Leaning the wrong way?

By Razib Khan | April 24, 2012 11:06 pm

Many of the people I socialize with in “real life” have a biological sciences background. That being said, a relatively deep understanding of ncRNA does not give you any better sense of behavior genetics than the person off the street. And of course when you have a small child conversation often goes in the direction of how you want to raise the child so as to maximize their outcomes. Setting aside the particular normative valence of those outcomes, I am always struck by the power people think parents have over their child’s life path. This is not to say parents don’t have power. There are many young people who have college degrees because of parental expectations. Or, perhaps more precisely the social expectations which the parents set in motion by selecting the milieu of one’s children. Yet so many times I’ve been in a conversation where the phrase “I lean toward nurture” has come up. These are not dogmatic “blank slate” individuals. Rather, they are simply falling back upon the null or default of our age.

But for me here is the irony: I think it is arguably the case today we live in a world where nurture matters far less in variation in outcome of exactly the people who ‘lean toward nurture.’ Let me repeat: when you remove environmental variation by providing a modicum of comfort , you are left with genetic variation! There were times in the past when ‘nurture,’ in other words the hand that environment dealt, was much more influential. And yet during those periods it was nature which was ascendant.

In 2004 the General Social Survey asked a question where respondents were asked to decide between “genes play major role in determining personality” and “experience determines personality.” For various reasons I do not think that the question was good, but, the responses are illustrative of the unanimity we’ve achieved in American society on some questions.


DemographicGenes play major roleExperience plays major role
Less than HS2872
High School2674
Junior College2575
WORDSUM 0-42872
WORDSUM 5-82575
WORDSUM 9-102575
Age 18-351981
Age 36-652773
Age 66-3763
God created man3070
Man evolved with divine guidance2377
Man evolved2476
Bible is Word of God2872
Bible is Inspired Word of God2773
Bible is Book of Fables2179
No religion2575
No children2080
1 child2575
2 children2971
3 children2575
4 or more children3268

MORE ABOUT: Nature vs. Nurture

Comments (39)

  1. Hao

    There seems to be some pattern associated with age. (or, at least, the highest and lowest proportions are associated with the extremal age groups)

    Not sure if it means anything, but certainly curious.

  2. Merm

    Can someone correct me here? I thought that the slate where personality is written onto is created _only_ by a mix of genes and biology. For personality to change and be affected – prolonged peer experience and dramatic/extreme experience would interact with the personality that’s already been created. I don’t think the “nurture” in “nurture vs. nature” is something that can affect personality on it’s own, isn’t it only interacting with nature? The GSS question could instead ask something about the degree to which experience can affect personality.

    The differences for people without and with children are predictable.

  3. kyrilluk

    For my first post on this blog, I just want to commend you on 1) creating very though provoking entries and 2) having such a knowledgeable audience (I don’t include myself).

    Very short intro: I’m french and I’m a student in theoretical physics (Msc). I like to participate in debate about science (fundamental QM) and IQ.

    If I understand your survey, it seems that the ones who believe the most in Nature rather than in Nurture are the less educated and the one that have the most children (which probable is the same people).
    I explain this by the fact that people that are educated are the ones that are the most influenced by the liberal/political bias that we can find in most Universities. It’s also a question of being disconnected from the reality: to have 4 children or more seems to act as a good way to realize the powers of innate ability.

  4. not clear what you mean by “…when you remove environmental variation by providing a modicum of comfort , you are left with genetic variation!” since you could provide a ‘modicum of comfort’ (or even LOTS of comfort) and still have huge environmental differences?

  5. Eurologist

    Let me repeat: when you remove environmental variation by providing a modicum of comfort , you are left with genetic variation!

    This is probably true – but only in the ever-shrinking (upper?) middle class, in the US, and its associated, particular, small-grained geographic regions.

  6. Jim Johnson

    I think it’s telling that those who believe genes played the major role are those over 66 (those with great life experience) and those with 4 or more children (those with great experience in a variety of children).

