It includes the genes we are born with and other hereditary factors that can impact how our personality is formed and influence the way that we develop from childhood through adulthood.
  • Nurture encompasses the environmental factors that impact who we are. This includes our early childhood experiences, the way we were raised , our social relationships, and the surrounding culture.

A few biologically determined characteristics include genetic diseases, eye color, hair color, and skin color. Other characteristics are tied to environmental influences, such as how a person behaves, which can be influenced by parenting styles and learned experiences.

For example, one child might learn through observation and reinforcement to say please and thank you. Another child might learn to behave aggressively by observing older children engage in violent behavior on the playground.

The Debate of Nature vs. Nurture

The nature vs. nurture debate centers on the contributions of genetics and environmental factors to human development. Some philosophers, such as Plato and Descartes, suggested that certain factors are inborn or occur naturally regardless of environmental influences.

Advocates of this point of view believe that all of our characteristics and behaviors are the result of evolution. They contend that genetic traits are handed down from parents to their children and influence the individual differences that make each person unique.

Other well-known thinkers, such as John Locke, believed in what is known as tabula rasa which suggests that the mind begins as a blank slate . According to this notion, everything that we are is determined by our experiences.

Behaviorism is a good example of a theory rooted in this belief as behaviorists feel that all actions and behaviors are the results of conditioning. Theorists such as John B. Watson believed that people could be trained to do and become anything, regardless of their genetic background.

People with extreme views are called nativists and empiricists. Nativists take the position that all or most behaviors and characteristics are the result of inheritance. Empiricists take the position that all or most behaviors and characteristics result from learning.

Examples of Nature vs. Nurture

One example of when the argument of nature vs. nurture arises is when a person achieves a high level of academic success . Did they do so because they are genetically predisposed to elevated levels of intelligence, or is their success a result of an enriched environment?

The argument of nature vs. nurture can also be made when it comes to why a person behaves in a certain way. If a man abuses his wife and kids, for instance, is it because he was born with violent tendencies, or is violence something he learned by observing others in his life when growing up?

Nature vs. Nurture in Psychology

Throughout the history of psychology , the debate of nature vs. nurture has continued to stir up controversy. Eugenics, for example, was a movement heavily influenced by the nativist approach.

Psychologist Francis Galton coined the terms 'nature versus nurture' and 'eugenics' and believed that intelligence resulted from genetics. Galton also felt that intelligent individuals should be encouraged to marry and have many children, while less intelligent individuals should be discouraged from reproducing.

The value placed on nature vs. nurture can even vary between the different branches of psychology , with some branches taking a more one-sided approach. In biopsychology , for example, researchers conduct studies exploring how neurotransmitters influence behavior, emphasizing the role of nature.

In social psychology , on the other hand, researchers might conduct studies looking at how external factors such as peer pressure and social media influence behaviors, stressing the importance of nurture. Behaviorism is another branch that focuses on the impact of the environment on behavior.

Nature vs. Nurture in Child Development

Some psychological theories of child development place more emphasis on nature and others focus more on nurture. An example of a nativist theory involving child development is Chomsky's concept of a language acquisition device (LAD). According to this theory, all children are born with an instinctive mental capacity that allows them to both learn and produce language.

An example of an empiricist child development theory is Albert Bandura's social learning theory . This theory says that people learn by observing the behavior of others. In his famous Bobo doll experiment , Bandura demonstrated that children could learn aggressive behaviors simply by observing another person acting aggressively.

Nature vs. Nurture in Personality Development

There is also some argument as to whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role in the development of one's personality. The answer to this question varies depending on which personality development theory you use.

According to behavioral theories, our personality is a result of the interactions we have with our environment, while biological theories suggest that personality is largely inherited. Then there are psychodynamic theories of personality that emphasize the impact of both.

Nature vs. Nurture in Mental Illness Development

One could argue that either nature or nurture contributes to mental health development. Some causes of mental illness fall on the nature side of the debate, including changes to or imbalances with chemicals in the brain. Genetics can also contribute to mental illness development, increasing one's risk of a certain disorder or disease.

Mental disorders with some type of genetic component include autism , attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder , major depression , and schizophrenia .

Other explanations for mental illness are environmental. This includes being exposed to environmental toxins, such as drugs or alcohol, while still in utero. Certain life experiences can also influence mental illness development, such as witnessing a traumatic event, leading to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Nature vs. Nurture in Mental Health Therapy

Different types of mental health treatment can also rely more heavily on either nature or nurture in their treatment approach. One of the goals of many types of therapy is to uncover any life experiences that may have contributed to mental illness development (nurture).

However, genetics (nature) can play a role in treatment as well. For instance, research indicates that a person's genetic makeup can impact how their body responds to antidepressants. Taking this into consideration is important for getting that person the help they need.

Interaction Between Nature and Nurture

Which is stronger: nature or nurture? Many researchers consider the interaction between heredity and environment—nature with nurture as opposed to nature versus nurture—to be the most important influencing factor of all.

For example, perfect pitch is the ability to detect the pitch of a musical tone without any reference. Researchers have found that this ability tends to run in families and might be tied to a single gene. However, they've also discovered that possessing the gene is not enough as musical training during early childhood is needed for this inherited ability to manifest itself.

Height is another example of a trait influenced by an interaction between nature and nurture. A child might inherit the genes for height. However, if they grow up in a deprived environment where proper nourishment isn't received, they might never attain the height they could have had if they'd grown up in a healthier environment.

A newer field of study that aims to learn more about the interaction between genes and environment is epigenetics . Epigenetics seeks to explain how environment can impact the way in which genes are expressed.

Some characteristics are biologically determined, such as eye color, hair color, and skin color. Other things, like life expectancy and height, have a strong biological component but are also influenced by environmental factors and lifestyle.

Contemporary Views of Nature vs. Nurture

Most experts recognize that neither nature nor nurture is stronger than the other. Instead, both factors play a critical role in who we are and who we become. Not only that but nature and nurture interact with each other in important ways all throughout our lifespan.

As a result, many in this field are interested in seeing how genes modulate environmental influences and vice versa. At the same time, this debate of nature vs. nurture still rages on in some areas, such as in the origins of homosexuality and influences on intelligence .

While a few people take the extreme nativist or radical empiricist approach, the reality is that there is not a simple way to disentangle the multitude of forces that exist in personality and human development. Instead, these influences include genetic factors, environmental factors, and how each intermingles with the other.

Schoneberger T. Three myths from the language acquisition literature . Anal Verbal Behav . 2010;26(1):107-31. doi:10.1007/bf03393086

National Institutes of Health. Common genetic factors found in 5 mental disorders .

Pain O, Hodgson K, Trubetskoy V, et al. Identifying the common genetic basis of antidepressant response . Biol Psychiatry Global Open Sci . 2022;2(2):115-126. doi:10.1016/j.bpsgos.2021.07.008

Moulton C. Perfect pitch reconsidered . Clin Med J . 2014;14(5):517-9 doi:10.7861/clinmedicine.14-5-517

Levitt M. Perceptions of nature, nurture and behaviour . Life Sci Soc Policy . 2013;9:13. doi:10.1186/2195-7819-9-13

Bandura A, Ross D, Ross, SA. Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models . J Abnorm Soc Psychol. 1961;63(3):575-582. doi:10.1037/h0045925

Chomsky N. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax .

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Watson JB. Behaviorism .

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

Nature vs. Nurture Debate In Psychology

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Editor-in-Chief for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, PhD., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years of experience in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Learn about our Editorial Process

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

On This Page:

The nature vs. nurture debate in psychology concerns the relative importance of an individual’s innate qualities (nature) versus personal experiences (nurture) in determining or causing individual differences in physical and behavioral traits. While early theories favored one factor over the other, contemporary views recognize a complex interplay between genes and environment in shaping behavior and development.

Key Takeaways

  • Nature is what we think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors.
  • Nurture is generally taken as the influence of external factors after conception, e.g., the product of exposure, life experiences, and learning on an individual.
  • Behavioral genetics has enabled psychology to quantify the relative contribution of nature and nurture concerning specific psychological traits.
  • Instead of defending extreme nativist or nurturist views, most psychological researchers are now interested in investigating how nature and nurture interact in a host of qualitatively different ways.
  • For example, epigenetics is an emerging area of research that shows how environmental influences affect the expression of genes.
The nature-nurture debate is concerned with the relative contribution that both influences make to human behavior, such as personality, cognitive traits, temperament and psychopathology.

Examples of Nature vs. Nurture

Nature vs. nurture in child development.

In child development, the nature vs. nurture debate is evident in the study of language acquisition . Researchers like Chomsky (1957) argue that humans are born with an innate capacity for language (nature), known as universal grammar, suggesting that genetics play a significant role in language development.

Conversely, the behaviorist perspective, exemplified by Skinner (1957), emphasizes the role of environmental reinforcement and learning (nurture) in language acquisition.

Twin studies have provided valuable insights into this debate, demonstrating that identical twins raised apart may share linguistic similarities despite different environments, suggesting a strong genetic influence (Bouchard, 1979)

However, environmental factors, such as exposure to language-rich environments, also play a crucial role in language development, highlighting the intricate interplay between nature and nurture in child development.

Nature vs. Nurture in Personality Development

The nature vs. nurture debate in personality psychology centers on the origins of personality traits. Twin studies have shown that identical twins reared apart tend to have more similar personalities than fraternal twins, indicating a genetic component to personality (Bouchard, 1994).

However, environmental factors, such as parenting styles, cultural influences, and life experiences, also shape personality.

For example, research by Caspi et al. (2003) demonstrated that a particular gene (MAOA) can interact with childhood maltreatment to increase the risk of aggressive behavior in adulthood.

This highlights that genetic predispositions and environmental factors contribute to personality development, and their interaction is complex and multifaceted.

Nature vs. Nurture in Mental Illness Development

The nature vs. nurture debate in mental health explores the etiology of depression. Genetic studies have identified specific genes associated with an increased vulnerability to depression, indicating a genetic component (Sullivan et al., 2000).

However, environmental factors, such as adverse life events and chronic stress during childhood, also play a significant role in the development of depressive disorders (Dube et al.., 2002; Keller et al., 2007)

The diathesis-stress model posits that individuals inherit a genetic predisposition (diathesis) to a disorder, which is then activated or exacerbated by environmental stressors (Monroe & Simons, 1991).

This model illustrates how nature and nurture interact to influence mental health outcomes.

Nature vs. Nurture of Intelligence

The nature vs. nurture debate in intelligence examines the relative contributions of genetic and environmental factors to cognitive abilities.

Intelligence is highly heritable, with about 50% of variance in IQ attributed to genetic factors, based on studies of twins, adoptees, and families (Plomin & Spinath, 2004).

Heritability of intelligence increases with age, from about 20% in infancy to as high as 80% in adulthood, suggesting amplifying effects of genes over time.

However, environmental influences, such as access to quality education and stimulating environments, also significantly impact intelligence.

Shared environmental influences like family background are more influential in childhood, whereas non-shared experiences are more important later in life.

Research by Flynn (1987) showed that average IQ scores have increased over generations, suggesting that environmental improvements, known as the Flynn effect , can lead to substantial gains in cognitive abilities.

Molecular genetics provides tools to identify specific genes and understand their pathways and interactions. However, progress has been slow for complex traits like intelligence. Identified genes have small effect sizes (Plomin & Spinath, 2004).

