Nature versus nurture


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Nature versus nurture'?

The expression ‘nature or nurture’ is often used to refer to the debate about the relative importance of genetics (nature) versus upbringing and environment (nurture) in shaping an individual’s traits, behaviour and development.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Nature versus nurture'? – the quick version…

The nature versus nurture debate is a long-standing one in psychology. It asks the question of whether our personality, behavior, and intelligence are determined by our genes (nature) or by our environment (nurture). The answer is likely a combination of both, but the relative contributions of each are still being debated. Recent research suggests that genes play a larger role than previously thought, but that environment still has a significant impact.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Nature versus nurture'? – the full story…

The ‘nature versus nurture’ debate can be traced back to ancient philosophical discussions. The ancient Greeks contemplated the roles of innate qualities and external influences in shaping human nature.

The Greek approach, which is what we now also take as central to the debate, was the degree to which the actions we take and beliefs we hold are to do with our genetic inheritance and how much to our life experiences.

In the 19th century the debate brought forward an idea that is now discredited – the theory of eugenics. The eugenic belief is that nature is the only factor that affects our beliefs and how we behave. It was suggested that people are born good or bad and that the only way to raise the quality of the population as a whole was to stop bad people from breeding. Those labelled as bad were predominantly the poor and poorly educated – what the supporters of eugenics would call ‘weak’ and ‘feeble-minded’.

One of the key figures in that form of the nature versus nurture debate was Francis Galton, a British scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton argued for the primary significance of heredity and innate characteristics in determining human behaviour and intelligence. He coined the term ‘nature versus nurture’ in his book English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture, 1874.

Galton coined and promoted the cause of eugenics and attempted to give his ideas respectability by claiming it as a science. His theory was widely accepted in his lifetime.

Since WWII, when eugenics was adopted by and put into practice in their repugnant ‘final solution’ by the German Nazis, the idea of eugenics has few adherents.

Modern perspectives acknowledge that both nature and nurture both have a role in shaping human traits and development.

Trend of nature versus nurture in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.