The nature vs. nurture debate is one of the oldest controversies argued by psychologists and scientists worldwide. It raises the question ‘what exactly influences our behaviour and personality?’. Sociologists commonly agree that we pick up almost all of our skills and behaviours by watching, imitating, and listening to others. People act as they do because they learned to be the people they are. This is known as the nurture theory of human behaviour. On the contrary, it is argued that people behave as they do because they are animals who act according to their animal instincts and biology. This is known as a Nature theory of human behaviour. For example, on how a person may become aggressive, the ‘nature’ side of the debate may argue that aggression is due to hormones and certain chemistry in the brain.
On the contrary, the ‘nurture’ side may claim that aggression is imitated or learned due to a certain environment. The following text aims to examine the impact of genetic versus learned characteristics in humans. Inherited characteristics. Inheritable traits are traits that get passed down from one generation to the next and result from biology. These traits can be genetically explained and affect aspects of our physical appearance, such as our skin colour, muscle structure, bone structure, and even features like the shape of a nose. These traits cannot be changed; for example, an individual can’t alter the natural colour of their skin, hair or eyes.
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Although the supporting evidence is less strong, certain elements of personality are believed to be genetically passed down. Some believe that a person is born with an inherited level of intelligence, social nature, and mood unaffected by the environment—learned characteristics. Learned behaviour is the result of life experiences, nurture rather than nature. An acquired behaviour is a type of attribute that cannot be passed on genetically; language, religion, and reading and writing are all learned behaviours. Another instance of where behaviour is learnt could be when pain is experienced due to a particular action; for example, if someone touches a small flame and gets burnt, after this experience, the victim will learn to be cautious around the fire and be much less likely to repeat that action in future.
Sociologists tend to agree that a baby’s mind at birth is like a blank page, and all future experiences will affect how a baby learns how to behave. Therefore environment has a direct effect on an individual’s behaviour—feral children. Throughout history, there have been several sporadic instances where children have spent a significant amount of their developmental years in the wild, devoid of all human contact. As appallingly tragic as these cases are, from an educational and scientific point of view, they do go some way to helping us establish what aspects of human nature are inherited and what is learnt. A few of the case studies of socially deprived feral children that have arisen over the years include
- John Ssabunnya (found 1991) – A boy that had spent between two to three years of his life early life in the wild jungles of Uganda after the death of his father and the disappearance of his mother. During his time in the, he lived and scavenged for food with a pack of monkeys. When found, his nails were very long and curled round, he had no language, hopped around on all fours, and wasn’t house-trained.
- Oxana Malaya (1991) – was found as an 8-year-old feral child in Ukraine, having lived most of her life in the company of dogs due to neglect from her alcoholic parents. Oxana survived in a dog kennel behind her house, where she was cared for by the dogs and learned their behaviours and mannerisms. When finally discovered, she growled, barked and crouched like a wild dog, sniffed at her food before she ate it, and was found to have acquired extremely acute senses of hearing, smell, and sight.
- ‘The bear girl’ (found 1937) – A young girl who had allegedly been adopted and lived with bears for up to twelve years before been found in the mountainous regions of Tukey. Once rescued by local hunters, they reported that she had become bear-like in her voice, habits, and posture. When taken into care, she refused all cooked food and slept on a mattress in a dark corner of her room.
- ‘The wild girl of Champagne’ (found early 1800’s) – A rare example of a feral child being able to talk coherently when discovered. It is argued, however, that she probably learnt to speak before being abandoned. Her diet consisted of birds, frogs, fish, leaves, branches, and roots when she was found. Given a rabbit, she immediately skinned and devoured it. She has used her thumbs to dig out roots and swing from tree to tree like a monkey. She was a swift runner and had remarkably sharp eyesight; she was reported to outrun and kill rabbits when she was taken hunting.
- Kamala and Amala (found 1920) – Two girls who were allegedly captured from a pack of wolves in a wild region of Calcutta, India. The girls were thought to be aged about eight and two. According to their rescuers, the girls had misshapen jaws, remained on all fours, enjoyed raw meat, and would bite and attack other children if provoked. Amala died the following year, but Kamala survived until 1929, by which time she had given up eating raw meat, learned to walk upright, and spoke about 50 words.
Nature or Nurture? Looking at the above cases, there is a common theme that children who spend prolonged periods of their formative years in the wild develop behaviour that replicates and adapts to their surroundings. Therefore all of these cases support the notion that behaviour is influenced by the process of nurturing rather than nature. Besides functions such as ordinary reflexes, breathing, eating, and passing waste, almost all feral children didn’t possess many human traits when rescued. They crawled on all fours, ate raw meat, and had no language, social, or reading and writing skills.
This proves that for a human to become an ordinary human being, we recognize that behaviour and everything we know must be learned from our guardians in normal society. Behaviours such as learning to stand upright, talking, sitting at a table when eating, reading and writing are all learned traits and are not instinctive or passed on genetically. The same applies to social skills such as friendliness, honesty, unselfishness, and respect; these qualities are not hard-wired into a child and must be learned to lead a happy and positive life.
Conclusion. No human being is entirely composed of either learned behaviours or inherited traits. Every person is composed of a combination of traits from each of these categories. Some traits can be linked to genetics, whilst others are clearly learned behaviours. The process of learning can be simplified using the ‘traveller theory.’ The journey to adulthood can be compared to a traveller who wants to get from one side of the world to another but has no idea how to get there. For the traveller to reach his destination, he must be assisted and guided throughout the journey, and if he receives incorrect directions, he will not reach his destination.
The same can be said for a child at birth; for the child to become a grownup, they must be constantly educated and guided by adult carers along the path to adulthood. If there is a derailing in this process, as in the cases of the feral children described above, the chances of becoming a fully functioning, mentally developed adult are severely jeopardized.
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- ‘Feral Children.’ (A4 hand-out from sociology lesson 26th April 2012).
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- ‘Introduction to sociology. (A4 hand-out from sociology lesson 22nd March 2012).