Overall, intelligence results from complex interplay between genes and environment over development. Molecular genetics offers promise to clarify these mechanisms. The nature vs nurture debate is outdated – both play key roles.

Nativism (Extreme Nature Position)

It has long been known that certain physical characteristics are biologically determined by genetic inheritance.

Color of eyes, straight or curly hair, pigmentation of the skin, and certain diseases (such as Huntingdon’s chorea) are all a function of the genes we inherit.

eye color genetics

These facts have led many to speculate as to whether psychological characteristics such as behavioral tendencies, personality attributes, and mental abilities are also “wired in” before we are even born.

Those who adopt an extreme hereditary position are known as nativists.  Their basic assumption is that the characteristics of the human species as a whole are a product of evolution and that individual differences are due to each person’s unique genetic code.

In general, the earlier a particular ability appears, the more likely it is to be under the influence of genetic factors. Estimates of genetic influence are called heritability.

Examples of extreme nature positions in psychology include Chomsky (1965), who proposed language is gained through the use of an innate language acquisition device. Another example of nature is Freud’s theory of aggression as being an innate drive (called Thanatos).

Characteristics and differences that are not observable at birth, but which emerge later in life, are regarded as the product of maturation. That is to say, we all have an inner “biological clock” which switches on (or off) types of behavior in a pre-programmed way.

The classic example of the way this affects our physical development are the bodily changes that occur in early adolescence at puberty.

However, nativists also argue that maturation governs the emergence of attachment in infancy , language acquisition , and even cognitive development .

Empiricism (Extreme Nurture Position)

At the other end of the spectrum are the environmentalists – also known as empiricists (not to be confused with the other empirical/scientific  approach ).

Their basic assumption is that at birth, the human mind is a tabula rasa (a blank slate) and that this is gradually “filled” as a result of experience (e.g., behaviorism ).

From this point of view, psychological characteristics and behavioral differences that emerge through infancy and childhood are the results of learning.  It is how you are brought up (nurture) that governs the psychologically significant aspects of child development and the concept of maturation applies only to the biological.

For example, Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory states that aggression is learned from the environment through observation and imitation. This is seen in his famous bobo doll experiment (Bandura, 1961).

bobo doll experiment

Also, Skinner (1957) believed that language is learned from other people via behavior-shaping techniques.

Evidence for Nature

  • Biological Approach
  • Biology of Gender
  • Medical Model

Freud (1905) stated that events in our childhood have a great influence on our adult lives, shaping our personality.

He thought that parenting is of primary importance to a child’s development , and the family as the most important feature of nurture was a common theme throughout twentieth-century psychology (which was dominated by environmentalists’ theories).

Behavioral Genetics

Researchers in the field of behavioral genetics study variation in behavior as it is affected by genes, which are the units of heredity passed down from parents to offspring.

“We now know that DNA differences are the major systematic source of psychological differences between us. Environmental effects are important but what we have learned in recent years is that they are mostly random – unsystematic and unstable – which means that we cannot do much about them.” Plomin (2018, xii)

Behavioral genetics has enabled psychology to quantify the relative contribution of nature and nurture with regard to specific psychological traits. One way to do this is to study relatives who share the same genes (nature) but a different environment (nurture). Adoption acts as a natural experiment which allows researchers to do this.

Empirical studies have consistently shown that adoptive children show greater resemblance to their biological parents, rather than their adoptive, or environmental parents (Plomin & DeFries, 1983; 1985).

Another way of studying heredity is by comparing the behavior of twins, who can either be identical (sharing the same genes) or non-identical (sharing 50% of genes). Like adoption studies, twin studies support the first rule of behavior genetics; that psychological traits are extremely heritable, about 50% on average.

The Twins in Early Development Study (TEDS) revealed correlations between twins on a range of behavioral traits, such as personality (empathy and hyperactivity) and components of reading such as phonetics (Haworth, Davis, Plomin, 2013; Oliver & Plomin, 2007; Trouton, Spinath, & Plomin, 2002).


Jenson (1969) found that the average I.Q. scores of black Americans were significantly lower than whites he went on to argue that genetic factors were mainly responsible – even going so far as to suggest that intelligence is 80% inherited.

The storm of controversy that developed around Jenson’s claims was not mainly due to logical and empirical weaknesses in his argument. It was more to do with the social and political implications that are often drawn from research that claims to demonstrate natural inequalities between social groups.

For many environmentalists, there is a barely disguised right-wing agenda behind the work of the behavioral geneticists.  In their view, part of the difference in the I.Q. scores of different ethnic groups are due to inbuilt biases in the methods of testing.

More fundamentally, they believe that differences in intellectual ability are a product of social inequalities in access to material resources and opportunities.  To put it simply children brought up in the ghetto tend to score lower on tests because they are denied the same life chances as more privileged members of society.

Now we can see why the nature-nurture debate has become such a hotly contested issue.  What begins as an attempt to understand the causes of behavioral differences often develops into a politically motivated dispute about distributive justice and power in society.

What’s more, this doesn’t only apply to the debate over I.Q.  It is equally relevant to the psychology of sex and gender , where the question of how much of the (alleged) differences in male and female behavior is due to biology and how much to culture is just as controversial.

Polygenic Inheritance

Rather than the presence or absence of single genes being the determining factor that accounts for psychological traits, behavioral genetics has demonstrated that multiple genes – often thousands, collectively contribute to specific behaviors.

Thus, psychological traits follow a polygenic mode of inheritance (as opposed to being determined by a single gene). Depression is a good example of a polygenic trait, which is thought to be influenced by around 1000 genes (Plomin, 2018).

This means a person with a lower number of these genes (under 500) would have a lower risk of experiencing depression than someone with a higher number.

The Nature of Nurture

Nurture assumes that correlations between environmental factors and psychological outcomes are caused environmentally. For example, how much parents read with their children and how well children learn to read appear to be related. Other examples include environmental stress and its effect on depression.

However, behavioral genetics argues that what look like environmental effects are to a large extent really a reflection of genetic differences (Plomin & Bergeman, 1991).

People select, modify and create environments correlated with their genetic disposition. This means that what sometimes appears to be an environmental influence (nurture) is a genetic influence (nature).

So, children that are genetically predisposed to be competent readers, will be happy to listen to their parents read them stories, and be more likely to encourage this interaction.

Interaction Effects

However, in recent years there has been a growing realization that the question of “how much” behavior is due to heredity and “how much” to the environment may itself be the wrong question.

Take intelligence as an example. Like almost all types of human behavior, it is a complex, many-sided phenomenon which reveals itself (or not!) in a great variety of ways.

The “how much” question assumes that psychological traits can all be expressed numerically and that the issue can be resolved in a quantitative manner.

Heritability statistics revealed by behavioral genetic studies have been criticized as meaningless, mainly because biologists have established that genes cannot influence development independently of environmental factors; genetic and nongenetic factors always cooperate to build traits. The reality is that nature and culture interact in a host of qualitatively different ways (Gottlieb, 2007; Johnston & Edwards, 2002).

Instead of defending extreme nativist or nurturist views, most psychological researchers are now interested in investigating how nature and nurture interact.

For example, in psychopathology , this means that both a genetic predisposition and an appropriate environmental trigger are required for a mental disorder to develop. For example, epigenetics state that environmental influences affect the expression of genes.


What is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the term used to describe inheritance by mechanisms other than through the DNA sequence of genes. For example, features of a person’s physical and social environment can effect which genes are switched-on, or “expressed”, rather than the DNA sequence of the genes themselves.

Stressors and memories can be passed through small RNA molecules to multiple generations of offspring in ways that meaningfully affect their behavior.

One such example is what is known as the Dutch Hunger Winter, during last year of the Second World War. What they found was that children who were in the womb during the famine experienced a life-long increase in their chances of developing various health problems compared to children conceived after the famine.

Epigenetic effects can sometimes be passed from one generation to the next, although the effects only seem to last for a few generations. There is some evidence that the effects of the Dutch Hunger Winter affected grandchildren of women who were pregnant during the famine.

Therefore, it makes more sense to say that the difference between two people’s behavior is mostly due to hereditary factors or mostly due to environmental factors.

This realization is especially important given the recent advances in genetics, such as polygenic testing.  The Human Genome Project, for example, has stimulated enormous interest in tracing types of behavior to particular strands of DNA located on specific chromosomes.

If these advances are not to be abused, then there will need to be a more general understanding of the fact that biology interacts with both the cultural context and the personal choices that people make about how they want to live their lives.

There is no neat and simple way of unraveling these qualitatively different and reciprocal influences on human behavior.

Epigenetics: Licking Rat Pups

Michael Meaney and his colleagues at McGill University in Montreal, Canada conducted the landmark epigenetic study on mother rats licking and grooming their pups.

This research found that the amount of licking and grooming received by rat pups during their early life could alter their epigenetic marks and influence their stress responses in adulthood.

Pups that received high levels of maternal care (i.e., more licking and grooming) had a reduced stress response compared to those that received low levels of maternal care.

Meaney’s work with rat maternal behavior and its epigenetic effects has provided significant insights into the understanding of early-life experiences, gene expression, and adult behavior.

It underscores the importance of the early-life environment and its long-term impacts on an individual’s mental health and stress resilience.

Epigenetics: The Agouti Mouse Study

Waterland and Jirtle’s 2003 study on the Agouti mouse is another foundational work in the field of epigenetics that demonstrated how nutritional factors during early development can result in epigenetic changes that have long-lasting effects on phenotype.

In this study, they focused on a specific gene in mice called the Agouti viable yellow (A^vy) gene. Mice with this gene can express a range of coat colors, from yellow to mottled to brown.

This variation in coat color is related to the methylation status of the A^vy gene: higher methylation is associated with the brown coat, and lower methylation with the yellow coat.

Importantly, the coat color is also associated with health outcomes, with yellow mice being more prone to obesity, diabetes, and tumorigenesis compared to brown mice.

Waterland and Jirtle set out to investigate whether maternal diet, specifically supplementation with methyl donors like folic acid, choline, betaine, and vitamin B12, during pregnancy could influence the methylation status of the A^vy gene in offspring.

Key findings from the study include:

Dietary Influence : When pregnant mice were fed a diet supplemented with methyl donors, their offspring had an increased likelihood of having the brown coat color. This indicated that the supplemented diet led to an increased methylation of the A^vy gene.

Health Outcomes : Along with the coat color change, these mice also had reduced risks of obesity and other health issues associated with the yellow phenotype.

Transgenerational Effects : The study showed that nutritional interventions could have effects that extend beyond the individual, affecting the phenotype of the offspring.

The implications of this research are profound. It highlights how maternal nutrition during critical developmental periods can have lasting effects on offspring through epigenetic modifications, potentially affecting health outcomes much later in life.

The study also offers insights into how dietary and environmental factors might contribute to disease susceptibility in humans.

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Further Information

  • Genetic & Environmental Influences on Human Psychological Differences

Evidence for Nurture

  • Classical Conditioning
  • Little Albert Experiment
  • Operant Conditioning
  • Behaviorism
  • Social Learning Theory
  • Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory
  • Social Roles
  • Attachment Styles
  • The Hidden Links Between Mental Disorders
  • Visual Cliff Experiment
  • Behavioral Genetics, Genetics, and Epigenetics
  • Epigenetics
  • Is Epigenetics Inherited?
  • Physiological Psychology
  • Bowlby’s Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis
  • So is it nature not nurture after all?

Evidence for an Interaction

  • Genes, Interactions, and the Development of Behavior
  • Agouti Mouse Study
  • Biological Psychology

What does nature refer to in the nature vs. nurture debate?