  7. S.J. Esposito

    Wow.. Some of this is surprising to me. Particularly because it seems that ‘religious’ individuals seem to come out in front for supporting the gene-based position. I would’ve definitely thought it would have been the other way around given that most ‘religious’ believe in living a pious life, atoning for wrong-doings, etc. as being able to shape one’s life.

  8. Charles Nydorf

    Since the term ‘personality’ refers to phenotype, it might be useful to revive the term ‘temperament’ for genetically determined mental characteristics.

  9. Karl Zimmerman

    I deal with this with my wife from time to time.

    I’ve leaned towards nature since at least college, if not before, and having a child has only reinforced this. I’m honestly very unconcerned with my daughter’s life outcomes – I want her to be happy, and I’d prefer her to have biological children eventually, but I really don’t care if she ends up making a lot of money, or even goes to college. However, given both her parents are above average and she seems to take after her mother in high conscientiousness (something I lack due to ADD sadly) I’m pretty sure she’ll have fairly high life outcomes regardless.

    My wife is pretty solidly in the nurture camp sadly, although at least she’s a follower of the “free range kids” movement to some degree, and isn’t hyper-concerned with micromanaging our daughter’s life. She doesn’t think we need to schedule “play dates” for example, or “enrich her life with afterschool programs,” or most importantly, move to the suburbs “for the schools.”

    Nonetheless, it’s frustrating, because whenever I tell her about a study on children’s outcomes I read, she generally replies “that’s only part of the story, upbringing matters too.” When I ask her for citations, she either drops the subject, or get irate. Clearly she has cognitive dissonance/doesn’t want to examine her beliefs closely. I’d be more than willing to read competing literature if there was any offered to me which made compelling arguments and which didn’t fall into the causation=correlation fallacy.

    She has talked before about adopting (it’s unclear if we’ll be able to have a second child, as my wife is 41, and despite going off birth control around six months ago, has yet to be pregnant). I’ve told her I wouldn’t consider adoption a replacement for a second biological child, and while I’d have no issue with it I have no illusions I’d have much in common with an adopted child, since adopted children share nothing more in common with their parents than the general population. She always tut-tuts me when I say that.

    I hate to say it, but one of the reasons adoption seems appealing to me (besides generally helping out a child in need), is that I think it would open my wife’s eyes more to the nurture assumption being mostly wrong. Of course, if we got a child with a predisposition to horrible behavior, it would be a terrible way to learn a lesson. This is part of the reason I’d want to avoid an international adoption (along with the chance of your child having been stolen from their parents).

    More generally speaking, I’ve noticed among those who “lean towards nurture” a tendency to falsely equate cultural differences with familial upbringing. I don’t even think the most ardent supporters of genetic determinism would argue something like table manners, or conceptions of personal space, are due to genetic differences between populations. They are social norms. But if your parents differ highly from social norms, at some point you notice (likely adolescence if not earlier) and choose to conform to the norms of your peer group instead. Hence why environmental influences are only around 20% due to parenting.

  10. Matt

    I would guess that people age 66 gave higher credence to genes playing the greater role in personality, because a higher percentage of their peer group are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or other diseases which influence social interaction. It would be an interesting question to ask my mom who as the activities director in an assisted living facility, is dealing with many people of this age group.

  11. April Brown

    I’ve noticed (anecdotally), that a strong belief in the ‘nurture’ side comes from people whose lives were nearly destroyed by bad parenting. (I’m married to one…) My own upbringing, free from abuse, leads me to lean more towards ‘nature’.

    While my husband intellectually understands and agrees with the idea that genes control an awful lot of stuff, he is hypervigilant about how we parent our son because he has an emotional conviction that any misstep will ruin his life.

    (An example from his family – his mother fed him intelligently, while his’s mom’s sister fed her son on a diet of mayonaise, oreo cookies, and velveeta from a young age. My husband has accomplished a lot, unimpeded by health problems, while his cousin still lives at home at the age of 37, is obese, has never dated, and occasionally holds down a job at a pool hall. There’s quite a lot of potential difference in the shared genetics of cousins, but still, a slightly more draconian parenting approach would probably have made a tremendous difference in the cousin’s life.)

