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Nature vs. Nurture: Effects on Genes, Mental & Physical Health

What is nature vs. nurture (definitions)?

Picture of boy twins.

Nature vs. nurture affects our mental and physical health.

In the context of the nature vs. nurture debate, “nature” refers to biological/genetic predispositions’ impact on human traits, and nurture describes the influence of learning and other influences from one’s environment. The debate over whether the strengths and weaknesses of people are the result of nature or nurture has, and somewhat continues to rage on between scholars and lay people alike. This debate has had significant social implications, particularly concerning what are thought to determine people’s ability to learn/intelligence (Lynch, 2016).

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Some genetic diseases and conditions are inherited from your family, while others are caused by changes or mutations in a pre-existing gene, or group of genes. These gene mutations can occur from an environmental exposure or randomly.

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What is the nature vs. nurture? Who created the theory?

The initial use of the Nature vs. Nurture Theory was credited to psychologist Sir Francis Galton in 1869 (Bynum, 2002). However, it is unclear who initially described the impact of genes and biology versus environmental influences. Scientists, doctors, researchers, psychologists, behaviorists, and many others have debated these theories since Hippocrates was alive.

Around 400 B.C.E., Hippocrates described human behaviors as being biological, the result of four different body fluid types called humors.

  • Yellow bile
  • Blood
  • Black bile
  • Phlegm

In contrast, many centuries later, philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke independently thought that people are born as blank slates (i.e. "tabula rasa"), and that their eventual individual differences develop solely due to the result of environmental influences (Psychology Encyclopedia, 2017; Duschinsky, 2012; Nesterak, 2015). Twentieth century behavioral psychologist John Watson shared a similar perspective, believing that the events that take place during early childhood have far more influence on what kind of adults we become compared to the effects of our genes (Haggbloom et al, 2002).

How does nature vs. nurture affect our genes?

Most conventional theories of nature vs. nurture consider the differences in humans a result of elements of both your genetic makeup and your environment.

What are examples of nature vs. nurture?

While certain physical traits like skin and eye color and diseases like sickle cell anemia and Huntington’s chorea have been found to be the result of direct genetic inheritance, virtually any pattern of thinking or behavior can be understood from the perspective of a combination of nature and nurture. In the animal kingdom, domestication of many species is understood to be the result of encouraging domesticated behaviors (nurture), then having animals that most successfully adopt those behaviors breed with each other so it becomes part of their nature (Bouchard, 1994).

In humans, many studies in more than the past 20 years involve identical or fraternal twins who are separated at birth. The question of nature vs. nurture somewhat continues to be debated concerning human behavior, intelligence, and in the development of personality traits (Psychology Encyclopedia, 2017).

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How does nature vs. nurture affect our mental and physical health?

It is understood that certain physical traits, as well as the susceptibility to most physical and mental health disorders tend to run in families. Specifically, whatever illnesses your parents, grandparents, siblings, and other biological family members have does not guarantee you will inherit them, but it does increase the likelihood that you may develop them.

On the other hand, it is understood that environmental factors often have a significant effect on whether or not you develop the health problems that run in your family. (You can change your gene expressions).

A couple of examples of how the environment (nurture) can provide a benefit, and possibly decrease your risk in getting an illness from your family are:

  • If you are at risk for heart disease or diabetes, eat a healthy diet and exercise.
  • If you are at risk for other conditions, for example, breast or colon cancer, get regular health screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies per your doctor's recommendations.

Examples of how negative environmental influences can affect genetic expression include:

  • Exposure to community violence increasing the likelihood of anxiety
  • Depression and negative behaviors
  • Children who are exposed to secondhand smoke may develop cancers more often than those who do not have that experience (Nesterak, 2015).


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Is our intelligence based on nature or nurture?

As with most human traits, intelligence is now understood to be the result of some combination of both nature and nurture. While genes have a great influence on the size and biochemistry of the brain, its full development does not usually occur until after the first 20 years of life. Also, the heredity of intelligence tends to vary between different aspects of cognition.

Intelligence and subsequent learning also are viewed as being largely molded by the environment the person grows up in, both before and after birth. (European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2007; Kan et al, 2013). Therefore, to reduce your risk of inheriting diseases or illness from your family (or passing them on to your children):

  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • If you are pregnant, don't drink alcohol or use other illegal drugs. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure that any current drugs or supplements you are taking will not harm your baby.
  • It is imperative to have safe communities and schools that nurture learning and confidence for all children so that the quest can continue to promote high cognitive development in each child.

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