In the nature vs. nurture debate, “nature” refers to the influence of genetics, innate qualities, and biological factors on human development, behavior, and traits. It emphasizes the role of hereditary factors in shaping who we are.

What does nurture refer to in the nature vs. nurture debate?

In the nature vs. nurture debate, “nurture” refers to the influence of the environment, upbringing, experiences, and social factors on human development, behavior, and traits. It emphasizes the role of external factors in shaping who we are.

Why is it important to determine the contribution of heredity (nature) and environment (nurture) in human development?

Determining the contribution of heredity and environment in human development is crucial for understanding the complex interplay between genetic factors and environmental influences. It helps identify the relative significance of each factor, informing interventions, policies, and strategies to optimize human potential and address developmental challenges.

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Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy

Aristotle had a lifelong interest in the study of nature. He investigated a variety of different topics, ranging from general issues like motion, causation, place and time, to systematic explorations and explanations of natural phenomena across different kinds of natural entities. These different inquiries are integrated into the framework of a single overarching enterprise describing the domain of natural entities. Aristotle provides the general theoretical framework for this enterprise in his Physics , a treatise which divides into two main parts, the first an inquiry into nature (books 1–4) and the second a treatment of motion (books 5–8). [ 1 ] In this work, Aristotle sets out the conceptual apparatus for his analysis, provides definitions of his fundamental concepts, and argues for specific theses about motion, causation, place and time, and establishes in bk. 8 the existence of the unmoved mover of the universe, a supra-physical entity, without which the physical domain could not remain in existence. He takes up problems of special interest to physics (such as the problem of generation and perishing) in a series of further physical treatises, some of which are devoted to particular physical domains: the De generatione et corruptione (On Generation and Perishing) , the De caelo (On the Heavens) , [ 2 ] and the Meteorology , which lead up to the treatises on biology and psychology. [ 3 ]

The science of physics, Aristotle stresses, contains almost all there is to know about the world. Were there no separate forms—entities such as the unmoved mover at the pinnacle of the cosmos—which are without matter and are not part of the physical world, physics would be what Aristotle calls first philosophy ( Metaphysics 6.1, 1026a27–31). As there are such separate entities, physics is dependent on these, and is only a second philosophy ( Metaphysics 7.11, 1037a14f). Nevertheless, the interaction between these two “philosophies” is not completely exhausted by the causal influence exerted on the world by the supra-physical entities—the prime movers as it turns out. Aristotle’s metaphysics and physics use a common conceptual framework, and they often address similar issues. The prime and distinctive task of first philosophy is an inquiry into first entities; these, however, are not perceptible entities, and as a result they have to be investigated through a metaphysical investigation of physical entities. Hence the overlap between the two disciplines, which often verges on inseparability.

1. Natures and the four causes

3. the principle of causational synonymy, 4. priority among motions, 5. movers and unmoved movers, glossary of aristotelian terms, primary sources, secondary sources, other internet resources, related entries.

Nature, according to Aristotle, is an inner principle of change and being at rest ( Physics 2.1, 192b20–23). This means that when an entity moves or is at rest according to its nature reference to its nature may serve as an explanation of the event. We have to describe how—to what extent, through what other processes, and due to what agency—the preconditions for the process of change or of being at rest are present, but once we have provided an account of these preconditions, we have given a complete account of the process. The nature of the entity is in and of itself sufficient to induce and to explain the process once the relevant circumstances do not preempt it.

Natures as inner principles of change and rest are contrasted with active powers or potentialities ( dunameis ), which are external principles of change and being at rest ( Metaphysics 9.8, 1049b5–10), operative on the corresponding internal passive capacities or potentialities ( dunameis again, Metaphysics 9.1, 1046a11–13). When a change, or a state of rest, is not natural, both the active and the passive potentiality need to be specified. Natures, then, in a way do double duty: once a nature is operative, neither a further active, nor a further passive capacity needs to be invoked. Even so, as will be clear from Aristotle’s discussion, this general thesis will require a host of qualifications.

Because natures—beside the active and passive potentialities—are ultimate grounds in causal explanations, Aristotle sets out how they are integrated with the doctrine of causation.

An explanation for a state of affairs must specify some feature or some object (in general, some abstract or concrete entity) which is responsible for it. The entity responsible is, Aristotle submits, a cause ( aitia or aition , words used interchangeably by Aristotle). [ 4 ] Different explanations of a single state of affairs are possible, and indeed usually necessary, because there are different ways of being responsible for distinct facets of the same state of affairs. The varieties of responsibilities are grouped by Aristotle under four headings, the so-called four causes.

The first two of these are matter and form, what an entity is made up from according to Aristotle’s hylomorphic analysis. Understandably, both of them can be responsible for the features and the behaviour of the entity they make up. Hylomorphic analysis, together with the separation of the material and formal causes as distinct types, implies that if something is explicable in terms of matter or form, explanations in terms of form will be different in kind from those given in terms of matter. As a rule there is a collaboration between these causes: matter provides the potentialities which are actualised by the form. Accordingly, these causally relevant entities give rise to a hierarchic structure of explanation. [ 5 ] In order for a form to be realised, one needs to have suitable matter. This suitable matter brings with it the features required by a given hylomorphic composite. These features, then, are on the one hand the contribution of the matter, and as such the matter is the (material) cause of these features of the composite entity, whereas on the other hand they are indispensable presuppositions for the realisation of the form, and to that extent their presence is prompted by the form. [ 6 ] Such dependency relations between matter and form are labelled by Aristotle as cases of hypothetical necessity. Aristotle sometimes illustrates his point by appealing to the matter required for the construction of a house. If there is a house to be built, one needs building bricks, slabs, mortar, etc. Each part provides material with properties within a definite range of the sort required for a house to come into being. A house cannot, for example, be made out of liquid water. That sort of matter would provide potentialities not suited for the form of house.

Explanations often specify entities beyond the role played by the matter and the form of the entity itself. These cases are grouped by Aristotle as efficient or moving causes on the one hand and as final causes on the other. Efficient causes operate in a straightforward manner by initiating processes and bringing about their effects, whereas final causes account for processes and entities by being what these processes and entities are for, what they objectively intend to attain. [ 7 ] The fact that the role of efficient causes is not identical to that of the matter and the form of the entity whose features they are to explain does not require that every instance of efficient causation must issue from outside the entity moved. On the contrary, an efficient cause can also be internal. In cases in which the efficient cause is internal, it will be, in its specific function, one of the parts, or even the formal aspect, of the entity caused to move.

Natures, understandably, can feature in any of these four causal functions. However, when the matter of an entity functions as its nature—i.e., when its natural motion and rest are explained in terms of the matter it is made of—this matter must possess some causally relevant features, bestowed upon it by its own formal aspect.

This role of matter can be contrasted to the causal role of the three further types of causes—of form, of efficient cause, and of final cause, respectively. This is so, because, as Aristotle adds, form and final cause often coincide. Moreover, when a nature is specified as a first efficient cause, cause and effect are the same in form (or in species), though this is not to say that one and the same entity causes itself and is caused through its own causal efficacy ( Physics 2.7, 198a24–27, cf. Metaphysics 8.4, 1044a32–b1).

As internal principles of moving and rest, natures stand in an exclusive relationship to the efficient or moving causes of the motions and rests they bring about: in some cases when Aristotle is not specifying the first moving cause, he can assert the identity of nature and moving cause. Accordingly, the soul of living beings will be identified as the substance (i.e., form) and the moving cause of the organism whose soul it is. [ 8 ] But the identification, even in this restricted sense, will need some further important qualifications, to which we will return in Section 5 below, on movers and unmoved movers.

Because motion or change ( kinêsis ) is mentioned in the definition of nature, any discussion of nature will need to rely upon the explanation of motion. One might—erroneously—think that this is an easy task, because Aristotle’s categories (as listed in the Categories and also elsewhere) do contain two related types of entities, action and passion. Aristotle’s discussion of motion in the Physics , however, starts out in a somewhat different manner. When he submits that there is no motion besides the categories ( Physics 3.1, at 200b32–201a3), he does not assign motions to the categories of action and passion. After mentioning that the entities in the categories come in oppositions, Aristotle claims a few lines later (at 201a8–9) that there are as many kinds of motion and change as there are kinds of being. This means that motions are grouped here with the entities of the category where they effect change. [ 9 ]

Nevertheless, when making this claim, Aristotle speaks about four kinds of motion and change only—those in substance, in quality, in quantity and in place—whereas the number of the kinds of being should have remained ten.

Indeed, the Physics will later submit its own list of categories. That list is slightly reduced—it has seven or eight elements, depending on whether we include or exclude time. [ 10 ] The reduced list also concludes with the claim that there are three kinds of motion, plus the additional kind of substantial change. [ 11 ] That is to say, even where Aristotle enumerates a fairly complete list of categories, he will not have motions in every one of these categories, and he is not content to relegate motions to the categories of action and passion. [ 12 ] But this is a context where Aristotle stresses another issue: he is not interested in assigning a separate ontological niche for motions—regardless of whether that might or might not have been a feasible task within the categorization of entities. Here Aristotle is more intent on characterizing the ontological links which motions have to entities falling into different categories, and to find a general matrix of undergoing and effecting change. This happens in several steps. First Aristotle claims that changes of relations are not changes in their own right; rather they are accidental, as they occur also in entities in which no change occurs at all, if the entity which they stand in relation to undergoes some change. [ 13 ] After these considerations the crucial two categories of action and passion are eliminated. They cannot possibly house motions in the same way as the other four categories do. This is so because such a motion would require that there should be motion or change of an action or a passion. But there are no motions of motions, so even though actions and passions qualify as motions, or at least are intimately linked to motions, we can set aside action and passion as types in which motions can occur. [ 14 ] This leaves us with the shorter list of relevant categories, (1) substance, (2) quality, (3) quantity, and (4) place. [ 15 ]

Within the four domains where genuine change can occur, change always requires the existence of a potentiality which can be actualised. But change is neither identical to this potentiality, nor to the lack of a property, nor, without further qualifications, to the actuality which is acquired when the potentiality is actualised ( Physics 3.2, 201b33–35). It is a special kind of actuality, the actuality of the potential in so far as it is potential ( Physics 3.2, 201b4–5). Aristotle’s formulation strongly suggests that the potentiality actualised in the process of change is not a separate and independent potentiality for motion, alongside the entity’s potentiality for harbouring the end-state of the process: the process, say, house-building, and the end result, the house, are different actualisations of the same potentiality of a set of materials that is buildable into a house. Not only would Aristotle’s definition be uninformative otherwise, amounting to the tautologous claim that change is the actualisation of the capacity for change, the further qualification in the definition, that change is the actuality of the potential in so far as it is potential, would be completely idle. [ 16 ] This further restriction is easiest taken as selecting between the different types of the realisations of the same potentialities. [ 17 ] As Aristotle stresses these are the incomplete actualities belonging to these potentialities, adding also that what is actualised in a process of realisation is an incomplete potentiality only ( Physics 3.2, 201b32–33). Accordingly, potentialities of change may be admitted into the ontology. But even if they are admitted as additional potentialities, they]do not need to feature as potentialities in their own right, but as the incomplete variants of the fundamental potentiality for an end result. [ 18 ]

It is furthermore important to note that potentiality in this discussion throughout excludes actuality. In a formulation closely matching the formulation of the principle of non-contradiction, Aristotle asserts that “some things are the same [=have the same properties, are the same substances] both in potentiality and in actuality, but not at the same time or not in the same respect, as e.g. [a thing is] warm in actuality and cold in potentiality” ( Physics 3.1, 201a19–22). [ 19 ] Hence the ability of Aristotle’s definition to pick out the paradoxical entity, which is the actuality of a potentiality that can no longer be present once it has been replaced by the corresponding property in actuality.