  12. MSJ

    Why perpetuate the myth of a controversy between whether nature or nurture contributes more to development? We know the answer is that both contribute. The relative contributions of nature/nurture may vary depending on context, but to ask which is the larger contributor implies there is an answer – that it is one or the other – instead of a complex interaction between the two.

  13. since you could provide a ‘modicum of comfort’ (or even LOTS of comfort) and still have huge environmental differences?

    do you think that in the USA variation in taking someone to the library results in variation in height? so by ‘comfort’ i’m talking about environment relevant to the phenotype.

    second, i wouldn’t take most of the 2 or 3 percent point differences seriously. that’s noise. the key is that there is little difference on this issue.

    finally, the question sucks. but it gets at the low difference between demographics.

  14. Karl Zimmerman

    13 –

    The issue is the vast majority of “nurture” seems attributable to peer group, not to parenting. The most important decision a parent can make in terms of how a child turns out is where they live, by and large. Besides that, it only tends to be outright abusive behavior which really alters child life outcomes. Come to think of it, abuse often covariates with children being isolated from their social peers, so the isolation, rather than the abuse itself, may play a large role as well.

    Razib –

    For some reason my first comment magically appeared after being “eaten” and not showing up. Can you delete my second one?

  15. Chris T

    4 – There isn’t a lot of evidence that, once certain needs (nutrition, child socialization, shelter, etc.) are met, environmental variation is particularly influential. In the United States, the vast majority of the population is well above that threshold.

    MSJ – The question doesn’t even ask which contributes more, but what plays ‘a major role’ as though genes and environment are mutually exclusive; as worded, it’s entirely nonsensical.

  16. AllenM

    I would agree with #12- outside of the optimal nurture situations presented in most of the upper class educated society, nurture is most likely a minus situation.

    While nature provides a base start, and there is some gene expression as a result of the environment, for the most part given a good enviroment to raise children, nurture would be irrelevant. At that point, as you correctly point out, nature then drives the differences in outcome.

    As for the height variation issue- my father is several inches below his genetic potential because of food rationing after the second world war- a great example of how nuture can retard outcomes.

    In short, most of the commenters seem to tend toward agreement with your thesis- given a decent nurture baseline, nature will control the outcomes.

    Most of the problems lie with the provision of the decent nurture baseline, even in such a rich society. That is the real question- is it worth investing in our society to lift nurture levels up to a minimal baseline, or is it worth ignoring the failures of society and writing off the lost potential?

  17. Violet

    I tend to think nature-nurture issue in terms of a nonlinear utility curve. There are rapid gains with each unit of nurture ( food, shelter, socialization, emotional support, and education) up to certain point and beyond that it is pretty flat. That is there are no more gains due to nurture after certain critical point (or range).

    But when it comes to parenting, there is uncertainty on what constitutes as the critical point for the given sample (your child). Most parents tend to go with what they consider as their own critical point. If you feel like your critical nurture point was met, you tend to be lax about nurture influence, and if not, there is anxiety over not falling short of that point for the child.

    I think that’s what makes most first-time parents err towards over-nurture . More samples (children) would increase the confidence on what forms the critical point and then parents can believe more in genes. Also, seeing the full outcomes with adult offspring life performance would also increase the confidence about nurture and nature effects. (or more likely parents don’t want the blame for ruining the potential? 🙂 ).

  18. #17, seems a lot of parents exhibit the fear that children are hyper-sensitive to initial conditions.

  19. Dm

    Humans, like most species, tend to strongly overrate correltions when something important is at stake. Just about anything is perceived as a true causation. The success of our progeny is hugely important for us (as it should be for any species).

    So there is nothing really “wrong way” about our love affair with nurture. That’s exactly how Nature wired us to behave. Our belief in nurture may be akin to all the rest of our superstitions, but whenever we worry about something terribly important yet strongly variable, we are bound to get superstitions.

