Nature vs. Nurture


It’s an age old debate.  Are we a product of our nature or nurture?  Do we consciously decide to act a certain way or as a popular song so proudly states are we just born this way?

I started pondering the point recently when reading an article on the character traits of introverts vs. extroverts. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/03/caring-for-your-introvert/2696/#.TjfRVNnRvYI.twitter

The author, a self-professed introvert, stated that being introverted is not a choice or a lifestyle, it’s an orientation.  While I can see the temptation here, I’m an introvert too; I honestly think that calling behaviour simply the result of an orientation is a bit of a cop out.

Instead, I thinking there are three different types of human traits; Physical, Leanings and Personality.  The first two are written in your genes.  You can alter your appearance and learn to counter act your leanings, usually with great effort and an awful lot of pain or discomfort but you will still tend to pass them on to the next generation.  Personality on the other hand is completely learned through observation and reinforced by the feedback you receive.

Take me for example.  I have green eyes, (physical), I’m left handed (leaning) and I’m an introvert (personality).  Leaving out the fact that today with cosmetic surgery I can alter my appearance my genes still carry the code for green eyes and it is very likely my children will inherit that, there is nothing I can do about it.

Our leanings are also written in our genetic code somehow but if identified at an early age they can be countered and re-taught.  Around 1910, when my grand-father began reaching for things with his left hand and attempting to pick up a pencil or work other fine motor skills with it his horrified parents proceeded to tie his arm behind his back and forced him to develop his right arm first.  In the 1940s my father was also corrected, although less barbarically, and taught to use his right hand.  But by the 1970s when it was my turn society had grown to accept left handedness so I was allowed to develop more naturally.  But when it came time to learn to play catch my father demonstrated with his right hand and I thus developed the particular oddity of writing with my left and throwing with my right.

For the sake of argument let’s assume that the fact that I am left handed is 50% natural and 50% a product or my environment.  Had I neen born in 1910 or 1940 I would like be right handed today.  But the fact that I am introverted is 100% environmental.

A child born to introverted parents is taught, both overtly and just through observation of the people around him to behave in a certain way.  All three children in my family, myself and two sisters, are introverts because both our parents are.  My oldest sister however is a little less introverted than the rest of us because, as the first child, she was paraded around a bit more, encouraged to step out, represent the family at school and in other social settings and lead by example.  We know from scientific studies that as we grow older certain traits do become hard wired into our brains but that is not the same is being born that way, it still had to be learned at some point.

I’d be interested to see studies on adopted children and how they develop.  They obviously are going to look like their biological parents and will likely even share the same leanings but I bet that the personality of these children will more closely mirror their adoptive parents than their biological parents.  My first girlfriend was adopted and although she looked nothing like the rest of her family, she and her adoptive mother were very similar in the way they interacted with the world; her personality had clearly been learned from her adoptive environment.

So even though I appreciate what the author of this article is saying about how we introverts see the world I maintain that introversion is not something I was born with.  Now that I’m approaching 40, it is something that is hardwired into my brain that I can’t really help but I can choose to try and counter act it in certain situations.  If left alone, which is what introverts want most of the time anyway, I will slip back into my introverted ways.  It’s not the way I was born, but is the way I have learned to function.

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