The definition of motion suggests that such processes can be characterised in terms of a property or state of an entity, acquired as a result at the end of the process, which can be labelled the form within this process, and an initial lack of this form. Furthermore, Aristotle claims, there is a third component, which is not changed in the process, the substrate or subject of the motion ( Physics 1.7). [ 20 ]

In terms of this threefold division it is the duty of the entity effecting change to confer the requisite form on the object changed, as Physics 3.2, 202a9–12 puts it. But there are further important requirements for such a change to occur. First of all, these motions or changes occur at the interaction of two potentialities. One, the passive potentiality, is in the object undergoing change, while the other, the active potentiality, is in the entity initiating change. The two potentialities need to match each other: when there is a potentiality for being heated in the object undergoing change, the process needs to be initiated by another object possessing an active potentiality for effecting the heating. This is true to the extent that Aristotle can claim that the definition of passive potentiality is dependent on that of the active potentiality ( Metaphysics 9.1, 1046a9–13). These two potentialities need to work in tandem, and consequently Aristotle can claim that there is only a single process going on, which is located in the entity moved. Thus, for example, when a process of instruction is going on, it is identical to a process of knowledge acquisition, which happens in the mind of the learner. Hence although action and passion retain their categorical difference, because their accounts are different, what they subsist in, the motion, will be the same ( Physics 3.3, 202b19–22). [ 21 ]

Aristotle already by the introduction of a matching pair of active and passive potentialities for each causal interaction comes very close to admitting a separate potentiality for each and every change, something uncomfortably close to the vis dormitiva , ridiculed by Molière, according to which a sleeping pill allegedly induces sleep just in virtue of its power to induce sleep. Aristotle, however, subscribes to an even stronger principle, that causes in effecting change transmit the form they possess to the entity they effect change in. According to this claim the active capacity of the item effecting change is at its root an actuality, which is synonymous (in the Aristotelian sense) with the effect that is brought about by it. In Aristotle’s favourite example, only a human in actuality produces a human from what is a human in potentiality. If this is so, a sleeping pill need not only possess an active potentiality for inducing sleep: it needs also to be slumbering itself. [ 22 ] The principle—which we could term the principle of causational synonymy—comes from Plato (see e.g. Phaedo 100B–101D), but Aristotle has his own reasons for endorsing it. His science attests to the presence and operation of causally active forms at each level of analysis of the physical world. [ 23 ] Hence, as we shall see, Aristotle’s forms are the causally significant components of the substance effecting a change. Accordingly, when it comes to specifying the moving cause of an artefact, Aristotle will refer to the art of the craftsman as the fundamental component operative in the change. In cases where a living being is generated, it is the parental form which is transmitted to the newly emerging living being. [ 24 ]

But it is not only processes of generation that conform to this requirement. Instances of qualitative change are often mentioned alongside substantial generation, and as a crucially important instance of qualitative alteration—or of qualitative quasi-alteration, depending on how we interpret Aristotle’s theory of perception [ 25 ] —Aristotle presupposes that the principle of causational synonymy characterises also the causal link connecting the object of sensation and the sense organ.

It is, nevertheless, important to note that Aristotle restricts the principle of causational synonymy in different and subtle ways. Most significantly, an important domain of cases where a property of an object is actualised is exempted from the requirements of this principle. The actualisation of a property can be the continuation of a previous causal process to the extent that Aristotle claims it is a second actuality , following upon a previously acquired first actuality . In these cases the emergence of the second actuality does not necessarily require an additional external efficient cause. The operation of this first actuality, through which it reinforces and completes itself, can be the mere extension of the operation of the original efficient cause (this will be Aristotle’s claim about the natural locomotion of the elements, see Section 5 below), or the entity which has acquired this first actuality can be already causally responsible for its own activities, including the ones which bring it to a level of higher actuality [ 26 ] (Aristotle’s examples for this case are the soul of the embryo or of the newborn cub, which commands and effects the nourishing and the activities of the animal; or the actual application of a piece of knowledge one has acquired beforehand). It is important to note that these claims are far from trivial: they rest on further claims that the very definitions of these first actualities (what it is to be an element, an animal, or knowledge, respectively) inseparably include references to these activities.

Second, the principle of causational synonymy is couched in terms which do not include locomotions: it is substantial, qualitative or quantitative form which is claimed to be transmitted through the efficacy of the cause in Physics 3.2, 202a9–12. One of the reasons for this is that locomotion, as Aristotle claims, affects the least the substance, the ousia of the object undergoing motion ( Physics 8.7, 261a20f). Unlike the other types of change, locomotion does not change the being of the moved object at all. To some extent that should mean that the predication of place should remain extrinsic to the being of the entity that is at a particular location. [ 27 ] Hence the fundamental presupposition of causation, that it is intrinsic characterisations of entities which are conferred on the object moved cannot be in full force in cases of locomotion. [ 28 ] Accordingly, Aristotle will have a more intricate account for natural and forced locomotions.

Third, the principle of causational synonymy is restricted to substances at the end of Metaphysics 7.9, [ 29 ] and in the first half of the same chapter the non-standard presence of some causally relevant forms may also be envisaged. Aristotle’s example there is the heat in motion, which produces heat in the body when the doctor rubs the patient in the appropriate manner. This heat in the motion can be the presence of an active potentiality in the motion which is able to elicit heat in the body, without heat being predicable of motion itself. But even if such non-inherential subsistence of properties is only hinted at, and not expressly envisaged in this passage (on a more detailed description the heat in motion is the active capacity of motion to produce heat in the skin of the patient—and in the skin of the doctor—which as far as the treatment is concerned enters into the inner recesses of the patient’s body, becoming heat in the body), some similar sort of presence is required in two large classes of cases: natural generations and artificial productions.

Aristotle claims that in a chain of efficient causes, where the first element of the series acts through the intermediary of the other items, it is the first member in the causal chain, rather than the intermediaries, which is the moving cause ( Physics 8.5, 257a10–12). Then, both in cases of natural generation and artificial production, it is only this first efficient cause which has to satisfy the requirement of synonymous causation. Aristotle’s prime example, that human generates human, is also such a case. Here, the causal efficacy of the paternal human form is transmitted through the generative potentialities of the semen of the father. The semen, however, although it acts as an efficient cause in the process of the formation of the embryo, is not a human; it does not possess the form it transmits in the same way as the male parent does. Aristotle’s discussion makes it clear that this is not an isolated instance of an exception from the general principle. He compares the case to the activity of a craftsman, where the form of the product of the artistic production is in the soul of the craftsman, and then through the motions of the instruments this form can get imposed on the material manufactured into an artefact. The instruments and their motions are efficient causes of the process, but they do not contain the form in the same way as the soul of the craftsman ( On the generation of animals 730b14–23 and 740b25–29, for further discussion see the entry on Aristotle’s biology ). [ 30 ]

All these restrictions notwithstanding, Aristotle can claim that the principle of causational synonymy remains universally valid. This is so, because all the three restrictions above specify cases where Aristotle can claim that a preceding, more prominent cause has already satisfied the requirement: in the case of second actualities the first actuality was called into existence by a synonymous cause in the first place; locomotions, qualitative and quantitative changes, even if not caused by a synonymous entity, can be part of a larger pattern of causation, in which a substance is caused by a substance of the same kind; and causal chains producing substances can be claimed to start out invariably from synonymous substances.

Given his commitment to causal synonymy, Aristotle needs to invoke considerations through which a chain of efficient causes of some entity can be meaningfully compared in terms of causal efficacy. These considerations will on each occasion describe synonymous causes not only as temporally prior, but also as having priority in terms of causal efficacy over the intermediate causes, which are responsible only for the transmission of the forms of the original locus of causal efficacy.

This allows, then, that in the two major paradigms of such causation—in natural generation and in artificial production—the nature of the natural entity, and the art [ 31 ] of the craftsman exercising his art respectively, the relevant form is the causally operative entity initiating change. This has wide ranging consequences for the status of forms in several respects. First, the causal relevance of these forms shows that not any arrangement or configuration can qualify as a full-fledged form. While it is true that privations are also forms in some sense ( Physics 2.1, 193b19–20), this is not the sense in which the causally operative forms, describable in evaluative terms, can be called forms. Moreover, the causal relevance of forms allows Aristotle to switch (e.g. in De generatione et corruptione 1.7) without notice between the craftsman and the craft itself as the appropriate specification of the efficient cause in these cases. We should note that in the latter cases, Aristotle specifies causes which are unmoved. They do not effect motion by being in motion themselves, in so far as they are the causally effective forms within the causal framework; hence they are not under any reactive influence during this process either.

Even though the foregoing might have suggested that generation of substances is fundamental for all the other kinds of changes, in fact locomotion will have a privileged status. All other changes depend on locomotions, because any two entities involved in change, with their active and passive potentialities, respectively, need to come into contact in order for the interaction to occur. [ 32 ] Contact, however, as a rule needs to be established by locomotion: either the entity to be moved, or the mover, or both, need to proceed so that they meet ( Physics 8.7, 260a26–b7). Moreover locomotion is the form of change which can occur in isolation of generation, perishing and the other forms of change ( Physics 8.7, 260b26–29). Other changes are independent kinds of change insofar as they can occur in an entity which does not perform any other change. Nevertheless all these forms of change include or presuppose that some other entity engages in locomotion. [ 33 ]

Aristotle argues at the opening of Physics bk. 8 that motion and change in the universe can have no beginning, because the occurrence of change presupposes a previous process of change. With this argument Aristotle can establish an eternal chain of motions and refute those who hold that there could have been a previous stationary state of the universe. Such an eternal chain, Aristotle argues, needs to rely on a cause which guarantees its persistence: if each of the constitutive processes in the causally connected web were of finite duration, for every one of them it can be the case that it is not present in the world, indeed, at some later time it will not be present any longer. But then the whole causally connected series of events, Aristotle claims, would also be contingent. [ 34 ] Hence Aristotle postulates that the processes of the universe depend on an eternal motion (or on several eternal motions), the eternal revolution of the heavenly spheres, which in turn is dependent on one or several unmoved movers ( Physics 8.6, 258b26–259a9). [ 35 ]

The priority of the eternal celestial revolutions, furthermore, guarantees the causal finitude of the universe. This is so, even though there are infinite causal chains: behind every single individual of an animal species there is an infinite series of male ancestors, each causally responsible for the subsequent members in the series, because Aristotelian species are eternal and male parents are the efficient causes of their offspring. [ 36 ] Left to its own devices, the finite universe on its own would certainly reach a dissolution, a state of complete separation of the elemental masses into their concentrically arranged natural places. In view of the fact that such a complete segregation of the elemental masses is avoided through the constant excitation caused by the celestial motions, producing heat in the sublunary domain, especially around the regions of the Sun, [ 37 ] Aristotle will be entitled to assert that the cause of the human being is in the first instance his or her father, but is at the same time the Sun as it moves along its annual ecliptic path. [ 38 ] Between celestial revolutions and the individual natural processes there is always a finite causal chain, as these natural processes could not possibly have continued without the celestial motions. The infinite causal chains passing through male parents cannot subsist on their own without this constant external support, and this dependence can always be analysed in terms of finite causal chains.

