Genetics vs Environment

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

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One of the oldest debates in the field of psychology is whether our human development and behavior is attributed to nature or to nurture. The term nature refers to genetic inheritance such as our physical appearance and personality traits. The term nurture refers to environmental factors such as childhood experiences, how we were raised, our social relationships and surrounding culture. The question really is how much of our actions are a result of our genetics and how much are a result of our environment? If we know that having positive relationships is key to living a joyful life, then how does our genetics and our environments impact our socialization?

Early philosophers had very distinct opinions about nature vs nurture. Plato theorized that certain things with humans are inborn and occur regardless of environmental influences. John B Watson theorized that humans can be trained to do and become anything, regardless of their genetic background. I did not really contemplate this topic until I had children of my own and witnessed the striking differences of my two daughters. Their individual personality traits were remarkably noticeable since their births, and their unique interests and behaviors continued to be evident to me throughout every stage of their development and into their adulthood.

Megan was stubborn since birth. As a baby, she was determined not to give up breast feeding and refused to transition to formula with a bottle. I still remember when Megan was three or four years old, her grandfather and her set out to take a walk together but returned back home almost instantly because neither one could agree on which direction they walked. Nicole was a daydreamer since birth. She was never interested in the world at large and played in her imaginary world. She never paid attention to where we were going or her surroundings during travels and was always more interested in her specific interests rather than broader events. She could spend hours doing whatever interests she had, whether it was practising gymnastics, cheerleading, modeling, or dancing.

Nicole preferred playing with others rather than on her own. Megan played on her own for long periods of time but also enjoyed playing with others if she was the leader. While Nicole preferred to remain stationary, Megan was in constant motion and did not like to sit still or to be held. Nicole craved physical contact and would hug and cuddle for hours. Nicole was always creative and loved to invent imaginary games and worlds for herself where pencils would be people and pillows would be their homes. Megan loved books and learning and could recite full stories by herself by the young age of two years old. Nicole loved attention and applause and I often referred to her as the gold star child because of the frequency she required verbal praise. Megan preferred receiving tangible rewards for her accomplishments, rather than verbal praise.  

Megan was curious about the world around her and often asked thoughtful questions from a young age. As a child, Megan was a voracious reader and excelled at academics, whereas Nicole was not interested in reading or academics. Megan had a straight career path, completing a university degree in teaching, and is now an English teacher in England. Nicole has had a bumpier career path with many stops and starts. After attending college for one year, she dropped out and became interested and studied make up artistry at a prestigious school in California. She worked for a few years at beauty boutiques for large department stores in Toronto. She tried other service roles when she got restless with make-up and recently has gone back to school in order to work in the healthcare field.

Our daughters were raised with the same environmental conditions and had the same childhood upbringing and experiences. They both had a best friend while growing up, they attended the same public schools, lived in the same neighbourhood, and experienced similar social interactions. Based on my observations of watching my daughters develop, I could see firsthand how their genetics influenced their actions and behaviors. Many others that I have spoken to have also reported that their children were raised in the same environments and yet their children’s differences in behaviors were also remarkably noticeable throughout their development. If our children had the same upbringing, then what role did their environment have on their behaviors?

More recent extensive research on this subject, suggests that early philosophers’ theory of genetics versus environment is much more complex. They believe that it is difficult to determine if it is solely inborn personality or solely environment conditions that dictates behaviour. That is why contemporary psychological researchers are now interested in investigating how nature and nurture interact in qualitatively different ways. They are finding that the links between gene and behaviour are different from cause and effect and that both genetics and environment influence behavior.

A study published in the journal Nature Genetics in 2015, is the result of the collaboration between Dr. Beben Benyamin from the Queensland Brain Institute and researchers at the VU University of Amsterdam. They reviewed nearly every twin study for the past 50 years. The impressive global twin review revealed that, on average, the variation for human traits and diseases is split almost equally. “When visiting the nature versus nurture debate, there is overwhelming evidence that both genetic and environmental factors can influence traits and diseases,” Benyamin said. “What is comforting is that, on average, about 50 percent of individual differences are genetic and 50 percent are environmental.”

Their research has also shown that certain conditions result in different percentages. For example, with mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder, the research results leaned 70% in favour of genetics and 30% in favour of environmental. These findings rationalize how genetics predominantly determine social relationships for people who are suffering with mental health illnesses.

What their study findings demonstrates is that for healthy adults, our social interactions, and the relationships that we cultivate throughout our life, are equally determined by our personalities and by where and how we are raised. For example, if we are genetically born extraverts, and we have opportunities for positive socialization throughout our development stages, then we will likely have and maintain many social relationships throughout our life. If we are genetically born introverts, and we do not have opportunities for positive socialization while growing up, there is a greater chance that we will become more reclusive adults. And if we are genetically born introverts but have plenty of opportunities for positive social interactions throughout our childhood, we will grow up to be comfortable on our own as well as in social settings.  We will likely be selective in choosing how many relationships that we decide to develop and maintain throughout our life.

What we know for sure is that we cannot change our genetics but we can influence our environments.  That is why it is so important that we provide healthy and positive surroundings for our families because we now know that our behaviors and how we interact in this world, is equally determined by our childhood experiences and by our inborn personalities.  





Submitted: October 19, 2021

© Copyright 2022 Denise Svajlenko. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:



The science you refer to here is quite deep and sophisticated (shared and non-shared environments, for example; definition of heritability; stats-heavy) and few people take time to properly understand it. You've engaged, which is really positive. Good article to publish here.

In my view, we should separate the science - how it works - from the value judgements - what outcomes we think are better (often rather subjective and prey to wishful thinking). They're just different kinds of things.

Tue, October 19th, 2021 5:22pm


I appreciate you taking the time to read the article and provide feedback, Adam. This is a very complex subject and my goal was to provide a very practical application and understanding while still referencing the science. The bottom line is the science has demonstrated that both our genetics and environment dictate our behaviors. I'm not quite sure what you have deemed to be my subjective value judgements in the article?

Tue, October 19th, 2021 10:39am


I was making a general comment, not referring to your specific observations, which seem both measured and sensible to me. Out in the wide world people so often have agendas which really wilfully violate what the science is saying! Usually, and bizarrely, to deny that genetics plays any meaningful role at all.

Tue, October 19th, 2021 8:40pm


That is very true!

Tue, October 19th, 2021 1:44pm

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