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Nature vs. Nurture - Between Being Born With It or Being Taught To Be It
Jul 1, 2016

One of the classic questions psychologists have asked regarding human behavior is whether our behaviors are innate or imparted by one’s environment. Both religious and scientific disciplines have contributed to the attempts to answer this question, and many progressive results have been reached.

The interplay of both factors in determining one’s development has been agreed upon by many Muslim scholars who have contended that factors such as genetic predispositions, education, and spirituality play complementary roles in behavior. For instance, reports from the early Islamic period records Prophet Muhammad to have advised many times about making wise decisions when choosing a partner, as a marriage will influence the development of a newborn (Abdullah, 2011). On the other hand, the Prophet has also been cited regarding his emphasis on the role of the environment around a newborn and how this will impact them later in life.

Related to spirituality, the concept of the soul is important in the Islamic debate of nature vs. nurture (Abdullah, 2011). In Islam, humans are comprised of both the physique and the soul. The soul (nafs), according to the religion, is what differentiates humans from animals; it allows humans to use reason and intellect, whereas animals can only follow their natural instincts. Humans are capable of higher cognitive functions, which may result from education and spirituality, and are made possible by the existence of the soul.

In Christianity, the debate of nature vs. nurture does not end at just two divisions. The more Biblically accurate contextualization of human behaviors, according to the religion, comprises four divisions (Powlison, 1995). These divisions are creation-nature, sin-nature, sin-nurture, and grace-nurture. Basically, these divisions acknowledge that nature can be created by God (creation-nature) and by humans’ tendency to sin (sin-nature), while sinning can also be encouraged (sin-nurtured), just like behaviors that comply with what God wants (grace-nurture) can be encouraged.

While semantically Christianity’s stance in relation to the nature-versus-nurture debate is complex, it is practically similar to Islam, where spirituality (as in the concept of God) is one of the vital pillars in understanding the roots of human behaviors.

In Buddhism, spirituality is also seen as the focal point of human behaviors (The Neurobiologist's Guide to Buddha, n.d.). However, spirituality, as conceived by Buddhism, comes from one’s mind, and it seems that very little of the Buddhist philosophy is associated with the image of God (Olson, 2002). This is how the concept of spirituality in Buddhism differs from the one in Christianity and Islam: Buddhism emphasizes the role of the mind, especially in the state of enlightenment, which is when worldly characteristics such as desire, anger, and passion are eliminated.

The interaction between nature and nurture is explained in one disease model called the Diathesis Stress Model (Zuckerman, 1999). This model asserts that every individual is born with a certain level of vulnerability to certain diseases (though this level does not mean they have the disease). This level can be high or it can be low. Then, the influence of the environment – or the interaction between person and surroundings – will influence the likelihood of a person actually getting such diseases. Mental health experts have attempted to explain schizophrenia, depression, and other diseases through this lens. Some scientists claim that everyone is born with a risk to become schizophrenic. If their tendency towards schizophrenia is low, then a high degree of influence by stressful external factors is required for the symptoms of schizophrenia to manifest, and vice versa.

Crime is another important issue in the nature versus nurture debate. When discussing crime, we can rarely escape discussing aggression. Aggression is a trait in almost all individuals, and it can be influenced by both nature and nurture. Some factors leading to aggression are levels of aggression-related hormones, such as testosterone, or the existence of certain forms of genetic code that are deviant from normal structures. Various studies have shown that there are particular genetic codes that are more prevalent among arrested offenders (e.g. McDermott, Tingley, Cowden, Frazzetto, & Johnson, 2009; Tiihonen, et al., 2015). This shows that some people can be born with the inclination towards being aggressive, but it is also undeniable that aggression can be developed through external influences.

In a well-known experiment, Bandura, a psychologist, tried to explain that children can be taught to be aggressive (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961). The experiment involved putting children in a room with a television where the television showed a model doing something to a doll named Bobo. The children were split into three groups: in group one, the children watched the doll being hit; in group two, the children saw the doll being played with non-aggressively; and in the last group, the children saw nothing (this served as a control group). Then, all three groups were led to a room where there was a similar doll, and the researchers observed what the children did to the doll.

The findings showed that aggressive imitation was observed to be high in group one, suggesting that behaviors could be learnt upon observations. This group’s behaviors were similar to how the aggressive models behaved towards the doll, while the other groups manifested little aggressive behaviors towards the doll. This study supports the theory that environmental, or external, factors shape the development and acquisition of at least certain behaviors.

Intelligence is another hotly debated subject in the nature vs. nurture debate. Earlier presumptions favored the role of nature in being the most influential factor in determining an individual’s intelligence (Leahy, 1935). However, as scholars further investigated the topic, they found that intelligence is not as simple as once thought. While some argued that both nature and nurture have an equal level of influence (Holzinger, 1929), others observed that external factors such as culture may play a bigger role (Kan, Wicherts, Dolan, & van der Maas, 2013).

One of the most important implications of the debate about nature vs. nurture is the implication of accountability. While accountability can be a different issue altogether, many have argued that determining the root cause of human behavior entails determining if humans are accountable for their actions. Take the example of an offender who has the genetic markers prevalent among offenders: does this make the offender not accountable for the crime he/she has committed? Is someone with low intelligence doomed to possess that level of intelligence for the rest of their life?

In conclusion, nature and nurture both influence how humans work and acquire certain characteristics and behaviors. Since science has spent a considerable amount of effort in resolving the debate, it can be concluded that the answers are not simple. Just as human dynamics are variegated, the issue of nature and nurture also reflects the complexity of the human world. Further systematic research into the issue should be conducted, as the debate has implications for many aspects of life. Further studies could provide invaluable benefit to humanity.


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