The definition of motion as the actuality of a potentiality of the entity undergoing motion in so far as it is potential requires that in each case the passive potentiality for the change is present in the changing object. The presence of the potentiality can, nevertheless, be in accordance with the nature of the object—in which case the change is natural ( phusei ) or according to nature ( kata phusin ), or can happen in the face of a contrary disposition on the part of the nature of the entity—in which case the change is forced ( biâi ) or contrary to nature ( para phusin ). A major presupposition on Aristotle’s part is that this division is exhaustive: there are no changes to which the nature of the entity would be indifferent or neutral. [ 39 ] The major consideration behind such a presupposition is that natures regulate the behaviour of the entities to which they belong in a comprehensive manner, and not merely partially. Any influence the entity is exposed to interacts with its nature in a substantive manner. The entity does not possess potentialities for change which would not be directly related to the tendencies emerging from its nature.

Note, however, that even if we endorsed the exhaustiveness of the dichotomy of natural and forced motions, and accepted the thesis that simple bodies possess a unique natural motion ( De caelo 1.2, 269a8–9), we would not need thereby to accept Aristotle’s further major claim, that natural and forced motions come in pairs of opposites, with the result that if a motion is contrary to the nature of an entity, the opposite motion will be its natural motion ( De caelo 1.2, 269a9–18). Where there is room for some more complex relationships among the targets of changes than a simple opposition along an axis of a single dimension—and this is eminently so between locomotions along rectilinear and circular paths, respectively—there can be several forced translations in contrast to the single natural motion of the elements endowed with rectilinear natural motion, as Aristotle also admits in some passages of the De caelo (see 1.2, 269a30–b2 and 269b10–12).

Although this allows for several different motions that are contrary to the nature of the same entity, the natural motion will still have a single opposite motion, the one which is directed to the opposite location. Consequently, natural circular motion will have no motion that is opposite to it ( De caelo 1.4, 270b32–271a5). [ 40 ]

Aristotle’s classification of motions into those contrary to nature and those according to nature applies not only to the motions of the moved objects, but transfers also to the movers effecting motions. A mover can effect a motion which is contrary to its own nature. Aristotle’s example of such an unnatural mover is the lever, an object heavy by nature, with which loads can be lifted ( Physics 8.4, 255a20–23). Although such movers can effect motions in the contrary direction to the motion at the head of the causal chain (levers are operated by the downward push of something heavy at the other end), the crucial consideration for Aristotle in this case is that the original, initiating cause of the causal chain should effect the motion according to its nature. Taken together, these considerations imply that we have a complete account of the physical domain once we have a thorough description of what is natural to the entities in that domain, together with a specification of all the circumstances in which they operate. [ 41 ]

Bk. 8 of the Physics argues for the additional thesis that for each motion, whether natural or contrary to nature, there needs to exist a mover. [ 42 ] In cases of forced motion, movers are present in a conspicuous way. This need not be so, however, in cases of natural motion. Apart from the cases where the nature of the entity is at the same time a moving and efficient cause—i.e., apart from living beings, whose nature, the soul, is both formal and efficient cause—the mover may be inconspicuous. This is eminently so in the remaining large class of natural motions, the natural motions of the elements. The nature of these elements, their inner principle of motion and rest is not the moving cause of the motions of the elements, Aristotle claims. If it were, then it would be up to the elementary masses to determine when they should perform their motions, but plainly this is not so. Moreover, the principle of causational synonymy rules out that any homogenous mass, without an internal demarcation into separate components, one moving and the other being moved, could move itself ( Physics 8.4, 255a5–18). This is so because, on the assumption that one part of a homogeneous body could move another part, the active component of change would be, in every aspect, indistinguishable from the part in which change is effected, and this in turn would mean that change would occur even though there would be no transmission of a causally relevant property from the active part to the passive. This implies that even though we may answer the question as to why the elements move to their natural places—the light bodies up and the heavy ones down—by an appeal to their respective natures as causes (“that it is simply their nature to move somewhere, [ 43 ] and this is what it is to be light and to be heavy,” Physics 8.4, 255b13–17), we do not thereby specify their moving causes. Their thrust being in a single direction, the elements cannot circumvent even rather simple obstacles they may encounter on their way (a sealed container can retain air under water, the roof stays put pressing down on the walls of a building etc.). Hence, whoever removes an obstacle to an element’s motion is causally responsible for the ensuing elemental motions. But even such a causally responsible agent will not qualify as the moving cause, without yet further qualifications. For the identification of the moving cause of these locomotions Aristotle invokes his distinction of two potentialities. Some heavy material can be potentially light, as it can be transformed into a light material in a process of generation, whereas the emerging light material is still potential in a sense until it has acquired its full-fledged status, which involves its having arrived at that region of the cosmos which is its natural place. This analysis, then, describes the natural locomotion of the elements as a possibly postponed, completing stage within a single overarching process, and hence in these cases Aristotle can identify the cause of the second stage of the process with the efficient cause of the first stage, the entity which generated the element in the first place ( Physics 8.4, 256a1).

Once it is established that there is a mover for each change, the finite causal chains [ 44 ] can be followed up to the primary instance of motion, which are eternal circular motions. (In particular the Sun’s course along the ecliptic is responsible for many sublunar changes, the cycle of the seasons being foremost among them.) Whether these circular motions require external movers, and ultimately, whether the universe is causally closed or needs some external causal influence for its preservation, depends on the status of these revolutions.

In this regard the very first thing to establish is that they cannot be constrained motions. [ 45 ] But natural motions are also in need of movers, as Physics 8.4 argues. This does not apply only to the natural motions of living beings, which are performed under the causal influence of their soul. The natural motions of the four sublunary elements are also caused by specific external causes responsible for these motions, and on the basis of these considerations Aristotle feels entitled to assert that every motion whatsoever—including also, then, the eternal circular motions—require a mover.

But the entities performing these eternal circular motions cannot possibly be moved by moving causes of the same kind as the movers of sublunary elemental motions. These entities are eternal and ungenerated bodies. Consequently, there is no entity that could produce them. Nothing can be responsible for the circular motion on account of generating these eternal and ungenerated bodies. Moreover, as they do not encounter any hindrance during their revolutions, there is no room for an accidental mover which would remove any obstacle in their way.

Although Aristotle’s physical treatises do not discuss in what particular way their movers are causally responsible for these eternal circular motions, the general framework set out apparently applies to them as well. In accordance with this, motion is an incomplete actuality of the potentiality of what is movable ( Physics 8.5, 257b6ff). This incomplete actuality is always dependent on the causal efficacy of the corresponding actuality of a mover. The example presented here is the process of heating a potentially hot item, caused to be hot by an actually hot thing. The division of roles guarantees that the same item cannot possibly be the mover and the moved entity at the same time. Consequently, these eternal circular motions are envisaged as having a cause responsible for their motion, the causal influence of which produces (and upholds) this motion continuously in them. Aristotle does not specify in any detail what exactly the actuality of the mover is; nor does he indicate what relationship there is between this actuality and the actuality that is being continuously communicated by the mover to the entities in eternal circular motion.

A further requirement is that the mover of these eternal circular motions has to be unmoved. [ 46 ] But then the actuality of this mover should not be restricted to a causally efficacious single property. Rather, the mover should be actual all way through. Any potentiality it might have would carry with it the jeopardy that it might undergo possible changes of its own. [ 47 ] This is ruled out to the extent that such a first cause cannot house motion even accidentally. [ 48 ] In other words, the mover cannot be related to the moving object in the way the soul of an animal is related to the moving animal; in the case of an animal wherever the living being, the animal, moves, its soul will follow suit and will also move,—accidentally—to the same place. [ 49 ]

Moreover, the entity causally responsible for the eternal circular motions in the world has to possess an infinite power, [ 50 ] which it communicates to the bodies it moves. As a result, this entity cannot be divisible and cannot have extension. Moreover, it must be located where the motion is quickest, at the periphery of the physical realm ( Physics 8.10).

All this testifies to the exceptional status of the first movement, and behind it, of the first mover in the universe. The mover of these spheres possesses nothing but actuality, but this actuality is not what is transmitted in the process of causation. As we have seen in Section 3 above, this would not be exceptional as such: locomotion need not be caused on the transmission model of causation. But locomotions, although caused without the transmission of an actuality of being located in any particular location, were understood to be embedded in larger patterns of causation which observe the principle of causational synonymy. It is precisely any such larger pattern of causation which is missing in the case of celestial motions. [ 51 ] Note furthermore that what we hear in Metaphysics 12.6, that the first mover moves as an object of love and striving, [ 52 ] comes perilously close to abandoning the claims of Physics bk. 8 to the effect that there is an unmoved mover serving as the efficient cause of the motions of the cosmos. Such doubts, however, should be dismissed. In these two contexts Aristotle gives distinct descriptions of some principle that is beyond the realm of physics. First, still connecting it to the framework of the Physics , he is characterizing a supra-physical entity without which the universe could not function or persist, and then, second, in the Metaphysics , he is offering an account of the causal efficacy of the supra-physical substance in terms of what this entity itself is. Small wonder that these two accounts situate the mode of operation of this entity in two different frames of physical causation.

  • action: poiein
  • activity: praxis
  • actuality: energeia or entelecheia
  • art, craft: technê
  • capacity: dunamis
  • cause: aitia or aition
  • change: kinêsis or metabolê to effect change or motion: kinein to undergo change or motion: kineisthai qualitative change: alloiôsis quantitative changes—growth: auxêsis; decay: phthisis locomotion: phora
  • to come to be: gignesthai
  • coming to be: genesis
  • force: bia forced: biâi
  • form: eidos or morphê
  • in so far as: hêi
  • genus, kind: genos
  • goal: telos
  • kind, species: eidos
  • known, knowable: gnôrimon more known, more knowable: gnôrimôteron
  • matter: hulê
  • magnitude: megethos
  • motion: kinêsis
  • nature: phusis natural: phusikos, phusei according to nature: kata phusin contrary to nature: para phusin
  • passion: paschein
  • to perish: phtheirein
  • perishing: phthora
  • place: pou (as one of the categories, literally: where) or topos
  • potentiality: dunamis
  • power: dunamis
  • quality: poion
  • quantity: poson
  • substance: ousia
  • time: pote (as one of the categories, literally: when) or chronos
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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
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  • Richard Sorabji on Time and Eternity in Aristotle , a podcast, Peter Adamson talks with Richard Sorabji.

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What Are Nature vs. Nurture Examples?

How is nature defined, how is nurture defined, the nature vs. nurture debate, nature vs. nurture examples, what is empiricism (extreme nurture position), contemporary views of nature vs. nurture.

Nature vs. nurture is an age-old debate about whether genetics (nature) plays a bigger role in determining a person's characteristics than lived experience and environmental factors (nurture). The term "nature vs. nature" was coined by English naturalist Charles Darwin's younger half-cousin, anthropologist Francis Galton, around 1875.

In psychology, the extreme nature position (nativism) proposes that intelligence and personality traits are inherited and determined only by genetics.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the extreme nurture position (empiricism) asserts that the mind is a blank slate at birth; external factors like education and upbringing determine who someone becomes in adulthood and how their mind works. Both of these extreme positions have shortcomings and are antiquated.

This article explores the difference between nature and nurture. It gives nature vs. nurture examples and explains why outdated views of nativism and empiricism don't jibe with contemporary views. 

