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Nature vs Nurture

By Jonathan Andrews and Melissa Andrews


The nature vs nurture debate is one that has occupied the minds of scientists, psychologists and philosophers since the beginning of time - Whether it’s fraternal twins separated at birth developing completely different nature vs nurture

personalities or diseases like schizophrenia being passed down from generation to generation.

Some people think behaviour is determined by certain genetic predispositions (nature).
Others think that the way you act comes from your life experience, the way you were taught and the environment you found yourself in (nurture).

So are humans’ products of our environments? Or are we predisposed to one thing or another, and if so, which aspect wins? Is it instinct and genealogy or is it what we learn from our environment, from our peers and role models? Or is a combination of the two?

Nature vs Nurture: Nativists vs Empiricists

At the one end of the spectrum are the Empiricists - they possess the idea that the human mind is in a blank state at birth (tabula rasa) and believe that everything about our behaviour is learned as we grow. Maturity is a biological process only and behaviour is completely moulded by our environment (the use of the word ‘environment’ includes all possible influences).

At the other end are the Nativists, who believe we are predisposed to our behaviour. It can certainly be proved that eye colour and hair colour is determined by specific genes encoded in our cells.

However, the Nature Theory posits that more abstract traits such as intelligence, personality, aggression and even sexual orientation are similarly encoded in your DNA. A violent person is thus born violent, regardless if he becomes violent only after adulthood.

The Bobo Doll Experiment

An interesting study called the Bobo Doll Experiment seems to support the Empirical view of nurture before nature. When a group of children aged 3-6 years old watched an adult “assaulting a doll”, they later imitated this behaviour. The essence of this study is that social behaviour, even aggression, can be learned through observation.

Can location influence behaviour?

To further complicate matters, new studies show that even differences in location can influence behaviour. Researchers from King's College London studied 45 childhood characteristics in 6,759 pairs of identical and non-identical twins across the UK, to determine whether their genes or their environment was more important.

A series of nature-nurture maps produced by the team revealed that some areas are "environmental hotspots" for particular traits, but in other places the same attribute is mainly governed by genetics.

For example, across most of the UK 60% of the variation in children's behaviour at school - whether they were unruly or not - was down to their genes.

cartoon nature vs nurture


But in London, environment played a larger role - possibly because wealth varies so dramatically within communities, meaning twins growing up on the same street are more likely to fall in with different groups of friends who could influence their behaviour.

Ultimately, what we are really trying to understand here is the interaction between genealogy, behaviour and predispositions. We want to know the extent our genes affect us, including medical predispositions.

After reading reams of information on the subject, it’s clear that despite countless studies, all scientists are able to conclude is that genes MAY have an effect on a person’s behaviour.

Nature vs Nurture: The influence of genetics

No one gene controls a certain thing. They work in a symphony of interactions, and with the gene itself affected by the environment, they are not mutually exclusive. The process of the environment acting on the psyche of an animal is dependent on mechanisms that already happen to exist in that animal.

Vultures are attracted to rotting flesh while humans are repelled. Our genes thus determine our reaction to the environment, in this case, rotting flesh, and whether we are attracted to it or not. So this is a behavioural or genetic response to an environmental factor.

If evolution acts on the relationship between the environment and genes, which it must, then the two theories, Nature vs. Nurture, are not opposing at all. They are mutually interdependent.

To put this simply; all of us are given all the materials and tools we need to build a variety of houses, though we will each build only one. The house is slowly constructed as we see what house we need. This is not a conscious action.

Our subconscious mind builds our house as it sees fit; it does not install burglar alarms and raise high walls unless the neighbourhood is not safe. Our minds do not equip us with aggressive behavioural traits if they are not needed. Thus, the type of neighbourhood we live in massively influences the house constructed.

From the above we can conclude that we do not use genetics to explain differences, those are to do with environmental factors, but to simply describe why it’s like that in the first place.

Nature vs Nurture and environmentalism

By now you may be wondering why I’m so interested in the whole nature vs. nurture debate, and how it applies to environmentalism or conservation. How do our genes or our environment affect our ability to care about Mother Nature or our natural environment? And how does our natural environment affect us?

Even though we’re capable of lifelong learning, childhood is our greatest learning phase and thus the most crucial time to experience nature. Love of nature and environmental ethics grow out of regular contact with and play in the natural world during early childhood.

Forest walk

Natural diversity remains an unparalleled source of intellectual stimulation, likely the most information-rich environment a person can encounter, particularly during childhood.

The environmental scientist Rachel Carson observed how often a child’s capacity for wonder, exploration, and discovery begins with and is encouraged by an emotional experience and identification with nature.

She suggested that feelings of interest, enthusiasm, and joy typically originate in the natural world and become motivating forces in childhood learning and cognitive development.

Renowned psychologist Edith Cobb discovered that inventiveness and imagination are rooted in nature. For many creatives, memories of natural environments constitute a treasured emotional legacy that they draw on for inspiration.

The childhoods of conservationists and naturalists are filled with stories of early stimulation, which can be seen to lead directly to their activism in future.

Bird on dead tree

Another interesting study documents pregnant mothers in Europe during World War II. Due to the chaos that was the war, at one point the Germans had to redirect nearly all food and resources from their occupied territories to Germany. This resulted in severe food shortages for millions of people.

The strange thing that happened was this: all the mothers that were pregnant during the famine gave birth to children that were pre-programmed to store and conserve energy. In other words they were far more likely to be overweight or obese. The foetus learned that the environment it was to be born into was short of food, and their bodies adjusted to this fact.

Humans are born in an undeveloped state; it takes years for us to be able to survive on our own, in most cases far longer than other species. We learn about our world and how to survive in it as we grow.  We differ greatly even within a culture, but we are similar too.

Nature vs Nurture: Training no match for experience

I watched a documentary on Seeing Eye dogs recently. The people that train the dogs have to positively expose them to every possible situation they may encounter as guides for the blind.

Through these experiences, the dogs learn how to behave and act in everything from shopping malls to train stations. The similarities to raising children were insightful for me. If you want a being to grow into a specific type of maturity, then you have to place them in a very particular type of environment. Vicious dogs have been guided that way, and friendly dogs have been guided that way too.

Interestingly, a study based on 2,000 adult interviews in the US found that environmental education at school was not a significant factor in developing life-long positive environmental behaviour. It concluded that wonder, creativity, and imagination cannot be taught.

So rather than focusing on “teaching” children about the natural world, adults should focus on increasing their awareness and enjoyment of the beauty and wonders of the natural world.

Ultimately it is our children who will inherit both the risks and rewards of our life history. We can’t change their genetic birthright, but we can certainly change the impact of the environment upon them - from exposure to chemicals in our environment to what we eat and our lifestyles.

The change comes from within but should be nurtured and supported from the outside. ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ should be ‘Nurture our Preferred Nature’.

For more information on how important nature is, read Connecting with Nature.


The Bobo Doll Experiment by S.A Mcleod (2011)

The universality of human nature and the uniqueness of the individual: the role of genetics and adaptation by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides

The Twins Early Development studies at King's College London under the leadership of Professor Robert Plomin

Nature vs Nurture Maps, TEDS King's College, London and the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry for more in-depth reading on these maps.

Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection by Stephen R. Kellert

Return from Nature vs Nurture to Eco-friendly Africa Travel

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