    And in fact most of the past “nurture beliefs” turned out to be superstitions, like the clean-slate hypothesis, the inborn-sin proscriptions against affection and tenderness, the hypothesis of a lasting damage from masturbation, you name it. The parents will fall for next fad the moment the previous fad crumbles. And it’s in a sense “the right way”.

  20. ackbark

    “I lean toward nurture” –because, with nurture there’s still hope?

  21. Ed

    I agree with this for the most part. There are definitely people that will be unintelligent or fail in general, no matter what kind of environment you put them in or how motivated they are. Still I’d have to say it’s both and I couldn’t put an accurate estimate on which is more important, I think it’s far too situational/complex. Similar organisms can have different optimal environments etc.

    I think culture is an often overlooked (and hard to control for) environmental variable which can affect sexual selection for perceived positive traits as well. Over time this would mean that this population would produce more individuals with a genetic predisposition for these ‘positive traits’ determined by their culture.

    60% Nature 40% Nurture? 🙂

  22. Karl Zimmerman

    20 –

    I’m sorry, but that makes no sense. In no way are the lives of the children whose parents show undue interest in “enrichment” hopeless.

    Absent any major genetic flaws, or incredible trauma (like sexual abuse from a family member), the biological offspring of high IQ upper-middle class parents should trend to the average between the two. Indeed, if I was going to simplify, the lessons of “Nature” parenting are: Do what comes natural to you, and don’t sweat your child’s future.

    Of course, it’s different if you adopt, in which case it’s probably hopeless to expect your children to track with you. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be happy, which is really what parents should be concerned about.

  23. Sara

    Decades of research on twins, fraternal and identical, from all corners of the globe strongly suggest that genes play a much larger role in our lives than we Americans care to believe, as suggested by the small variations in the above survey. Our founding culture is a providential one that glorifies individual achievement and wealth as signs of hard work and divine approbation while deriding and brutalizing the poor and vulnerable.

    The nature/nuture debate is largely moot, as it seems obvious to me it’s the interplay of both that shapes us. And, in any event, what really matters is that we humans chose neither our nature nor our nuturers.

  24. I’ve read (but can’t cite sources, sorry) that given a reasonable level of IQ, the biggest determinant of future success is emotional intelligence. But beware of pushing an introverted personality into social situations in search of the ‘well socialised child’.

  25. The rise of Wall Street to economic dominance in my lifetime has upped the importance of nurture among the top 5% or so of society. If you want your kid to make a fortune in finance, you have to inculcate a whole bunch of peculiar traits in him. For example, one is: what income should he have in his mind as a goal. Most parents in America wind up communicating the idea to their children that $100,000 per year is good. But if you want your kid to make it on Wall Street, you have to beat into his head that $100k is for LOSERS, and that a million per year is for lower case losers, and that he shouldn’t be happy until he’s bringing home at least eight figures per year.

    That takes a lot of nurture.

  26. Violet

    #18, I think it is more the case of uncertainty on what are the critical initial conditions. (e.g, birth weight-obesity link, breast milk -IQ link, infant immunity-skin-to-skin holding link– I guess all new parents are made these things known).

    Also, risk mitigation is a crazy thing. Nobody wants a high consequence event with their kid even if it has a really really low probability of occurrence. (or have many many kids and increase our risk tolerance?)

    # 22,
    Do you think parents should be happy with the child having average of their IQ? 🙂
    What if they feel their own potential was mitigated as children? Also, health?

  27. Karl Zimmerman

    25 –

    I think that parenting plays comparably little role in striving for personal wealth. Everything I’ve read suggests the strongest indicator of whether the amount of money you make is “enough” is based upon your comparative wealth of your peer group. Simply put, you don’t ever want to be below average within your circle of friends.

    Thus I’d expect, assuming equal talents, the working-class child whose parents harp on how he needs to make a lot of money will actually achieve less financial reward than the guy whose parents didn’t care much, but managed to get into an Ivy League school and started socializing with a very wealthy subset.