Thanasis Zovoilis / Getty Images

In the context of nature vs. nurture, "nature" refers to genetics and heritable factors that are passed down to children from their biological parents.

Genes and hereditary factors determine many aspects of someone’s physical appearance and other individual characteristics, such as a genetically inherited predisposition for certain personality traits.

Scientists estimate that 20% to 60% percent of temperament is determined by genetics and that many (possibly thousands) of common gene variations combine to influence individual characteristics of temperament.

However, the impact of gene-environment (or nature-nurture) interactions on someone's traits is interwoven. Environmental factors also play a role in temperament by influencing gene activity. For example, in children raised in an adverse environment (such as child abuse or violence), genes that increase the risk of impulsive temperamental characteristics may be activated (turned on).

Trying to measure "nature vs. nurture" scientifically is challenging. It's impossible to know precisely where the influence of genes and environment begin or end.

How Are Inherited Traits Measured?

“Heritability”   describes the influence that genes have on human characteristics and traits. It's measured on a scale of 0.0 to 1.0. Very strong heritable traits like someone's eye color are ranked a 1.0.

Traits that have nothing to do with genetics, like speaking with a regional accent ranks a zero. Most human characteristics score between a 0.30 and 0.60 on the heritability scale, which reflects a blend of genetics (nature) and environmental (nurture) factors.

Thousands of years ago, ancient Greek philosophers like Plato believed that "innate knowledge" is present in our minds at birth. Every parent knows that babies are born with innate characteristics. Anecdotally, it may seem like a kid's "Big 5" personality traits (agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness) were predetermined before birth.

What is the "Big 5" personality traits

The Big 5 personality traits is a theory that describes the five basic dimensions of personality. It was developed in 1949 by D. W. Fiske and later expanded upon by other researchers and is used as a framework to study people's behavior.

From a "nature" perspective, the fact that every child has innate traits at birth supports Plato's philosophical ideas about innatism. However, personality isn't set in stone. Environmental "nurture" factors can change someone's predominant personality traits over time. For example, exposure to the chemical lead during childhood may alter personality.

In 2014, a meta-analysis of genetic and environmental influences on personality development across the human lifespan found that people change with age. Personality traits are relatively stable during early childhood but often change dramatically during adolescence and young adulthood.

It's impossible to know exactly how much "nurture" changes personality as people get older. In 2019, a study of how stable personality traits are from age 16 to 66 found that people's Big 5 traits are both stable and malleable (able to be molded). During the 50-year span from high school to retirement, some traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness tend to increase, while others appear to be set in stone.

Nurture refers to all of the external or environmental factors that affect human development such as how someone is raised, socioeconomic status, early childhood experiences, education, and daily habits.

Although the word "nurture" may conjure up images of babies and young children being cared for by loving parents, environmental factors and life experiences have an impact on our psychological and physical well-being across the human life span. In adulthood, "nurturing" oneself by making healthy lifestyle choices can offset certain genetic predispositions.

For example, a May 2022 study found that people with a high genetic risk of developing the brain disorder Alzheimer's disease can lower their odds of developing dementia (a group of symptoms that affect memory, thinking, and social abilities enough to affect daily life) by adopting these seven healthy habits in midlife:

  • Staying active
  • Healthy eating
  • Losing weight
  • Not smoking
  • Reducing blood sugar
  • Controlling cholesterol
  • Maintaining healthy blood pressure

The nature vs. nurture debate centers around whether individual differences in behavioral traits and personality are caused primarily by nature or nurture. Early philosophers believed the genetic traits passed from parents to their children influence individual differences and traits. Other well-known philosophers believed the mind begins as a blank slate and that everything we are is determined by our experiences.

While early theories favored one factor over the other, experts today recognize there is a complex interaction between genetics and the environment and that both nature and nurture play a critical role in shaping who we are.

Eye color and skin pigmentation are examples of "nature" because they are present at birth and determined by inherited genes. Developmental delays due to toxins (such as exposure to lead as a child or exposure to drugs in utero) are examples of "nurture" because the environment can negatively impact learning and intelligence.

In Child Development

The nature vs. nurture debate in child development is apparent when studying language development. Nature theorists believe genetics plays a significant role in language development and that children are born with an instinctive ability that allows them to both learn and produce language.

Nurture theorists would argue that language develops by listening and imitating adults and other children.

In addition, nurture theorists believe people learn by observing the behavior of others. For example, contemporary psychologist Albert Bandura's social learning theory suggests that aggression is learned through observation and imitation.

In Psychology

In psychology, the nature vs. nurture beliefs vary depending on the branch of psychology.

  • Biopsychology:  Researchers analyze how the brain, neurotransmitters, and other aspects of our biology influence our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. emphasizing the role of nature.
  • Social psychology: Researchers study how external factors such as peer pressure and social media influence behaviors, emphasizing the importance of nurture.
  • Behaviorism: This theory of learning is based on the idea that our actions are shaped by our interactions with our environment.

In Personality Development

Whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role in personality development depends on different personality development theories.

  • Behavioral theories: Our personality is a result of the interactions we have with our environment, such as parenting styles, cultural influences, and life experiences.
  • Biological theories: Personality is mostly inherited which is demonstrated by a study in the 1990s that concluded identical twins reared apart tend to have more similar personalities than fraternal twins.
  • Psychodynamic theories: Personality development involves both genetic predispositions and environmental factors and their interaction is complex.

In Mental Illness

Both nature and nurture can contribute to mental illness development.

For example, at least five mental health disorders are associated with some type of genetic component ( autism ,  attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) ,  bipolar disorder , major depression, and  schizophrenia ).

Other explanations for mental illness are environmental, such as:

  • Being exposed to drugs or alcohol in utero 
  • Witnessing a traumatic event, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Adverse life events and chronic stress during childhood

In Mental Health Therapy

Mental health treatment can involve both nature and nurture. For example, a therapist may explore life experiences that may have contributed to mental illness development (nurture) as well as family history of mental illness (nature).

At the same time, research indicates that a person's genetic makeup may impact how their body responds to antidepressants. Taking this into consideration is important for finding the right treatment for each individual.

 What Is Nativism (Extreme Nature Position)?

Innatism emphasizes nature's role in shaping our minds and personality traits before birth. Nativism takes this one step further and proposes that all of people's mental and physical characteristics are inherited and predetermined at birth.

In its extreme form, concepts of nativism gave way to the early 20th century's racially-biased eugenics movement. Thankfully, "selective breeding," which is the idea that only certain people should reproduce in order to create chosen characteristics in offspring, and eugenics, arranged breeding, lost momentum during World War II. At that time, the Nazis' ethnic cleansing (killing people based on their ethnic or religious associations) atrocities were exposed.

Philosopher John Locke's tabula rasa theory from 1689 directly opposes the idea that we are born with innate knowledge. "Tabula rasa" means "blank slate" and implies that our minds do not have innate knowledge at birth.

Locke was an empiricist who believed that all the knowledge we gain in life comes from sensory experiences (using their senses to understand the world), education, and day-to-day encounters after being born.

Today, looking at nature vs. nature in black-and-white terms is considered a misguided dichotomy (two-part system). There are so many shades of gray where nature and nurture overlap. It's impossible to tease out how inherited traits and learned behaviors shape someone's unique characteristics or influence how their mind works.

The influences of nature and nurture in psychology are impossible to unravel. For example, imagine someone growing up in a household with an alcoholic parent who has frequent rage attacks. If that child goes on to develop a substance use disorder and has trouble with emotion regulation in adulthood, it's impossible to know precisely how much genetics (nature) or adverse childhood experiences (nurture) affected that individual's personality traits or issues with alcoholism.

Epigenetics Blurs the Line Between Nature and Nurture

"Epigenetics " means "on top of" genetics. It refers to external factors and experiences that turn genes "on" or "off." Epigenetic mechanisms alter DNA's physical structure in utero (in the womb) and across the human lifespan.

Epigenetics blurs the line between nature and nurture because it says that even after birth, our genetic material isn't set in stone; environmental factors can modify genes during one's lifetime. For example, cannabis exposure during critical windows of development can increase someone's risk of neuropsychiatric disease via epigenetic mechanisms.

Nature vs. nurture is a framework used to examine how genetics (nature) and environmental factors (nurture) influence human development and personality traits.

However, nature vs. nurture isn't a black-and-white issue; there are many shades of gray where the influence of nature and nurture overlap. It's impossible to disentangle how nature and nurture overlap; they are inextricably intertwined. In most cases, nature and nurture combine to make us who we are. 

Waller JC. Commentary: the birth of the twin study--a commentary on francis galton’s “the history of twins.”   International Journal of Epidemiology . 2012;41(4):913-917. doi:10.1093/ije/dys100

The New York Times. " Major Personality Study Finds That Traits Are Mostly Inherited ."

Medline Plus. Is temperament determined by genetics?

Feldman MW, Ramachandran S. Missing compared to what? Revisiting heritability, genes and culture .  Phil Trans R Soc B . 2018;373(1743):20170064. doi:10.1098/rstb.2017.0064

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Philosophy Nature Vs Nurture

If you’re interested in how genes and environments affect our behavior, read this philosophy nature vs nurture article. It will give you the basics on the relationship between genes and environment, and explain how modern science is changing these debates. After reading it, you’ll be better equipped to make your own conclusion about the issue. Also, consider the opinions of scientists like Psychiatrist Frances Champagne. Do your genes matter or is it entirely up to your environment?

Plato’s philosophy of nature versus nurture makes a lot of distinctions between these two theories. Ultimately, it is up to us to decide which one is right for us, as there will always be cases for both. However, we can consider both the role of nature and nurture in shaping a person’s character. This will help us better understand why Plato believes in the role of nature over nurture.

Essentially, the nature versus nurture debate is a philosophical dispute about the relative contribution of genetic inheritance to human development. Plato and Descartes both believed that some traits are inborn, independent of their environments. The nativists, on the other hand, hold that almost all human behavior is genetically influenced. While it is possible to have genetic traits without environmental influences, they are still subject to environmental influences.

Plato’s philosophical work explored the importance of virtue in society. He wrote works on virtue and power, as well as on religion and morals. He eventually became the founder and presided over the academies in 385 B.C., where he wrote The Republic. In the Republic, he discussed the virtues of virtue. Aristotle, on the other hand, suggested that virtue and social constructs are necessary to achieve happiness.

The nature versus nurture debate has long been discussed in the scientific community. Biologists and psychologists debate this issue in their work, and many students have taken classes on psychology. If you are studying psychology or sociology , you’ve most likely encountered the debate. A nature vs nurture essay will provide an excellent overview of the issue. You can also use this essay as a guide to explain why nature and nurture influence behavior.

There are two sides of the Aristotle and nature vs. nurture debate. The empiricist school of thought argues that human actions are determined by experiences rather than innate factors. Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Mill all argued for this view, which has had a great influence on Western thought. But it is difficult to decide which side is correct. Here is an example of how each side argues their case.

Aristotle argued that the influence of the environment can be attributed to the development of the brain and physical attributes. But he criticized some of Plato’s theories, and was not appointed head of the academy when Plato died. This resulted in him leaving Athens and travelling to the islands of Asia Minor, now part of Turkey. There, he studied in the islands to develop his knowledge.

