Nature and Nurture

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

In the study of development, nature refers to the inherited (genetic) characteristics and tendencies that influence development. Some inherited characteristics appear in virtually everyone. For instance, almost all children have the capacity to learn to walk, understand language, imitate others, use simple tools, and draw inferences about how other people view the world. Thus all children have a set of universal human genes that, when coupled with a reasonable environment, permit them to develop as reasonably capable members of the human species.

Other kinds of genes create differences among people. Children’s stature, eye color, and facial appearance are largely determined by genes. Children’s temperament—their characteristic ways of responding to emotional events, novel stimuli, and their own impulses—seems to be in part affected by their individual genetic makeup (Rothbart, Ahadi, & Evans, 2000; D. C. Rowe, Almeida, & Jacobson, 1999). Similarly, being slow or quick to learn from instruction and everyday experiences has some genetic basis (Petrill & Wilkerson, 2000; Plomin, 1989).

Inherited characteristics and tendencies are not always evident at birth. Many physical features emerge gradually through the process of maturation, the genetically guided changes that occur over the course of development. Environmental support, such as food, reasonably safe and toxin-free surroundings, and responsive care from others, is necessary for maturation to take place; nature never works alone.

Thus nature’s partner is nurture, the environmental conditions that influence development. Children’s experiences in the environment affect all aspects of their being, from the health of their bodies to the curiosity of their minds. Nurture affects children’s development through multiple channels: physically through nutrition, activity, and stress; intellectually through informal experiences and formal instruction; and socially through adult role models and peer relationships. With good environmental support, children thrive. Unfortunately, the conditions of nurture are not always nurturing. For example, children who grow up in an abusive family must look outside the family for stable, affectionate care.

Historically, many theorists saw nature and nurture as separate and rival factors. Some theorists believed that biological factors are ultimately responsible for growth. Other theorists assumed that children become whatever the environment shapes them to be. Increasingly, developmental theorists have come to realize that nature and nurture are both important and that they intermesh dynamically in the lives of children. Consider these principles of how nature and nurture exert separate and combined effects:

The relative effects of heredity and environment vary for different areas of development. Some abilities are strongly influenced by genetically controlled systems in the brain. For example, the ability to distinguish among speech sounds develops without training and under a wide range of environmental conditions (Flavell, 1994; Gallistel, Brown, Carey, Gelman, & Keil, 1991). In contrast, abilities in traditional school subject areas (e.g., reading, geography) and advanced artistic and physical skills (e.g., playing the piano, playing competitive soccer) rest heavily on instruction and practice (Gardner, Torff, & Hatch, 1996; Olson, 1994; R. Watson, 1996).

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