    26 –

    Yes, I think parents ought to be fine with that. Maybe this sounds conceited of me, but I really like myself, and think that even my stumbles and shortcomings played a big role in me getting to where I am today, to the point that I wouldn’t want them taken back. I don’t set higher standards for parenting than I lived in my own life. I’m glad, for example, I didn’t do any drugs as a teenager (hell, I didn’t even get drunk until I was in grad school), because if I did, I know I could not advise her not to do them, because to do so would be hypocritical (the most I could do would be to explain the risks and the tradeoffs).

  28. Engineer Dad

    #20 – I lean toward nurture” –because, with nurture there’s still hope?

    It should be easy to design a relatively short, thrifty, and fetching experiment, that can test this sentiment.

    By raising, training, and testing puppies of various breeds, we can remove the effect of nurture. Lists of breed intelligence are already well established to select from. Food, shelter, and education can be easily controlled. Most formal training could given without human intervention through automation once the puppy is past a certain age. Once an education baseline is established, experimenters can provide extra homework for the least skilled dogs to determine what’s necessary to become a 1 percenter. The experiment could last 3-4 years.

    PBS Nova’s ‘How Smart are Dogs’ with Neil Degrasse Tyson, and ‘Dogs Decoded’ have probably done more to establish the relative importance of an individual’s innate qualities than anything else the last ten years.

  29. Nihaya Khateb

    This is my favurate issue. I have my own observations through my 52 years. First I started my observations on my close family, then went to my far family, and finally to the general people around. All my observations bring one solid conclusion: We borne with our personality, but it is just modefied by environment. The important thing is we should make our observation through decades and not along a short period of life. I noticed that people turn to be more as themselves as they age, then they put off all the masks they were obliged to put on through their young life. The brain is stabelised at old age and more being itself. I am convinced that every child should be raised according to his/her own personality that is according to his/her genotype. I have three children and every one raise differently by me considering their own genetic differences, and I am pleased that I have done so. The bottom line is: The old debate about nature/nurture is misleading for it is wrong to ask such question, the wright one is: How much nuture could modify nature. Nurture needs a thing to work at, it does not work on a vaccum. I agree with Razib that people off the street could notice the exact attribution of nature not onley the biologists. ( I make an interesting observation on addobted children from the age of birth to the age of adultness and found that nature is the base).

  30. Charles Nydorf

    An important and very neglected aspect of nurture is adult education.
    In the community that I grew up in the grandparents who very rarely had a high school education raised their children in poverty. Nevertheless, many were able to create cultured home environments because they were able to benefit from extensive opportunities for adult education. These enlightened home environments helped the next generation do well in school.
    Solid adult education programs would probably do wonders to raise educational performance in today’s poor and low performing communities.

  31. Karl Zimmerman

    30 –

    Arguing from a naturist standpoint, it could be just the U.S. wasn’t as meritocratic in the time of your grandparents, so the working class was more leavened with people of high IQ?

    Both of my grandfathers were of above-average intelligence, but neither one went to college. One dropped out of school in 9th grade because he was so poor that the kids made fun of the holes in his clothes. The other finished high school, got a full scholarship to college – but was told by his parents he had to go into the plumbing businesses with his father, in order to help fund his sister’s budding art career (admittedly, choosing the daughter over the son for success was a rare thing in those days). Both of them still read voraciously despite being working class and having no smart friends – my maternal grandfather had a passion for Alexander the Great, and picked up biographies of him whenever possible, and also had an early copy of Churchill’s A History of the English Speaking People.

    I have no doubt both would have been broadly successful if they grew up in upper-middle class families, although my maternal grandfather was also someone with a pretty low level of conscientiousness. Fortunately he married a woman of average intelligence but high conscientiousness (my grandmother) and my mother ended up both bright and an overachiever – the combination you probably need to work your way from dirt poor to upper-middle class.

  32. ackbark

    #22 –Razib said, ‘Yet so many times I’ve been in a conversation where the phrase “I lean toward nurture” has come up. These are not dogmatic “blank slate” individuals. Rather, they are simply falling back upon the null or default of our age.’

    And I suggest that is because it gives parents something to do, it gives them a sense they can move forward, improving on nature, that is, they want to feel their baby is not stuck with merely himself and there is something beyond the nine months they’ve already invested in which they can still add in fine tuning and improvement and therefore ‘there’s still hope’.