According to Aristotle, the study of human nature began with the philosopher Socrates. While Plato believed that virtue was sufficient for happiness, Aristotle maintained that virtues were necessary for the good life. So, virtue was the goal, but it was earned. This is what differentiates philosophers from others. However, it is difficult to determine what makes a philosopher or a scientist from an animal, and neither of these theories proves the existence of a soul in two-dimensional space.

Moreover, Aristotle posited the role of a city or a family or individual. He believed that a polis serves as a space for a good life, and not the other way around. The utopian ideal is not necessarily desirable, and Aristotle’s view remains influential today. Aristotle’s works are the basis for scientific activity in almost every field of study.

Psychiatrist Frances Champagne

The long-standing debate about nature versus nurture has centered on whether the environment or the individual is more responsible for a person’s characteristics. While there is no clear consensus regarding what causes traits, scientists have noted that the environment has a significant role. Similarly, a person’s genes can also influence their behavior. Both factors interact with one another. Despite their apparent differences, these factors must be considered in tandem.

One of Champagne’s most fascinating studies focuses on the effects of environmental factors on a child’s brain development. She has studied the impact of a toxic chemical, bisphenol A, on children during the postnatal period and in the prenatal period. Using mice, Champagne and her colleagues have shown that exposure to this chemical adversely affects a child’s behavior.

Research shows that early experiences shape a person’s future. Children growing up in poverty are at a higher risk for depression and drug addiction. However, these same experiences can affect any adult. This research has been underway for over a decade and has revealed that life experiences can alter a person’s DNA. Specifically, it can alter the way proteins are packed and how the DNA is structured.

Influence of genes

The nature-nurture debate has long been a source of controversy. The debate over genes and environment has also influenced social policies and politics. In many cases, this debate has fueled racist policies. Many nativists have argued that heredity determines a person’s race. As a result, heredity has been used as a scientific justification for discrimination and oppression.

The philosophy of nature versus nurture is often based on the idea that human individuality stems primarily from genes, whereas scientists have shown that human traits are the product of both genetics and environment. While both factors are important, the debate often takes an oversimplified approach, with one factor arguably having more influence on a person’s traits than the other. In this sense, genes are more important than environmental factors in determining a person’s traits.

Some genetic traits are largely determined by environmental factors, and the influence of these influences is often insignificant. Nevertheless, environmental factors such as early experiences, social interactions, and education do play a role in developing the human personality. Thus, a student who excels at mathematics is likely to have a genetic ability, but also learned the subject from a variety of sources. This is true whether or not the person is born with a’strong’ personality or a weak one.

Some scientists consider genetics to be irrelevant in the debate because their findings suggest that genes and environmental factors are always interrelated. Some genes are unable to function without environmental inputs, while others may undermine environmental factors. For example, a person can be genetically predisposed to develop phenylketonuria, which is a disease caused by genetics. Likewise, environmental toxins can affect the expression of certain genes.

Influence of environment

The phrase “nature vs. nurture” first came into use in the early nineteenth century, and is credited to Sir Francis Galton. Since Hippocrates , scientists have debated whether there is any evidence for heredity, which they consider the origin of human behavior, or whether these traits are influenced by environment. According to Galton, both biological and social factors influence the development of a person.

On the other side of the debate, the influences of environment are more important. While genes are essential in shaping one’s personality, environmental factors, including upbringing, schooling, and peer group interaction, can also have an impact. A student who excels at math is likely to have inherited the ability, or perhaps cultivated it with hard work and study. If the student’s parents’ teaching styles and upbringing were highly supportive of learning, is this more likely to be hereditary?

Environmental influences have significant effects on gene expression. A diet low in the amino acid phenylalanine can suppress the genetic disease phenylketonuria. Gene-environment correlations also indicate that certain genotypes are better suited for certain environments. These findings are important because the two factors are intimately linked. In the end, the answer to the question of what is “nature” and “nurture” lies in our environment.

Recent scientific research has shown that social and environmental factors can influence educational outcomes. In fact, gender differences in test scores and access to education also affect educational outcomes. Girls tend to score higher on math and verbal tests than boys, and they are less likely to choose STEM fields as they progress in school. This is an example of how nature advocates argue that social factors have more influence than genetics. And since genetics are not the sole determinant of our behavior, it is impossible to make a definitive conclusion.

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nature vs nurture philosophy essay

The philosopher John Locke thought we had no innate ideas; our minds are blank slates, upon which experience writes.  Nurture is everything, nature nothing.  Modern popular genetics gives the impression that we are nothing but the stage on which a play written by our genes is performed; nature is everything, nurture nothing.  What are the facts, and what are the philosophical principles that are used to interpret these facts? John and Ken nurture their conversation with Alison Gopnik from UC Berkeley, author of  The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind.

Listening Notes

What is nativism? There is a version that talks about individual differences. There is another version that talks about universals of human nature. How settled are things when you are born? Ken introduces Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at Berkeley. Is it simply nature versus nurture, or is it more complicated? Gopnik thinks that it is a conceptually confused contrast. The things that make us human, our capacities for learning, also allow us to interact with and change our environment more than any other species. Nature interacts with nurture and vice versa. Gopnik says that studies of newborn babies show that the blank slate idea is false. 

Pinker and Chomsky think that the things that are innate are also the things that never change. Gopnik thinks that the innate knowledge can be changed. Are our preferences for things innate? Babies understand at an early age that people have desires that might be different from theirs. Do beliefs work the same way? How does innate knowledge get into babies' brains? How does imagination interact with innate knowledge? Do other animals use pretense and imagination? What do twin studies show about the nature versus nurture debate? Gopnik says that if you look at rich children, nature plays a bigger role than in poor children, for whom nurture plays a bigger role. Gopnik says that people shape their environments based on innate tendencies so that, for example, people with a tendency for depression are more likely to experience things that will lead them to depression. 

Why do people get upset when they hear nativism defended? Is there anything that helps babies learn? Gopnik thinks that imaginate play and “getting into stuff” are the things that help babies understand the world the most. We talk about innate beliefs and theories, but how do we have innate beliefs when it is only stuff in the brain that can be innate?

  • Roving Philosophical Report  (Seek to 04:30): Amy Standen goes to a San Francisco preschool to find out how little children behave to get an idea about innate behavior. 
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 50:25): Ian Shoales gives us the rundown on what philosophers and psychologists have said about the nature versus nurture debate, from Locke to Freud to Chomsky.

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  • The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • entry on rationalism versus empiricism
  • entry on John Locke
  • entry on David Hume
  • The Wikipedia entry on the nature versus nurture debate
  • A website about the nature versus nurture debate
  • An overview of the nature versus nurture debate as it pertains to intelligence
  • An overview of the nature versus nurture debate as it pertains to homosexuality
  • A CDC page on nature versus nurture in relation to catching diseases
  • The website of Human Nature Review
  • David Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
  • John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • The Meno in the Collected Dialogues of Plato contains Plato's views on nature versus nurture 
  • Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate
  • Matt Ridley's Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human
  • Matt Ridley's Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture
  • Paul Ehrlich's book Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect
  • Judith Harris's The Nurture Assumption
  • David C. Rowe's The Limits of Family Influence: Genes, Experience, and Behavior
  • Jerry Fodor's Representations
  • Noam Chomsky's Language and the Problems of Knowledge
  • Ann and Richard Barnet's book Youngest Minds: Parenting and Genes in the Development of Intellect and Emotion

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Nature versus Nurture Debate in Psychology by Hunter Honeycutt LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023 LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0305

The nature-nurture dichotomy is a long-standing and pervasive framework for thinking about the causal influences believed to be operating during individual development. In this dichotomy, nature refers to factors (e.g., genes, genetic programs, and/or biological blueprints) or forces (e.g., heredity and/or maturation) inherent to the individual that predetermine the development of form and function. Nurture generally refers to all the remaining, typically “external,” causal factors (e.g., physical and social conditions) and processes (e.g., learning and experience) that influence development. The nature versus nurture debate in psychology deals with disagreements about the extent to which the development of traits in humans and animals reflects the relative influence of nature and nurture. It is commonly stated that psychologists have moved on from asking whether traits (or variation in traits) develop from nature or nurture, to recognize instead that both nature and nurture work together or “interact” to produce outcomes, although exactly how to view the interaction is a matter of much debate. While acknowledging the interaction of nature and nurture, one’s theoretical models and research focus might emphasize the prominence of one over the other. Thus, nativists focus more on the importance of innate factors or forces operating on development, whereas empiricists focus more on experiential or environmental factors. However, not everyone finds value in thinking about development in terms of nature and nurture. By the middle of the twentieth century, some psychologists, biologists, and philosophers began to view nature-nurture as a conceptually deficient and biologically implausible dichotomy that oversimplifies the dynamics of behavior and development. Such people espouse some variant of “developmental systems theory” and seek to eliminate or otherwise fuse the nature-nurture division.

The works in this section are mostly trade books that provide general introductions to the nature-nurture debate across a variety of topical areas in psychology, all of which would be suitable for use in classes with undergraduate students at all levels. Goldhaber 2012 contrasts four popular perspectives on the nature-nurture issue and would be a good place to start for anyone unfamiliar with the nature-nurture debate in psychology. Nativist perspectives are represented by Pinker 2002 , Plomin 2018 , and Vallortigara 2021 . An empiricist-leaning position on behavior development is put forth in Schneider 2012 . Developmental systems theory is promoted in Blumberg 2005 and Moore 2002 . Two edited books are included and both are better suited for advanced undergraduate- or graduate-level students. The first edited book, Coll, et al. 2013 , focuses on the nature-nurture issue across a range of topics and perspectives in psychology. The other, Mayes and Lewis 2012 , presents empiricist (or environmentalist) perspectives on child development.

Bateson, P. 2017. Behaviour, development and evolution . Cambridge, UK: OpenBook Publishers.

DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0097

Written by a distinguished ethologist who draws extensively from his work on animal behavior, this book argues that the nature-nurture division is neither valid nor helpful in capturing the complex system of factors that influence behavioral development. Topics include imprinting and attachment, parent-offspring relations, the influence of early-life experiences on later-life outcomes, problems with genetic determinism, and the role of behavior in evolutionary change.

Blumberg, M. S. 2005. Basic instinct: The genesis of novel behavior . New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.

Consistent with developmental systems theory, Blumberg presents an overview of the conceptual and empirical limitations of nativism in explanations of behavioral and neural development in animals and cognitive development in humans.

Coll, C. G., E. L. Bearer, and R. M. Lerner, eds. 2013. Nature-nurture: The complex interplay of genetic and environmental influences on human behavior and development . New York: Psychology Press.

The contents of this edited volume are almost entirely original works with commentary that span multiple disciplines (psychology, biology, economics, philosophy) and multiple perspectives (behavioral genetics and developmental systems theory) on the nature-nurture issue.

Goldhaber, D. 2012. The nature-nurture debates: Bridging the gap . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139022583

Goldhaber reviews four major perspectives (behavior genetics, environmentalism, evolutionary psychology, and developmental systems theory) on the nature-nurture issue. He argues we should reject reductionist views based on either genetic determinism or environmental determinism in favor of more holistic, interactionist approaches.

Mayes, L. C., and M. Lewis, eds. 2012. The Cambridge handbook of environment in human development . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

This handbook explores a wide variety of ways in which the environment influences child development. Chapters cover conceptual frameworks and methodological issues in thinking about and studying environmental influences as well reviewing ways in which environmental contexts and systems influence specific aspects of child development.

Moore, D. S. 2002. The dependent gene: The fallacy of nature vs. nurture . New York: Henry Holt.

This book provides an introduction to the developmental systems theory take on the nature-nurture issue particularly as it relates to genetic determinism, heritability and heredity.

Pinker, S. 2002. The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature . New York: Viking.

In this best-selling book, Pinker draws on evidence from behavioral genetics, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive psychology to argue for a nativist position concerning human nature.

Plomin, R. 2018. Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Plomin reviews traditional and more modern evidence from behavioral genetics to argue that genes are the primary factor in bringing about psychological differences between people. Moreover, he argues that many “environmental” factors operating on development are themselves strongly influenced by genetic differences.

Schneider, S. M. 2012. The science of consequences: How they affect genes, change the brain, and impact our world . Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Schneider presents a view grounded in behavior analysis to argue for the critical role that the consequences of genetic activity, neural activity, and behavioral activity play in individual development. While emphasizing environmental (or experiential) factors influencing development, this book also highlights the systemic and interactive nature of developmental systems across multiple levels of analysis.

Vallortigara, G. 2021. Born knowing: Imprinting and the origins of knowledge . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/14091.001.0001

Drawing upon research in comparative cognition and comparative neuroscience, much of it his own, Vallortigara argues that animals, including humans, enter the world with a set of unlearned, innate or instinctive behaviors and neural circuits that bias or predispose subsequent learning and development.

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Nature vs. Nurture Essay

Nature is the influence of genetics or hereditary factors in determining the individual’s behavior. In other words, it is how natural factors shape the behavior or personality of an individual. In most cases, nature determines the physical characteristics which in effect influence the behavior of an individual. Physical characteristics such as physical appearance, type of voice and sex which are determined by hereditary factors influences the way people behave.

Nurture on the other is the upbringing of an individual according to the environmental conditions. That is, the way individuals are socialized. Basically, nurture is the influence of environmental factors on an individual’s behavior.

According to this paradigm, an individual’s behavior can be conditioned depending on the way one would like it to be. Often, individuals’ behaviors are conditioned by the socio-cultural environmental factors. It is because of socio-cultural environmental conditions that the differences in the behavior of individuals occur.

Nature determines individual traits that are hereditary. In other words, human characteristics are determined by genetic predispositions which are largely natural. Hereditary traits are normally being passed from the parents to the offspring. They include characteristics that determine sex and physical make up. According to natural behaviorists, it is the genes that will determine the physical trait an individual will have. These are encoded on the individuals DNA.

Therefore, behavioral traits such as sexual orientation, aggression, personality and intelligence are also encoded in the DNA. However, scientists believe that these characteristics are evolutionary. That is, they change over time depending on the physical environment adaptability. Evolutionary scientists argue that changes in genes are as a result of mutations which are caused by environmental factors. Thus, natural environment determines individual characteristics which are genetically encoded in the DNA.

Conversely, individuals possess traits that are not naturally determined. These are characteristics that are learnt rather than being born with. These are traits which largely determined by the socio-cultural environmental factors or the way the individuals are socialized within the society depending on the societal values.

These traits are learnt as an individual develops and can easily be changed by the socio-cultural environment where the individual is currently staying. These characteristics include temperament, ability to master a language and sense of humor. Behavioral theorists believe that these traits can be conditioned and altered much like the way animal behavior can be conditioned.

From the discussion it can be deduced that individuals’ traits are determined by hereditary genes and at the same time can be natured. There are those traits that cannot be changed in an individual no matter what condition the person is exposed to. These traits are inborn and embed within the individual hereditary factors.

In most cases, they constitute the physical characteristics of an individual. They also determine the physical behaviors such as walking style, physical appearance and eating habits. At the same time there are learned characteristics which are normally being conditioned by the socio-cultural values. Individuals learn these traits from the way they are socialized within the immediate social or cultural environment. In other words, such behaviors are conditioned by the cultural values encouraged by the immediate society.

In conclusion, nature vs. nurture debate still remains controversial. However, all agree that nature and nurture play a crucial role in determining an individual’s behavior. Nature is associated with heredity roles in determining the individuals characteristics where as nurture is associated with the role of socio-cultural environment in determining the individuals behavior.

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IvyPanda. (2024, February 28). Nature vs. Nurture. https://ivypanda.com/essays/nature-vs-nurture/

"Nature vs. Nurture." IvyPanda , 28 Feb. 2024, ivypanda.com/essays/nature-vs-nurture/.

IvyPanda . (2024) 'Nature vs. Nurture'. 28 February.

IvyPanda . 2024. "Nature vs. Nurture." February 28, 2024. https://ivypanda.com/essays/nature-vs-nurture/.

1. IvyPanda . "Nature vs. Nurture." February 28, 2024. https://ivypanda.com/essays/nature-vs-nurture/.


IvyPanda . "Nature vs. Nurture." February 28, 2024. https://ivypanda.com/essays/nature-vs-nurture/.

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David Rettew M.D.


Nature versus nurture: where we are now, a short review of one of the most popular debates in behavioral science..

Posted October 6, 2017 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina

Note: This post has been adapted from a version published in Pediatric News.

The question of whether human behavior is driven by innate biological forces or the product of our learning and environment has been a popular discussion at cocktail parties and scientific conferences for many years. To many people, the longevity of this debate suggests that we haven’t actually learned that much. In reality, however, a tremendous number of scientific advances have drastically improved our level of understanding. The hope for this post is to offer a short narrative of how the answer to this question has shifted to its current state of knowledge. While admittedly an oversimplification, one useful way to track progress in the nature-nurture debate is to divide the evolution of our understanding into three main states.

Part 1: Nature Versus Nurture

The origins of nature versus nurture debate date back for thousands of years and across many cultures. The Greek philosopher Galen theorized that personality traits were the result of a person’s relative concentrations of four bodily fluids, or humours, namely blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The actual term nature-nurture comes from Sir Francis Galton's 1874 publication of English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture, in which he argued that intelligence and character traits came from hereditary factors (this was well before the modern science of genetics ). His beliefs were in clear opposition to earlier scholars such as philosopher John Locke, who is well known for the theory that children are born a “blank slate” with their traits developing completely from experience and learning.

Fast forwarding to the 20th century, this debate continued in pretty much the same terms. For most of the 1900s, the two dominant schools of thought when it came to human behavior and psychiatric symptoms were behaviorism, which emphasized the importance of learning principles in shaping behavior, and psychoanalysis , which developed from the ideas of Sigmund Freud and focused on the ways that unconscious sexual and aggressive drives were channeled through various defense mechanisms . Despite the fact that these two perspectives were often in fierce opposition to each other, both shared the view that the environment and a person’s unique experiences, i.e. nurture, were the prevailing forces in development.

Part 2: Nature and Nurture

From about the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, a noticeable shift occurred as direct knowledge of the brain and genetics started to swing the pendulum back to an increased appreciation of nature as a critical influence on a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990 and the entire decade was designated as the “Decade of the Brain.” Neuroscience research exploded and many new psychiatric medications emerged and were used much more commonly than ever before.

Also during this time, the type of research design that had the most direct relevance to nature-nurture questions become popular. This was the twin study, which enabled researchers to calculate directly the degree to which a variable of interest (intelligence, height, anxiety level, etc.) could be attributed to genetic versus environmental factors. In doing this, a repeated finding when it came to behavioral variables was that both genetic and environmental influences were important, often at close to a 50/50 split in terms of magnitude.

These types of studies, combined with others, made it increasingly difficult to argue for the overwhelming supremacy of either nature or nurture as the primary driver of behavioral traits and disorders. Yet while many experts would now have to acknowledge the importance of both nature and nurture, the two worlds were generally treated as being quite independent. For example, terms such as “endogenous depression ” were employed to differentiate people who had depressive symptoms from what were presumed to be more autonomously operating biological factors from those whose depression resulted from “psychological” causes, with different treatments being recommended based on that determination. Looking back, what appears now as the fatal flaw in this perspective was the assumption that if something was brain-based or “biological” then it, therefore, implied a kind of automatic wiring of the brain that was generally driven by genes and beyond the reach of environmental factors.

Part 3: Nature Is Nurture (and vice versa)

Today, most scientists who carefully examine the ever-expanding research base have come to appreciate that the nature and nurture domains are hopelessly interwoven with one another. Genes have an influence on the environments we experience. At the same time, a person’s environment and experience can directly change the level at which certain genes are expressed (a rapidly evolving area of research called epigenetics ), which in turn alters both the physical structure and activity of the brain.

Given this modern understanding, the question of nature versus nurture ceases even to make sense in many ways. As an example, consider the developmental pathway a 10-year-old boy might have taken to eventually presenting to a mental health professional for high levels of aggressive behavior. He may have inherited a genetically-based temperamental predisposition to being aggressive. As a young child, that tendency to become irritable and angry would then often evoke more negative responses in other people such as parents, who may themselves struggle with controlling their own anger . These interactions begin to snowball, affecting his schoolwork and friendships and, through epigenetic mechanisms, all of these experiences cause this child’s brain to grow differently.

Yet there is also a hopeful message in this example, as an appreciation of these complicated interacting genetic and environmental factors give us many places in this cycle to intervene to stop this progression and even change the direction of the momentum. Now, we understand that not only are medications biological treatments but also things like psychotherapy , parenting guidance, mindfulness practices, exercise, and good eating habits.

nature vs nurture philosophy essay

In the end, when the families of children like this ask me whether or not their child’s struggles are behavioral or psychological, the best answer I can give them these days is “yes.”

@copyright by David Rettew, MD

David Rettew M.D.

David Rettew, M.D. , is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and faculty at the Oregon Health and Science University.

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Home — Essay Samples — Psychology — Nature Versus Nurture — The Nature vs Nurture Debate


The Nature Vs Nurture Debate

  • Categories: Nature Versus Nurture

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Words: 603 |

Published: Jan 29, 2024

Words: 603 | Page: 1 | 4 min read

Table of contents

Nature argument, nurture argument, interactionist perspective, criticisms and limitations of the debate.

  • One of the most compelling examples of genetic influences on behavior is the study of identical twins. Identical twins share the same genes and were commonly separated at birth, yet they often display remarkable similarities in personality traits, interests, and even medical conditions.
  • Genetic factors can lead to the onset of psychological disorders such as Autism and Schizophrenia.
  • Evolution and natural selection have created inherited traits such as physical characteristics that enable humans to adapt to their environments.
  • Early childhood experiences can heavily influence an individual’s cognitive development. Studies have shown that a nurturing environment positively contributes to intellectual development and conversely, poverty and violence negatively impact cognitive development.
  • Socialization is a critical environmental factor that shapes one's personality. Cultural norms also deeply influence one's way of thinking, behavior, and personal identity.
  • Environmental factors can heavily impact behavior, such as peer pressure and negative societal influences leading to adverse outcomes.
  • Genetic factors and environmental factors have both been shown to interact to influence behavior, gene-environment interaction being critical scientific evidence of this.
  • Epigenetics, the study of how environmental factors can activate or suppress certain genes, can have impacts on both personality and physical health.
  • Plomin, R. (2018). Genetics and life events: The importance of childhood environments for recruitment into ‘nature’s experiments’. Psychological Review, 125(5), 778-791.
  • Reiss, D., Neiderhiser, J. M., Hetherington, E. M., & Plomin, R. (2000). The relationship code: Deciphering genetic and social influences on adolescent development. Harvard University Press.
  • Jablonka, E., & Raz, G. (2009). Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance: Prevalence , Mechanisms, and Implications for the Study of Heredity and Evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 84(2), 131–176.

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