  33. Karl Zimmerman

    32 –

    I understand that, but if there’s hope to improve, there’s also hope to screw up. It seems to me the downside from the anxiety of “doing something wrong” and accepting blame for your child’s stumbles is greater than the positive emotional benefit. This is especially true given the latter is counterbalanced by the incredible amount of effort modern upper-middle class parents put into trying to give their kids “a leg up,” or to put them in “an enriching environment.”

  34. ackbark

    33 –I don’t think most new parents think like that. It seems to me, never having been a parent, that they are really strongly motivated toward positive, enriching actions and positive things they can work toward, and that parents motivated by anxiety to not take any pro-active measures to benefit their new child are really not good parents at all but are functionally negative in establishing an environment based principally around their own anxiety disorders.

  35. Karl Zimmerman

    34 –

    Speaking as a parent, I think parenting invariably involves having to do a lot of things you don’t want to, even if you’re actually doing so in an aware (nature-leaning) fashion. If you “lean towards nurture” it’s much worse.

    A good example, which I’ve mentioned in other threads, is parents think when they have kids they need to move to suburbs “for the schools.” There’s no evidence this is actually needed. Repeated studies have shown there is no difference between life outcomes, once family background is taken into account, between public schools and private schools, or “elite” public schools and plain old urban neighborhood schools.

    Many parents perhaps want to make the change to a suburban area. But others just do so because it’s expected of them, and actually dislike some aspect of it, be it the high mortgage for somewhere with “a good school,” the lack of amenities in their area, or the long commutes. But they suffer through it because they think it’s good for their child. It may be good in the narrow sense that being in a suburban area makes it slightly less likely your child hangs out with delinquents, but that’s about it.

    There are tons of other examples – pushing children to get into “the best day care” for example, no matter the cost. Or putting them in tons of afterschool programs like art, music, and sports, even if they don’t have a strong interest in them. There is a strongly negative undercurrent in all of this, because the ultimate rationale is not only that you can boost your child’s outcomes, but also that they are competing against all the other children in a zero-sum fashion towards eventual enrollment in a “good college,” which is the penultimate achievement of “proper” parenting.

  36. BDoyle

    Several people have pointed out that variation in intelligence is primarily genetic, once you ensure some minimally suitable environment. This is true, but general intelligence is not something most people would call a personality or a behavior. It is a trait, and most things that people think of as behaviors are not traits; they are what you *observe* when traits interact with environment. Behavior is impossible to separate from the environment in which it occurs, while a trait is in some sense independent of it. I think a lot of the disagreement over “nature vs nurture” is really more a confusion over which thing is being discussed.

  37. Karl Zimmerman, don’t peer effects mean it is important which school they go to? I know you mentioned it, but in a rather dismissive manner.

  38. John Harvey

    It seems to me that “I lean towards nurture” is not just a parental sentiment but is spread much wider than that. Many governmental activities from education policies to programmes of social welfare, and much else besides, are predicated upon the belief that we can change things massively for the better. This is the morally worthy position, the warm and comforting one. It is the position which allows us free will. Against all this nature has a real uphill battle on its hands when it hesitatingly interjects with “er, excuse me, is it really possible that we can make silk purses out of sows ears?”.
    Countless $ Billions have been wasted trying to change human animals in ways which their genes will not allow, and there is little indication at present that our political and administrative masters are about to face up to harsh biological realities.

  39. Karl Zimmerman

    37 –

    Choices of schools can matter to some degree because of peer group, however, there are two factors to consider. One, they matter far less than parents believe. Second, most of the effect is due to accidental marketing. Two, most of why they work is merely due to ignorance from parents about what’s really important with life outcomes. There are far cheaper ways than relocating to expensive suburbs, or private schools – like public magnet schools – which still cause a child to have a more studious peer group.

    38 –

    We certainly can channel human nature in many ways which dramatically changes behavior. Read Stephen Pinker’s latest book for numerous examples.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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